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Tugce Kayaal


Bodies in War: Politics of Sexuality and War Orphans in the Late Ottoman Empire (1912-23)

By: Tugce Kayaal

Welcome to our Featured Student Series. This week, Tugce Kayaal discusses the regulation of sexual behaviour by war orphans in the Late Ottoman Empire.

In the Winter of 2017, I arrived in Istanbul to start the first leg of the research trip for my dissertation project focusing on the history of childhood in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. As a new Ph.D. candidate, who passed her proposal defense in November 2016, all I had was a broad project and lots of questions in my mind. I found myself at the colossal campus of the Ottoman State Archives [Osmanlı Devlet Arşivleri], located in one of the secluded districts in Istanbul. During the first few weeks of my research, I was experiencing conflicting emotions — excitement and anxiety, confidence and fear.

I was going after the stories of those children who suffered the consequences of the war and violence the most, orphans.

In one of our conversations on conducting productive archival research, my advisor, Melanie Tanielian suggested that I think about what I found as a personal adventure and trust it would lead me to a story that clarified issues which were initially broad and vague. I decided to try.

One of those broad interests was about the social and personal experiences that defined orphanhood as a social category and subjective identity. My period was marked by two socially and economically destructive events: the Balkan Wars (1912-13) and World War I (1914-18). This slice of time witnessed the highest number of orphaned children in the imperial lands due to armed conflict. About a month after I started investigating the fate of these children, a folder in the Ottoman State Archives took me to a new path and refocused my dissertation. I found a batch of documents narrating the story of four orphan boys housed by one of the largest state-sponsored orphanages in Konya with a complaint of sexual abuse filed by the boys against their teacher and the headmaster of the orphanage, Mr. M. 

As I started to study the 16-page-long police record, I realized that the boys who brought these charges to the police were not the sole accusers. According to police records, almost all the students housed by the orphanage had become Mr. M.’s victims at some point. These documents involving detailed testimonies of boys about the harassment they experienced also incorporated an interesting framing and usage of the word “innocence” in the reports. The police report on the case received by the Ministry of Interior defined the four boys who filed the initial complaint as those whose morals and behaviors did not resemble a “typical orphan boy.” For the police, the orphanage also had boys known as the “lovers of headmaster.”  They consented to their sexual affairs with the headmaster and were involved in numerous “inappropriate intimacies” with their schoolmates. Hence, the police either excluded the testimonies of the promiscuous boys who they accused of seducing the headmaster or only incorporated the statements of orphanage administrators who attested to the “deviant and immoral behaviors” of such children.1

Official support for the idea that if a “typical orphan boy” performed behaviors of sexual promiscuity and immoral personality, the group might generally be excluded from victimhood, led me to contemplate further on the function of sexuality in the construction of labels and categories. Why did the Ottoman government and its institutional representatives situate orphans outside the imagery of children as desexualized and innocent beings? Why would behaving as a “typical orphan boy” disqualify some children from being victims of an adult's assault who took advantage of his positional within institutional power dynamics? How did this stigmatization of orphans impact their public reception?

In the light of these overarching questions that raised from my close reading of these documents, I developed my current dissertation project: “Bodies in War: Politics of Sexuality and War Orphans in the Late Ottoman Empire (1913-23).” As the focus of my project, I explore the measures and regulations that the Ottoman government and its institutional allies, including but not limited to medicine, family, and educational institutions, deployed to regulate sexual behaviors and orientations of war orphans against the backdrop of the representation of “proper” youth sexuality as opposed to the “deviant orphan” imagery.

The primary function of the wartime institutional settings targeting children and adolescents was to teach them how to become decent men and women with proper sexual conducts.

The proper sexual manners in the late Ottoman ideological landscape corresponded to the embracement of the norms of heterosexual sex and the purposes of reproduction; any form of sexual orientation did not meet these standards bore the label of deviancy. However, one could only acquire proper sexual conduct under parental and institutional supervision. Hence, orphans who did not have access to either of these were potential threats as both subjects and objects of improper sexual desires.

The stigmatization of orphans as sexual anomalies, as well as threats against the social mores and order, was an outcome of the mobilization of the politics of sexuality.  This was a medium to cultivate ideal citizens performing sexed and gendered roles that the state and its institutions assigned to the imperial subjects. As the Ottoman medical advice manuals of the early twentieth-century showcase, similar to their European counterparts, physicians and medical experts discerned sexuality not as hereditary but as learned under proper parental and institutional supervision. Oriental Girl, IstanbulIt is important to note that this understanding of sexuality in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was not peculiar to the Ottomans, but a transnational phenomenon.

Figure 1. Oriental Girl, Istanbul (Early 20th Century). “Obscene postcards” as this one were the primary visual materials that were popular among Ottoman youth that the advice literature forbid for their cultural consumption for being a “trigger of vices.” (Atatürk Kitaplığı, Photography Collection). 

As Alison Moore showcases in her article on Victorian medicine and women’s genital anatomy, the period witnessed the emergence of new anxieties about the distinction between male and female gender roles and new discourses aimed at yoking sex to gender and policing the number of possible sexes.2 Given the intensive transnational interaction between French, German, and Ottoman intellectuals, partly due to the student exchanges and political missions, remained active until the final years of World War I. The Ottoman elites promoted a similar understanding of the acquisition of sexuality by mobilizing medicine and literature as their primary ideological tools. Through deployment of these mediums, the Ottoman elites aimed at regulating and restricting sexual activities of youth, beginning in puberty for boys and pre-puberty for girls.  They praised conjugal bond between a man and woman when they reached a proper age, between 18 and 27, and labeled as abnormal or illicit any form of sexual behaviors that did not fit into this trajectory.

