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  • Gender and Empire in Late Ottoman Istanbul:Caricature, Models of Empire, and the Case for Ottoman Exceptionalism
  • Palmira Brummett (bio)

The linkage of gender and empire is not self-evident. While gender has become an increasingly important category in contemporary historiography on the Middle East, studies have tended to concentrate (with notable exceptions) on females in context, rather than on males and masculinities.1 The analysis of the Ottomans as an empire has directed scholarship on that space and that polity into certain rather narrowly defined channels. Scholarship for the long nineteenth century has focused on issues of reform, Western hegemony, and nationalism. Gender per se is not a primary category.2 Empire is; although imperialism, perhaps, at least of the Ottoman sort, is not. In other words, the Ottoman Empire as an object of European imperialism has received greater emphasis in the scholarship than has the Ottoman Empire as (redefined) imperial subject. This essay, instead, looks to the Ottoman subject and its imperial center, Istanbul, to examine the conjunctures of gender and empire as projected in the Ottoman-language cartoon press of 1908–14. That press can be seen as reflecting an idea of "Ottoman exceptionalism," which was characteristic of a certain era, cast [End Page 283] in gendered terms, placed in dialogic opposition to European imperialism, and advanced in an effort both to preserve and refashion the empire. Ottoman exceptionalism, like British exceptionalism, presumed a superiority rooted in imperial glory and in proper (particularly female) morality.

Definitions and Periodizations

Gender may mean the differentiation, characterization, and contextualization of the male and the female in any given time, place, social setting, or literature. Gender can be defined as "sex," as my Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary would have it. Or one may presume the categories that same dictionary employs for gendered language: "A subclass within a grammatical class . . . of a language that is partly arbitrary but also partly based on distinguishable characteristics (as shape, social rank, manner of existence, or sex) and that determines agreement with and selection of other words or grammatical forms."3 This latter definition, although grammatical in intent, proves useful for the analysis that follows here. It suggests the notion of gender as a set of partially evolving distinctions embedded in language and comprehensible only with reference to surrounding "texts."

"Empire" too is construed in words (and images) as well as territories. The Ottoman entity, in the long nineteenth century, is surely "a major political unit having a territory of great extent or a number of territories or peoples under a single sovereign authority."4 But it is also a concept, one that has been the subject of determined, imaginative, and multifaceted debate. As the various studies in this issue of the journal suggest, the Ottoman Empire as a construct of imperial power is one that historians still feel more comfortable comparing to British India (the imperial colony) rather than to Britain itself (the imperial center).5 The Ottomans' own sense of imperial "self," as I demonstrate, at least in the cartoon space allows for both types of comparison.6

Much discussion of the transformations in the Ottoman Empire, gendered and otherwise, has focused on the middle parts of the long nineteenth century, in particular on the Tanzimat (the legal and structural reordering of 1839–76).7 But I am going to propose here a "new empire period," beginning in 1876, when the constitutionalists brought Sultan Abdülhamid II (r. 1876–1909) to power, and ending in 1914 when the Ottomans entered World War I. I choose this periodization for a number of reasons. First, this period is characterized by a set of newly fashioned visions of the empire and of gender. Second, the emphasis on the Tanzimat period has focused too strongly on government legal reforms aimed at articulating the position of non-Muslim citizens of the Muslim state, placating the European powers that threatened Ottoman territorial integrity, and advancing rhetorics of Ottoman unity (or Ottomanism) in order to strengthen and legitimize the power of the central government. That focus suggests that the real transformation of the empire was launched and "done" by 1876. Finally, the World War I years, during which the...


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