The Early Feminist Movement in Ottoman Syria

The Experience of Writer Hana Kasbani-Kourani
02 February, 2020

The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies has published Taissier Ahmad Khalaf’s book The Early Feminist Movement in Ottoman Syria: the Experience of Writer Hana Kasbani-Kourani, enriching our understanding of the harbingers of the development of a feminist movement in the Arab Mashreq, and of the intellectual and philosophical currents influencing this emerging movement. Korany’s experience at the cusp of the twentieth century offers rich material for scholars on a rare case of cultural interaction between East and West.

Keynote at the first Chicago Women’s Conference

The first of the book’s three chapters details Hana Kisbany Korany’s participation in the first Chicago Women’s Conference, wherein her 1893 keynote address, with its stirring choice of words and eloquent English expression, delivered by a woman in distinctive Oriental apparel – and soon to become a star of the new world –  forcefully overawed elite American cultural circles. Korany became a polished guest of the salons of the bourgeois class and a coveted speaker in literary and social fora exploring the mysterious world of the Orient, its customs and traditions, and the status of Oriental men and women.

Expounding on this, the author writes, "In a letter to her friend Hind Nofal, editor-in-chief of the al-fatāh magazine, Hana Korany expressed astonishment at the position of American women who enjoyed a first-class level of progress, because they “were not satisfied with their lot,” as she put it. In her message, nevertheless, she criticized what she referred to as “American women’s persistence in competing with men in political matters and in taking up administrative positions: “I do not praise them for these great ambitions, because this disturbs the public ease, and above all destroys household happiness.  It would be better of them to be satisfied with their high status and make an effort to rescue their sisters who have been sentenced from time immemorial to live in humiliation and disgrace."

Notwithstanding Hana Korany’s impact in the United States at the International Women Conference and World's Fair Columbian (Chicago) Exposition, an important shift began to appear at that time in Korany’s thinking about women's rights and political participation, as seen in her statements to the American press. According to Khalaf, this shift was clearly due to her association and close friendship with May Wright Sewall, a prominent symbol of women's liberation and the acknowledged godmother of women’s right to vote in the United States.

Reception in Uncle Sam's Country

In the second chapter, "Professional Engagement in Uncle Sam's Country," Khalaf portrays Korany’s association with Sewall during the activities of the International Women’s Conference, and their subsequent strong friendship. This friendship had a profound intellectual impact on Korany, during the period that followed the end of the Columbian (Chicago) Exposition. The seminars, lectures and discussions of the conference no doubt contributed to refining the refinement of Korany’s ideas of at this stage, but the impact of informal meetings organized by May Sewall and her husband at their home in Indianapolis, where Korany spent valuable time as a guest, cannot be ignored here, as she herself states in her letters. Perhaps the most notable result of this friendship between the two women was Korany’s nomination to participate in the 26th annual conference on women's right to vote, in 1894.

In this context, Khalaf says: "After her appearance at some of the most important New York forums, Hana Korany became an ever-present guest of the American press, as the major American newspapers and magazines rushed to file reports on her activities and conduct interviews with her, all adorned with the iconic illustration of her wearing the oriental costume  during her famous speech at the Chicago Women's Conference.

He adds: "For Korany, the year 1894 unfolded with success upon success, as she was now an established professional darling and star of the American elite:  she could hardly find time to respond to the invitations from the numerous fora and associations pouring in from all sides. During the year, she became steadily bolder in criticizing the male community of the Levant, which she held to be responsible for fostering the continued ignorance of girls, and in her last lectures she abandoned any criticism of women, instead assertively demanding their rights, and publicly calling for equality in political rights. This she did, however, without neglecting to recognize the positive aspects of Eastern society, and never ceasing to critique the materialism of American society.”


Khalaf’s narrative shifts, in the third chapter, “Sickness and Return,” to recount how Hana Korany began the pursuit of lessons to learn to ride a bicycle, but then became stricken with tuberculosis, before sailing aboard the vessel New York to visit friends in Paris and Alexandria and continuing onwards to return to her hometown Kfar Shima near Beirut in (then) Syria, ostensibly before returning to the United States as soon as her health improved, in order to obtain American citizenship.

Khalaf then explains that after Korany's return to Beirut, and despite her health condition, on May 26, 1896, she gave a lecture titled "Modern Urbanization and its Impact on the East," in which she spoke at length about the key features of civilization and urbanization in ancient history, Islamic - Arab history, and in the contemporary world.  In it, she called on citizens of her homeland to effect a comprehensive revival through learning about the experiences of other peoples. After extolling the working and informed woman for the boundless capacity she enjoys to promote the civil and moral causes of humanity, she called on her nation’s kin and her gender to take the lead, observing that it is impossible for a woman to keep up with a man in the forefront of knowledge and morals if she does not depend on herself, and pound on the door with her right fist, as she said, because "men, as are well known, give preference in sovereignty to themselves, endowing themselves with supremacy, and they specialize in the perfections of reason, wisdom, and experience. They believe themselves to be the sultans of the universe, endowed with absolute rule to which all must submit and to which all creatures are to be led, including women, by the lot."                                                                                                              

Hana Korany died in Kafr Shima on May 6, 1898, from Tuberculosis. The news of her death flew immediately to the American press, which received it with expressions of great regret, commemorating this Syrian who stormed through the most exclusive and influential of intellectual fora and cultural venues of the United States, befriending the American society’s elite.

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