(Sabiha Sertel (Sabiha Zekeriya))
Born 1895, Ottoman Thessaloniki (now Greece)
Died 2 September 1968, Baku, Azerbaijan
Turkish Journalist, Author
Sabiha Sertel (who also used the name Sabiha Zekeriya) was a well-known journalist during the last years of Ottoman Empire and the early years of the Republic of Turkey.*Her articles discussed women’s rights issues and criticized state oppression, imperialism, fascism and social inequalities in Turkey. These topics and stances exposed her to social and political pressures, imprisonment and eventually, exile.
She was born as one of six siblings to Atiye Hanım and Nazmi Efendi in Thessaloniki in 1895. Her stance against women’s oppression began in her early childhood when she witnessed the starkly unequal relationship of her parents; the marriage ended when her father, a retired bureaucrat, divorced her mother for coming home late from her sister’s one evening when Sabiha was about eight years old.
Attending Terakki Mektebi (the Progress School) in Thessaloniki, Sabiha completed her high school education from 1902 to 1911. She continued studying at Tefeyyüz Cemiyeti (the Society for Advancement), which she founded with fellow young women, who were denied higher education due to their gender. She also began publishing essays in these years and met the journalist Zekeriya Sertel. After the Ottoman Empire lost the Balkan War, she moved to Istanbul with her family in 1913.
In 1915, she married Zekeriya Sertel and had her first daughter Sevim in 1917. The couple started the journal Büyük Mecmua (the Big Review) on March 6th1919, together with other intellectuals of the time. Sabiha Sertel had a column in Büyük Mecmuacalled “Cici Anne” (a term that is used for a woman who is as close as a mother, which she also used as the signature for her column). Influenced by first wave feminism and the international women’s suffrage movement, she mainly discussed women’s rights in this period. In her later memoir Roman Gibi (Like a Novel,1969), she elaborated on these years and described Büyük Mecmuaas a platform to discuss the ways of rebuilding the country, from Turkish nationalism and New-Ottomanism to socialism and feminism. The memoir stresses that the seeds of Atatürk’s reforms after the War of Independence (1919-1923) should be found in these intellectual debates in Büyük Mecmua, as well as in women’s successful struggles to have equal rights. Hence, her works describing these years are also important for providing an alternative to the dominant discourses in history writing, which dwell heavily on a ‘one man’ figure as the savior of the nation.
When Zekeriya Sertel, the owner of Büyük Mecmua,was imprisoned in 1919 because his journal criticized the Western occupation of the country, Sabiha Sertel continued with the editorial tasks herself despite the heavy censorship of the post-war period. Her husband left prison but soon thereafter the journal was closed down. In 1919, the two moved to the US with their daughter to study with a scholarship provided by philanthropist and industrialist Charles Crane.
After learning English at Barnard College, Sabiha Sertel took sociology courses at Columbia University and studied community organization at the New York School of Social Work between 1921 and 1923. Meanwhile,in 1922, her second daughter Yıldız was born. She followed Franklin H. Giddings’ courses and became familiar with his concept ‘consciousness of kind,’ and later with the works of Morgan, Le Play, Engels and Bebel in William F. Ogburn’s courses. She took part in the organization and unionization of the workers who had emigrated to the US from the Ottoman Empire. She not only wrote about the working conditions of the immigrants, she also conducted vast demographical surveys and organized fundraising events with the immigrant workers to help Turkey in its war against the Western occupation.
She finished her studies and returned to Turkey to settle in Ankara with her family in 1923, after the War of Independence. Their daughters were 6 and 2 years old at the time. She was offered a position at the Institution for the Protection of Children, for which she first wanted to conduct a social survey to determinethe lifeconditions of children, not only in relation to the effects of war but also in terms of health, child labour, education etc. The project was not approved, and upon her husband’s resignation from his position at the General Directorate of Press and Information, they moved to Istanbul.
They began to publish the journal Resimli Ay (the Illustrated Monthly) in 1924 in Istanbul. In the same year, Sabiha Sertel also started a column in the daily newspaper Cumhuriyet (Republic). Besides Resimli Ay she also took part in the publication of Resimli Perşembe (the Illustrated Thursday) and Çocuk Ansiklopedisi (Children’s Encyclopedia). In her column in Cumhuriyet she condemned the lack of efficient social policies, focusing on the case of a woman who abandoned her newborn due to poverty. Thereupon she was tried for criticizing the regime and inciting discord between classes. Many of her other writings in Resimli Ay also exposed her to judicial as well as non-judicial pressures.
