BOSTON — The Armenian International Women’s Association (AIWA) announces the release of its latest book, Srpuhi Dussap’s pioneering Armenian feminist novel Mayda: Echoes of Protest.
Published in 1883 in Istanbul, in the midst of an Armenian community experiencing a cultural renaissance, the book caused a sensation at the time, with some condemning its call for the equal rights of women as a threat to traditional Armenian values, while others praised its promotion of social justice as a progressive step for the nation.
This first book known to have been written by an Armenian woman is notable not only for its novel ideas but also for its innovative form, as one of the earliest works written in the modern Western Armenian language and therefor easily accessible to the public, rather than the classical form that had until that time been considered the only acceptable text.
With Mayda, Dussap provides a sharp critique of the unequal and unjust position of women in contemporary society and declares the right of a woman to a good education, to become gainfully employed, to relate with the opposite sex on the basis of mutual respect, and to have an independent role in society. She advances her ideas through this controversial novel of romance, betrayal, and reconciliation. The action is described through correspondence, mainly between an attractive but despondent young widow (Mayda) and her wise friend (Madam Sira), who offers her encouragement and advice.
While advocating equality for women is the main theme of the book, this was only one aspect of the author’s crusade for a more just and humane society. Her disapproval of the frivolity of the upper classes was clear, and she saw it as the duty of the privileged to improve the condition of the less fortunate. Her crusade for a greater role for women was based not only on her sense of social justice, but also on her conviction that enlisting the abilities of women would facilitate the nation’s progress. There is a strong strand of nationalism in her writing, and Dussap was a part of the contemporary progressive movement dedicated to advance the Armenian community through education, publications, and social participation.
Srpuhi Vahanian Dussap was born in the Istanbul suburb of Ortaköy in 1841 into a wealthy and socially prominent family. Her father passed away before she reached her first birthday, leaving her upbringing and education in the capable hands of her mother, Nazeli Vahanian. An especially well-educated woman noted for her philanthropic activities as well as her participation in the newly formed women’s associations of the times, Nazeli carefully supervised her daughter’s education, first in a French elementary school and later with tutors.