Mullah Nasr od-Din and Women's Emancipation: Two Episodes

The Tiflis Molla Nasr od-Din, edited by Mirza Jalil Mammadqolizade was a widely-read satirical weekly; its most influential years were between its founding in 1906 and 1912. The plight of women in Caucasian Muslim society was one of its major concerns. Indeed, its interest in the matter was unique in the region and almost unmatched anywhere in the Muslim world.

The Background

After the Russians conquered the Caucasus, they went about recruiting a cadre of native administrators, military men, teachers, etc. This social layer gradually came to be attracted to one or another set of the values current in Russian society. I begin this introduction by citing three illustrative and relevant examples:

Mirza Fath 'Ali Akhundof (Akhundzade; 1812-1878), the Azerbaijani reformer, was born into a merchant's family with dealings in Iran and the Caucasus. After receiving an education in Persian, Arabic, and Turkish, entered the service of the Chancellory of the Tsar's Viceroy of the Caucasus as a translator of Oriental languages, where he served with "impeccable loyalty;" adeusz Swietochowski, Russian Azerbaijan, 1905-1920 ( , , ), p. 24. in the most famous photograph of him, he poses decked out in full Tsarist regalia. His writings reflect a serene conviction of the superiority of the Western way of life over traditional Muslim existence. As one early biographer of Akhundof observed, "Mirza Fath 'Ali Akhundof was an enthusiastic partisan of European civilization, and always lived in the hope that his compatriots would unite with it." Abdor-Rahim Bey Haqverdiyef, "Mirza Fath 'Ali Akhundovun Hayat va Fa'aliyati" in A. Haqverdiyef Sechilmish Asarlari (Azarnashr, Baku, 1971), vol. II, p. 390. This essay first appeared in 1928 on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of Akhundof's death, and had been translated from the original Russian by 'Abbas Zamanov. for inclusion in the anthology. It is worth noting that Haqverdiyev had been a prolific contributer to Molla Nasr od-Din. This was the case with his views of the treatment of women. he defense of the ways of European women against the views of them held by the common Muslims and a criticism of the ignorance of secluded Muslim women is an important part of his second work, Hekayat-e Mosyu Zhordan. An Akhundof archivist declared that Akhundof had been the first Turkish writer to raise the issue of woman's status. amid Mamadzade, Mirza Fath 'Ali Akhundov va Sharq (Elm, Baku, 1971), p. 34. Akhundof's writings on such matters were to heavily influence Mirza Jalil.

The second is Ahmad Bey Javanshiri (1828-1903) who, in 1873, was to father Hamide Khanum, Mirza Jalil's future wife. He was born into the family of the governor of Qarabagh in the years before Tsarist rule. HeAbbas Zamanov, Introduction to Hamide Mohammadqolizade [Mammadqolizade], Mirza Jalil Haqqinda Khatirelarim , pp. 3-4. began his studies in the Petersburg Military Academy. He served six years in the Russian army. Then, in 1854, he was cashiered and retired to the village of Kahrizli....

Having spent his youth in the atmosphere of Petersburg, Ahmad Bey Javanshiri read many scientific books on agriculture... in the years he spent in Kahrizli and learned how to organize his land in accordance with civilized principles, obtaining good results thereby. Because he was an educated intellectual for his time and devoted himself to civilization and modernization his entire life and tried to run the village in the new fashion, he was called Urus Ahmad Bey [Ahmad Bey the Russian] among the common people.

