Asharq Al-Awsat, Istanbul – The Turkish people know of a lady by the name of Latife Hanim. They know she was a strong, very wealthy and intelligent woman who had a fierce volatile temper to match. They also know that she was First Lady by virtue of her marriage to the founder of the Turkish Republic and its first President, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
There is little known about her role in the women’s movement and the contributions that she was responsible for during that historic period of transformation. Her marriage to the head of the state was ill-fated and did not last long and after her divorce, her figure became dim in the shadows despite the remarkable woman that she was. She died without ever knowing that she would become a role model for many Turkish women today.
Veteran Turkish journalist, Ipek Calislar took upon herself the daunting and huge task of writing the biography of the pioneering former First Lady of Turkey. Despite the huge success and enormous sales that the book achieved and notwithstanding the wide critical acclaim that the author received, Calislar was charged with insulting the memory of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk [under the Turkish Penal Code Article 5816] for a passage in her book in which she states that he escaped a life-threatening situation by dressing as a women. Calislar has since been acquitted last 21 December 2006.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with Ipek Calislar, the author of the international bestseller ‘Latife Hanim’. Following is the text of the interview:
Q: Your book ‘Latife Hanim’ has provoked wide controversy throughout Turkey and has shed light on a very sensitive time in which Turkey transformed from an empire into a republic, which was during the early 1920s when Latife Hanim was married to Ataturk. Why the specific emphasis on Latife Hanim’s life?
A: Latife Hanim was unique, her image transformed from the hysterical, angry and jealous woman into the lady who was responsible for achieving much for Turkish women. I have read various stories about her that piqued my interest, which is when I decided to explore her life and see what I could find out about who she was and the nature of her relationship with Mustafa Kemal, in addition to the role she played in the feminist movement at the time.
Q: What do you mean when you say feminist movement in Turkey at that time, was there a feminist movement in those early days?
A: No… The truth is that it was not too early; it was the right time. In the final years of the Ottoman Empire, many feminist movements had risen. In 1908, several had emerged after the revolution against Sultan Abdul Hamid II and after he introduced constitutional reforms. The women did not participate in street demonstrations but they used to issue weekly magazines in which they began to express themselves.
When the Turkish War for Independence began, the women started to engage in many public affairs alongside the men. They left the Ottoman ‘haramlik’ (women’s quarter), joined by some men as well, and together started calling for the liberation of women maintaining that they should not be subservient to men and that their place need not necessarily be only in the home. And this is how the feminist movement started in Turkey in 1908.
In 1899, when she was 10 or 11 years old, Latife began her education in Paris and London. She studied in reputable old schools in London and could speak various languages. In Paris she studied law and was impacted by the atmosphere and although she was surrounded by many intellectual figures; we cannot precisely ascertain who they were.
When she returned to Turkey during the Turkish War for Independence, she was influenced by ideas pertaining to women’s rights. She then met Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who in turn was also concerned with women’s issues and equality. Moreover, he was against gender segregation in the public domain. Theirs was a rational marriage but it was also one about love. During their years of marriage, Latife posed a mental challenge to her husband since she was interested in foreign policy and because she was a very wise woman.
During these years, Turkey was filled with momentous changes and Latife Hanim was granted the time and opportunity to practice politics and governance. I believe that she went through a deeply compelling experience during her years in the Cankaya Presidential Palace.
Q: You said that Latife posed an intellectual challenge to her husband, on what issues specifically?
A: Latife challenged Mustafa Kemal on a number of topics, especially women’s issues. In 1923, with the founding of the modern Turkish republic, she wanted to become a member of parliament. At the time, women were not allowed to vote or nominate themselves but she called for the right to run in the elections. This marked the beginning of a severe dispute between Mustafa Kemal and his wife over this subject. Mustafa Kemal told her, “This is not appropriate, how can you want to be a MP when you are my wife?”
However, the irony is that although she did not run in the elections, many people still voted for her; they found various ballots at the polls with the name ‘Latife’ written on them. But this was not odd; Latife used to always accompany Mustafa Kemal, both around Turkey and abroad, as well as on official functions and leisure ones. This is what was unusual. In the Ottoman state, the sultan’s wife or women were not visible to the public.
