Waging Reform: Law and Gender in the Ottoman First World War

By Kate Dannies
Submitted to Session P4747 (Negotiating Gender and Morality in the Ottoman First World War, 2017 Annual Meeting
Ottoman Empire;
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
The Ottoman state’s emphasis on implementing reforms to facilitate total war during World War I is well established. However, the extent to which reform policies involved interventions into issues of gender and family life has not been examined. This paper analyzes how wartime anxieties over morality and gender were expressed in the content and timing of the Ottoman Law of Family Rights of 1917, exploring how this legislation allowed the state to exert greater control over Ottoman gender and family matters during wartime than had been possible in the Late Ottoman period, when organized opposition from the Islamic religious leadership was a significant obstacle to reform in this area of the law. A gender analysis of wartime reform constitutes a vital contribution to both the historiography of Ottoman modernization and the Ottoman First World War. The history of Ottoman centralization during the war (and therefore the pre- and post- war histories of reform) is incomplete without understanding the extent to which gender was a central target of this process both as a venue to articulate Ottoman cultural identity in the face of western influence through intellectual and literary production, and as an area for reforms (or lack thereof) by the Ottoman state, particularly in the area of personal status law. Prior to the war, personal status law had constituted a red line that the state could not cross even as it pursued codification of Sharia law and introduced European codes pertaining to other legal issues. I argue that the Ottoman Law of Family Rights of 1917—the first codified personal status law based on Sharia—offers a window into how the First World War shaped longstanding debates over gender, morality, Ottoman cultural authenticity, and the role of the state, culminating in the passage of this legislation at the height of the war. Using the text of the law and commentaries on it, Ottoman archival sources, Sharia court records, and a variety of press and ego documents in Arabic and Ottoman Turkish, I show how the passage of this legislation was accompanied by a complex negotiation between individuals, institutions, and the state over the most sensitive questions of gender and morality, and how the law acted as a vehicle for carrying the tensions over modernization and their expressions in gendered terms in Ottoman society into the war years and beyond.