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  • Fruma Zachs and Yuval Ben-Bassat

This article focuses on petitions by Ottoman women from Greater Syria during the late Ottoman era. After offering a general overview of women's petitions in the Ottoman Empire, it explores changes in women's petitions between 1865 and 1919 through several case studies. The article then discusses women's “double-voiced” petitions following the empire's defeat in World War I, particularly those submitted to the King-Crane Commission. The concept of “double-voiced” petitions, or speaking in a voice that reflects both a dominant and a muted discourse, is extended here from the genre of literary fiction to Ottoman women's petitions. We argue that in Greater Syria double-voiced petitions only began to appear with the empire's collapse, when women both participated in national struggles and strove to protect their rights as women in their own societies.

Corresponding author
Fruma Zachs is an Associate Professor and the Head of the Department of Middle Eastern History at the University of Haifa, Haifa, Israel; e-mail:
Yuval Ben-Bassat is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Middle Eastern History at the University of Haifa, Haifa, Israel; e-mail:
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Authors' note: We thank Amalia Levanoni, Liat Kozma, and Anat Lapidot-Firilla for reading and commenting on earlier versions of this article. We are grateful to Avi Rubin for his clarifications related to the Nizamiye courts. We also thank the three anonymous IJMES reviewers and the IJMES editors whose thoughtful and knowledgeable suggestions and comments helped us improve the article considerably.

1 For several such general works on women and gender, see Moghadam, Valentine M., Modernizing Women: Gender and Social Change in the Middle East (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 1993); El Azhary Sonbol, Amira, ed., Women, the Family, and Divorce Laws in Islamic History (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1996); Zilfi, Madeline C., ed., Women in the Ottoman Empire: Middle Eastern Women in the Early Modern Era (Leiden: Brill, 1997); Meriwether, Margaret and Tucker, Judith E., eds., Social History of Women and Gender in the Modern Middle East (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1999); Deguilhem, Randi and Marin, Manuela, eds., Writing the Feminine: Women in Arab Sources (London: I. B. Tauris, 2001); Doumani, Beshara, ed., Family History in the Middle East: Household, Property and Gender (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 2003); Okkenhaug, Inger Marie and Flaskerud, Ingvild, eds., Gender, Religion and Change in the Middle East: Two Hundred Years of History (Oxford: Berg, 2005); Hanna, Nelly and Abbas, Raouf, eds., Society and Economy in Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean, 1600–1900: Essays in Honor of André Raymond (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2005); and Tucker, Judith E., Women Family and Gender in Islamic Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

2 For several examples of works based on shariʿa records, which cite numerous cases of women litigants, see Gerber, Haim, Economy and Society in an Ottoman City: Bursa, 1600–1700 (Jerusalem: Hebrew University Press, 1988); Tucker, Judith E., In the House of the Law in Ottoman Syria and Palestine (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1998); Jennings, Ronald C., Studies on Ottoman Social History in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries: Women, Zimmis and Sharia Courts in Kayseri, Cyprus and Trabzon (Istanbul: Isis Press, 1999); Meriwether, Margaret, The Kin Who Count: Family and Society in Ottoman Aleppo, 1770–1840 (Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press, 1999); Cohen, Amnon, Ben-Shimon-Pikali, Elisheva, and Ginio, Eyal, Jews in the Moslem Religious Court: Society, Economy and Communal Organization in the XIX Century: Documents from Ottoman Jerusalem (Jerusalem: Yad Ben-Zvi, 2003) (in Hebrew); Peirce, Leslie, Morality Tales: Law and Gender in the Ottoman Court of Aintab (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2003); and Agmon, Iris, Family and Court: Legal Culture and Modernity in Late Ottoman Palestine (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2006).

3 Meriwether, Margaret L. and Tucker, Judith E., introduction to Social History of Women and Gender in the Modern Middle East, 1011.

