Top 10 Inspiring Women of Istanbul

Over the last few centuries the history of Istanbul, formerly named Constantinople during the Byzantine and Ottoman Empire eras, was marked by key feminine figures. These women succeeded to overcome […]

Over the last few centuries the history of Istanbul, formerly named Constantinople during the Byzantine and Ottoman Empire eras, was marked by key feminine figures. These women succeeded to overcome prejudgements from the societal level, from men’s stereotypes that were totally against any feminist manifestation, be it public or private, and most importantly, from the limitations produced by a social fabric immersed in conservatism. Their achievements are even more significant than their correspondents from Europe and the United States. So much so that two strong forces were against their endeavours in almost any domain of life:  the Islamic ideology and the overall women’s lack of credibility as capable agents of social change.

After making this synthetic preamble, it is worth mentioning that our Top 10 List will be completed in accordance with a reversed chronology, starting from contemporary feminine personalities and going back in time to remarkable figures of the second millennium. Having incredible self-confidence, mental force, open-mindedness and a desire to produce major changes, these women have inspired entire generations through their unquestionable accomplishments and determinations in both Middle Eastern countries and all over the world.


10 – Anna Komnene (1083-1153)

The stream of Time, irresistible, ever moving, carries off and bears away all things that come to birth and plunges them into utter darkness, both deeds of no account and deeds which are mighty and worthy of commemoration. Nevertheless, the science of History is a great bulwark against this stream of time; in a way it checks this irresistible flood, it holds in a tight grasp whatever it can seize floating on the surface and will not allow it to slip away into the depths of Oblivion.

Anna Komnene was a Byzantine princess, scholar, physician, hospital administrator and historian. She was the daughter of the Byzantine emperor Alexios I and his wife Irene Doukaina. Her masterpiece is called Alexiad, an account of her father’s reign, which is unique in that it was written by a princess about her father.


9 – Fatma Aliye Topuz (1862-1936)

The whole life is about Dream and Truth.

Fatma Aliye Topuz had interests in different domains of science and cognition, but she is widely known as an essayist, columnist, a women’s rights activist and a humanitarian. Her accomplishments in writing five novels, has credited her in the literary circles of Istanbul as the first female novelist in the Islamic world and in Turkish literature.


8 – Halide Edib Adıvar (1884-1964)

… she has opinions on most subjects and discusses the problems of the day in a manner which charms one not so much on account of what she says, but because it is so different from what one expected.Ellison Grace Mary, An English Woman in a Turkish Harem, 1915

Halide Edib Adıvar was a Turkish nationalist, novelist and political leader for women’s rights. She is recognized all over the world for her novels criticizing the low social status of Muslim women. She has identified the low social status of women as a consequence due to the lack of interest from most women in changing their situations.


7 – Nezihe Muhiddin (1889-1958)

It’s time for the Turkish women to receive their rights and political equality.

Nezihe Muhiddin was an Ottoman and Turkish women’s rights activist, journalist and writer. As a political leader, her status allowed her to become the founder of the first party of the Republic of Turkey, which was suggestively called, Women’s People Party or People’s Party of Women in July 1923. Due to the political climate during that time, the party was not recognized, but that did not stop Muhiddin for she founded the Turkish Women’s Union and continued her fight for political equality. She spent all her life struggling to improve the quality of the lives of Turkish women.


6 – Safiye Ali (1891-1952)

Treating our wounded soldiers in war for me meant, healing Turkey and contributing to the greatness of our Republic.

Safiye Ali was the first Turkish woman to become a medical doctor after her graduation at Robert College in Istanbul. She treated the soldiers in the Turkish War of Independence, the Balkan Wars and World War I and in 1922, she opened her own office in Istanbul.


5 – Nuriye Ulviye Mevlan Civelek (1893-1964)

One of the excuses of men who want to prevent women earning their own living is that they say women are not properly educated and have no experience. Do all tradesmen go to the trade school? Do they have higher education? The truth is that most of them are illiterate.

As a women’s rights activist, journalist, suffragist and founder of the first feminist women’s magazine and Muslim women’s rights organization in Turkey, Nuriye Ulviye Mevlan Civelek, is considered one of the most important defenders of feminism in modern world history by many scholars around the world. She was the first woman to own a publication in Ottoman Turkey and her magazine was the first to publish a photograph of a Muslim woman.


4 – Feriha Tevfik Dağ (1910-1991)

Turkish women are beautiful and I have proved that.

As a beauty pageant contestant and actress, Feriha Tevfik Dağ, is best known for being the first Miss Turkey in 1929. Marilyn Monroe, the famous American model and actress, was always compared with Feriha for her charm and similar beauty.


Halet Çambel

3 – Halet Ҫambel (1916-2014)

Our coach was a German girl, a swimmer. She told me: I will introduce you to Hitler. But I just told her not to.

Halet Çambel was a reputed archaeologist and Olympian fencer, being the first Muslim woman to compete in the 1936 Olympic Summer Games. As professor of Archaeology at Istanbul University, Halet played a key role in the decryption of Hittite hieroglyphics, while also active in promoting the preservation of Turkey’s cultural heritage.


Sertab Erener

2 – Sertab Erener (1964 – …)

Love doesn’t die.

As one of the most successful female singers in her homeland, Sertab Erener is one of the divas of the Turkish pop music scene and a cross-over soprano. On the European continent, she is best known for winning the 2003 edition of Eurovision Song Contest with her hit song “Every Way That I Can”.

A native of Istanbul, she achieved the utmost performance in her musical career after working with Turkish music icon, Sezen Aksu. In 2009, she created a band called Painted on Water and released a self-titled album in the United States, producing an unexpected impact in the US music industry.


Elif Şafak

1 – Elif Şafak (1971 – …)

In Turkey men write and women read. I want to see this change.

Elif Şafak is the author of eight novels and is Turkey’s most widely read woman writer. With exceptional work that has been translated into more than 30 languages, she was awarded the honorary distinction of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters in France, 2010. She writes fiction in both Turkish and English, dividing her time between Istanbul and London.

Blending Western and Eastern traditions of storytelling, Elif has interests in different areas such as, minorities, women rights, immigrants, youth and subcultures, cultural politics, Sufism and philosophy. She is also conscious about the literary discrimination between the East and the West, mentioning that, “A white male, middle-class American writer can experiment with form and choose any subject he wants, but a woman writer coming from Algeria or Tunisia should produce stories that fit into a certain cultural box.”



In limiting ourselves to only 10 female personalities we might have missed many other courageous and inspiring women, but we are really looking forward to your suggestions and contributions in adding to the present Top Inspiring Women of Istanbul List.

1- Binder, Charlotte and Richman, Natalie (2000), “Feminist Movements in Turkey”. Cambridge University Press, p. 123-205.
2- Wilkinson, Tracy (January 9, 2007), “Taking the honoUr out of our women”. Los Angeles Times.
3- Sever, Aysan (January 2, 2015), “Feminist Analysis of HonoUr Killings in Rural Turkey”. University of Toronto.
4- Questions and Answers on Women’s Rights, prepared by the Turkish government for the Human Rights Agenda Association in 2009.

Leave a Reply