My Name Is Red: A Gender Critique

My Name is Red. I am a novel, a proud work of the very venerable Nobel Prize Winner, Orhan Pamuk. I am not Benim Adım Kırmızı, the original novel in Turkish but a 2001-translation clone by Erdağ M. Göknar.  I tell a story about a murder mystery among a group of miniaturists (people who draw illustrations for books) in Istanbul in 1591.  

Pamuk is a sneaky master. He hides himself among the cacophonic voices of multiple characters. So even if you manage to locate a whisper of his opinion, you would first suspect you have misheard. He achieves this by switching points-of-view and by breaking the fourth wall. There are obnoxiously narcissistic characters constantly talking to the reader about themselves. This breathes life into these characters, overshadowing the author’s presence. This meta-fictional sorcery also resonates with the theme of egotism and the merging of realistic art and reality.

My story is saturated with a multitude of themes, ranging from rosy romance to crimson violence. But I am here to talk about how Pamuk portrays women in a particular Muslim society. I will do this by analyzing the character of Shekure, who is one of the prominent female voices. She narrated 11 out of 59 chapters so she can be considered the second main character after the protagonist, Black who is one of her pursuers. Therefore, it is unsurprising that her marriage and subsequent divorce are an important subplot. 

She Has a Marriage

A valid marriage in Islam requires the assent of the bride, the groom and the bride’s wali or male guardian. A great significance is placed on the guardian so marriages arranged by parents or the wali are very prevalent. However, different sects of Muslims have different laws pertaining to the power relationship between the guardian and the bride.

During the Ottoman period, the school of Hanafi, the Sunni sect which Shekure’s family belongs to, gave significant power to the wali if the woman was a minor. But in the case of a matured woman, the wali was required to provide more information about the arrangement and her refusal had to be honored. Coercion was also forbidden. The woman could also arrange her own marriage without the consent of her guardian under this tradition. However, the power relation did not lean more towards the bride. It was more balanced, because the wali could still object on accounts of insufficient dowry or unsuitable groom and the jurists would have to nullify the marriage.

Pamuk cleverly shows this tension through Shekure actions. Neither does Pamuk critique this issue by taking over the narration nor does Shekure as a character criticize the system. Instead she demonstrates the complications that might come with this practice by defending her rights against social patriarchy, actively taking actions to determine her own destiny. Through her POV, we learnt that she threatens to kill herself to marry a soldier who in her elitist father’s opinion does not make a suitable husband. The fact that she wins shows that it is possible to overcome patriarchal limitations. But her method also demonstrates the extreme means one had to take to marry someone they loved in a society where forced marriage was common. 

She Has a Divorce and Another Marriage

Most unfortunately, her happy marriage proves transient and brings about a matrimonial crisis when her husband, who is interestingly never named, does not return from a war for four years. The crisis in concern is a consequence both of male guardianship and the less liberal social norms during the time. Her husband’s ghostly tether to her is transferred to that of her father-in-law which perhaps could be fine except her brother-in-law, a licentious lad, approaches her inappropriately. Hasan’s attempt at rape gives her an excuse to return temporarily to the feeble hands of her father whose life is fading. Acutely aware that she has to eventually return to her father-in-law’s house, cohabiting with Hasan, Shekure decides to orchestrate a divorce with her husband and a marriage with Black.

Pamuk again through these events ingeniously explores the nuanced differences in the different Islamic sects and the patriarchal predilections. According to Shekure, Shafiite and the traditionalist Hanbeli are more sympathetic to war widows than her sect, Hanafi. In Ottoman Turkey, women of the Hanafi school could not claim marital defects (faskh), such as long absence of husband, to plea divorce. Hanafi judges could not themselves apply faskh based on disappearing husband but should accept rulings by jurists of Shafiite or Hanbeli traditions, which do allow divorce due to husband disappearance. For this reason, Shekure suggested seeking divorce from a Shafiite judge in the city and she succeeded with Black’s help. Pamuk perfectly demonstrates the underlying issues of this system at the same time showing how woman’s pro-activity may prevail systematic patriarchy. Do you agree, dear Reader? 

