Negotiating Love in the Late Ottoman Period

By Secil Yilmaz
Submitted to Session P4320 (What's love got to do with it? Political Imagination and Discourses of Love, 2016 Annual Meeting
Ottoman Empire;
19th-21st Centuries;
Abdullah Cevdet, the chief-editor of İçtihad, attempted to respond to a challenging question in an article dated to July 1931 in his column: “What is love?” A prolific author writing in polemical fashion, Abdullah Cevdet, explained what love must be by resorting to chemistry and physiology as well as psychology and social analysis, not to mention poetry and philosophy. He was neither the first nor the last one who would be troubled with what seemed like a basic question. Love, romance, and marriage had been under the scrutiny of public intellectuals and physicians as well as legal and religious authorities in the shadow of social transformations brought by political reforms, colonial encounters, and nationalist movements. Ottoman ruling elites and later Turkish bureaucrats engaged with debates on love, romance, and marriage in thinking about how to build modern self-governing individuals socially and morally tied to family and nation. Legal practices in contracting marriage and medical discourses seeking to maintain physically and emotionally proper and fit individuals constituted what these officials formulated in the recipes for love and marriage by the turn of twentieth century.
This paper explores changing perspectives regarding love through the lens of articles and editorials penned in Ottoman-Turkish and published in the mainstream newspapers and magazines based in Istanbul at the turn of the twentieth century. It analyzes how Ottoman public intellectuals expounded upon love and proper marriage by engaging with legal discourses and medical concepts, especially those of pathological love and love sickness, which came to be an increasingly common theme among male intellectuals’ writings. Second, this paper will scrutinize the ways in which Ottoman feminist writings engaged with the overall debates regarding proper love and marriage. It will discuss why Ottoman feminists showed little interest in these medico-legal conceptualizations of love and they rather preferred to engage with the question of “love” by addressing freedom of and right to love. By highlighting agreements and contradictions among intellectuals over the debates on love, romance, and marriage, this paper will investigate what debates about love, romance, and marriage among late Ottoman intellectuals could reveal about the engagements of authority, subjectivity, and gender at the turn of the twentieth century.