The social life of the state's fantasy: Memories and documents on Turkey's 1934 Surname Law

Meltem F Turkoz, University of Pennsylvania


The Republic of Turkey was established in 1923 out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. Soon thereafter, Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) and his ruling Cumhuriyet Halkci Partisi (Republican People's Party) launched a series of reforms which were designed to transform all aspects of life, including costume and language and sever Turkey's ties with the Islamic, Ottoman past. Although we know what the reforms intended to accomplish, we know very little about how they were received by the populace at large. This dissertation explores the experienced aspect of the last of these reforms, the Surname Law of 1934, which enforced the mandatory registration and use of fixed, hereditary surnames in Turkish. Oral historical methodology, official parliamentary documentation, popular media sources, and other publications were utilized to access the multiple levels on which this law took shape. In oral interviews about surname adoption interviewees described interactions with population officials, community leaders, and family members. These provided unique access to the lives of ordinary citizens and to the texture of the boundaries between state and society. As previous research has shown, Turkish surnames were also more prevalent in cities, closer to officialdom, while peasants were often named en masse by a local elder or official. Ultimately, the surname law was mediated through agents who reinforced existing patterns of authority and in circumstances which particularized the nature of the surname adoption. For this reason, beyond these larger patterns, there was great variation among the experiences of surname adoption, depending on the relationship of the citizen and official to one another and to the particular geographic location. Members of the Greek, Jewish and Armenian minority did not have to change names but registries in Istanbul indicated they often did, especially if they were not native to Istanbul. Officials and citizens based their decisions on surnames on different interpretations of the law and of Turkishness and consequently many families changed or abandoned names by which they had been known. It is also important to see the issue of surnames, names and the state as a diachronic process. Documents and publications since 1934 show that surname change petitioning began very soon after the surname law. Today families are petitioning for old surnames or to alter embarrassing surnames. The changing of names does not apply, however, to Kurdish names, and parents of children who want to register them are often turned away by population officials. Surnames and names in general continue to be a site where the state and citizens negotiate inclusion in national communities.

Subject Area

Folklore|Cultural anthropology|Middle Eastern history

Recommended Citation

Turkoz, Meltem F, "The social life of the state's fantasy: Memories and documents on Turkey's 1934 Surname Law" (2004). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3125908.