Mirza Jalil and Molla Nasr od-Din

The third is Mirza Jalil himself (1866 (?) - 1932.) Initially from a religious merchant's family of modest circumstances, matyan in 'Abbas Zamanov (ed.), Jalil Mammadqolizade (Maqalalar va Khateratlar) (Azarbayjan SSR Elmlar Adademiyasi Nashriyati, Baku, 1967), p. 370. young Jalil rebelled against his traditional upbringing and got his father to send him to study at the Gori Seminary, amide Mohammadqolizade [Mammadqolizade], Mirza Jalil Haqqinda Khatirelarim , p. 10. where he was introduced to "advanced Russian civilization. He looked at his homeland with open eyes. There, he talked with progressive intellectuals and popular teachers and poets." Ali Soltanli, "Jalil Mammadqolizadenin Dramaturgiyasi," in Zamanov, ibid., p. 127. After graduating, he became an active member of the Madani movement of Muslim intellectuals based in Nakhchevan. They drew their inspiration from Akhundov as well as "the Russian popular movement of the 1890's" and the writings of Mirza Malkom Khan, the newspapers Parvaresh and Habl ol-Matin, and Zein od-'Abedin Maraghei's Sayyahatnameye Ebrahim Bey, according to a companion of his from those times. Rezaqoli Najafov, "Mirza Jalil Mammadqolizade (Molla Nasr od-Din) Haqqinda Khatiralarim," pp. 287-288 in ibid.

Since the issue of woman's emancipation was current many of these sources, he, in turn, developed a strong interest in this issue. Indeed, in 1904, he published a translation from the Russian of "Woman," a story by an Armenian writer, for the liberal Muslim journal Sharq-e Rus, edited by Mohammad Shahtakhtli [Shakhtakhtinsky], himself a Muslim of cosmopolitan ideas. The piece "as can be seen from the title, deals with the woman question." Kh. Aqayov, "Adabin Ilk Moharrirlik Maktabi," in ibid., pp. 263-64. Indeed, it should be said that Shahtakhtli had opened the discussion on women's emancipation in the Muslim press, "making broad propaganda for it." 'Ali Nazmi, "Qorkabilmayan Adib," in ibid., p. 350.

When Mirza Jalil met his future wife in October, 1905, his interest in woman's emancipation was already very strong. They met in the home of their mutual friend, Sofya Khanum, the daughter of Akhundov, the wife of Shahtakhtli, herself active in social reform and welfare causes. Of this meeting, Hamide Khanum recalls,Hamide Khanum Mammadqolizade, "Molla Nasr od-Din Haqqinda Khatirelarim," in ibid., p. 297.

Our conversation lasted a long time. We talked about the [1905] revolution, the sowing of enmity between Armenians and Muslims, and Muslim women and their sorry plight. Mirza Jalil spoke little but asked valuable questions. He talked about the Muslim Benevolent Society. Mirza Jalil was the secretary of this society. He asked why women do not form such a society. We decided that this was a very good idea and such a society was set up.

When Mirza Jalil launched Molla Nasr od-Din the next year, it soon took to carrying numerous articles satirizing relations between men and woman among the Muslims of the Caucasus. Cartoons and feuilletons attacked sighe, child-marriage, polygamy, and female seclusion and promoted women's education. Mirza Jalil in particular and the Mollanasroddinchis in general showed great concern over the harsh conditions Muslim women were forced to endure. Thus, in one particularly moving passage, Mirza Jalil muses: Mullah Nasr od-Din [Mirza Jalil], “Mullah Ja’farqoli,” 12 Rabi’ II 1325 [May 27, 1907], II:17.

While writing this article, I look out my window at the black clouds. Sometimes, I think that these clouds are moisture from the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea which the heat of the day's sun has vaporized and drawn this way so that it might rain here. But other times I think, No, these clouds are the sighs and sobs of Muslim women, and the rain is not sea water, but the tears of their black-fated eyes.