4 Natalie Z. Davis argues in her book on 16th-century pardon requests in France that petitions were constructed narratives written in a way that would serve the purpose of the petitioners and enable their pleas to be accepted. See Davis, Natalie Zemon, Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and Their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

5 Newenham Wright, George and Henry Timperley, Charles, The Gallery of Engravings, vol. 3 (London: Fisher, Son & Co., 1844), plate between pp. 56 and 57. For more examples of pictures depicting arzuhalcis, see Rorbye, Martinus, A Turkish Notary Drawing up a Marriage Contract (Constantinople, 1837); Wilkie, D., Arzuhalci (London, 1845); Cordanrad, Telling a Problem to a Public Scrivener (Constantinople, 1878); Zonaro, Fausto, The Scribe (Constantinople [?], n.d.).

6 For instance, Christa Hämmerle pointed out in her research on 19th-century petitioning letters by lower-class Austrian women that the mere fact that women used this form of written communication is in itself striking. See Hämmerle, Christa, “Requests, Complaints, Demands: Preliminary Thoughts on the Petitioning Letters of Lower-Class Austrian Women, 1865–1918,” in Gender and Politics in the Age of Letter-Writing, 1750–2000, ed. Bland, Caroline and Cross, Máire (Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2004), 115–33.

7 Faroqhi, Suraiya, “Political Activity among Ottoman Taxpayers and the Problem of Sultanic Legitimation (1570–1650),” in Coping with the State: Political Conflict and Crime in the Ottoman Empire, 1550–1720, ed. Faroqhi, Suraiya (Istanbul: Isis, 1995), 1341.

8 See Showalter, Elaine, “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness,” Critical Inquiry 8 (1981): 179203. See also Dobson, Joanne, “The Hidden Hand: Subversion of Cultural Ideology in Three Mid-Nineteenth-Century American Women's Novels,” American Quarterly 8 (1986): 223–42; Messer-Davidow, Ellen, “The Philosophical Bases of Feminist Literary Criticisms,” New Literary History 19 (1987): 65103; and Showalter, Elaine, “Twenty Years On: A Literature of Their Own, Revisited,” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 31 (1998): 399413. Anat Lapidot-Firilla, when dealing with biographies, another genre of women's writing, writes that “the reader's main task is to expose the text's alternative, hidden narrative. If the text lacks a clear textual center, the reader must take a more dominant role in the process. However, the alternative story is not always hidden.” Lapidot-Firilla, Anat, “The Memoirs of Halide Edib Adivar (1884–1964): The Public Persona and the Personal Narrative,” New Perspectives on Turkey 4 (1999): 66.

9 On the debate over how to read petitions, see Ben-Bassat, Yuval, Petitioning the Sultan: Protests and Justice in Late Ottoman Palestine (London: I. B. Tauris, 2013), 2124.

10 For the entire project, see Ben-Bassat, Petitioning the Sultan.

11 For more on this problem as dealt with by historians, see Scott, Joan W., “The Evidence of Experience,” Critical Inquiry 17 (1991): 773–97.

12 For example, Fariba Zarinebaf-Shahr, in her research on women's petitions in the Ottoman Empire between 1680 and 1706 based on the șikayet defterleri, found that about 8 percent of the total number of petitions were submitted by women. As mentioned, however, from the 19th century onward petitions were no longer grouped in one collection, and thus today they have to be tediously located. Irene Schneider analyzed a sample of women's petitions submitted to the shah of Iran between 1883 and 1886. She found that approximately 5 percent of them (47 out of 850) were submitted by women. Here, too, women's petitions were far fewer than men's petitions. For details, see Zarinebaf-Shahr, Fariba, “Women, Law, and Imperial Justice in Ottoman Istanbul in the Late Seventeenth Century,” in Women, the Family, and Divorce Laws in Islamic History, 86; and Schneider, Irene, “Gender and Gender Relations in Petitions to Nāṣir al-Dīn Šāh (r. 1848–96),” Orientalistische Studien zu Sprache und Literatur Festgabe zum 65 Geburtstag von Werner Diem, ed. Marzolph, Ulrich (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2011): 217–32.