In 1925, one of the writers and Zekeriya Sertel, as the owner of Resimli Ay, were arrested by the Ankara Independence Court (a court which prosecuted opponents of the government). Sabiha Sertel continued to publish the journal by herself, but when Resimli Ay had to be suspended due to legal disputes, she continued publishing the journal under the title Sevimli Ay (the Adorable Monthly) in 1926. In her later memoir, she mentions her article on birth control in Sevimli Ay; this led to another court case. Resimli Ay began publication again in 1926 after her husband's return. In this second term of Resimli Ay, many other well-known writers and poets, such as Nazım Hikmet, also joined the team. With these changes, the journal became a platform for new literature with a simpler language and more interest in the lives and struggles of people, especially of workers and peasants.
Sabiha Sertel was again put on a trial for “Savulun Geliyorum” (‘Get Out of the Way, Here I Come’) the translation of an article about the psychology of a leader from an American psychology journal in 1930. As the political stance of Resimli Ay attracted ever more attention from the police, its owners closed the journal down in 1931.
In mid–1930s, the couple started working for the newspaper Tan (Dawn). Sabiha Sertel became one of Tan’s anti-imperialist, anti-fascist writers until the looting in 1945 (see below). Meanwhile, she also translated Karl Kautsky’s “The Class Struggle,” Adoratski’s “Dialectic Materialism,” Lenin’s “Socialism and War” and August Bebel’s “Woman and Socialism” into Turkish. She published Tan Cep Kitapları (Pocket Books) based on ‘a hundred books a year,’ an example from the USA. In 1936, she wrote a novel Çitra Roy ile Babası (Çitra Roy and Her Father) about a young socialist woman living in India under British colonialism. She published the journal Projektör in 1936. She did interviews abroad with politicians as well as thinkers such as Geneviève Tabouis for Tan in 1937. She also sent articles to the journal Voix Européenne.
She was banned three times from writing, first in 1941 for criticizing Turkey’s collaboration with Germany during the WWII, second for her writing against the nationalist movement in Turkey in 1942, and the third time again in 1942, for her writing about colonialism in the 19thcentury in relation to both world wars. As the tension between the leftist writers and the nationalists increased, Tan newspaper was completely vandalized by a group of mostly university students on December 4th 1945. Subsequently both Sabiha and Zekeriya Sertel were arrested and taken to Sultanahmet Prison in 1946. Because of the increasing political repression they could not continue as journalists after their release, and they left the country in 1950.
Sabiha Sertel spent the rest of her life in Paris, Budapest, Moscow and Baku (Azerbaijan). During these years she worked in radio in Budapest and Leipzig, and with the Turkish Communist Party (TKP) abroad. She also wrote her book about Tevfik Fikret (poet), and memoirs about Nazım Hikmet (poet) and Sabahattin Ali (author), as well as about her life from the 1920s to the end of 1940s (Roman Gibi).
She stood out as a courageous writer and journalist. However, she buried her own origins and history as born to a ‘Dönme’ family (an often derogative term marking ‘difference’ in Turkish for Jewish people who converted to Islam in the 17thcentury) in the national identity promoted with the establishment of the new nation-state. She was also not the voice of the other ethnic minorities oppressed by the same nation-building project, as David Selim Sayers notes in his introduction to the new reprint of Roman Gibi. Burcu Ertuna Biçer also draws attention to the similarities between Sabiha Sertel’s approach to women’s issues upon her return from the USA and that of the nation-state’s building project; both support a new image of the modern ‘westernized’ Turkish woman. She nevertheless condemned oppression and injustice regardless of its source, against all odds and despite powerful pressure. Sertel was of the opinion that Turkey was not ready for a socialist revolution, and thus she supported the reforms of the new government as appropriate under the given circumstances. Nevertheless, she did not hold herself back from pointing out the undemocratic path the new republic took. In her writings, while she found the reforms of the new republic plausible in theory, including those regarding women’s rights, she did not hesitate to criticize how they failed in practice. She even criticized her own debates with fellow writers on socialism, saying that the way they defended socialism had been indeed, to some extent, sectarian. If she were still alive, as David Selim Sayers underlines, she would probably be the first to criticize her own writings.
