Nezihe Muhiddin’s Sin of Being a Woman: A Conversation with Director Ümran Safter

I grew up in Turkey with Kemalist indoctrination at school. I unlearned many teachings over the years, but one thing they told us I never questioned, because it made me proud: Atatürk gave women the right to vote before many European countries did. That piece of information too was discredited about a month ago when I belatedly discovered one of the most phenomenal first feminists in Turkey, Nezihe Muhiddin. Only scholars working in specific disciplines seem to know her name. My sense of pride did not go away though, but only shifted focus. The first political party in the history of the Republic of Turkey was “Kadınlar Halk Fırkası” (Women’s People Party), a stillborn child of our foremothers, Nezihe Muhiddin being one of them.

Nezihe Muhiddin

Nezihe Muhiddin

 When Nezihe Muhiddin was born in Kandilli in Istanbul, Abdulhamid II was in power. She grew up with private tutors and spoke Arabic, German, Farsi and French. She taught science in a girls’ school, while her articles appeared in various journals and papers. She was a leading campaigner for women’s rights both in last years of the empire and the early years of the republic. When she was forced out of political activism, she withdrew from public life and dedicated herself to writing fiction. She produced novellas, more than twenty novels and about three hundred short stories, but has been hardly recognised in the Turkish literary canon.

I am very privileged to have interviewed Ümran Safter, director of a new documentary entitled Kadın Olmanın Günahı (The Sin of Being a Woman) that brings into focus the life and struggles of Nezihe Muhiddin and her contemporary feminists. 

Merve: So far we have known you for the documentaries Through Ottoman Eyes, Sevan the Craftsman, Breathing Istanbul’s Magic into Jewels and The Eye of Istanbul. Your latest film is about Nezihe Muhiddin, one of the first feminists of the Republic of Turkey who pioneered revolutionary initiatives in her time, and has been ignored by the official narrative of history. How did you develop interest in her? Why did you choose to zero in on Nezihe Muhiddin?

Ümran Safter

Ümran Safter

Ümran: Actually, my first documentary feature was The Eye of Istanbul, a project on the life and photography of Ara Güler. I was a producer of that film. I have always been drawn to diverse stories of human life, the lives of people and their struggles. This is true not only for my career as a documentary filmmaker. I was formerly a TV reporter and I turned tens of different personal stories into television stories. The Sin of Being a Woman was a very special project for me. Nezihe Muhiddin was a very prolific woman, a fighter whose life is a source of inspiration. I am also very pleased to have taken the story of a feminist woman and turning it into a documentary.

Merve: The title of your documentary is “The Sin of Being a Woman.” In your opinion, what kind of a sin did Nezihe Muhiddin commit?

Ümran: Not only Nezihe Muhiddin, but an entire generation of feminist women at the time fought a very arduous battle of equality at a very tough time. The lives of most of these women were riddled with tragedies. They demanded the right to vote and to stand for election, amendments in civil law and women’s education. They faced ridicule and pressure. In the case of Nezihe Muhiddin, she was ostracised, silenced and after a while, forgotten. History books do not even mention their names. In my view, the only sin they committed was that they wanted to be actors in a male-dominated world.

Merve: The book Kadınsız İnkılap (Womanless Revolution) by Yaprak Zihnioğlu is one of the major resources that you have based your film on. Can you tell us a little bit about your research process and your access to other resources on Nezihe Muhiddin?

Ümran: When we first began to do research for the documentary, we benefited a lot from Womanless Revolution by Yaprak Zihnioğlu. Ms. Zihnioğlu then became the historical consultant for the film. Her book is a product of many years, based on very serious resources. Other than that, we tried to reach out to Nezihe Muhiddin’s relatives who are still alive. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have any relations alive today. We got in touch with Mizyal Karaçam Şengil, a historian and a distant cousin of hers. She provided us with some family photographs. She also gave us some exclusive insight into the family of Nezihe Muhiddin. The final years of her life are a complete black hole and we couldn’t gather any information on especially the last ten years of her life. It was not possible to find the novels she wrote towards the end of her life. That’s why we worked tirelessly in libraries and got access to the Women’s newspaper where her writing appeared in 1950s, the Resimli Şark Dergisi (Illustrated Journal of the Orient), her articles and interviews in the Boğaziçi magazine. This archival material shed light on the personality of Nezihe Muhiddin, as well as her experiences in her final years. Still though, reports on how she died are still unestablished. According to some historians, she died in a mental institution in Istanbul. Meanwhile, some family members say that she died of heart attack at home. Unfortunately, we couldn’t verify this information because archives of the institution were destroyed. We also couldn’t discover what happened to Nezihe Muhiddin’s special archive and her library. 

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Merve: How about your methodology? What kind of choices shaped your narrative? 

