The Women’s Library and Information Centre Foundation located in Istanbul bears witness to 150 years of the women’s movement in Turkey, providing a new perspective to the country’s history.

In a historic building by the Golden Horn, Turkey’s first and only library dedicated to women’s works has for three decades been shining a light on the lives and struggles of Turkish women.

The Women’s Library and Information Centre Foundation (WLICF), established in 1990 as part of the women’s movement in Turkey, consists entirely of works created by, for, and about women.

“In the 80s, the women’s movement was gaining momentum in Turkey, but we noticed that women’s efforts were largely unseen as the documents they produced withered in the pages of newspapers and magazines,” Fusun Ertug, one of the founders and chairwoman of the foundation, told TRT World

“We felt a pressing need for a place where we could preserve these documents, and consequently the movement, so we began working to form a foundation.”

The foundation was established on 8 March - International Women's Day - by Fusun Akatli, Jale Baysal, Asli Davaz, and Sirin Tekeli along with Ertug. The library opened its doors on April 14th.

WLICF’s mission was to preserve, investigate and make accessible women’s history in Turkey dating to the late Ottoman Empire through works created by and concerning women.

Women’s Works

The library has a total of 16 collections that consist of a wide range of women’s works including books, newspaper clippings, magazines, photographs, posters, ephemera, audio materials, thesis-dissertations and articles.

Currently, WLICF is home to approximately 15,000 books, 8,000 ephemeras, and around 500 periodicals. 

“We mostly rely on donations for acquiring the works in our care, but some items are ones we have specifically picked from bibliopoles and auctions,” says Ertug.

A picture from early 20th century brought to the WLICF in a 1992 exhibition by photographer Mediha Erten Askin called
A picture from early 20th century brought to the WLICF in a 1992 exhibition by photographer Mediha Erten Askin called "Evvel Zaman Suretleri" (Once Upon a Time). (Courtesy of: Women’s Library and Information Centre Foundation)

While each collection has its own significance, some more prevalent examples are their Women Writers Collection, Rare Works Collection, Women Artists Collection, and a collection about women’s organisations that documents the operations of approximately 700 women’s organisations from the Turkish Republic.

The Women Writers Collection consists of women’s literary works plus personal belongings of writers such as handwritten book drafts, diplomas, plaques and pictures. There are items from around hundreds of authors, 22 of whom produced their works in the pre-Republic period.

The Rare Works Collection consists of over 300 rare items found in auctions and bibliopoles, including signed copies of first editions and a stone print poster from the Turkish War of Independence calling for women to join the resistance.

The Women Artists Collection consists of paintings, photographs, statues, ceramics, and art installations donated by artists which adorn the interior walls of the library, turning the library into a continuous exhibition hall.

‘The personal is political’

One of the most interesting and special collections in the WLICF is the Women’s Private Papers Collection that encompasses personal belongings such as diplomas, academic works, official papers, letters, diaries, drawings, pictures, and much more.

“Throughout history, women have left fewer written sources relative to men. But if you manage to assemble enough of women’s private archives, then you can create a social history of a specific period by examining the combined private papers,” says Ertug.

The collection includes the private archives of famous Turkish figures along with those of ordinary women. Every item in the Women’s Private Papers collection is unique.

“The personal is political. This collection gives us unique insights about women’s lives, thoughts, and feelings.”

The winning picture from a 1991 photography contest called
The winning picture from a 1991 photography contest called " Kadin Gozuyle Kadin" (Women Through the Eyes of Women), by photographer Sema Kilicer. (Courtesy of: Women’s Library and Information Centre Foundation)

Ottoman women 

Before WLICF was established, works from the Ottoman women’s movement were scattered around Turkey. They were also inaccessible to many since they were written in Ottoman Turkish with Arabic letters.

The foundation saw gathering these works and translating them into modern Turkish as part of their mission. “We now have a bulk of the women’s magazines from late 19th century onwards. We are collecting almost every volume,” said chairwoman Ertug.

They have been translating these magazines to Turkish since 2010, within the scope of a project called “Kadinlarin Bellegi” (Women’s Memory). The translations are conducted entirely by volunteers.

Their collection includes 10 volumes of the magazine “Hanimlara Mahsus Gazete” (Newspaper for Ladies), published in Istanbul from 1895 to 1908, which provides valuable insight about the etiquette and daily lives of Ottoman women. The magazine has been digitalised as part of an effort to increase the accessibility of the works in the library.

“These magazines Show that Ottoman women were intellectuals. Most of them were multilingual, fluent in several languages such as Greek, Armenian, French, English, and German,” said Ertug.

“They were well aware of what was happening globally and were in close contact with the West, following women’s movements, such as the suffragettes, closely,” she added.

As seen in the documents, Ottoman women were active in seeking their rights and led a powerful movement.

WLICF’s collection of Ottoman women’s works also include Armenian periodicals and pictures from the studios of Armenian and Rum photographers.

An immense struggle 

“We are interested in all works that have traces of women’s experience in Turkey,” says Ertug. Their collections are not limited to Turkish and include works from several other languages and many foreign writers.

The foundation, which relies on donations, also produces its own publications by utilising the works in their care, including the “Kadinlarin Bellegi” project that translates Ottoman periodicals.

Since 1991, the WLICF has annually published agendas, each with a different theme, such as paintings from women artists, photography, caricatures, clothing, etc., with the latest one focusing on women’s organisations.

They have also published a women’s thesaurus with the intention of eliminating sexist terms and discourses in the Turkish language by considering the psychological and sociological effects of speech acts.

“Our collection of women’s works is an immense historical source for generations to come. The library contains precious information not only about women and history, but also about sociology, gastronomy, fashion, and more,” says Ertug.

Their purpose is to memorialise the experiences of women in Turkey by preserving their works.

The library’s building, provided by the Istanbul Municipality, dates back to the late Byzantine-early Ottoman period and has a historic amphitheatre where the foundation holds events.
The library’s building, provided by the Istanbul Municipality, dates back to the late Byzantine-early Ottoman period and has a historic amphitheatre where the foundation holds events. (Courtesy of: Women’s Library and Information Centre Foundation)

“The WLICF contains the struggle of Turkish women, and every woman who has passed through Turkey in their lifetimes,” adds Ertug.

The foundation continues to bear witness to women’s experiences in Turkey, expanding their collection with each passing day.

A major challenge ahead of WLICF is archiving and preserving women’s works that were created on digital platforms, according to Ertug.

When asked about what she has learned in the 30 years that have passed since they founded the WLICF, Ertug said “I have learned so much from the works and the women we have encountered. Each work and each research enlighten a different part of women’s lives and struggles.” 

“But the prevailing lesson is that women have made it to where they are today through an immense struggle. The library reminds me of that every day.”

Source: TRT World