But Latife and Kemal wanted to change that image and thus made their outings and travel a frequent and normal sight. They were always together, having meals and horseback riding, among other activities. They also stood together before the cameras. As such, gender segregation had to end and I believe Latife played a big role in this regard.
Latife Hanim had a strong presence everywhere she went and on every occasion, she spoke with everyone and was a dominant presence. When foreign diplomats and politicians used to visit the presidential palace in Cankaya, she always met with them and engaged in conversation. Many of the issues she used to discuss were related to women’s issues in Turkey, which used to elicit the anger of some in the presidential palace.
Indeed, she was a key personality in the presidential palace by virtue of her youth and charisma; she was also very well-educated and from an affluent and esteemed bourgeois family. She was moreover the wife of the commander of the independence war, thus everyone had to respect her and listen to her ideas, and this was not the norm for women of that time.
Q: What was her family background?
A: Her father was a merchant and her mother came from a very wealthy family in Turkey. They were six siblings in total; three girls and three boys. All the children had obtained an excellent education abroad but I think Latife was the best educated among her sisters. Her personality was also that of charismatic leadership, she was solid and fierce in defending her ideas. This is due to the fact that her family never suppressed her and she was free to go where she pleased and to express herself. Ever since she was a young child, her father had wanted both his girls and boys to receive the same education and the family did not believe that there were any differences in education on a gender level.
An example is that Latife could speak fluent English by the age of three or four because an English professor had come from England to teach her English in their home in Turkey things are different when you have money. Additionally, in the final years of the Ottoman Empire there were various movements that sought to learn more about the West. The Turkish bourgeoisie was open to the world and geared towards modernization and many were frequent travelers to various European countries.
Although Latife was Westernized culturally, she also had a broader multicultural approach. She was proficient in Middle Eastern languages such as Arabic and Farsi but her choice of clothes and behavior were an admixture between Eastern and Western cultures; being young and intelligent was in her favor.
Q: Latife Hanim seems markedly different from the majority of Turkish women during that time; at the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th, most of the women used to dwell in the haramlik, so did Turkish women then support Latife? Or were they unimpressed by her conduct because it went against the norms of their traditions?
A: There were debates that revolved around her and there were also criticisms from both men and women alike because she used to call her husband ‘Kemal’ only not Mustafa Kemal Pasha or any other title in the presence of others. She would sometimes use these titles but mostly addressed him as ‘Kemal’. The criticism was that she was overly spoilt but she did not pay attention to these criticisms and concerns. However just as she had critics, she also had supporters among Turkish women who admired her and her behavior, such as the aristocratic ladies among whom Latife enjoyed wide popularity.
One of Latife’s habits was that every day at five o’clock during tea time, she would invite some women over and discuss women’s issues with them and reiterate the need to integrate into society rather than be isolated as they were in their homes. As I have previously stated; the Turkish women’s movement began in the final years of the Ottoman Empire during the time of the constitutional reform movement, which was followed by the liberation of the nation ¬ and the women were part of it. This was a time of social transformation in Turkey.
Of course there were some who were opposed to these changes but Mustafa Kemal was determined to bring about change in society and he was a unique charismatic personality, which are the traits that drove him forward. Meanwhile his opposition used to say that he allowed his wife to leave “naked” because Latife would be seen without her hijab but this is unfair because before she married Mustafa Kemal she never wore the veil like her educated bourgeoisie contemporaries. She never even used to wear the small head cover because she used to spend a lot of time in Izmir, which was more liberal than other Turkish cities by virtue of the strong presence of foreigners and minorities. However, after marriage and out of respect for her husband’s status she used to always wear a head cover and she no longer wore the clothes she used to wear before she got married.
Q: You said that Latife and Mustafa Kemal clashed over his refusal to let her run for parliament; however a few years later women were granted the right to nomination and voting. Do you know what impact Latife had on the drafting of these laws?
A: According to the sources that I gathered for this book I can say that her imprint was very clear on the Turkish Civil Code which was enacted in 1926 following her divorce from Ataturk. The laws that were employed in the Ottoman Empire did not allow women the right to divorce or men the right to polygamy, but the law changed in 1926 and Latife was familiar with its articles during the pre-drafting stage because of her legal knowledge. Moreover, she oversaw the changes that were under discussion.
