Art in the press

Suggested curriculum developments to communicate women’s rights through literature

Poetry by women in U.S.A., Turkey and Egypt. Prof. Dr. Seçkin Ergin and Dr. Emine Sonal

Modern educational technology has paved the way to communicate information in regard to many aspects of academic life in the national and international spheres; encouraging interaction among the disciplines, suggesting improvements ranging from faculty’s responsibilities, to enhancing students’ integration to social and educational activities. Curriculum developments, which have always been one of the lines of assessment to empower the learning pace abilities of the students, can also be communicated through the internet to inspire new horizons of interest.

Curricula prepared with an interest in interdisciplinary projects will widen the scope of learning, provoke inquiry, promote the cultivation of young minds, and encourage the students to act and think beyond the requirements of their branches.

In this respect, inclusion of women’s writings in the teaching of various subjects and disciplines, including the social sciences, will bring about a consciousness of the fact that there has always been a women’s problem, no matter to what country she belongs, or how advanced is her country in securing her legal rights.

Thus, when widely circulated in our global village the written accounts of the impediments that stand in a woman’s path toward an autonomous selfhood will give rise to an immediate empathy among her peers, since many of the stories by women have already been experienced by the majority of them, regardless of their social, religious, and ethnic differences in the background.

More accurate than the social and historical facts about women’s rights were these accounts of women writers, especially the poets, who are more sensitive in their self-exiled states to confess their lifelong suffering caused by the social pressures of gender discrimination. The confessional renderings of women’s experiences are not only rich with emotional impact, but also are the valuable documents of a given social and historical era, revealing (in New Historicist terminology) the basic tenets of the ‘base-structure’, mostly contingencies of the ‘super-structure’, namely its cultural mold.

Approached from the New Historicist point of view, poetry by women is political even ideological, containing resistance to authority and hegemony sometimes openly, sometimes in the form of “encoded subversions” to the mainstream ideology, which are to be deciphered for their historical value.

As it is seen, women’s literature is by itself exciting to read because of its highly confessional and frank tone. Also, it unfolds, when carefully selected, a mission of combining diverse references taken from sociology, anthropology, human psychology and especially history, thus enabling the related scholars to re-construct their knowledge. It also has a unifying effect among diverse cultures by revealing a shared “discourse” a discourse in the sense that Micheal Foucault describes as “the history of ideas whereby idea-generating practices- to reproduce new institutions”

In fact, women writers’ shared insight into the problems they face is the discourse for generating new ideas, not only for their welfare but also for the improvement of the society. The study of how and when their ideas have become institutionalized constitute to the historicity of the text, which can then be made available through communication technology and included in the curriculums.

This paper proposes a methodology for the inclusion of women’s poetry in curriculum development. Here, in order to interpret the existing historical perspectives and social conventions in choosing the poets to be discussed from the three selected nationalities, namely Turkish, American and Egyptian, we sought to choose three near-contemporaries who wrote about their feelings and ideas. Our first example is a well-known Turkish woman poet whose fame and influence extended from 1900 to the 1950s.

Şüküfe Nihal:

Şüküfe Nihal’s life story offers valuable details for a feminist critic; who searches for clues of the wrongdoings and mischiefs a woman poet has been exposed to. We are, however, concerned with her ideas rather than her biography, since her ideas and her aspirations mark the crucial moments in the Turkish nation’s history in the years of the Turkish war of independence and the growing pains of the young Turkish Republic, when its national identity was being established.

The highlights of her life story can be summed up as follows: She was born to an upper class, well-to-do family in Istanbul in 1896, in the years corresponding to the last days of the Ottoman Empire. She received private education to suffice her early involvement with state affairs, initially to work for the central Information Agency in her late teens; collecting information for the resistance of the Sultan against the Occupation Forces at the time the Ottoman Empire was losing battles on many fronts prior to World War I. Later when Anatolia was just about to be occupied, Nihal joined resistance groups to organize and participate in the meetings of protest and delivered fiery speeches against the invasion, criticizing the long neglect of women’s rights which she believed, if not heeded, the nation’s downfall could not be prevented. Attacking the last Sultan’s paternalism in banning women s participation in politics, she says:

Do you know why we are in such distress? As women we have been silent instead of resisting injustices. If we had had the right of electing our representatives to a national parliament. We would have never experienced this disaster. In the 1930s, after the establishment of the Turkish Republic, being married to a well-known Turkish bureaucrat, she arranged literary meetings at her home promoting young writers and helping to found the Turkish women’s association in collaboration with other famous women intellectuals and activists of her time, such as Halide Edip and Halide Nusret, to advocate women’s rights which she believed could be gained only through a sound educational program for girls.