Ümran: Throughout the film we depicted the life story and the fight of Nezihe Muhiddin, while in the backdrop we tried to make sure to give details on women’s movement in the late Ottoman and early Republican eras. For that part, we consulted women academics. In the film we talked about women’s movement with Fatmagül Berktay, Nükhet Sirman, Lerna Ekmekçioğlu, Yeşim Arat, Senem Timuroğlu, Aynur Demirdirek, Aslı Davaz, İpek Çalışlar and Müge Telci. Yaprak Zihnioğlu and Mizyal Karaçam Şengil, historian and relative of Nezihe Muhiddin, provided us with very special insight on her life and her struggle. The president of Women’s Union Sema Kendirici, meanwhile, told us about Women’s Union. The only male narrator in our film was painter Eşref Yıldırım. Mr. Yıldırım had put a lot of effort into making a portrait of Nezihe Muhiddin. We asked him about his motivation behind that portrait. Stage actress Aysel Yıldırım played Nezihe Muhiddin in the film. We took February 10, 1958 as a starting point and with flashbacks we listened to her memoirs in her voice. We used 2D animation technique to give life to very special moments in the film.  We worked with May Kindred-Boothby, a British animation artist, for the animation content. Ahsen Diner was the scriptwriter, Bertan Özer the director of cinematography. The film was edited by Fatih Ayyıldız and produced by Suraj Sharma.

Merve: Following the screening at the Women’s Library, you mentioned that a lot of footage was edited out due to time constraints. Could you share with us a few details about Nezihe Muhiddin not available in the final cut but which left an impression on you? 

Ümran: The film is 60 minutes long, but the first edit was 120 minutes long. Sadly, we had to cut out half of it. We had to remove for instance the polemics between Nezihe Muhiddin and women who opposed her, following her expulsion from the Women’s Union. We had to also remove images from the Congress of International Alliance for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship held in the Yıldız Palace, as well as the relationship and correspondence between Nezihe Muhiddin and other feminists around the world. We might in the future make a longer version of the film.

Merve: The official narrative of history in Turkey portrays women’s right to vote and to stand for election as a favour for women by men in power. It is very little known that the first party of the republic is “Women’s People Party” founded with the leadership of Nezihe Muhiddin. Why is the struggle of women like her ignored?

Ümran: History books are rife with statements about how women’s right to vote and to stand for election was just a favour. However, in the background lies an outstanding struggle, which is always ignored. First of all, history is always written by male historians. And secondly, Nezihe Muhiddin was a woman that authorities did not like. She was headstrong, uncompromising and wanted to do things outside the boundaries drawn for her. I believe that this combative side to her must have intimidated those in power. In recent years though, there is a great amount of interest in Nezihe Muhiddin and feminists of her generation, especially among young women academics. I hope that many more books will be written, many more films will be made on these women. 

Merve: There is a scene in the documentary which shows activist women full of hope and enthusiasm right before the declaration of the republic. However, revolutions shaped by social engineering motives failed to respond to women’s demands for rights. Did the first years of the republic disappoint front-running women like Nezihe Muhiddin?

Ümran: Women laid so much hope in the foundation of the republic, Nezihe Muhiddin in particular. She never lost hope. Meanwhile though, the republic declared in 1923, did not immediately respond to women’s demands for rights. For instance, women gained the right to vote and to stand for election 11 years after the foundation of the republic. They must have felt disappointed for sure, but they did not give up on their fight either, did not quickly throw in the towel.

Merve: When she was president of the Turkish Women’s Union, Nezihe Muhiddin was in contact with the British Suffragist Margaret Corbett Ashby, and their correspondence appeared in Dünya Kadın Postası (International Women’s Paper). The first feminist movement that emerged in Turkey was led by urban, educated and middleclass women constantly informed of similar movements in the West. How does class define feminist activities of women like Nezihe Muhiddin? Was there any room in these activities for inter-class communication?

Ümran: During the Tanzimat and constitutional monarchy periods of the Ottoman Empire, women largely followed the suffragist movement in the West because they spoke French and read French publications. These were well-educated urban women from the middle class who spoke several languages. When the republic was founded, it was this generation of women who were on the front line. However, when the republic was declared, authorities began to question the competences of women. They argued that urban women had not fought or suffered as much as countrywomen during the war and that in turn they did not really merit such rights. The debate received frequent coverage in the press. Yet when Nezihe Muhiddin and her friends founded the Women’s Union, they organised themselves by opening offices all over the country in a very brief amount of time, in an attempt to reach out to all women.

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Merve: Where can we watch The Sin of Being a Woman both in Turkey and abroad, and when?

Ümran: The documentary was first screened in Kadir Has University on December 5, 2018. In the following January, it was shown in the Sofia MENAR Film Festival. We had screenings in the Women’s Library (in Istanbul) and in Cer Modern in Ankara. In the week of March 8, we’ll have additional screenings in Ankara and Istanbul. We are also applying for national and international festivals. Our purpose is to introduce Nezihe Muhiddin and feminist women of her generation to as many viewers as possible.

You can watch the trailer of the film (with English subtitles) here.

Interview conducted in and translated from Turkish by Merve Pehlivan.