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Nadezhda Alexandrova, Katerina Dalakoura,

Efstratia Oktapoda, Senem Timuroglu

East-West and the politics of location: receiving West (re)discovering Orient


The diverse and reciprocal West-East cultural and literary influences created a fruitful atmosphere for the appearance of original works among Greeks, Turks, Bulgarians and Romanians in the Ottoman and post-Ottoman space of the 19th and early 20th c. During this period women’s authorship was constituted as such in the above-mentioned communities and certain cultural practices were transferred from the West, reflected upon their self-perception as subjects of the East. Their specific positioning between West and East, expressed in their writing, allowed for plurality in receiving Western influences and identifications with “The Orient”. Based on these assumptions, we investigate the concepts of “East/Orient” and “West” as they emerged in the works of four Eastern European women authors, namely Elisaveta Karaminkova (1849-1920), Sappho Leontias (1830-1900), Fatma Aliye (1862-1936) and Elena Ghika (1828-1888).

We want to display their complex identification with Western European (feminist) activism and writing, and their reflections about their geographical location. Each of them presents a particular usage of the East/West discourses, which is visible in their writings, representative either of their respective religious/ethnic ottoman communities or of the discourses produced by Eastern women living ‘West’. The comparison of those usages displays different aspects of the multiplicity of the Eastern women’s East/West discourses in the second half of the 19th century.

We chose to compare and outline commonalities and differences along the lines of the location, to display different strategies of discovery of the space of the Orient and point out the production of a reflexive distance between the writers’ geographical positioning in Ottoman territories, and what the Western imagination has constructed under the discourse of the Orient. The four women are approached through a comparison based on their ethnicity/nationality, religion, education, intellectual activities, as well as the social networks that supported their public presence. The study is placed in the theoretical framework of the politics of location and the transnational approach. It intends to focus not on the general description of the four instances of authorship, but on three thematic topics on the basis of the frequency they were addressed, being common in the works of each of them: emancipation, education and religion.

The biographies of these four women writers create an interesting cartography, where Istanbul, becomes a ‘common location’ with meaningful impact on the literary production of women from different ethnic origin. Defragmented into different neighborhoods and cultural surroundings it defined women’s life-experiences, cultural milieu and writing style. These different communities, while all familiar with the Western thought, had their particular cultural dynamics that reflected – respectively – on the writings of the Muslim Fatma Aliye, the Christian/Greek Sappho Leontias, the Christian (of Bulgarian in nationality) Elisaveta Karaminkova, and the eastern – originally – Christian traveler, Elena Ghica.

Elena Ghica did not identify with the Orient, whereas her gaze at it had not much in common with the western imagination of the Orient, calling for understanding of the diversity of the East, especially concerning religion. The three other women although being aware of their non-Western origin, did not associate themselves with the Orient as it was contextualized by the western imagination (or with the Orient of the past). They were acting as proponents of the western ideas and progresses, calling at the same time for preserving the national qualities and/or religious convictions of their respective communities.

Religion was a significant denominator, when borderlines were situated between East and West as well as within the East (in the writings of Fatma Aliye and Elena Ghica, in regard with Islam and Christianity), and commonalities between East and West were pointed out or particular symbolic religious practices were identified with Christian East (in Leontias’ and Ghica’s writings). Religion was also connected with women’s duties as mothers and the inclusion of Christian morals into women’s education (in Elisaveta Karaminkova’s and Sappho Leontias’ works).

As for the topics of emancipation and women’s education, common convictions as well as differentiations were expressed in the writings of the four. In regard with the former, Sappho Leontias, whose argumentation was suffused with the principles of the “equality in difference” dogma, though she often went beyond this, and Fatma Aliye, pioneering in Ottoman Muslim women's movement, showed both respect to Western women’s progress. At the same time they insisted on a kind of Ottoman emancipation. Elena Ghica, a feminist in favor of a universal solidarity between women and of political representation of women, counted Oriental women’s social position on the basis of Western standards; Elisaveta Karaminkova seemingly believed in much more conservative ideas, as far as her translations are concerned, but her contributions to the press and her social activism as a head of educational boards and philanthropic women’s organizations, give a very clear indication of her feminist convictions. Howbeit all four women writers appreciated the achievements of Western feminism drawing attention to women’s education, a topic which presented important commonalities in their discourses. They all expressed approval of Western educational thinking, but they also recommended a careful revision of Western educational philosophy, theory and practice.

SvD, 26 May 2013

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