On the other hand, his edifying ridicule of oppressive customs often shaded into a ridiculing of their victims. For example, invidious comparisons were made between the “ignorance” of Muslim women and the “sophistication” of Armenian womenee, e.g., Mullah Nasr od-Din [Mirza Jalil], “Gachan Gunlar,” Sha’ban 9, 1324 [September 28, 1906], I:24. and Muslim women were often caricatured as gruesome cronesee especially a cartoon in the issue of Zil-Qa’da 5, 1324 [December 21, 1906] I:36. while European women were depicted as dainty and desirable. Thus, sympathy for the plight of Caucasian Muslim women, which is, again, expressed with great sincerity and feeling, often crossed over into a cruel mockery of them. It should be added that the same holds for Molla Nasr od-Dín's depiction of the popular classes, who are depicted alternately with genuine sympathy and then again ridiculed in a manner indistinguishable from simple elitism and the sort of contempt those who identify with the dominant culture feel for their simpler brethren.

It is this issue which our feuilletoniste.who went by the nom de plume of Jahreji Khale (Aunt Spinning Wheel.) his is a good Molla Nasr od-Din pen-name in that it has a plebian character and also connotes spinning which connotes craziness, a license for and thus a cue indicating some severe social criticism.

[There follow the articles and the supplementary references.]

As for the author's identity, my guess is that she was Hamide Khanum, Mirza Jalil's wife. Some supplementary biographical details seem necessary. Hamide Khanum had been married previously and her husband had died. Her second marriage was not particularly intimate. Husband and wife lived apart during much of their lives, both being absorbed in their respective responsibilities. As Mirza Jalil was to say a few years later, "I am not suited for family life. Essentially, I am a dervish with a difficult nature, very irritable. I myself admit that living with me is very hard." amide Mammadqolizada, "Molla Nasraddin Haqqinda Khatiralarim" in Jalil Mammadqolizade (Maqalalar va Khateratlar), p. 310, This would explain Jahreji Khale's foot-loose nature.

On the other hand, she took on responsibilities for her father's estate which were unheard of for a Muslim woman of her time. She was intimately acquainted with the cotton trade, and had been invited to participate in a Baku conference on the locust infestation and resulting failure of the cotton crop in Qarabagh. amide Mammadqolizade, Mirza Jalil Haqqinda Khatirlarim, p. 19. Although she was turned away because she was a woman, she did deliver a learned paper at a similar conference in 1912. Translated from Russian to Azeri Turkish by 'Abbas Zamanov on pp. 151-152 of ibid. This would account for Jahreji Khale's relationship with the Caucasian cotton trade displayed in her third letter. 'Abbas Zamanov, op. cit., p. 6.

Mírza Jalil met Hamide Khanum in 1905, when she sought to have him publish her father's divan. Mirza Jalil pursued her with marriage proposals conveyed through Sofia Khanum. The first Jahreji Khale letter would then have been written a year after they'd first met. Hamide Mammadqolizade, op. cit., p. 18.

The second letter, written in response to Khan Pari, was written just before Sofia Khanum would relay Mirza Jalil's interest to her. She would turn him down because her responsibilities on the family land were too demanding to consider a marriage proposal.

The article on Armenian and Muslim woman and the veil mentioned above was particularly significant in the relationship between Mirza Jalil and Hamide Khanum. Hamide Khanum recalls, "Truly, this article had a tremendous effect on me and made me content to have Mirza Jalil as my life-companion." amide Mammadqolizada, "Molla Nasraddin Haqqinda Khatiralarim" in Jalil Mammadqolizade (Maqalalar va Khateratlar), p. 299, In her memoirs, . 21. she situates it in the context of the uproar it evoked, with the clear implication that it was Mirza Jalil’s outspoken defense of women’s rights which won her over. Another interpretation seems possible: The piece which won Hamide Khanum’s admiration might be seen as having been written in the process of Mirza Jalil wooing her and removing any negative feelings engendered by his first article on Armenian and Muslim women, Gachan Gunlar, refered to above. in which the latter had come out so badly.

The last letter was written two months later, when she and Mirza Jalil were married. Although were living separately, we know that she had not been to Daghestan, and this detail would then have to have been a fiction.