She Is an Intelligent… Mother?

Shekure is the mastermind who gives instructions to Black on how to arrange her divorce and their marriage among other things. She is presented as an astute and resourceful woman yet she seems to have to justify her intelligence mostly by her motherhood. She keeps reassuring herself that all her schemes are to secure a safe future for her children. The other female character, Ester appears almost like a maternal parody in comparison to Shekure. Ester is a cloth peddler and part-time manipulative matchmaker that busies herself sending (and not sending) letters back and forth between Shekure and her lovers. Childless, she regards the women she successfully marries off as her daughters.

Yet, her godmotherly love, far from putting her marital shenanigans in a positive light, highlights her bitterness. The appearance of Ester, the one without real children, is described in a comedically negative manner. She is a “boisterous” woman “as large and wide as an armoire”. 

Esther was all atwitter in the pink dress…with her large and lively body, her mouth which never stopped moving, and her eyebrows and eyes which twitched madly… 

Shekure’s motherhood, apart from being a justification for her scheming, is also associated with female aesthetics. This is demonstrated in this comment by Black: 

“Marriage and motherhood have made you even more beautiful” 

She, instead of an intelligent woman, is regarded as a beautiful mother.  

She Is Intelligent Beautiful

When Shekure conveys her divorce-marriage plan to Black. She said this: 

“Perhaps, but only because these aren’t my own ideas, I learned
them from my father over the years.” I said this so he wouldn’t dismiss what I said, assuming that these plans had sprung from my feminine mind. 

It tells us that Shekure is highly aware that the patriarchal society in Ottoman Turkey is in some ways a hindrance to her life. But she does not question the patriarchy. She adapts and focuses on achieving her life goals. What follows in their conversation is: 

Next, Black said what I’d heard from every man
who wasn’t afraid to admit he found me very intelligent: 

“You’re very beautiful.” 

“Yes,” I said, “it pleases me to be praised for my intelligence. When I was a child, my father would often do so. I was about to add that once I’d grown up my father ceased to praise my intelligence, but I began to weep. 

She thinks highly of her intelligence and presumes Black recognises it. But Black never calls her intelligent. He instead is only concerned about her physical attributes. From these two set of quotes, we could see Pamuk’s critique on gender and intelligence in this society. In fact, its reading can even be extended to any human society in general.  

She, Satan

What puzzles me is Shekure’s repeated proclamation of her own “wickedness”. 

A wicked woman like myself ought to wed someone with a good soul 

More disturbingly, Shekure’s chapters are all titled “I, Shekure”. The only chapter other than hers that shares the same construction is titled “I, Satan”. In a creative chapter crafted by the author called “I am a woman”, Elegant Effendi, whose murder was central to the plot, talks about his cross-dressing experience as a child. His first thought when he put on underclothes and dresses belonging to his mother and aunt was: 

…contrary to what we’ve often read from books and heard from preachers, when you are a woman, you don’t feel like the Devil. 

However, he later contradicts himself by saying he is “as proud as Satan” when he sees his fake breasts made of stuffed clothing. But dear readers, read carefully, he does not contradict himself at all! It is only when he sees himself as a woman with big breasts that he feels Satanic. But when he is a woman as suggested in the earlier quote, he/she does not feel demonic. His later comment about his erection at seeing himself corroborates this. Here, Pamuk is criticizing views held by certain Muslims, perhaps Ottoman Turks, that women are Satanic in nature.  

Finally, I Would Like to Say That

There is so much more to me.  Considering that Pamuk describes himself as a street feminist, it is no surprise that gender issues are one of the many that this brilliant novel looks at. This article is merely a summation of my thoughts on the same. As the novel is contextualized in 16th century Ottoman Turkish society, certain aspects of the novel are limited in their application to Turkey or Ottoman Turkey. However, the settings prompt readers to compare the Muslim society in the story with any modern society in the world.


 By Ed Yong Zhien Bao 

your friendly neighbourhood grammar nazi

Comments are closed.