Women in the Ottoman Empire - History

Women in the Ottoman Empire - History

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Women in the Ottoman Empire were subjected to the same restriction as women in other Muslim societies. Women in the Ottoman Empire were treated somewhat more liberally, with women be allowed to won property. They could not be forced into marriage and they were allowed to seek divorce under certain circumstances.

What Life Was Like As A Member Of The Sultan's Harem In The Ottoman Empire

For much of history, the harem of the Ottoman Empire was purposefully mysterious. Sequestered in the Ottoman sultan's palace, the harem was a place that was physically set apart from not just the rest of the court but from the entirety of public life. The women inside were connected to the sultan, typically either by blood or by intimate relationship, and were expected to spend the vast majority of their lives apart from the world.

Because of this withdrawal, there was a dearth of information about what it was really like to live in the harem. Western observers, many of whom began reporting back about the harem and other aspects of Ottoman life in the 19th century, weren't especially careful or sensitive. Their accounts, influenced by their own assumptions and misconceptions, produced an inaccurate and sensationalist picture of the harem, as the journal Feminist Studies reports.

Now, however, more careful scholarship and accounts from Ottoman people and their descendants are producing a more complicated picture. Movement in and out of the harem was restricted and was also connected to practices that many will likely find troubling today, such as slavery. Yet, the harem was also a place where women could become incredibly powerful, especially if they were intelligent and paid careful attention to Ottoman politics. It was, in short, a complicated place to be. Here's what life was really like for the women in the imperial Ottoman harem.

Women in the Ottoman Empire - History

Alternately argued as the reason for the decline of, or the reason for the longevity of the Ottoman Empire, the Sultanate of Women was a 130 year period in which the Ottoman Empire was ruled by the Valide Sultan--or the Sultan's mother--either in place of or alongside the Sultan. It started with the marriage of Suleiman the Magnificent to Hurrem Sultan, whom we have discussed before, and ended with the death of Turhan Sultan in 1683.¹ This century was filled with sultans who were children or mentally incapacitated, and marked the shift from the Empire's expansion to its settling into a period of peace and prosperity.

Turhan Hatice Sultan, the most powerful of the
Valide Sultan's
The was, largely in part, due to the women of the Harem who did the actual ruling. Harem's are often painted as dens of lust and depravity, but that couldn't be farther from the truth. The harem was where the women of the Sultanate lived, including the Sultan's wives, concubines, mother, and sisters. It was also a place of assassinations, political machinations, and governing. Any foreign entity looking to treat with the Ottomans needed to go through the Harem first, and the Sultanas wielded tremendous influence. If you think that the women of the Ottoman Empire were delicate, repressed flowers, veiled and shut off from power, hold on to your hats--you're in for quite a ride.

The Valide Sultan exercised such great power in part because of the Islamic belief in the importance and power of mothers. The Prophet Mohammed's statement that 'Heaven lies under the feet of mothers' was taken very seriously, and as such the Sultan frequently put his mother in charge of the harem. It was the Valide who oversaw the running of an enormous household, and picked the women who would be going to her son's bed. She managed the thousands of people who worked in the palace, and ensured the safety, security, and tranquility of the palace.

Mihrimah Sultan, the second Valide Sultan of the Sultanate
of Women
The Valide wasn't confined to the domestic sphere, however. It was the Valide Sultan who negotiated with foreign ambassadors, and mediated between the sultan and religious leaders. The Valide served as regent in times of need, and she frequently counseled with the Pashas. She reached out to, and maintained relationships with foreign leaders. It was said of Hurrem, and the Sultana's after her, that if you wanted to gain an audience with the sultan, you had to go through his Valide.

It wasn't just religious belief that handed these women such power. A Valide Sultan could be weak and pushed aside the same as a Sultan. The Valide's who held power, and the Valide's of the Reign of Women were skilled politicians and stateswomen, capable of running a vast empire.

As mentioned, the Sultanate of Women started with the marriage of Hurrem Sultan to Suleiman the Magnificent in 1531. Hurrem was Suleiman's Haseki Sultan--or official wife--not the Valide Sultan, and was the only Sultana to exercised great power as Haseki.² Hurrem kicked off the Reign of Women by being one of the first Sultana's to maintain diplomatic and personal relationships with foreign monarchs. In addition to maintaining diplomatic relations, she was also known for her building and public work projects--another large part of being Valide Sultan. Hurrem was Suleiman's closest adviser, and he frequently deferred to her in matters of state.