This hypothesis has its problems. For one thing, it seems inexplicable that Hamide Khanum would have kept her one forray into satire a secret, e.g., in her memoirs of her life with Mirza Jalil. Moreover, Soviet Azerbaijani scholarship is rich in the memoirs of the Mollanasroddinchis, and nothing about this aspect of the relationship between Hamide Khanum and Mirza Jalil survives. When even the most basic facts about Molla Nasr od-Din's famous artists Schmerling and Rotter (nationality, political background) remain unknown, it must be accepted that we may never know the true identity of its only female writer (at least in the pre-Soviet years.)

What impact did these letters have on Molla Nasr od-Din? Of course, we do not have any way of knowing this directly, but the magazine's portrayal of women did change noticeably soon after they appeared. The cover of the first issue in 1909 features a young (presumably) Muslim woman striking a heroic pose and carrying a blazing torch over the Muslim world, the heads of representatives of Muslim male patriarchy bobbing in the sea at her feet. From then on, the magazine's editorials are presented under a masthead featuring the following feminist melodrama: a woman dressed in the European mode is slumped on the floor. Her father, dressed in traditional garb, clutches her wrist in one hand and is raising a mallet with the other, poised to strike her. The mother, shrouded entirely in a black veil, looks on helplessly. The girl is reaching out to a giant female figure dressed in a cap and bells and what would have been for the times a skimpy outfit, who stands ready to block the blow. This cartoon, it should be emphasized, appears over every editorial, whether or not it concerns women's issues. The image of the ignorant and crude Muslim woman, meanwhile, beats a retreat to the older generation, as clearly distinct from young Muslim women.

Another apparent result of Jahreji Khale's letters is the character of Dabani Chatdakh Khale, "Aunt Sole Mender," a pseudonym for a male writer, 'Ali Razi Shamchizade. This author has long been virtually absent from Soviet Azeri scholarship. The reason is not hard to find; before joining the Communist Party, he had been an active Mosavatists, i.e., a member of a bitterly anti-Communist party with left-nationalist politics;. He was executed by the Stalinists in 1938. Even his son was under a ban as the son of an "enemy of the people." (See Eslam Aqayev, "'Ali Razi Shamchizade" in Ali Razi Shamchizade, Nalelarim, Faghanlarim; Sechilmish Asarlari (Elm; Baku, 1992), pp. 3, 16-17) The feuilletonist's mission is described in the lead paragraph of the first of his "Our Women" columns: Arvadlarimiz," Moharram 6, 1326 [February 22, 1908], III:4.

Hey big brother Mullah Nasr od-Din! Hey, sir, you have had men write for you every week for two years, but no women have written for you. If the author is right, then of course this means that Hamide Khanum had not written the Jahreji Khale letters. Otherwise, he was practicing a double deception and not a single deception.... And so I'll write for you and you'll print what I write in your magazine. If anything I say makes your moustache droop, many my daughter die if I ever write again.

Although Eslam Aqayev, the Azeri scholar of this writer, sees his pieces in terms of high-minded social satire, In these pieces, he poses various issues of socio-political life. In the works written under the titles "Tuti" and "Arvardlarimiz," he depicts with deep sorrow the family and social life of Azerbaijani women. He mocks the moral silliness of the religious functionaries and vulgar fathers and husbands which imprison women." Eslam Aqayev, "Molla Nasr od-Din Zhurnalinda She'r," XX Asr Azarbayjan Adabiyati Masalalari (Elm, Baku, 1979), p. 110. Eslam Aqayev had written one of the very few articles on 'Ali Razi. the thirteen poems and vignettes by him which appear in Molla Nasr od-Din over a period of thirty months have a rather frothy quality. Thus, the first column features a romp through the woman's hamam, as the patrons run out and refuse to pay their fees. This tone is maintained in the second Dabani Chatdakh Khale piece: Moharram 6, 1326 [February 29, 1908], III:4.

