Baylor professor discovers feminist views in Muslim author's 19th-century writing

Dec. 14, 2009

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A Baylor University historian has uncovered some controversial statements about women's equality written by a Muslim during the period of 1872 to 1900 -- opinions that were at odds with the patriarchal society of his times.

Dr. George Gawrych, a history professor at Baylor, has written an article about his findings that will appear in the January 2010 issue of Middle Eastern Studies, a British academic journal published in London.

In delving into the work of Semseddin Sami Frasheri -- Albanian novelist, playwright and author of an encyclopedia -- Gawrych found that he saw women as "equal but different." While his perspective differs somewhat from today's definition of feminism, it was radical for the times.

Until now, modern scholars have failed to conduct a systematic analysis of Semseddin Sami's ideas on women, Gawrych said. He received a Fulbright Senior Researcher Scholar grant for 2008-2009 to study in Turkey about Ataturk and the War of Independence waged from 1919 to 1923.

In his research on Albanians under Ottoman rule, Gawrych stumbled across Semseddin Sami's bold ideas, written in a treatise entitled Women, published in 1879. Intrigued by his findings, Gawrych then read the Albanian's novel on arranged marriages and studied the entries about women in Semseddin Sami's six-volume encyclopedia on the world. Those three sources formed the foundation of Gawrych's analysis of Semseddin Sami's thoughts on women, Gawrych said.

"He was a Muslim who in his novel briefly gave an image of a wife having an education and discussing child-rearing with her husband," Gawrych said. "But there are lots of nuances beyond that in his book."

In his encyclopedia, Semseddin Sami included a three-column entry on George Sands, a French female writer. He considered her a better writer than most of her male peers, but she took on a man's name because was easier to make it in a man's world.

"He (Semseddin Sami) was expressing some revolutionary ideas through her in the encyclopedia, which censors let get by," Gawrych said.

While Semseddin Sami wrote with conviction that women should have equal rights, an education similar to that of men and access to work, he was patriarchal in his view that men should be protectors, Gawrych said.

In a society in which having multiple wives was permitted, Semseddin Sami argued that a second wife is harmful to the children and to the marriage, "although he reluctantly accepted the possibility of a second wife if the first could not produce the children and if the first wife gave her permission," Gawrych said.

Semseddin Sami married a Turk in 1884. A posed photo of them reveals his convictions, Gawyrch said.

His wife is dressed in European clothes and unveiled in contradiction to Islamic requirements that women cover their heads. She sits next to her husband, her left hand resting next to his with three books directly behind their elbows. That photo implies that "their marriage is going to be one of equal minds," Gawrych said.

"He gave his daughters a progressive education through tutors. He was still a patriarch but at the same time pushing the envelope."

Contact: Terry Goodrich, Assistant Director of Media Communications, (254) 710-3321

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