“Madam Atatürk: The First Lady of Modern Turkey” by İpek Çalışlar

Latife Hanım (Wikimedia Commons) Latife Hanım (Wikimedia Commons)

When İpek Çalişlar discovered that Latife Hanım had demanded that her husband, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, change the law to enable her to stand for parliament, the respected journalist knew she had found the subject of her next project. The result is Madam Atatürk, a biography of Latife Hanım and the role she played in modernizing Turkey.

When the book was first published in Turkey in 2013, Çalişlar was tried—and later acquitted—of “insulting the memory of Kemal Atatürk”. A bestseller in Turkey, Çalişlar’s fascinating biography is now available in an English translation.

Born to a wealthy merchant family in Izmir, Latife was multilingual and educated at the Sorbonne. She met Atatürk when she invited him to stay at her family’s villa as he negotiated Turkey’s independence. A year later, when she was just 24, they married (he was 41). This was to be a modern marriage; Çalişlar writes of the nuptials:

 

Tradition dictated an agent represent the bride at the religious ceremony. Yet here was Latife, at the table, in person, being asked for her consent. The solemnization was made on the basis of a symbolic amount of ten dirhems of immediate settlement… The low sum was interpreted as a desire to create equality between man and wife.

 

Madam Atatürk: The First Lady of Modern Turkey, İpek Çalışlar (Saqi, March 2019)
Madam Atatürk: The First Lady of Modern Turkey, İpek Çalışlar (Saqi, March 2019)

Latife became a key figure in the women’s movement. Although she was “the perfect host” with a wardrobe from Europe and made to order in Istanbul, she was also fully aware of the status of women at the time. She criticised the Young Turks’ policies on women when she was just 18, and Çalişlar references a newspaper article that her status as the daughter of “Izmir’s richest and most influential merchant” was what prevented her from being thrown in jail.

As Atatürk’s wife, Latife had a way of perfectly balancing tradition with her desire for reform. She spoke French with diplomats and attended to visitors and guests; she was also the first Turkish woman to attend a debate at the Grand National Assembly. Çalişlar writes that Latife “made it possible for Mustafa Kemal to put into practice his precious ‘total equality between the sexes’ theory.”

 

In describing the relationship, Çalişlar also includes reports from both newspapers at home in Turkey as well as ones from those abroad, layering additional lenses onto the text. There seems to be no shortage of interpretations of Latife’s actions. At times, Çalişlar simply presents the views; at others, she challenges what had been said.

Of Latife rehearsing her speeches in the garden of her residence, one interpretation has been that “her hard work [was] the attempt of a commander’s ambitious wife to take centre stage,” with the Turkish officer Hüsrev Gerede commenting that it was “a childish act, rather like wanting to be Atatürk’s equal, to compete with him.” Çalişlar argues that “Gerede was wrong. In reality, Latife was merely doing what she thought was expected of her as an adjutant capable of addressing the public when called upon”: her rehearsals are evidence of her hard-working and perfectionist attitude. While some males belittled Latife’s efforts, Çalişlar writes these men must have “ignored Mustafa Kemal’s own efforts to bring women into the public arena.”

The marriage, however, lasted just two years and Latife quickly disappeared from the public eye, living the rest of her life in seclusion.

 

Çalişlar’s prose is straight-forward and to the point; where she disagrees with a commonly held view, there are times when Çalişlar is both direct and speaks directly to the reader—“I don’t subscribe to the view that only Mustafa Kemal’s patronage enabled Latife to speak out,” she writes at one point.

The text is also organized into easily digestible sections and the English translation is also shorter than the original text which ran more than 500 pages. The text also needed to be re-worked for an international audience—while Çalişlar was able to delete sections meant to convince a sceptical Turkish audience, for the translation she and translator Feyza Howell also sourced material published outside of Turkey. The result of their efforts is the fascinating and powerful story of the life of an as yet little-known figure in the development of modern Turkey.


Melanie Ho is the author of Journey to the West: He Hui, a Chinese Soprano in the World of Italian Opera.