For orphans and children under parental supervision, puberty was understood as the most troubling stage in life by those writing for the medical and literary circles of the late Ottoman Empire. In their perspective, it was a stage when instinctual sexual desires surfaced in their wildest form. Ottaman BoyWithout parental supervision, this stage would bring the moral and physical demise of a child undergoing puberty.

Figure 2. A visual representation of an Ottoman boy with idealized masculine features in an Ottoman magazine for children and youth (Talebe Defteri, 1913).

Hence, parents had to pay attention to every moment in their adolescent children’s life. For instance, it was not proper for a pubescent child to spend time in bed after they woke up as their “animalistic urges” would lead them to perform vices such as masturbation. Adolescent girls, whose sexuality was represented as a more dangerous threat compared to their male counterparts, should not be left alone with any male relatives or acquaintances, such as the neighbor’s son, as her “seductive power” would lead to catastrophic results both for her and the family. The cultural consumption of materials with obscene contents, such as erotic stories, postcards with nudes or depicting a couple in an intimate moment, would trigger “perverse desires” and lust within an adolescent. The parents had to be alert about their children’s every thought and act. Moreover, female friendships among adolescent girls were also dangerous in this delicate stage in a woman’s life due to the threat of “sapphism” according to a prominent Ottoman intellectual, Mustafa Galib.3 Orphan children were all the more likely to go down the wrong path of sexual development, and it was the teachers’ and supervisors’ responsibility to observe them with care.

Given the threats of puberty, the physical presence of unsupervised war orphans poised to reach this delicate and dangerous stage, caused a sex panic in urban settings such as Konya where orphans constituted a significant segment of the local population. Considering every adolescents tendency toward inappropriate sexual intimacies, these youths had to be under the state’s custody for their own safety.  State custody would also protect the “innocent children” who remained with their families. The sex panic among the Ottoman society complicated the older definition of orphanhood as a social category. According to Islamic law, whose orders and regulations applied by the Ottoman state until its collapse, an orphan referred to a minor who lost either one or both of their parents. However, particularly during the period between 1912 and 1923, orphanhood functioned as an umbrella category that involved two distinct groups of children. The first group consisted of children who lost their fathers or both of their parents due to any reason. The second group, however, comprised those whose parents were alive but not considered to be capable of efficiently supervising their children or those who came from an outcasted social group. Nazlı’s petitionChildren coming from rural or non-Muslim families were at the top of the list of outcasted social groups.

Figure 3. Asador’s mother Nazlı’s petition to the Ottoman Ministry of Interior, 1915.

The 1915 case of a fifteen-year-old Armenian boy named Asador from Istanbul represents an example of many children who were part of the outcast group, and so labeled and taken as orphans. One evening on September 3, 1915, Asador was walking home from school when the police seized and conveyed him to a secluded settlement that the state designated for orphans in the province of Konya. After searching his son for months, Asador’s ailing mother Nazlı found out that her son was in an orphanage in Konya due to the state’s order. Submitting a petition to the Ottoman Ministry of Interior, Nazlı requested her son’s return. She also mentioned the financial challenges that both herself and her husband endured, and that Asador’s was the only caretaker of the household. Concluding her petition, Nazlı underlined that Asador was neither an orphan nor had any connection with any illegal political organizations. 

The response to the Ministry of Interior to Nazlı displayed the two-sided definition of orphanhood. It was for everyone’s best interest for a bachelor boy like Asador to stay under the supervision of the state in an orphanage. It seems obvious to me that young and single Asador’s ailing parents and their perceived inability to supervise him encouraged state authorities to see him as a sexual threat against social mores.  And this way of seeing him was itself a consequence of the larger medical-social discourse of youth sexuality.

In the process of outlining my dissertation chapters, I have felt a need to extend the types of archives that deserve investigation. Currently, I am working with five chapters and each of these focus on a specific sexual practice and/or orientation that the state, society, and intellectuals labeled as anomaly and deviancy as well as associates with the orphans. Among these practices are cross-generational sexual practices, sex work, same-sex behaviors, and desires, and masturbation. Alongside official archives, I use postcards, photographs, missionary archives, medical and literary advice manuals, orphanage records, and petitions. After completing my dissertation and turning it into a manuscript, I hope it might contribute to developing scholarship on childhood and youth sexuality in transnational sexuality studies and Middle Eastern studies.

About the Author

Tugce KayaalTugce Kayaal is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor Middle East Studies Department, Turkish and Armenian Studies Programs. Kayaal is also a Graduate Student in Women’s Studies Certificate Program at the same university. She received her BA from Marmara University (Istanbul, Turkey) in Political Science and International Relations. She received two MA degrees, one from Sabancı University (Istanbul, Turkey) in History and the other from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor-Near Eastern Studies. This academic year (2018-19) she is an A. Bartlett Giamatti Graduate Fellow at the University of Michigan, Institute for the Humanities. Currently, she is writing her dissertation on war orphans and youth sexuality in the late Ottoman Empire (1912-23) and working on her article on the medical and moral discourses on masturbation in adolescence in the early twentieth-century Ottoman advice manuals.


1. Ottoman State Archives, Ministry of Interior Collection (Dahiliye Nezareti Koleksiyonu).

2. Alison M. Moore. “Victorian Medicine was not Responsible for Repressing the Clitoris: Rethinking the Homology in the Long History of Women’s Genital Anatomy,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society  44, no.1 (2018):44, 53-81.

3. Mustafa Galib. Fahişeler Hayatı ve Redaet-i Ahlakiyye [The Lives of Prostitutes and Disavowal of Morals]. (Istanbul, 1922).