Muslim feminists in the 19th century South Caucasus

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A women’s movement started to emerge in Tsarist Russia in the mid-19th century. Just as most progressive ideas, women’s rights issue also came to the Russian Empire from Europe. Because female aristocrats of the country often travelled to Europe, they learned the latest developments towards women’s emancipation and observed heated discussions about women’s rights and brought those thoughts to Russia. Consequently, unions formed by aristocratic women of Russia arose from the 1850s, in which consistent talks of women’s issues were generated. Such organizations were predominantly involved in charitable work in the early years.

Only after 20 years, women expanded their fields of activities, went beyond charitable work, and tended to politicize women’s issues. They initiated debates on equality thoughts in the press, including demand for equal rights concerning education and employment. Discussions about women’s problems continued in Russia after the establishment of the USSR when the red revolutionaries took those unions “under their wings” and turned them into Marxist-feminism, which served in their own interests.

Unlike socialists supporting Marxist feminism, namely Leo Trotsky and Valerian Kuybyshev, J.V. Stalin did not accept the idea of equality. For this reason, once he consolidated his power in the 1930s, he declared feminism “a game of the bourgeoisie” and abolished all the women’s unions. Thus, feminism turned into a notorious term and went out of use in the USSR.


South Caucasian version of feminism in the 19th century

Most probably, a handful of people must have heard about feminism in the South Caucasus, a remote area of Tsarist Russia. The patriarchal environment of the South Caucasus was not ready for gender equality issues to the extent that women were not allowed to go out without being accompanied by a man. However, even under such harsh circumstances, some women challenged the patriarchal order and actively engaged in public life, not seeing their gender identity as a barrier in activism. No doubt, a place where women’s issues more or less came into sight was Georgia, a cradle of culture in the South Caucasus. Especially in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital city, girls’ schools were already present in the 19th century, Georgian duchesses would set up charitable funds, and Georgian thinkers such as Ilia Chavchavadze and Tsereteli highlighted the significance of education of women’s so that they would serve the country later.

Unlike Georgia, women and gender equality problems were out of debates in Muslim societies of the Caucasus. Only “Molla Nasreddin”, a secular magazine considered “Charlie Hebdo” of its time, sometimes shed light on oppression against women and their deprivation of education among local media representatives.

Although Caucasian Muslim societies had never heard about the word “feminism”, some women, who acknowledged and promoted freedom and equality and did not consider their gender as a barrier in front of them, can be regarded as the first examples of feminists there. The first feminists of the Caucasus included princess Khurshidbanu Natavan, dedicated intellectual Hanifa Abayeva-Malikova, poet Fatma Khanim Kemine and even the first anarcha-feminist of the Caucasus, Gachag Hajar.


The last princess of Karabakh, Kurshidbanu Natavan (1832-1897)

If you read Alexandre Dumas’s travelogue of “Adventures in the Caucasus”, you will find some parts about Kurshidbanu Natavan there. The prominent French writer and traveller met this woman with a weird life story and wrote about her. Not surprisingly, Natavan’s family background seemed more appealing to Dumas because her father, Mehdigulu khan, was the last khan of the Karabakh Khanate, which had been abolished and transformed into a province of the Russian Empire.

Mehdigulu khan’s daughter Natavan was a well-respected woman in Karabakh. She had learned Persian, Russian, Turkish and Arabic in her childhood and performed as a poet besides engaging in local governance affairs. “Khan’s daughter”, as local people called her, was married to the general of the Imperial Russian Army, Khasay Khan Usmiyev, who was Kumyk by nationality. However, when Usmiyev decided to take his wife to his own homeland, Dagestan, Natavan rejected and stayed in Karabakh at the expense of divorce.

Natavan would spend her father’s inheritance on developing local people’s welfare and intellectual level, financed water pipelines and houses of culture in the region. Being a woman in a Muslim community did not stop her from giving poets and thinkers of her city in her palace, arranging clubs on literature, and hosting debates related to art, literature, and politics there. She desperately wanted and made considerable efforts to attract women to these assemblies, too. However, women ready for this in terms of both intellectually and mentally were barely found in the Muslim society of those times.

Nonetheless, there was a woman who visited those assemblies from time to time: Fatma Khanim Kemine.


Fatma Khanim Kemine (1841-1898)

Fatma Khanim Kemine was born in an aristocratic family in Shusha, the city considered the cradle of culture and music in the Caucasus. Her father was a poet and secretary of the khan of Karabakh. As schools did not exist in Karabakh in the 19th century, aristocrats home-schooled by hiring a personal tutor. As a result, children were taught writing and reading in several languages and maths and music classes. Similarly, Fatma Khanim Kemine also got educated by home-schooling and learned a few languages.