Turkey adopted the Swiss Civil Code as the basis for the Turkish civil law and Latife was familiar with it. However the irony and tragedy is that Latife’s divorce from Mustafa Kemal was not in accordance with the civil law that she contributed to drafting, but rather took place through a divorce letter delivered to her home by a state official. Also, the divorce was not undertaken in the same manner as the marriage which was a civil marriage; they both sat on the same table and signed the marriage papers. Latife was representing herself, her father did not represent her*.
The next morning all the Turkish newspapers were talking about the manner by which they were married. At the time, it was customary that the father represent the daughter and to be the one to preside over the marriage. If the father was not available then it would be the older brother. This marked the first time that a woman represented herself in a marriage certificate.
Following the divorce, a caricature was published in an Egyptian newspaper in the 1920s that depicted Mustafa Kemal as a harsh ‘sharqi’ (Oriental) man divorcing Latife and sending her back to her father’s home with her clothes and bags. Their divorce through a governmental decree compelled Latife to liken it to Napoleon and Josephine’s divorce.
Q: Do you think that Mustafa Kemal ever harbored jealousy towards Latife Hanim by virtue of her independence and strong personality?
A: I cannot say that he was jealous of her but he was generally prone to jealousy, not because he was ‘Oriental’ as even Western men experience jealousy. Mustafa liked the fact that Latife was independent but he also had great confidence in himself; he was the president, the leader of the national movement and he was revered by the Turks. He also admired people who spoke their minds rather than just say “yes” to everything. Latife was always with him and she was always frank about her thoughts and opinions and her ideas were very liberal. I believe that he was intrigued by the mental challenge she presented.
After they met, he was very taken by her because he found her ideas stimulating and new and her personality strong. During her years in the palace, she used to hold discussions with those in attendance and she spoke five languages. I believe that Mustafa Kemal found in Latife an interesting personality, add to that she was an attractive women and quite feminine.
Despite the fact that in Turkish literature, she is always described as being physically unattractive, upon reading articles written by French, American and British journalists at the time, I found that they had stated that she was a very attractive women with a small frame, beautiful features and beautiful large black eyes. When you look at her features you will find that they are not unattractive, indeed, she had beautiful eyes. More importantly, whenever she spoke or moved, her true beauty would emerge, and that was something that the cameras could not capture. Her personality had something that inevitably drew people.
Q: How and why were they divorced, and how did it affect them?
A: This is a sad story; neither of them ever disclosed the reasons behind the divorce until their death. To this day, the reason is unknown and remains a secret between them. They were both affected by it and they were sad but I think Latife was lonely after the divorce and suffered more. One of Mustafa Kemal’s friends told me that he was crying after the divorce. This friend was in his company at the Cankaya presidential palace in 1925, three months after the divorce, and said that Mustafa Kemal was depressed and used to go to his room to cry because Latife was no longer in this life.
Despite reconciliation attempts, they never got back together again and only met once by the Bosphorus; she was with friends and he was on a yacht. They saw one another but did not speak and the encounter deeply impacted Latife who cried for three days after it.
Q: Do you think that Latife got the credit she deserved for her contributions to civil law and for granting Turkish women their rights, notwithstanding the fact that she was only in the palace for two and a half years?
A: After the book ‘Latife Hanim’ was published, her image changed and she was awarded more respect. Before that, her image was that of an excessively spoilt woman who suffered hysterical fits, beating on walls and screaming at Mustafa Kemal while he was having dinner with his friends.
Q: Did she often do that?
A: Perhaps she did that once. The old houses were made of wood and sound travelled easily through them. One of the famous incidents was when she charged to her room whilst stomping loudly so that the people on the floor below could hear her, but she did it out of anger and frustration. Dinner at the presidential palace was a men-only affair, she often tried to join them but that was not easy or acceptable. Once she was probably very upset and stormed off to her room but a close friend said that there was no truth in the alleged bouts of hysteria and that the claim was unfounded.
However, we must try to apprehend Latife not as Mustafa Kemal’s wife but as the second most powerful person in the Turkish republic; she was a strong and influential woman. She wanted to enter parliament to help Turkish women; a large portion of which was uneducated at the time. Latife realized the significant impact that she could have and wanted to take advantage of the opportunity. She was also very active and her ambition was known to all; everyone knew her and her manner of thinking.