13 For several examples, see McArthur, Ellen A., “Women Petitioners and the Long Parliament,” The English Historical Review 24/96 (1909): 698709; Baker, Paula, “The Domestication of Politics: Women and American Political Society, 1780–1920,” The American Historical Review 89 (1984): 620–47; and Dingsdale, Ann, “Generous and Lofty Sympathies”: The Kensington Society, the 1866 Women's Suffrage Petition and the Development of Mid-Victorian Feminism (PhD thesis, University of Greenwich, 1995).

14 For instance, a recent study of petitions from late 19th-century Ottoman Palestine cites the existence of only a handful of women's petitions among the 500 petitions studied, indicating that they were quite rare in this region and at the time. See Ben-Bassat, Petitioning the Sultan, 2–3, 49.

15 For instance, see Bașbakanlık Osmanlı Arșivi (hereafter BOA) DH. MUI., 43–1/54, 11 Teşrinisani 1325 (24 November 1909), a petition sent from Jaffa by the daughters of Ismaʿil al-Shakir concerning an argument with the local waqf authorities, which allegedly confiscated land they possessed.

16 Zarinebaf-Shahr, Fariba, “Ottoman Women and the Tradition of Seeking Justice in the Eighteenth Century,” in Women in the Ottoman Empire: Middle Eastern Women in the Early Modern Era, ed. Zilfi, Madeline C. (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 254.

17 Elite Ottoman women apparently had other ways to solve their problems without using the institution of petitioning.

18 Thompson, Elizabeth F., Justice Interrupted: The Struggle of Constitutional Government in the Middle East (Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2013), 22.

19 Zarinebaf-Shahr, “Women, Law, and Imperial Justice in Ottoman Istanbul in the Late Seventeenth Century,” 88.

20 Ibid., 94.

21 Ibid. There is no reference to the style of these petitions because we only have their summaries or abstracts in the archive. For comparison, Nancy Cott, in examining divorce requests in 18th-century Massachusetts, claims that most of those who submitted divorce petitions came from well-off, elite merchant families that had wealth at their disposal. Women were identified by their husband's occupation, and they specified that occupation when filling in forms. In addition, differences between men's and women's petitions were noticeable. See Cott, Nancy F., “Divorce and Changing Status of Women in Eighteenth-Century Massachusetts,” William and Mary Quarterly 33 (1976): 586614.

22 Jessup, Henry Harris, The Women of the Arabs (New York: Dooda and Mead Publishers, 1873), 160. For the entire lecture, see al-Bustani, Butrus, “Khitab fi Taʿlim al-Nisaʾ,” in al-Jamʿiyya al-Suriyya li-l-ʿUlum w-al-Funun 1847–1852, ed. Qizma al-Khuri, Yusuf (Beirut: Dar al-Hudaʾ, 1990), 4553. Bustani's lecture was translated into English by Tarek Abboud. We would like to thank Adel Beshara for supplying us with this translation.

23 Al-Bustani, “Khitab fi Taʿlim al-Nisaʾ,” 45. At the time, pouring oil or wine onto a wound was considered a popular home remedy.

24 Ibid., 52.

25 Rubin, Avi, Ottoman Nizamiye Courts: Law and Modernity (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 106.

26 Ibid., 52–53.

27 Discussing letters by elite Ottoman women, Marina Lushchenko writes that there is a “question of how to read women's use of submissive language. Did women's letters just follow conventional rhetoric, using formulaic phrases of obedience and words that served only to produce images of traditional female weakness? Or, do these letters reflect women's feelings of inferiority to men?” See Lushchenko, Marina, “The Correspondence of Ottoman Women during the Early Modern Period (16th–18th Century): Overview on the Current State of Research, Problems, and Perspectives,” Women's Memory: The Problem of Sources, 66.

28 BOA. HR. TO., 457/67, 9 April 1874. This is the date given on the translation of the petition from Arabic into Ottoman; we do not have the original document.

29 For instance, see BOA. DH. MUI., 77–1/24, 9 Şubat 1325 (22 February 1910) (the villagers of al-Masmiyya to the parliament). For more on the discourse of constitutional rights in the aftermath of the 1908 revolution, see Campos, Michelle U., Ottoman Brothers: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Early Twentieth-Century Palestine (Stanford, Calif.: Stanfrd University Press, 2011), 6, 45.