* Sabiha Sertel is introduced in many online biographical sources as the first woman in Turkey to choose journalism as her profession. However, Selma Rıza Feracelli (1872 –1931), the author of Uhuvvet,has also been recognized in some sources as the first woman journalist from Turkey.
Some of the translations are taken from the articles written by A. Holly Shissler and by Kathryn Libal.
Author: Çiçek Uygun
Literature & Sources
Works by Sabiha Sertel
Çocuk Ansiklopedisi,1927-1928 four volumes with Zekeriya Sertel and Faik Sabri, (Children’s Encyclopedia)
Çitra Roy ile Babası, 1936 (Çitra Roy and Her Father)
İlericilik-Gericilik Kavgasında Tevfik Fikret, with a different title in 1945 (Tevfik Fikret in Progressivism and Reactionism Debates)
Tevfik Fikret-Mehmet Akif Kavgası, 1940 (the Debate of Tevfik Fikret - Mehmet Akif)
Tevfik Fikret: İdeolojisi ve Felsefesi,1946 (Tevfik Fikret: His Ideology and Philosophy)
Davamız ve Müdafaamız, 1946 with Zekeriya Sertel (Our Case and Our Defence)
Roman Gibi, 1969 (Like a Novel)
İkinci Dünya Savaşı Tarihi,1999 (History of the WWII)
Translations by Sabiha Sertel (from English to Turkish)
K. Kautsky, The Class Struggle(1934)
A. Bebel, Women and Socialism(1935)
V. Adoratsky, Dialectical Materialism(1936)
The Constitution of the Soviet Union (1936)
J. Bryce, Modern Democracies(1939)
Literature & Sources
Akanyıldız-Gölbaşi, R. Çiğdem. “An Alternative Voice: Sabiha (Zekeriya) Sertel as a Woman Translator and a Representative of Nascent Socialist-Feminist Culture Repertoire in the Early Republican Turkey,” Feminist Voices,Jan 2016; 33-56.
Libal, K. “Transatlantic Connections in the Making of a Socialist–Feminist Framework for Social Welfare in Turkey: The Legacy of Sabiha Zekeriya Sertel.” Affilia, 2012. 27(3), 328–337.
Shissler, A. H. “‘IF YOU ASK ME’ Sabiha Sertel's Advice Column, Gender Equity, and Social Engineering in the Early Turkish Republic,” Journal of Middle East Women's Studies, 2007. 3(2), 1-30.
Shissler, A. H. “Womanhood Is Not for Sale: Sabiha Zekeriya Sertel Against Prostitution and for Women's Employment”, Journal of Middle East Women's Studies, 4(3). 2008. 12-30.
Bulut, Ayça. “Kemalist Dönem toplumsal cinsiyet politikası ve kadın hareketi çerçevesinde Sabiha Sertel üzerine bir inceleme,” Hacettepe University, Social Sciences Institute, 2002, Ankara.
Erduran, Refik. Sabiha, Istanbul: Remzi, 2004.
Ertuna Biçer, Burcu. “Erken Cumhuriyet Dönemi Aydını Sabiha Zekeriya Sertel’in Fikir Yazılarında Modernleşme Bağlamında Kadın, Toplum ve Siyaset.” Marmara University, Social Sciences Institute, December 2008, Istanbul.
Ertuna Biçer, Burcu et al. Biyografya 9, Sabiha Sertel, Istanbul: Bağlam, 2010.
Koçak, C. (1988) ‘1930 Belediye Seçiminde Sabiha Sertel’in Adaylığı,’ Tarih ve Toplum, no: 51, pp. 28‒29.
Semiz, Hülya. “İkinci Dünya Savaşı döneminde gazeteci Sabiha Sertel’in döneme ilişkin görüşleri,” Istanbul University, Social Sciences Institute, 2008, Istanbul.
“Sertel, Sabiha”, Tanzimattan Bugüne Edebiyatçılar Ansiklopedisi, Istanbul: YKY, 2010.
Sertel, Yıldız. Annem: Sabiha Sertel Kimdi Neler Yazdı.Yaşantı, Istanbul: YKY, 1994.
Sertel, Zekeriya, Hatırladıklarım. Istanbul: Remzi Kitabevi, 2000.
Toprak, Zafer. “Sabiha Sertel ve Türk Feminizmi”, Toplumsal Tarih, No:51, March 1998.
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