- Recovering Armenia: The Limits of Belonging in Post-Genocide Turkey by Lerna Ekmekcioglu
During the early years of academic life, I received a phone call on behalf of an established Armenian male colleague. Through an intermediary, he had requested that I present a paper at a conference on the subject of Armenian women's contribution to family and the nurture of the Armenian nation. I refused on the grounds that there was no sufficient research to show the scope of contribution of Armenian women and that placing them solely in the traditional sphere of family was limiting and bias. Years later when his name was suggested as a possible reviewer for my tenure, I called to gauge his state of mind. He remarked: "I don't know who you are and what you do!" Chauvinism and authoritarianism were hidden under the banner of ethnic nationalism. Perhaps if Lerna Ekmekcioglu's masterful work, Recovering Armenia: The Limits of Belonging in Post-Genocide Turkey, was available then I would have been more forgiving. Maybe.
In the book's introduction, she identifies four processes which led to women becoming the core of a "survival kit" for the Armenians in Turkey. First, was the Ottoman Muslim legal designation for the non-Muslim woman being different from the non-Muslim male. Muslim men were permitted to marry non-Muslim women but the opposite was not allowed. This served both the demographic expansion goals and reified the superiority of Muslims over non-Muslim population. Yet it placed additional stress on dhimmi women, impacting their mobility, appearance, and interactions with others. They were under constant surveillance by the religious and lay leaders of their own communities. Second, the nineteenth-century combination of modernity and nationalism saw women as a "storage vessel" where the core of culture and identity could be protected. Third, part of the annihilation plan of the Young Turks involved the transfer of young children and women to Muslim households and orphanages for [End Page 266] incorporation and Islamization. Fourth, the elements in transition from the Ottoman rule to a republic caused an "enclave-like existence" as family, home, and kin formed the in-side, churches and other community centers under state surveillance constituted the mid-side, and the public realm of non-Armenians, Turks, and the government were the out-side (9–13). Three out of the four contents of this survival kit can apply to Armenians (and other non-Muslims) who have lived in Islamic countries for centuries.
The book focuses on the post-1915 era, is organized chronologically, and shows how the Armenians in Turkey dealt with this tragedy. Gender remains central to all historical cases, explanations, and analysis allowing the reader to see the events through a new and interesting lens. Gender focus adds sophistication and depth to the discussion and reveals layers of unknown information and fresh perspective. Chapter one is about how the Armenians imagined they would survive the trauma. Next, the feminists and their role in the decision-making bodies of the community are explored. The third chapter addresses one critical destiny-making year (late 1922 to late 1923) as thousands of Armenians flee and the Kemalists consolidate their grip over the country and Armenians become a minority. Chapter four is the analysis of the pull and push in state-minority relations of what the author calls "secular dhimmitude," and challenges faced by feminists on issues of ethnicity and gender equality are addressed in chapter five. The scholarship is based on published and unpublished correspondence among intellectuals, memoirs, Turkish state archives and newspapers, various reports, and mostly the Armenian periodicals, especially those published in Constantinople (Istanbul) post-1915. There is a special focus on one vocal feminist editor, Hayganush Mark, and her journal Hay Gin which covered a variety of issues such as discrimination against women, female suffrage, reports of news and international conferences on women's rights, history and definition of feminism, equality of pay, sexual freedom, and women and children in Muslim harems. It was the only Turkish Armenian...