Republican Girls

January 10, 2015

I was working last week at the Atatürk Library in Taksim, checking out old copies of the newspaper Cumhuriyet. I didn't have anything particular in mind regarding what I was looking for. Indeed, my whole trip to Turkey has been this way--checking out library and archival holdings and seeing if I could find something interesting. 

Turkish beauties of 1930
Cumhuriyet was a semi-official newspaper in the 1920s and 30s, and very supportive of the Kemalist regime. Today it's an opposition paper, one that I read a lot in the 90s. I preferred to read Cumhuriyet because I thought its use of language was superior to that of most of the other Istanbul dailies that were available at the time, and also because it was about the only paper back then that didn't run pictures of scantily clad women that would distract me from my efforts to improve my Turkish. 

But Cumhuriyet wasn't always so staid. In fact, in the early months of 1930, which I was looking at last week, Cumhuriyet was a sponsor of the Miss Turkey contest. Every day for weeks on end, the newspaper carried news of the contest, breathlessly reporting on the contestants and encouraging readers to vote for their favorites. Many of the contestants registered anonymously, or using only their initials.

The winner ended up being a woman named Mübeccel Namık, who was then sent to Paris to participate as Turkey's first ever candidate in the Miss Europe competition. Again, Cumhuriyet reported on seemingly every detail relating to the event. It was literally headline-making news.

Turkey's Republican Queen
Ultimately, however, the contest was won by Miss Greece. Adding insult to injury, perhaps, was the fact that Miss Greece had been born in the Ottoman Empire, in Izmir, and thus had been forced to leave Turkey during the population exchange that the two countries had carried out in the early 1920s. 

While there were definitely some sour grapes regarding Miss Greece's victory over Miss Turkey, most of the reporting in Cumhuriyet was fairly equanimious. The newspaper's editors considered the fact that Turkey had participated in the international beauty contest a victory in its own right. 

Our beauty queen leaves for Paris today
After a day spent looking through these stories and taking pictures of them, I went back home and checked online to see if anyone had written on them. I found an interesting article on the events by Holly Shissler

Why would participating in beauty contests be considered a victory for a country, and especially for that country's women? Well, if there's one thing that the Kemalists (then and now) in Turkey have had in common with many of their conservative rivals (then and now), it's been an over-arching concern with telling women how to dress and behave. Couched in the discourses of liberating women from tradition, the articles written in Cumhuriyet during those years sought to provide new models of appearance that they encouraged their readers to follow. 

Who will wear the crown?
It's worth keeping stories like this in mind when we think of the continued volatility in Turkey over issues relating to how people--and mainly women--are supposed to dress. Obviously, this isn't a matter of concern to Turkey alone, but in Turkey in the first decade of the 21st century the issue of whether or not women should be allowed to wear headscarves in universities was surrounded by particular acrimony. There will likely be further political contests surrounding the types of clothes that women should wear in other public realms, such as in parliament, the bureaucracy, and elsewhere. 

As for the Miss Europe contest, Turkey would finally bring home the coveted crown in 1932, when Keriman Halis Hanım won the contest in Brussels. Win or lose, however, early republican Turks of the sort writing for Cumhuriyet in those days embraced their beauty queens, convinced that through these women, in part, they had found the keys to modernity. 

More photos, analysis, and links can be found, as always, at the Borderlands Lounge

Like the Borderlands? You'll love the book! Order your copy now at the OUP website or on Amazon


No comments:

Post a Comment