Turkish women who made history
With the birth of the Turkish Republic, many rights have been granted to women, marking a milestone in the history of both the country and the world. The modern republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and his sweeping reforms have aimed to create gender equality between women and men, as he was one of the first leaders in the world to grant women the right to elect and be elected. From the first woman pilot to the first female judges, many Turkish women made history, thriving to leave an enduring legacy for future generations.


Corporal Halide Edib, the woman who left her luxurious life in Istanbul to join the national struggle... Author, politician, scholar and many other things. But most importantly, the heroine of the Turkish War, Halide Edib is one of the most exalted figures in Turkish history. She was the first woman to give a speech during the Sultanahmet Demonstrations in 1919 against foreign occupation.

Having dedicated her life to women’s rights and following Mustafa Kemal’s patriotic footsteps, Halide Edib wrote history as she devoted herself to years of the national struggle, as well as taking a significant part in the process.


The first female combat pilot in the world’s history, Sabiha Gökçen was also an adoptive daughter of Atatürk. Her surname, meaning “belonging to the sky,” was given to her by Atatürk, after the Surname Act of 1921 – which gave surnames to every family in Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Her area of expertise was bombers and fighter jets. In 1938, she undertook a long-haul historic flight as she flew around the Balkans, which lasted a total of five days until technical problems emerged in the plane. She spent a total of 8,000 hours in the sky, including 32 combat flights.


One of the most powerful voices of Turkey, Safiye Ayla is the first woman singer to perform for Atatürk. The queen of the stages, Ayla has immensely contributed to classical Turkish music with her synthesis of Ottoman melodies and lyrics of traditional Anatolian folk idioms.

Ayla had made over 500 recordings and became quite popular with her distinct voice.


The first Turkish-Muslim woman to take the theater stage, Afife Jale is known for her breathtaking performances and sublime courage. She made an appearance on the stage as a theater actress at a time when it was forbidden for Muslim women to perform. In the face of societal pressure, she was arrested. She was forced into quitting her career after the Ottoman Empire’s interior ministry issued a circular letter that Muslim women could not go on stage anywhere. With the establishment of the republic, she started to perform again and encouraged more women to become theater actresses. Today’s Turkish actresses owe a great deal to Jale, who put her life on the line to blaze a trail for her successors.


Known as “La Diva Turca,” Leyla Gencer is acknowledged as one of the great sopranos of the 20th century. She was known for having one of the most passionate voices in the history of opera.

Born in Istanbul, Gencer spent most of her life in Italy. She performed with outstanding Italian maestros such as Vittoria Gui. Gencer also performed at Teatro alla Scala for over half a century and taught opera until her death in 2008.


One of the world’s best Sumerologists, Muazzez İlmiye Çığ is an important figure as she catalogued thousands of cuneiform clay tablets from 5,300 B.C. onward. She has contributed immensely in shedding light on Sumerian history as she worked with great Sumerologist Samuel Noah Kramer from the Philadelphia University Museum.

Çığ received an honorary doctorate with her studies in translating Sumerian, Akkadian and Hittite languages. She has written many books and a myriad of scientific articles.


Grey wisdom
Turkish women who made history
A good friend of mine (now sadly passed) used to tell a tale of Ataturk attending a meeting at the education ministry. Apparently (according to the story), he had a real rant at them for arranging the seating so that all the men were seated together and all the women together.

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