30 BOA. HR. TO., 401/58, 22 Kânunusani 1325 (2 February 1910) (the villagers of al-Masmiyya to the Interior Ministry).

31 Campos, Ottoman Brothers, 6.

32 BOA. DH. MUI., 43–1/54, 5 Teşrinisani 1325 (18 November 1909); 11 Teşrinisani 1325 (24 November 1909).

33 BOA. DH. MUI., 43–1/54, 29 Zilkade 1327 (12 December 1909).

34 Lushchenko writes that “defining the scribal status of a female letter and the degree to which a woman participated in the writing process is closely connected to a wider circle of methodological problems about what makes a woman writer, as many supposedly female texts were, in fact, executed by male scribers.” See Lushchenko, “The Correspondence of Ottoman Women during the Early Modern Period,” 61.

35 See BOA. DH. H., 72/22, 19 Kanunusani 1329 (1 February 1914).

36 See BOA. DH. H., 72/22, 21 Kanunusani 1329 (3 February 1914).

37 See BOA. DH. H., 72/22, 27 Kanunusani 1329 (9 February 1914).

38 Dingsdale, Generous and Lofty Sympathies; McArthur, “Women Petitioners and the Long Parliament,” 698–709.

39 See Ben-Bassat, Petitioning the Sultan, chap. 3.

40 See Zürcher, Erik J., Turkey: A Modern History (London: I. B. Tauris, 2001), 126.

41 Akın, Yiğit, “War, Women, and the State: The Politics of Sacrifice in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War,” Journal of Women's History 26 (2014): 25. See alsoAkın, , “The Ottoman Home Front during World War I: Everyday Politics, Society, and Culture” (unpublished PhD dissertation, Ohio State University, 2011): 124–34.

42 Akın, “War, Women, and the State,” 13.

43 Ibid., 26.

44 Akın, Yiğit, “Reconsidering State, Party, and Society in Early Republican Turkey: Politics of Petitioning,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 39 (2007): 445.

45 For more on the importance of the press to the changing status of women in the Middle East at the time, see Baron, Beth, The Women's Awakening in Egypt: Culture, Society, and the Press (New-Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1994), 1357; Baron, , Egypt As a Woman: Nationalism, Gender and Politics (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2005), 1756; and Zeren Enis, Ayşe, Everyday Lives of Ottoman Muslim Women: Hanimlara Mahsûs Gazete (Newspapers for Ladies) (1895–1908) (Istanbul: Libra Kitapcilik ve Yayincilik, 2013), 31132.

46 For more on this development in Greater Syria, see Thompson, Elizabeth, Colonial Citizens: Republican Rights, Paternal Privilege and Gender in French Syria and Lebanon (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 94100.

47 One such society, founded in Beirut in 1914, was Jamʿiyyat Yaqzat al-Fatat al-ʿArabiyya. According to ʿAnbara Salam al-Khalidi, it was the first society for Muslim women in the Arab region, and its goal was to assist poor Muslim girls by funding their education. Directed by Najla Haram Muhammad Rashid from the Bayhum family, the society ceased to exist when the war broke out. See Salam al-Khalidi, ʿAnbara, Jawla fi-l-Dhikrayat bayna Lubnan wa-Filastin (Beirut: Dar al-Nahar lil-Nashr, 1978), 9193. See also Joseph, Suad, “Gendering Citizenship in the Middle East,” in Gender and Citizenship in the Middle East, ed. Joseph, Suad (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2000), 330.

48 An activist and a journalist, ʿAdila Bayhum al-Jazaʾiri criticized the Ottoman Empire and its involvement in World War I. She called attention to the devastating effects of the war through her presentation of shocking statistics and documented the astonishing decrease in the population of Beirut from 180,000 in 1914 to 75,000 in 1916. She also publicized the fact that during the same period 240,000 soldiers in the Ottoman Army died of disease, 250,000 went missing, and a minimum of 325,000 were killed in combat. In 1916 she demanded that Jamal Pasha establish social security institutions to care for the wounded and the relatives of those who had died or were disabled in the war. For details, see Moubayed, Sami M., Steel and Silk: Men and Women Who Shaped Syria: 1900–2000 (Seattle, Wash.: Cune, 2006), 430–32.