Mustafa Kemal was known to ask those around him for their ideas and opinions and she was one of the first figures he would ask. Meanwhile she felt that she had a role or that she should have a role in women’s affairs and wanted the chance to become involved but was not granted the opportunity, which is the reason behind the tension.
Q: How did the publication of your book change the Turkish people’s perception of Latife Hanim?
A: She gained more respect and was no longer regarded in the same light. Of course, not everyone felt this way; there are some who have not read the book and still view her in the same light. The book was the number-one bestseller in Turkey last year; it sold 90,000 copies and we published a smaller reprint that sold 70,000 copies, in addition to the release of a videotape. All the newspapers wrote about the book and various television programs covered it and Latife’s story.
In general, the Turkish people respect her for never speaking to the press about Mustafa Kemal or divulging the reason behind their divorce. Many have approached her to ask about her years in the presidential palace and her relationship with Ataturk but she has always refused to speak. They asked her to publish her memoirs but she never accepted any of these offers. This fact has made the Turkish people say that although she may not have been perfect, she never spoke after Mustafa Kemal died.
Personally, I find this strange because it would have been possible for her to speak without disrespecting him. Thus, the Turks had great respect for her since all of Ataturk’s close circle wrote their memoirs and published them. She was the only one who did not do that. However, Latife left behind diaries, many letters and personal documents that are kept [under lock and key in a sealed vault] by the Turkish History Institution [since 25 years].
Shortly prior to her death, Latife put all her papers in a bag and placed it in a bank vault and following her death; the bank handed the chest over to the Turkish History Institution where it remains and where no one is allowed access to it. Former Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer wanted to inspect these documents but the institution would not permit it in accordance with a law that stipulates the passage of a certain period of time before the chest can be opened.
In 2003, the stipulated upon period had elapsed and a heated controversy erupted as to whether it should be opened and Latife’s family got involved and expressed their refusal and upheld that it could not be opened without the family’s consent. Thus the discussion over the documents ended. However, I believe that the reason the documents remained secret is not because of the position adopted by Latife’s family; the Turkish state itself doesn’t want to open that chest and release the papers to historians and journalists. The question is: Why?
There is of course the matter of Mustafa Kemal’s image; in the Turkish state’s view, the account of the history of the period from a divorced and hurt woman’s perspective would be somewhat detrimental to the late president’s image. But I find this way of thinking strange, Latife was in love with Mustafa Kemal, she reserved for him very special feelings and if there are letters or documents related to their divorce that the Turkish state does not want to release then why did it not make the other documents public?
There is a renowned Turkish historian who died two years ago who had the opportunity to inspect these papers when the bank handed them over to the Turkish History Institution. This historian said, “Without reading these documents… It would not be possible to write the history of the Turkish War of Independence and the birth of the Turkish republic.”
I believe that there are very important papers in this chest. All that we know about them is the general headlines; however these headlines alone indicate the grave importance of these documents. There are three diaries filled with Latife Hanim’s private thoughts, in addition to letters of correspondence between her and Mustafa Kemal and other significant figures of that period. She poured her heart out into these papers, which is why these diaries might be dealt with in a different manner than the rest of the documents.
Q: After the divorce, Latife disappeared from public life… How did she spend the rest of her life?
A: This is a tragic story… She became an invisible woman and fell very ill after the divorce.
Q: How old was she when she divorced?
A: Twenty-six years old. After the divorce she went to Europe after being granted special permission by Mustafa Kemal, she then returned to Turkey after which he confiscated her passport so that she would not be able to come and go as she pleased. In 1933, she regained her health and joined what was a political movement at the time that aimed to establish a second political party, which included friends that she had met in Cankaya Palace. Indeed the party was formed but it was swiftly decreed to terminate its activities because it was deemed that Turkey was not ready to establish a second political party to rival the Republican People’s Party (CHP).
It is my belief that had this political party survived, Latife would have found a new role for herself. The party’s founders asked Latife to join them and they used to ask her opinion and what her views were regarding the establishment of the party. Latife’s position among the Turkish elite remained strong, even after her divorce, to the extent that Western newspapers questioned the possibility of Latife succeeding her husband after his death.