Ottoman Empire map
Hurrem, unfortunately, never lived to be Valide Sultan, as she predeceased Suleiman. She was 'replaced' (as much as any beloved wife can be replaced) in Suleiman's confidences by their daughter Mihrimah. Mihrimah is another noted sultana from the era. She rode with Suleiman on his campaigns--touring and conquering. Like her mother, Mihrimah maintained diplomatic relationships with foreign monarchs, and because of her travels she was well known by even common people in foreign countries. When Suleiman died her brother, Selim II, installed her as Valide Sultan, making Mihrimah the first of the great Valide Sultans.

There were eight women who ruled during the Sultanate of Women, and we'll undoubtedly discuss each of them in their own 'Damn, Girl' post, but for the sake of brevity we'll only mention the most notable following Mihrimah here.

Nurbanu Sultan, wife of Selim II, Mihrimah's brother, was noted for her wisdom and intelligence. Like Hurrem, she was Selim's adviser during his life (though not as close an adviser as Mihrimah.). She was Selim's favorite wife, and it was understood that her son Murad--later Murad III--would become sultan. At the time of Selim's death Murad was away from Istanbul, leaving him vulnerable to a coup. She hid Selim's corpse in an icebox in the harem for twelve days, and didn't tell anyone he had died until Murad had arrived in the capital. Following her son's investiture, Nurbanu continued to more or less rule the empire through, and sometimes in spite of her son.

Selim II
Kosem Sultan was Valide Sultan for 62 years, and saw the reign of six different sultans, and was the regent for three of them. Her eldest son--Murad IV--and her grandson--Mehemed IV--were both too young to rule when they came to the throne, and her second son--Ibrahim--was mentally ill. As regent, Kosem oversaw all matters of the empire, and attended cabinet meetings from behind a screen. She assisted in the installation and removal of sultans (she had her son Ibrahim deposed and executed), and helped clear out the corruption of the palace.

Kosem's daughter-in-law, Turhan Hatice Sultan, was the last of the great Valide Sultans. After Kosem's death in 1651, she served as regent for Mehemed IV. Turhan was, by far, the most powerful of the Valide Sultans. Not only did she listen to cabinet meetings from behind a screen like Kosem, but she also spoke from behind the screen, taking an active part in cabinet meetings. After her son reached the age of majority she continued to co-rule the empire with her son's consent. She was instrumental in modifying the government structure of the Ottoman Empire, which gave the Grand Vizier more power.

Kosem Sultan
Following Turhan's death the power of the Valide Sultan began to die out. The increasing of the power of the Grand Vizier was in part responsible for this, but the larger part was the fact that the sultan following Mehemed--Suleiman II--didn't want to share power.

These women rose to prominence because of the weakness of the Sultan's at the time. Following Suleiman the Magnificent, the sultans became increasingly incompetent until the situation came to a head with Ibrahim. Rather than allowing the empire to crumble, the Valide Sultans took control of the empire, and saved the empire's collective turkey bacon. The 130 years that marked the Sultanate of Women were years that saw great prosperity and political stability for the Ottoman Empire. This was largely in part because of the remarkable women who ruled.

¹Given that the Ottoman Empire would survive for a little more than 200 years after the death of the last great Sultana, I think that the 'women-ruined-the-ottoman-empire' theory is easy to disprove.
²The Haseki Sultan held much less power, despite being the sultan's wife. It was only through becoming the mother of a sultan that a women could hold such power. Hurrem Sultan, and her daughter Mihrimah are notable exceptions.

The First Lady of the Harem

The most powerful woman in the harem, the Valide Sultan , would have been a wife or concubine of the Sultan’s father and would have risen to supreme rank within the harem.

No court lady could leave or enter the premises of the harem without the permission of the Valide Sultan and the eunuchs of the court would answer directly to her. The Valide Sultan was also responsible for the education of her son on the intricacies of state politics. She was often asked to intervene on her son’s decisions as a member of the imperial court as well.