I came to put sugar in the bowl; I didn't for my heart to ache.
I came to braid my hair; I didn't come for my heart to bleed.
I came to put on velvet breeches; I didn't come to talk like a mother-in-law....
I came to put a red ribbon in my hair.; I didn't come to see to the ill.
I came to light the samovar; I didn't come to sit alone in my room.
I came to put sugar in a cup; I didn't come to stay hungry night and day.
I came to pour tea in a cup; I didn't come to cry and sigh.
I came to bear children; I didn't come to bleat like a sheep.
I came to henna my hands; I didn't come to cry night and day.
I came to be a proper woman;I didn't come for my sister-in-law to call me a bitch.

Aqayev sees this as a satire of the limited world-outlook of a simple girl. Aqayev, "'Ali Razi Shamchizade," p. 36. But the tone is too sympathetic to be satirical--I believe it to be his portrait of an ordinary girl's feelings, her desire to be free "to be a proper woman" and not live a life of drudgery. The male perspective is provided by Mashhadi Shizhimqoli ('Ali Nazmi Mammadzade, to be declared by Mirza Jalil "the second Saber," refering to Molla Nasr od-Din's famous poet) in his "Our Men":Kishilarimiz," Safar 12, 1326 [March 21, 1908]. III:8.

We take a wife for her to pull weeds; We don't take her to comb her hair.
We take her to be a woman; We don't take her to be a lady
We take a wife to be a maidservant.
We don't take her to be a mistress over the first wife....

Aqayev expresses the belief that Jahreji Khale was another pen-name for 'Ali Razi. Ibid. p. 18. This is entirely unlikely. Compare the palpable anger of the former with the following lines penned by the latter in the latter's pamphlet, Dabani Chatdakh Khale va Heyvare (1912): Ibid., p. 95.

If a Russian or one of the your despicable unbelieving, unclean, and hell-bound Armenian, Georgian, or Jewish neighbors' girls laugh at you and you get angry and say, "Why do these unbelievers, who go about bareheaded and are shameless and whose place in the next world is hell, laugh at me?", they are laughing at your going about in your chador with your naked ankles and calves, without stockings in filthy slippers, behiving like a dumb animal led around by the collar, deprived of every right, living wretchedly.... If you saw, knew, and understood your faults, you would laugh--ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, hi, hi, hi, hi, hi, hi, hi.

It was precisely such depictions of Muslim women (however well-meaning) which caused Jahreji Khale to take pen in hand in the first place. That Aqayev has reservations about this theory can be seen in the way he introduces it rather late in his introductory essay. Moreover, in an earlier essay, he leaves Jahreji Khale's name out of the list of 'Ali Razi's pen-names. See "Molla Nasr od-Dinin Zhurnalinda She'r," in XX Asr Azarbayjan Adabiyyati Masalalari (Elm, Baku, 1979.)

It should not go unremarked that apparently part of Mirza Jalil's reponse to Jahreji Khale's remonstrations was to have a male satirist write a column. The fact that a magazine which had taken such advanced positions on the role of women in society would have a male writer write a women's column highlights the male character of the Caucasian Muslim enlightenment; the assimilation of women into the westernization process lagged far behind that of men, and it would have been extremely exceptional for a woman to break with the traditional culture and fight for greater participation in social life. As Mirza Jalil comments in one of his feuilletons, "It is not necessary that [Muslim women] go about bareheaded right now. Even if we were to order them to do this, they would not at all understand what we were talking about and would answer us, "God be with you, sir, don't grind my flesh! It's as if you want us to go about bareheaded like those Russian and Armenian women." "Armani va Musalman 'Awratlari," Molla Nasr od-Din, Rajab II 19, 1326 [June 1, 1907], II:20. Moreover, 'Ali Razi was one of the guys. He could hold mock disputations over women and poke fun at another poet's marriageability, but he was not going to challenge Mirza Jalil.

blog comments powered by Disqus