Istanbul's priceless feminist archive goes digital


A London-based theater group of mainly Turkish artists is preparing to perform a play about the world's refugee crisis based on Euripides' play ‘Hercules' Children' in Turkish with an English translation

On a quiet Friday afternoon in Turkey's only women's library, Fatmagül Berktay - a renowned feminist academic and activist - is hunched over a pile of books, as usual. She is not grading papers or doing research; rather, she is autographing books from her personal archive to donate to this unique and venerable institution. Berktay is a professor of political science at Istanbul University, the author of many books on women's issues in Turkey and the chairwoman of the executive board of Kadin Eserleri Kütüphanesi ve Bilgi Merkezi Vakfı (The Women's Library and the Information Center Foundation).

The library, located in a renovated Byzantine-era building, is closely linked to the Greek community in the Fener district: The library was once a female school connected to a nearby monastery on the banks of Istanbul's Golden Horn.

After going into decline, the building is now home to this special library founded in 1990 by five Turkish women, Şirin Tekeli, Aslı Davraz, Füsun Akatlı, Füsun Ertuğ and Jale Baysal, who were a group of professionals from academia, librarianship and anthropology.

Having defeated the odds, Turkey's largest women's archive and library is now looking for new ways to expand and fund itself after a 2015 campaign where donors could contribute a modest TL 25 ($8). "We remain standing [only] thanks to donations," Berktay told Anadolu Agency (AA), speaking in the meeting hall of the library's second floor where old and out-of-date PCs are still used for recordkeeping in a pleasant and quiet atmosphere.

The room's walls are decorated with paintings and sculptures donated by Turkish feminist artists. Other objects in the hall include a typewriter that belonged to Kerime Nadir, Turkey's best-selling female writer who published more than 40 bestsellers, plus a painting by Mihri Müşfik Hanım, one of the first and most well-renowned Turkish female artists.

The library, which serves an important role in the legacy of Turkey's women, holds more than 12,000 books, over 400 magazines and 10,000 periodicals as well as 5,000 articles plus 526 postgraduate and doctoral theses. The oldest piece at the library is a Greek-language women's magazine called "Kypsela" that dates back to 1943, Berktay said.

According to Berktay, the library's creation was sparked by a women's movement, which developed during the 1980s in Turkey when a military coup overthrew the elected government. "We were all part of this movement," she said, adding: "Through the 1980s, in the women's movement, we discovered our ties with the Ottoman women's movement and the rising second wave of feminism around the world."

This modern women's movement forced Turkish society to confront uncomfortable issues, such as violence against women, Professor Berktay added. "All those things [the opening of the library and creation of a women's ministry in the government] were not just coincidences; the women's movement in the world and in Turkey were behind it," she stressed.

This groundbreaking work is supported by the small Fener library. Around 190 people's small contributions helped the library get started, and the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality later donated the historic building. For Berktay, the importance of the library's collection is to create a "women's memory" in Turkey. "Women and men are the ones who create history, but because history is not written by women, they are not mentioned," she said. "Special effort is needed to reveal women's history. The library documents not only the fight of the Turkish women's movement but also women's struggle to become individuals in the country and build a bridge between the past and the future."

Berktay added that women living in the Ottoman Empire during the 1910s would "openly call themselves "feminist." "They were saying, ‘feminism is a highly respected movement and men and women who have reached maturity should become feminist,'" Berktay said. In 1913, women demanded their voting rights, she said. "They wanted to watch parliamentary meetings and were dreaming about having voting rights one day," according to Berktay. "They were saying, ‘If you do not give us our voting rights, we will chain ourselves like British suffragettes in front of the Parliament building.' Suffragette is a term used to describe members of a women's organization, mainly in the United Kingdom, which fought for women's right to vote in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is so obvious that [Ottoman-era feminists] were in contact [with like-minded women around the world]."

Berktay said when the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Gallipoli happened last year, the commemoration was of modern Turkey's foundation. "Nobody mentioned women," during the celebrations, she stressed, citing the example of a nurse called Safiye Hüseyin Elbi who worked for the Ottoman Army in Çanakkale, where much of the fighting took place. The library now has both Elbi's school diploma and her passport for posterity. For Berktay, another very important job the library has done so far is to translate Ottoman-language women's magazines into modern Turkish. Although the library will mark 25 years since its foundation in April, plans are already afoot to preserve and expand its valuable collections. Berktay said the library is expected to fully digitize its archive this year.

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