Turkish Women’s Poetry: Ottoman to Contemporary

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When we look back at Turkish women’s poetry of the Ottoman period, we also read an historical process. In Ottoman times, as it is known, women were not in the social arena at all. They could not be educated in Islamic schools (medrese). So writing was a daring act and some Ottoman women took this chance for themselves and for later generations of women.

Ottoman poetry has a classical form which could be changed easily. But only  the woman who belonged to a wealthy family could be a poet; she was educated at home and therefore could not express herself in a feminist way. But we can mention Mihri Hatun, who deals strongly with women’s issues in poetry. She lived between 1460-1506 in Amasya, a lively place for the arts where the sons of the sultan also resided. Other women poets of this period are Zeynep Hatun, Fıtnat Hanım, Şeref Hanım, Leyla Hanım. We also know the names of Emine Beyza, Banu Çankırılı, Arife Bacı who wrote in folk literature, distinct from Divan (Classic Ottoman) poetry.

With the republic, the women got their rights back and found more opportunities to express themselves, thanks to Atatürk. Şükufe Nihal Başar (1896-1973) and Halide Nusret Zorlutuna (1901-1984) were two of them. The well-educated women of this time could speak European languages as well as Arabic and Persian.

As to Modern Turkish poetry, the first woman who tells about the problems of modern Turkish women in a social and personal way is Gülten Akın (b. 1933). Gülten Akın, who is also “poet mother” as some critics say, is a poet of grace and delicacy. She tells about the closed life of housewives and mothers at home. Her style of writing is so simple without any adornments. She writes in one of her essays on poetry «creativity can be a way of uprising. And so the creativity of women is completely an uprising and it will go on until this meaningless discrimination ends. The modern woman is the one who does not accept her current position as fate. And because of this reason, she feels uneasiness, unhappiness inside her more because of prohibition, repressions». In one of her poems “The city ended” she says: «Men are born out of their madness / And women / Closing themselves to their wombs / They are playing with their secrets» (And then I got old, 1995).

Sennur Sezer, (b. 1943) wrote about social issues, especially women workers, in her poetry “Hunger is the stalest bread” (Abstract).

The poetry of Nilgün Marmara (1958-1987) has Anglo-Saxon characteristics. She wrote a thesis on Sylvia Plath, and like her, committed suicide. So in her poetry, she dealt often with death and despair. She has influenced other poets like Lale Müldür, Gülseli İnal. The anger in her poetry is directed towards life: «I am left buried under the avalanche /  that my father rolled» (“Atlas of Blood”).

Another woman poet, Lale Müldür (b. 1956), is an interesting and creative figure in modern Turkish poetry. Her poetry is full of references that must be known beforehand, and thus her readers should be well educated. She places her poems not only in Turkey but in the world. Her words are like delirium or a part of a dream. Sometimes she writes her associations without control, so her poetry lacks unity and is hard to understand. Consequently, she sets down her intellectual world on paper in an experimental way. «All the time women were crocheting and no memories they had» (“The memories of a woman and a country”,  Anemon).

Didem Madak (1970-2011) adopted a narrative and ironic style in her poetry. She wrote about the problems of people living in the suburbs of cities, especially women. She wrote as she spoke to herself. Her poetry can be called “modern tales of poverty”. A line from her: «you are a memory from now».

Birhan Keskin (b. 1963) generally tells about personal love in her poetry. Nature is another featured theme in her poetry. She often writes in present tense. A line from her: «When your mother denied you / I took and wove you to my skin».

Bejan Matur (b. 1968) is an Alevi/Kurdish poet. However, her discourse is about Sunni Islam. She speaks in the language of holy books. She has a voice similar to traditional tales. «I was stolen from a tale / only my mother knows» (Winds howl through the mansions)

The names of Gülseli İnal (1947), Leyla Şahin (1954), Neşe Yaşın (1959) should also be mentioned.

As to the young generation, Müesser Yeniay is one of them. Her poems deal with women’s issues in general. Here is a poem:


To be a woman
means being invaded, oh mum!

they took my everything

a woman took my childhood
a man, my womanhood…

God should not create woman
God does not know how to give birth

here, the ribs of all men
are broken

our neck is thinner than hair

men are carrying us
like a funeral on their shoulders

we have been under their feet

light like a feather
we flew from a world to an Adam

and my words are, oh mum!
their footprints…

(Edited by Leslie McBride Wile)
An article about Müesser Yeniay can be found here

The photographs are by Bruna Bonino