49 Al-Khalidi, Jawla fi-l-Dhikrayat bayna Lubnan wa-Filastin, 91–93.

50 Bayhum became part of the national effort to advance the condition of women and the nation. She participated in the battle of Maysalun, during which Faysal appointed her head of the Red Cross, and set up a hospital for the wounded. Later she was active in the resistance against the French—even on the battlefield—and was awarded by King Faysal the army rank of naqīb sharaf. She was dubbed the “Joan of Arc” of Syria and was compared to the early Muslim warrior-poet Khawla bint al-Azwar. See Niqula Baz, Jurji, Nazik ʿAbid (Beirut: Matbaʿat al-Salam, 1927), 810; Nuwayhid al-Jurdi, Nadia, Nisa' min Biladi (Beirut: al-Muʾassasa al-ʿArabiyya li-l-Dirasat wa-l-Nashr, 1986), 5254.

51 Thompson, Colonial Citizens, 19–38.

52 For more information on women's postwar activities, see Weber, Charlotte, “Between Nationalism and Feminism: The Eastern Women's Congresses of 1930 and 1932,” Journal of Middle East Women's Studies 4 (2008): 83106.

53 These four societies were listed as Harakat al-Fata al-ʿArabiyya (Arab Young Women's Movement), Dar al-Banat al-Bayrutiyya (Beiruti Society for Girls), Madamat Nadi al-Fatiyat (the Ladies of the Young Women's Club), and [?] li-l-Fatiyat al-Muslimat ([Association?] of Young Muslim Women). See the King-Crane Commission Digital Collection on the Oberlin College Archives website,

54 Given the state of the document we could not decipher all of the names but could identify ʿAdila Bayhum, ʿAʾisha Bayhum, Ibtihaj Kedoura, Ihsan Bayhum, Hala (Halam?) [?], Miss Tabbara, Miss Rajiah Bayhum, a woman from the Barabeer family, and Kadiya Barabeer, all of whom were Muslim women from middle- and upper-class Beiruti families.

55 King-Crane Commission Digital Collection, Oberlin College Archives, accessed 7 July 2015,

56 For more on women's involvement in Egyptian nationalism, see Baron, , Egypt As a Woman.

57 The King-Crane Commission Digital Collection, Oberlin College Archives, accessed 7 July 2015,

58 Ibid.

59 A similar process in which women began to sign their names on political petitions apparently also took place in British-ruled Egypt, where elite women submitted collective petitions in favor of the national cause. The historian Nabila Ramdani, for example, writes that “the principal outcome of the elite women's activity was to create a female Egyptian voice which would impress a wider, international audience. Petitions written by the elite women used expressions like: “In the name of the women of Egypt.” Many of the petitions were signed as “The Ladies of Egypt” and “The Egyptian Women.” See Ramdani, Nabila, “Women in the 1919 Egyptian Revolution: From Feminist Awakening to National Political Activism,” Journal of International Women's Studies 14 (2013), 4849. As in the Syrian case, the development of a literary culture among middle-class Egyptian women at the turn of the 19th and early 20th centuries was tied to the feminist awakening in this country. Nationalist aspirations were part of this movement, and women drew on their pride in their country as a means of expressing themselves as feminist elites. They took on a public role as a way to voice their concerns while displaying their loyalty to the struggle for independence. In fact, the 1919 revolution in Egypt was an opportunity for women to show that their endeavors went beyond gaining their own rights as women. They sought to prove that they were just as capable of working towards Egyptian independence as their male counterparts. However, following nominal Egyptian independence in 1922, many male nationalists abandoned women campaigners despite their stated loyalty to the national cause.

60 Thompson, Colonial Citizens, 148–54.

61 Beth, Egypt As a Woman, 9.

62 Hämmerle, “Requests, Complaints, Demands,” 115.

63 Yilmaz, Hale, “Petitions as a Source in Women's History of the Republican Period,” in Women's Memory: The Problem of Sources, ed. Türe, Fatma D. and Talay Keşoğlu, Birsen (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011), 83.

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