January 15, 2021
Thanks to Turkay Gasimova, a 2020 Fellow in Ideas, for today’s post.
Writing history is a challenging and equally important task, and it is even more so if the historian aims to write the history of marginalized, underrepresented, and disadvantaged members of the society. The reason for this issue is obviously due to the fact that history almost always is written by the strongmen, the successful and the privileged members of the society. This issue became more evident when I was working in the archives in various cities, trying to collect materials on the activities by the women intellectuals in the Muslim-populated territories of the Caucasus region of the nineteenth century. As one might imagine, I could not make my task more difficult. By looking at those archival documents and personal letters, the first impression (sarcastic, of course) would be that there were no women back then or they were simply invisible. Only close readings of those materials and documents could give a glimpse into the lives of women who, contrary to the common knowledge, were active in their communities by taking part in the charity activities.
Although there are only very few available primary sources on the activities by the women intellectuals and activists of the nineteenth century, I believe that educational, particularly charity activities by a small group of female intellectuals in a highly conservative Muslim society, was a significant accomplishment. Because of the realities of Muslim society, of course, these women could not act independently, but using the reputation and power of their male family members, they created opportunities for themselves to affect the life of their community. This very limited number of women intellectuals were mostly coming from economically advantaged backgrounds, which allowed them to be active in public life by expressing their concerns using the methods of literature and newly emerged printed media. In their works, women intellectuals, although with anonymous pennames, addressed social issues such as early marriages, abusive husbands, an act that was surprisingly brave considering the gender norms and social structures of that time.
The history of women of the nineteenth century is directly connected with the history of charity organizations and societies that played a crucial role in community life by providing free education and social support for women. However, both the activities by women activists and charity organizations are largely under-researched topics and deserve new researches.
One way or another, these case studies stress the importance of writing history, particularly of women, from the most objective viewpoint as possible. It is true that in most cases, the focal point of the historical events are surrounded around the strongmen yet in the few other cases it is the “invisible” members of the society who were maybe less powerful, but definitely not insignificant.
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