After 1933, she endured several traumas; first her father died followed by her mother then her younger brother also passed away. Gradually, she disappeared from the scene. To end this isolation, she asked Ataturk to give her a job serving the state; she wanted to become a diplomat in one of Turkey’s embassies abroad but he did not respond to her demand. As such, she was limited to her circle of friends and acquaintances, including Ismet Inonu who was Ataturk’s vice-president and one of his closest friends.
Q: Does taking her passport and refusing the diplomatic post she requested reflect the harshness of Ataturk towards Latife Hanim?
A: So it seems; however a realistic view of the situation during the time would reveal that Turkey was still a socially conservative state and Latife was a young divorcee and mingling between males and females still remained limited. It was a difficult situation for Latife but there was nothing she could do about it. She was a star in society though, wherever she went all eyes were upon her and all the fashion publications featured her pictures everywhere she went with Ataturk and even after her divorce.
When, after having been divorced for several months, Latife’s request for the diplomatic post was rejected, she fell apart. She had been holding herself together prior to that but when he refused she began to cry and lament her fate. This was incredibly difficult for her but it was also difficult on him. A young intelligent woman sent by the president of the republic to occupy an elevated post in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would have been difficult. Perhaps it would have been best for her to work in something less public. However, because her family was wealthy, she could visit Europe several times a year. There she had greater freedom since she could go to the opera and to music concerts; she was a music lover and a gifted pianist.
During her marriage, when she was invited with Ataturk to attend dinners in foreign embassies or when dining with friends, he would ask her to play. He was very proud of her. When she was over 50 years old, Latife started to appear in public life and was able to go to the cinema and theatre without having to worry about being recognized. During this time of her life she was living near Taksim Square in central Istanbul and she used to go to the theatre often but no one ever recognized her. Indeed, she became an invisible woman.
Q: Despite the fact that Mustafa Kemal and Latife Hanim never disclosed the reason behind their divorce to anyone, did your research in that area reveal more about the nature of the divorce or the party that requested it?
A: The truth is that Latife was the one who asked for divorce; she asked three times but regretted having done so. She had decided that she could not continue her life with Mustafa Kemal because she was unable to do the things she wanted to do. When she asked for a divorce the first time, they were informally separated for some time, however after intense fighting they separated again. Her family upholds that she was the one who decided to leave, however Turkish sources maintain that he sent her back to her family’s house in Izmir.
In any case, she went back to Izmir but was not yet divorced. She later wrote to a close friend of theirs to say that she wanted to return to Cankaya Palace but it was then that Mustafa Kemal sent her the divorce papers from the state of Turkey to her house. I believe that Mustafa Kemal thought that after the final separation it would have been inappropriate for them to live together. Although she was the one to request the divorce, she was very sad after it happened.
Q: Were there other women in Ataturk’s life aside from Latife?
A: Not many have written about the women in Ataturk’s life when he was married to Latife but it was common knowledge that Latife had a very jealous nature. There are accounts from common friends that maintain that she used to open his letters. The whole Turkish state was in love with Ataturk; he was the commander of the independence war and the head of the state, in addition to being a handsome man with striking blue eyes, brown hair and a charismatic personality. Latife was not classically beautiful, she had black eyes and hair and was easily roused to jealousy and did not like Mustafa Kemal complimenting other women.
Also, Mustafa Kemal’s life was not really very suitable for marriage; he greatly valued his freedom since he got married late in life. With Latife he had no freedom, I am positive, she was always around him in his office and at home and she was very dynamic. When they got divorced, Mustafa Kemal adopted five children and hired governesses for them in an attempt to fill the void that Latife left behind. She used to manage the house and clean it herself. Mustafa Kemal had a Swiss housekeeper and one time when he saw her pick up the duster, he said: Madam, why do you clean the house? Latife has cleaned everything. Mustafa Kemal missed Latife after their divorce but he also met a Turkish lady named Fekria. They did not marry but it was known that she lived with him.
Q: During your research for the book, what was the story that compelled you the most about Latife’s life?
