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Elif MAHIR METINSOY, Ottoman Women during World War I: everyday experiences, politics, and conflict

Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2017, 271 p.
Stefan Hock
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Elif MAHIR METINSOY, Ottoman Women during World War I: everyday experiences, politics, and conflict, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2017, 271 p.

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1In the midst of the centennial anniversary of the First World War, there has been an explosion of scholarship on the war and its legacy in the Middle East. Scholars have reassessed – or taken up for the first time – questions of the Ottoman Empire’s motivations for joining the war, military history, social history, the environmental impact of the war, and the war’s aftermath in the region, among other topics. Together, historians have reconstructed the importance of the war and its legacy as a defining moment in the making of the modern Middle East.

2Less well understood, however, is our understanding of the war’s impact on Ottoman women. Elif Mahir Metinsoy’s Ottoman Women during World War I: Everyday Experiences, Politics, and Conflict takes on the challenge of writing a new history of women during the war. Specifically, the author notes that while the literature generally focused on the experiences of middle- and upper-class women – for whom the war years could have constituted a “progressive phase” (p. 2) that resulted in emancipation – Ottoman Women during World War I attempts to highlight how the war affected ordinary women, which was often in very different ways in comparison to their more privileged counterparts. In doing so, Metinsoy argues that these women “with their everyday forms of politics were part of the political developments of this ‘total war’” (p. 196). Whether this was through petitioning the government for unreceived pension funds or reminding Ottoman authorities of their status as mothers and wives of deployed soldiers to resist taxation, the book illustrates the strategies women used to negotiate their relationships with the state and shows how women acted as agents in these negotiations.

3The book makes an impressive usage of the Ottoman Archives as well as the still-underused Archive of the Red Crescent and the Archive of General Staff Directorate of Military History and Strategic Studies. The material that the book is able to marshal from memoirs is also most welcome. The book draws on several examples of how women during wartime were portrayed in novels, but at times, these sources appear to be used as statements of fact, rather than as artistic representations that warrant further investigation. Nevertheless, the book is meticulously researched, and this is born out in the number of different stories Metinsoy is able to weave into her narrative.

4The book is divided into eleven chapters across four parts along with an introduction and a conclusion, tracing various aspects of how the First World War affected women in the empire. Part I provides a brief overview of the concept of the home front first in western Europe followed by issues confronting the experience of the Ottoman home front, such as conscription, migration, and economic hardship.

5Part II explores various aspects of social history during the war; chapter three discusses how women attempted to procure food amid shortages; chapter four describes the labyrinthian process of obtaining pensions from the Ottoman government, which women had varying levels of success in achieving; chapter five reconstructs the difficulties that wartime posed for women’s ability to maintain housing; and chapter six shows the importance of a woman’s status as a mother as a determinative factor in their wartime experiences.

6Part III effectively demonstrates how for many Ottoman women working during World War I, participation in the workforce was far from an emancipatory experience. Rather, chapter seven uses various examples of state-run workshops to show how women were frequently subjected to government surveillance techniques while chapter eight, which focuses on challenges women faced in the workforce, similarly notes that a woman could be subject to dismissal if she was seen in public with a non-relative male.

7Part IV is divided into three chapters on women’s responses to Ottoman mobilization. Chapter nine shows the adverse effects of Ottoman taxation on women; chapter ten describes how women attempted to resist the conscription of male relatives and could sometimes participate in harboring deserters; and finally, chapter eleven details Ottoman measures to control women’s sexual lives on the home front to prevent disorder.

8One of the strengths of the book is that it illustrates effectively how including the Ottoman Empire in larger discussions of the First World War complicates our understanding of the war’s effects on women in a global context. Whereas some literature on the American and European experiences of the war in particular (and as the book reminds us, generally from the perspective of upper-class women) emphasizes the war’s liberating effect on women through participation in labor and other political pursuits, Metinsoy introduces particular Ottoman practices and institutions (the Ottoman Women’s Employment Islamic Society, for instance) that challenge this assumption. Indeed, working-class Ottoman women could be subject to sexual harassment, poor working conditions, and under-compensation, among other challenges. Others were coerced into forced work for the state in labor battalions, which could be supervised by exploitative male officers. The book also effectively explains how different categories of poor (Turkish Muslim) women experienced the war. For example, in several chapters Metinsoy notes that women who had entered the Ottoman Empire as refugees faced notable challenges during the war. Skyrocketing rents during and after the war had a disproportionate impact on female refugees (p. 85), while the conscription of male relatives was also particularly hard on refugee women, given their relative lack of social and economic ties in locales some only arrived in very recently (p. 180).

9While Metinsoy does take pains to illustrate the myriad ways that Turkish Muslim women were impacted by the war, the book elides the experiences of non-Turkish and non-Muslim women of the Ottoman Empire, who also suffered tremendously during the war. If one of the central questions the book asks is how women responded to wartime exigencies and how they were able to negotiate the inadequate resources available to them from the state, certainly a woman’s ethnicity informed how the state did (or did not) respond to women’s complaints. The author is clear on the very first page of the book that its scope is “ordinary Ottoman women’s everyday experiences of World War I in Anatolia and eastern Thrace.” This geographic delineation is not an insurmountable problem on its face; every project, after all, must have a scope that will inevitably leave something out. One would therefore not expect to read accounts of women in the Ottoman Arab provinces, for instance (although isolated references to such women are made). Nevertheless, readers are left with little sense of how the war impacted Ottoman Christian women, especially those who were subjected to the horrors of the Armenian Genocide. In a book about how poor women suffered during wartime, the absence of the victims of the genocide is especially glaring. Readers may also be disappointed to find scant reference to Kurdish and Greek women’s wartime experiences, among others.

10Despite this criticism, the book still proves to be a welcome addition to the literature on the First World War in the Ottoman Empire and on women’s history during the war more generally. Each chapter conceivably invites future research, and Metinsoy has laid the groundwork for new questions about how women were able to negotiate their position vis-à-vis the state during wartime. For as she points out, the Ottoman government often had to take these claims seriously, even at the most intense moments of the war (p. 197).

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Référence électronique

Stefan Hock, « Elif MAHIR METINSOY, Ottoman Women during World War I: everyday experiences, politics, and conflict »Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 151 | 2022, mis en ligne le 16 décembre 2021, consulté le 02 décembre 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/remmm/16540 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/remmm.16540

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Stefan Hock

Tulane University

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