For her, women’s welfare must be the first objective on the young Republic’s agenda in order to secure a progressive democratic state. She held women responsible for not fighting for their rights and against bondages in civil life that barred them from having a say in the state affairs. She longed for the days when the ancient Turkish states of Central Asia, before they had accepted Islam. She thought that it was a backlash for women because of its rigid rules especially indicative over them, as the golden days of Turkish women’s self-identity.

In the following poem, by referring to these old times, when women assumed autonomous roles alongside their husbands, she tries to arouse feelings of pride and self confidence among the young Turkish women to inspire them to re-define their status in the young republic. This long didactic poem is “To the Turkish Girl”.

To the Turkish Girl

There were times you shared your Khan’s decision
Times you were the sources of illumination
Times for you become a queen of a nation
You were a man’s comrade for completion

After the ancient Turkish women’s political identity is thus stated, their versatile personality has been described as,

Sometimes a delicate flower inspire a bard,
An Amazon fighting hard,
Sometimes a counselor to King’s tard,
Yes, there were times, when your name
Spreaded around as the name of fame.

Then, she says, there came the days of distress for the Turkish girl, who has witnessed the decline of an empire, the “black clouds of unhappiness” and her former active role in community has been banned. The lines read,

Then came the black clouds over the dawn
Disappeared days of wisdom on Turkish crown,
Stopped singing nightingales, no roses grown
Silenced songs, the lute frowned.

As the country fell under enemy rule, Nihal feared that slavery awaited the Turkish girl:

It is no time for you to be enslaved,
By the name token, not your country enclosed
Do not cry for these days curtailed,
With suffering all the Turks entailed.

Now that the country’s independence is secured, women’s rights are still at a stake, since there has always been a threat of retrieving the patriarchal structure by those who say that “women with long hair have no power”.

Her answer to those who vainly hope to backlash against women is:

Turkish girl, never a slave she becomes,
This is what the custom writes,
Liberated from her bondage she ascends,
When appreciated, to her country she serves,
To the nation, to mankind and to her gender.

After this warning note, she encourages the Turkish girl by stating her role in the elevation of her family and her country:

Now today her talents appreciated,
She is the mother most ordained,
Now, no more grieving, no more bereaved,
Children of Turkey your parents are liberated.

Şüküfe Nihal, when working for the welfare of her country and women’s rights, which she deemed crucial for the nation’s future, lost her first and second husbands, and the man, a promising young writer, who was desperately in love with her committed suicide. She became depressed, and found solace in isolation by cutting her ties with her family and close circle and awaited her death in 1973. Clearly she, like many of the other female writers, suffered from misunderstandings and consequent alienation.

Muriel Rukeyser:

In her unfinished journey to autonomous selfhood, Muriel Rukeyser’s life style and poetry displayed the same political consciousness and tone of humanity as Şüküfe Nihal did. But unlike her, Rukeyser lived to celebrate her feminine self, made her poetry rich with her new identity as she recorded 30 years of American and even world history by establishing a parallel between her life and the historical and social events of her time.

Born in 1914 at the onset of World War I and educated by idealist parents who had adopted the Transcendentalist philosophy, Rukeyser from childhood was an ardent follower of the American values of equality, brotherhood and freedom. The name of her elementary school “Ethical Cultural Center” says even more about her upbringing, which combined reformist religious ideas with freedom of thought and action.

Her first poetry book Correspondence displays her socially oriented ideas with references to her autobiography which corresponds with the period spanning the outbreak of the war, followed by the Roaring Twenties and Depression of the 1930s, and which reflects her anxieties about the approaching signs of another World War.

