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Judging a Book by Its Cover

Kara A. Peruccio, University of Maine

            When I started research for my dissertation, “Women on the Verge: Emotions, Authoritarianism, and the Novel in Italy and Turkey, 1922-1936,” I wanted to find first editions or editions from the year of publication for the novels I analyzed.[1] The lexicon of Modern Turkish has seen numerous additions, purges, and trends. I felt it was important to read the novels as they appeared in the interwar years. Finding these novels from the 1920s and 1930s was actually much easier than I anticipated; thank goodness for Interlibrary Loan! I noticed that many novels from the interwar era reflected trends from literary fiction today: no imagery, just the title and publisher in typeset. When I finally tracked down Suat Derviş’s Behire’nin Talipleri (Behire’s Suitors, 1923), I was delighted that the cover featured an image of a chic young woman.  

The cover of Suat Derviş, Behire’nin Talipleri (Behire’s Suitors) (Istanbul: Kitabhanesi Südi, 1923)

Published in 1923, Behire’s Suitors focuses on the titular character relegating the tales of her numerous marriage prospects to an old friend. As depicted on the book’s cover, Behire is beautiful and bold. She unapologetically lines her eyes with kohl and shows off her arms.  To Istanbulite readers browsing the shelves at a kitabevi (bookstore), Behire appeared thoroughly modern. Sartorially, the fictional character’s fashion choices perhaps reflected those of the author. A photograph in a March 1933 issue of Cumhuriyet (Republic), the major Kemalist newspaper, shows Derviş wearing a cloche hat over her bobbed hair and donning lipstick and painted nails.[2]

“Can a woman be the same as a man? Suat Derviş Hanım’s answers to our survey,” Cumhuriyet (Istanbul, Turkey), March 15, 1933, 3, https://gpa-eastview-com.proxy.uchicago.edu/cumhuriyet/newspapers/cumh19330315-01.1.3.

            In the late Ottoman Empire, many upper-class urban women wore western European fashions that would not be out of place on the streets of London or Paris. I would posit that if I obscured the book’s title and author on the cover, you might guess that this novel came from countless other countries around the world. With her bobbed hair, teardrop earrings, and chic green dress, Behire looks like an attendee at Jay Gatsby’s parties. 

My article in the Summer 2021 issue, “Bad Romance,” explores love, toxic masculinity, and heartbreak to assess women’s experiences in Fascist Italy and Kemalist Turkey. Numerous studies of Mediterranean societies highlight that honor-shame is a key binary in constructing gender identities and regulating women’s bodies. In my analysis of novels by Italian writers Sibilla Aleramo (1876-1960) and Grazia Deledda (1871-1936) and Turkish authors Derviş (1904/5-1972) and Nezihe Muhiddin (1889-1958), I found that they located shame not in their female characters but in their male counterparts. When feeling uncomfortable, threatened, or challenged, these fictional men lashed out, mocked, and in some extreme cases, committed physical harm to reassert their superiority over women.

            In her story, Behire has numerous suitors whom she dismisses for various reasons. Her third marriage prospect Naci reflects discomfort towards independent, self-assured young women in Turkish society. He criticizes Behire’s attempts to include him in social gatherings, calling her a coquette and questioning if she is even a woman. At one point, he declares that all women are “snakes.”[3] Behire’s confidence intimidates Naci, and he consequently tries to find ways to make her feel ashamed of her behavior.

            In a key scene during this toxic courtship, Naci points out and criticizes Behire’s use of kohl to another man, to render her unattractive. As I discuss in my article, Behire redirects this attempt to Naci, demanding to know why he cares so much about her makeup and also asks why he is so shameless in his behavior. Behire (and most likely the reader too) are then shocked when Naci professes his love for her. The young man’s gaslighting behaviors failed to work on the young woman, and she refuses to forgive him. Behire knows she looks amazing and would never settle for a man who criticizes her appearance. 

Derviş’s book emerged alongside the establishment of the Turkish Republic, founded in October 1923. Behire’s recollections of her suitors chronologically predate the new nation-state. As I suggest in my article, Derviş believed that the new republic would give women like Behire the opportunity to live autonomously and authentically. As Derviş explored in her other novels from the 1920s (Fatma’nın Günahı/Fatma’s Sin, 1924; Gönül gibi/Like Gönül, 1928), Kemalist gender politics constrained Turkish women in what scholar Deniz Kandiyoti foundationally termed the bind of being “emancipated but unliberated.”[4] Behire ends her story choosing to not marry, asserting her independence just like the new Turkish nation. Unbeknownst to Derviş, authoritarian gender politics throughout the remainder of the decade would emphasize that young Turkish women must conform to the heteronormative ideal of the nuclear family in order to perpetuate the nation and maintain societal stability. 

While we are told not to judge a book by its cover, the 1923 edition of Behire’s Suitors tells us a lot about its fictional protagonist and Suat Derviş’s hopes for women in the new Turkish Republic. 

[1] PhD Dissertation, University of Chicago, 2020. 

[2] “Kadın erkekle bir olabilir mi?,” Cumhuriyet (March 15, 1933), 3.

[3] “Hepiniz birer yılan.” Suat Derviş, Behire’nin Talipleri (Istanbul: Südi Kitaphanesi, 1923), 28.

[4] Deniz Kandiyoti, “Emancipated but Unliberated?: Reflections on the Turkish Case,” Feminist Studies 13, no. 2 (1987): 317-38.