A: Her relationship with the piano. She was an ingenious player and Mustafa Kemal greatly admired the way she played. During that time there were very few foreign embassies in Ankara, but since Turkish-Russian relations were good, there was a Russian embassy. One time Latife and Mustafa Kemal visited the Russian ambassador and his wife in their home and Mustafa Kemal asked Latife to play the piano. He had been speaking with the ambassador before he made the request: “Hanim, would you play the piano for us?” He always used to call her Hanim and he liked to show off her capabilities to friends and acquaintances. He was 19 years her senior, perhaps he even regarded her as a daughter whose talents he wanted to display. She started to play the piano and the atmosphere was very romantic; the reality is that Mustafa Kemal was very romantic. Despite the fact that he has spent considerable time on the battle front, he was still a romantic person who cared about his home. When he got home he would go into the kitchen and ask his wife, “Hanim, what are you cooking?”
They lived in a small two-storey house and Latife had brought her carpets and silver from home and because she was very wealthy, she had also brought a beautiful bed engraved with gold. It was a royal bed and an original antique from Izmir since Ankara did not have much at the time; there were no furniture shops or hotels or theatres and cinemas unlike Izmir which was teeming with imported goods.
Q: Where did the furniture and the rest of the things in the house go after her death?
A: The house has been converted into a museum and all their things are on display but since it has only been open to the public recently, I have still not had a chance to visit.
Q: When you were writing about Latife’s life, what was your perception of the historical transformation that took place from the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic?
A: In my view, it was a transformation that was not straightforward. In the beginning there was the democracy of one political party, and thus there were restrictions on democracy but then the parties multiplied but the restrictions still remained. When it came to women’s issues, there still remained restrictions and stereotypes.
Q: Where did you get the idea to write about a woman who is largely unknown to Turkish people today?
A: That was precisely the impetus behind my motivation; her role was unknown to us. I have read the memoirs of all the important figures of that era and they all heavily refer to Mustafa Kemal and say very little about Latife. Also, when I was let go by my work, I did not try to find another job because I was 57 years old and I had worked for 35 years in journalism. At the time I thought it would be best to use my time to research women’s issues, since I had covered this subject throughout my career and had a column on Sunday dedicated to the topic. When I found out that Latife was the one responsible for asking Ataturk to allow women to vote and enter parliament, I found myself drawn to her and wanted to know more.
Of course it was known that she was an activist when it came to women’s issues, however because of her short marriage to Mustafa Kemal, many have forgotten the role she played and much of the information about her became distorted. It was a very suitable topic for me and the more I found out, the easier and more natural it came to fit with her image and the events of her life.
The ‘New York Times’ used to feature Latife Hanim quite frequently, there are a number of interesting articles written about her and I found that very useful since Tukish newspapers during Ataturk’s marriage to Latife were issued in Turkish letters. Ataturk was responsible for officially banning the Turkish alphabet and adopting the Latin one. I have tried to learn the Turkish alphabet but it proved to be difficult, thus Western sources provided invaluable information and there was a wealth of sources to choose from.
I have gleaned information from The Washington Post, The New York Times, from members of her family and from many diaries belonging to figures from that era. I also meticulously researched Turkish history of that period since I did not want to make any mistakes when approaching the sensitive topics of that time. I believe it was my luck, and Latife’s, that I was dismissed from ‘Cumhuriyet’ newspaper; otherwise I would never have had the time to research the history of her life.
Q: In your opinion, what is the most interesting thing Latife said?
A: Once a journalist asked Latife her opinion of her husband’s decision to ban the headscarf and she said, “the veil should not be a revolution but rather progress,” and I admire these words. As for her famous sayings, she used to repeat the words “I am alive but dead” to her family members. She had a very sad life, especially following Ataturk’s death because when he was alive she was occupied with his news and actions. The last house she lived in overlooked a very beautiful statue of Ataturk. She missed him until her final days and she used to carry a gold-embellished gun in her handbag that was a gift from Ataturk. I think she always felt threatened and that her life was in danger. She also used to say, “A dead person is the only person immune to jealousy,” and her favorite saying was: “There are people who must die so that others can know their worth.”
* Sometimes marriages are undertaken by proxy; the bride is present but is represented by her ‘wakil’ who could be her father, brother, family member or guardian.