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  • To Bring About a "Moral of Renewal":The Deportation of Sex Workers in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War
  • Stefan Hock (bio)

In January 1915 European consuls in Istanbul gave the city's police commissioner, Osman Bedri Bey, a list of names of known procurers. The accused traffickers included Russian, Argentinian, Romanian, American, Austrian, French, British, and Greek citizens. All but one of them were deported; 151 were banished from the country, 11 were sent to Sivas, and 5 were sent to Kayseri, cities in the interior of Anatolia that were far removed from the capital.1 Bedri quickly rose through the ranks of Ottoman civil officialdom as he was a close friend of Talaat, the powerful interior minister who became grand vizier in 1917. Bedri was appointed as a prosecutor in the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul in April 1912 and became police commissioner of Istanbul in 1914. As police commissioner, he was "equipped with the near dictatorial powers he was given over Constantinople's public life" by the ruling Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), the secret society that plotted the 1908 Ottoman constitutional revolution and deposed Sultan Abdülhamid II a year later.2 Bedri was therefore free to use his power as police commissioner to carry out deportations of madams, pimps, and [End Page 457] prostitutes. Many government officials and social commentators believed that the proliferation of prostitution in the Ottoman Empire between 1914 and 1918 was one of the greatest social and economic challenges that the empire faced. Public morality in Istanbul was of particular importance to regaining sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire, which had been compromised through territorial losses and foreign economic penetration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Bedri's actions suggest that the deportation of foreign subjects was part of this larger project.3 Describing similar developments in nineteenth-century Egypt, Khaled Fahmy suggests, however, that when prostitutes faced scrutiny under the guise of protecting public morality, "there was something else that loomed in the background."4 This article analyzes that something else.

I argue that Ottoman wartime policy toward sex workers was part of a broader initiative by the CUP to reshape the social geography of the empire, an effort of considerable importance for both the social and political history of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. Specifically, I consider the policy of deporting sex workers, primarily from the empire's capital, Istanbul, to the more sparsely populated and isolated areas of the interior of Anatolia. In the years after the first Balkan War in 1912, when the Ottoman Empire suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of a loosely organized alliance of smaller Balkan states and lost virtually all of its European territory, many government and military officials and intellectuals alike came to believe that the only way the Ottoman Empire could revive itself was through a Turkish brand of nationalism. World War I gave the Ottoman government the necessary pretext to more firmly establish the empire's ethnic composition as specifically Turkish in order to carry out the nationalist program.5 This process of reshaping the empire entailed the creation of the National Economy, built around the promotion of Turkish-owned industry;6 the forcible resettlement of Muslims, most notably Kurds, into predominately Turkish-speaking areas of Anatolia so as to assimilate them culturally and linguistically;7 and, most radically, the extermination of Armenians. Morality also held a significant place in Turkish nationalist thought. According to Ziya Gökalp, a highly influential sociologist and poet, "The Turks have excelled in morals. Turkish history, from its [End Page 458] beginning, is an exhibition of moral virtues."8 The idealized Turkish nation was therefore one that not only needed to be militarily powerful and ethnically homogeneous but also actively guarded its morality.

The years of World War I served as a crucible in which the CUP could test its theories about the destructive consequences of immorality for society and take action against what it considered immoral behavior.9 Measures taken by the Ottoman government during World War I bear the imprint of the CUP itself and shed light on how the thought...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1535-3605
Print ISSN
1043-4070
Pages
pp. 457-482
Launched on MUSE
2019-09-28
Open Access
No
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