As Kemine raised in a poet family, she was closely familiar with poetry and wrote poems herself. There were two considerable poetry clubs in Shusha in her youth: one was organized by a male poet Mir Mohsun Navvab, while Khurshidbanu Natavan arranged the other one. Kemine was almost the only female poet in Navvab’s club, while she often joined Natavan’s poetry club and read poems there.

As clubs almost entirely consisted of men, it was not typical for women to join and read poems in those clubs and become a public figure in Muslim communities of those times in the Caucasus. Moreover, people took an aggressive attitude toward those who maintained a lifestyle beyond the unwritten rules of society. Therefore, seeing themselves as “poets equal in rights with men” in the poetry club required tremendous courage from women.

The facts that Natavan and Fatma Khanim owned public identity, represented women in literature as a form of art, and endeavoured to make education accessible for children from low-income families, no doubt, were one of the first examples of women’s solidarity in Muslim Caucasus communities. Fighting back the realities of their times, those women were, of course, just exceptions in the remote areas of the Empire, and, therefore, their activities could not transform into women’s unions or other types of institutions nor became politicized as opposed to Tsarist Russia itself. Yet those brave and committed women put their stamps on the history of gender equality ideas in the Caucasus as the first feminists resisting patriarchal rules.


Anarcho-feminist Gachag Hajar (1860-1914)


 Like feminists not having ever heard a word of feminism, some anarchists were not familiar with the concept of anarchism in the Caucasus: the Gachags — small groups of combatants using guerrilla tactics. The tradition of the gachag movement emerged against Tsarist governance and its local functionaries. Generally, the story of Gachags, coming from destitute peasant families, would start with protesting local functionaries who cleaned the peasants out with corruption on the pretext of taxes and treated them in a humiliating and tyrannic way.  Consequently, Gachags would tangle with officers; they would either injure or murder the latter and run away to the mountainous areas to avoid jail. Subsequently, they organized armed groups and lived in independent communes there.

These communes, as a rule, consisted of only men.  However, Gachag Hajar was the first woman living in this commune, who did not bear with the oppression of the Tsarist officers, ran away to the mountains, took a weapon in her hands, and started a partisan resistance together with the commune she lived in. Also, she was married to the leader of the commune, people’s hero Gachag Nabi. Nevertheless, Hajar was not in her husband’s shadow: sometimes, she led the group of armed gachags in operations such as arranging the escape of imprisoned gachags.

Hajar was a people’s beloved hero. Relying on her, peasants could fight back at the injustice of local landowners. It is, therefore, not surprising that myriad songs and poems by ordinary members of society were dedicated to Hajar.


Lust for enlightenment in a foreign land – Hanifa Abayeva-Melikova (1856-1929)


Hanifa Abayeva was born in North Caucasus. She studied in Saint Nino girls’ school in Tbilisi, Georgia, the only place available for girls’ education at that time. Destiny brought her together with one of the most progressive thinkers of the Caucasus, the one who founded the first newspaper for the Muslim Caucasus societies – Hasan bey Zardabi. They got married and then dealt together both printing issues and providing educational opportunities for children from rural areas for 16 years.

Hanifa came from a wealthy family. But she preferred to spend her money on educating Muslim girls rather than her own welfare. First, she funded the education of a number of Muslim girls. Then she founded the Women’s Charitable Society in Baku. After that, she became principal for the Taghiyev’s girl school, the first girls’ school in Azerbaijan later. She gave considerable effort to literacy promotion among women for long years and played an essential role as a female educational leader in Azerbaijan.

She always said: “The ultimate goal of my life has been and will be promoting intellectual level of uneducated people, particularly Turkish (Azerbaijani) women in a struggle of women’s right against exploitation as much as I can.”

All women I mentioned above were supportless in their individual efforts and struggles. They barely had opportunities to promote their ideas or institutionalize their activities. Each of them was involved in an almost ideological battle. Yet, they managed to create a promising and original precedent with their presence, lifestyles, and activities. They proved it was possible and practical for women to be represented in literature, education, and struggle against oppression.

Today, feminist movements in Azerbaijan, the only Muslim country in the South Caucasus, are not behind those in neighbouring countries to fight for gender equality issues. The former arranges marches, protects the rights of women, and resists patriarchal imposition in their country. This new, modern generation of feminists do not forget their ideological predecessors and get inspired by remembering what challenging circumstances the first feminists in the region worked.



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