Saturday, January 9, 2010

1880s photograph sets professor on the trail of a feminist Muslim

Telegram Staff Writer

The professor loves to read, but it wasn't a word that caught his attention.
It was a picture of a man and his wife.
'Obviously staged,' said George Gawrych, a history professor at Baylor University in Waco. 'But what it showed was striking.'
The photo was of an Albanian couple, dated to the early 1880s.
'The way they are posed, it shows equality and respect,' Gawrych said. 'That notion was rare and controversial at that time.'
Intrigued, the professor researched the lives of the couple: the Albanian Semseddin Sami and his Turkish wife Emine Veliye. He learned they were Muslim.
'But her head is uncovered,' Gawrych said. 'That's a subtle but definite statement on how that man felt about his wife. To him, she was his partner. Her unveiled face puts her on even ground with him.' Gawrych compiled his findings in an article that will be published later this month in 'Middle Eastern Studies,' a London-based magazine.
'The woman's style of dress clearly shows that the couple agreed with Western thought,' Gawrych said. 'And how feminism was taking root on the other side of the world.'
So does the setting of the photo.
'They're sitting in front of a table of books,' Gawrych said. 'Both of them share ownership of it. You can tell by how their arms rest in the center of the table.'
That image, Gawrych said, was bold for the time.
'Literacy just wasn't something women were about,' Gawrych said.
In his research, Gawrych found that Sami was an accomplished Albanian author whose writings carried feminist themes.
'That photo was no accident,' Gawrych said. 'He thought men and women mirrored each other and that they had the same intellectual properties. That photo was his vision of what he hoped his marriage to be.'
The more the professor learned the more excited he was.
'It's a fascinating bit of history. Sami felt strongly about the equality of women,' Gawrych said. 'He shows his views quietly, in the only way he knew - his writings and letters. He was a linguist, not a politician.'
In an 1879 treatise, Sami wrote of his opposition to arranged marriages and polygamy.
'He thought monogamy was ideal,' Gawrych said. 'The practice of having multiple wives was damaging to everyone involved.'
A few years later, Sami rewrote history by creating an Albanian encyclopedia that included the accomplishments of women.
'The encyclopedia was to make Ottomans aware of Albanian culture,' Gawrych said. 'But as did that, he included entries on Joan of Arc, Catherine the Great and the wives of the prophet Mohammed.'
As he did the men, Sami gave each woman at least one column of text to describe their lives and contributions, but for a few he devoted entire pages. One of his favorites was Amandine Dupin, the popular 19th century French author wrote under a man's name, George Sand.
'He seems to favor women who were scandalous,' Gawrych said. 'Not because of the scandals but because they were brave enough to take the risks it took to live in the world.'
The dictionary Sami wrote for the Ottomans also acknowledges the female gender with detailed and balanced entries for the words meaning woman, mother, partner, companion and friend.
Gawrych found more direct evidence of Sami's feminist views in letters and diaries.
'He thought society wouldn't progress if you didn't educate half of its people,' Gawrych said. 'And he raised the notion of how women could be unsatisfied staying at home. He argued that after child-raising, women might need a career or a purpose just as badly as a man.'
Sami also wrote of his children's education. His two sons and two daughters had the same schooling. They all had private tutors, read the same authors and learned the same languages.
The Baylor professor enjoyed learning about Sami the early Eastern feminist, and he considers it an honor to be featured in the Lodon magazine.
'I hope that those who read my article will see how important it was for Sami to put his views into deed,' Gawrych said. 'It's one thing to believe something, but it's another to show it in your relationships and actions.'

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