The Sky Is the Limit: Nationalism, Feminism, Modernity, and Turkish Historiography

By Atamaz, Serpil | International Journal of Turkish Studies, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

The Sky Is the Limit: Nationalism, Feminism, Modernity, and Turkish Historiography


Atamaz, Serpil, International Journal of Turkish Studies


On December 1, 1913, when newspaper columnist and women's rights activist Belkis Sevket was flown over Istanbul by a pilot from the Aviation School of the Ottoman military, becoming the first Turkish and first recorded Muslim woman to fly in an airplane,* 1 her unusual flight was the subject of many news articles in the press, commentaries by well-known columnists and published responses from readers. Nevertheless, Belkis Sevket's name and the story of her flight faded away following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and were omitted from the new historical narrative that emerged with the establishment of the Turkish Republic, confining them to newspaper pages in the archives and erasing them from the collective memory of the Turkish people.

On the other hand, Sabiha Gökçen, the first female pilot of the Turkish Republic, became a household name in the 1930s and has been celebrated since as a role model for Turkish women by politicians, historians, and ordinary people alike.2 Adopted by Atatürk when she was twelve years old, Sabiha Gökçen obtained her pilot's license from the Civil Aviation School in 1935, after which she received further training in Russia and at the Military Aviation Academy in Turkey, and started flying fighter and bomber planes. Throughout her career, Sabiha Gökçen participated in several military exercises and operations, trained many students, and served as a member of the Turkish Aviation Executive Board. She became such a popular figure in Turkish society that when she died at the age of 88 in 2001, an international airport was named after her. Accordingly, unlike Belkis Sevket, Sabiha Gökçen has been the subject of many books, articles, and even documentaries, which portrayed her both as a hero and an example of modern Turkish woman.3

This paper is based on the idea that, albeit not an aviator like Sabiha Gökçen, Belkis Sevket is an important historical figure, whose flight represents the complex interplay among modernity, nationalism, and feminism in Turkey at the turn of the twentieth century. Consequently, it provides a contextualized analysis of Belkis Sevket's flight, based extensively on primary sources, including the writings of Belkis Sevket herself, and answers the following questions: What were the main motivations behind the flight? What were the various meanings attributed to it? What did this act mean for Ottoman women and the society at large? And how does the story of Belkis Sevket's flight advance our understanding of the treatment of women in Turkish historiography?

Even though the concern for women's emancipation surfaced in the Ottoman Empire in the mid-nineteenth century, the 1908 Revolution undertaken by the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) against Abdülhamid II constituted a turning point for women in Ottoman Turkey. Specifically, it generated a considerable transformation in the political agenda and public discourse towards gender equality by improving women's educational, economic, legal and social status, justifying women's claims to equal rights and providing them with the means and opportunities to mobilize and organize.4 One of the indications of this transformation was the proliferation of women's journals and organizations, which respectively numbered around twenty and fifty and played a significant role in planting the seeds of feminism in the Ottoman Empire. Most prominent among them in the constitutional period were the Osmanh Müdafaa-i Hukuk-u Nis\>an Cemiyeti (Ottoman Society for the Defense of Women's Rights) and its publication Kadmlar Dünyasi (Women's world) that began in 1913. 5 What distinguished them from many others were their explicitly feminist agenda, their unusual but effective methods, and their daring tone. The first issue proclaimed: "Kadmlar Dünyasi will not open its pages to men until our rights are regarded as part of universal rights and women as well as men can participate in all sorts of activities....They [men] should leave us alone. …

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