Two poems, selected from the collection of Correspondence, exemplify her attachment to social and political issues of her time. The first poem entitled “Three Days” covers the first twenty years of her life enriched with the use of the imagery of three seasons to indicate the course of events. When she was born in 1914, it was war time, a severe winter season, when she was ten, the country was celebrating the end of the war and it was spring; but on one summer day the craze of the 1920s ended, the tree is darkened by the trauma of the depression years; when poverty and unemployment prevailed at home, and moreover some countries were getting ready for another war:

Three Days

I was born in winter when
Europe heard the early guns.
When I was five, the drums
Welcomed home the men
The spring after my birth
A tree came out of the lake
I laughed, for I could not speak;
The world was there to learn

The richest season in
The headlines fell as I was ten,
But the crazies were forgotten,
The fine men, the bravest men.

When I had reached fifteen,
That pliant tree was dark,
Breadlines haunted the parks-
The books tricked- in that scene.

No work in any town
When I was twenty, cured
The thin and desperate poor
From being forced alone

Clear to half a brain
In a blind man’s head.
War must follow that tide
Of running milk and grain.

Now China’s long begun.
That three is dense and strong.
Spreading, Continuing-
And Austria: and Spain

If some long unborn friend
Looks at photos in pity.
We say, sure we were happy.
But it was not in the wind.

Half my twenties are gone
As the crazies take to the planes,
The fine men, the bravest men,
And the war goes on.

Awaiting the coming of another disastrous war, she gives voice to the anxieties of an expecting mother in her poem “For the Unborn Child: VII”, in which the child is going to be born into a world of war, explosions, death and betrayal in short, a world of chaos.

For the Unborn Child: VII

You will enter the world where death by fear and explosion
Is waited: longed for by many; by all dreamed.
You will enter the world where various poverty
Makes thin the imagination and the bone.
You will enter the world where birth is walled about,
Where years are walled journeys, death a walled-in act.
You will enter the world which eats itself
Naming faith, reason, naming love, truth, fact.
You in your dark lake moving darkly now
Will leave a house that time makes, times to come
Enter the present, where all the deaths and all
The old betrayals have come home again.
World where again Judas, the little child,
May grow and choose. You will enter the world.

But the concept of chaos takes different dimensions when it is applied to her idea of rebirth, that is, her re-birth as a woman being conscious of her abilities and creativity as an artist in the following poem entitled “Beast in View”. She feels like a myth maker -a cause of chain of being like Gaia, born out of chaos. Rukeyser, knowing that she can twist the ancient myths revolving around victimization of innocent girls like Azure and Daphne, who were chased by the omnipotent gods, she re-creates them so as to project her own myths, despite the oddities enthralling and controlling her.

Beasts in the View

Configurations of time and singing
Bring me to a dark harbor where
The chase is drawn to a beginning.
And all the myths are gathered there...
Chaos prepared me...
I know the trees as fountains and the stars
For fires fountains and your love
A vivid fountain and the bars
Broken about me let me move.

She has left the “dark harbor” of her days of concession to the established order and she joined the “ever running fountains of Freedom,” breaking the imprisoning bars of submission to patriarchy; and lastly, she becoming an autonomous self. She has re-created herself in her own image, not by any metaphysical powers, as they old man-made mythical stories described her gender. Now she is not the “haunted’ one, but an equal human being sharing the same path with men:

Chaos prepared me and I find the track
Through life and darkness seek my myth-

Move toward it, hunting grow more like.
Draw near, and know it through our path.
Know only that we run one path.

In one of her poems written in the latter part of her life, one can easily detect a profile of a women who is reconciled with her old age knowing that she has accomplished her mission of spreading ideas of freedom, been a guide line to her peers, and is satisfied with what she has achieved as a poet:


Now that I am fifty six
Come and celebrate with me-
What happens to song and sex
Now that I’m fifty six?
They dance but differently
Death and distance in the mix;
Now that I’m fifty-six
Come and celebrate with me.

May Ziyadeh:
By Dr. Emine Sonal and Dr. Seçkin Ergin - Complete a part of the article

In conclusion we can say that by the effective use of literature in class, by exploring such literary texts, students, at any point during schooling can gain many skills when exposed to such a well designed curriculum supporting their courses like sociology, psychology etc. When this literature is put in the school curriculum, students will start thinking and responding critically, and become aware of human rights without gender discrimination