The next most powerful women in the harem would be the concubines that rose through the ranks to attain the titles of Gözde (the Favorite), Ikbal (the Fortunate) or Kadın (the Woman/Wife). Traditionally the Sultan could only have these four as his favorites and they had an equivalent rank to the Sultan’s legal wives within the hierarchy of the harem. They were given apartments within the palace, as well as servants and eunuchs.

Portrait of Emetullah Rabia Gülnuş Sultan, Valide Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, 1695-1715. She was the last imperial concubine to be legally married to an Ottoman Sultan. ( Public Domain )

Women and Law in the Ottoman Empire

The following content was written as a paper for a graduate history course on the Ottoman Empire. It was the final paper, so I didn’t see the results of my professor’s critique, but I finished the course with an A-. That takes into account factors other than just this paper, so take what’s written with a grain of salt. My personal opinion is that I could have (and should have) incorporated more sources, and more fully incorporated ideas from the sources I did use. I perhaps should have focused more on how law was practiced in the Ottoman Empire, and a bit less on the legal foundation for those laws in Islam.

Women’s status in the Islamic legal structure of the Ottoman Empire is a complicated issue, the examination of which does not lead to solid, black and white conclusions. The Ottoman Empire as a political entity spanned a vast territory and existed for approximately six-hundred years, making it impossible to say precisely how women were treated in the Ottoman legal structure as a whole. Beyond the issue of time and distance, the way women were treated in Islamic law at any given time often varied from one legal school to another, or from one jurist to another within the same legal school. Woman as a legal subject is also a very broad topic, which can be addressed using issues as wide-ranging as marriage law, property law, the legal capacity to testify in court, and adultery laws. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but these are the issues that this paper will explore by examining how the topic has been addressed in recent scholarship.

Judith E. Tucker approaches the subject of women in Islamic law by posing the question, “…how could a legal system that attempts to follow the will of God, a God who is compassionate and just, permit and even facilitate the expression of such rampant misogyny and unbounded patriarchal privilege?”[1] Because of how poorly Muslims have been depicted in popular media, Tucker wants to understand how it is that people today are able and willing to defend Islam as the fount of goodness and righteousness, so she begins an investigation of women’s historical place in Islamic law, and how that has developed over time. She believes that it is important to look at not just what the shariʿa says, but at how the shariʿa has been lived and understood by both jurisprudents and laypeople.[2] Through an examination of how Islamic law was implemented in the Ottoman Empire, as well as the justifications used to modify the law, it becomes apparent that many of the misogynistic tendencies Tucker found confusing, when placed in a modern context, are actually accretions of social practice that have become part of the Islamic legal tradition. These social practices became part of the legal tradition both to support the patriarchal structure of society and as a reflection of that society. Ironically, the modification of Islamic law that has so greatly changed its meaning for women and women’s place in society is justified through an Islamic legal concept known as istiḥsān, which allowed formulating law on the basis of the public good. Unfortunately, the public good became skewed due to the male dominance of society, which is perhaps not what the Prophet Muhammad envisioned when he (depending on one’s perspective) relayed God’s message of expanded rights for women in society, but theorizing about what Muhammad may or may not have wanted is beyond the scope of this essay. Instead, I will examine the conflict between Islamic law and how it was modified and implemented in the Ottoman legal system, if at all, and what those changes meant for women’s status in society.

To do this, I will look at a selection of recently written works that address gender and law in the Islamic empire. In Women, Family, and Gender in Islamic Law, Judith Tucker sets out to investigate the historical circumstances behind the development of Islamic law, which she then applies specifically to the Ottoman experience in In the House of the Law: Gender and Islamic Law in Ottoman Syria and Palestine. In Morality Tales: Law and Gender in the Ottoman Court of Aintab, Leslie Peirce addresses how Islamic law was implemented in the court of one small village over the course of a year, from 1540 to 1541. This micro-history closely examines how an Islamic court was used and can help reveal how women engaged with a court on a regular basis and how their interactions with the court defined their place in society. In Family & Court: Legal Culture and Modernity in Late Ottoman Palestine, Iris Agmon discusses a divorce case in Jaffa in 1900 CE, explaining how women’s place in society was defined in relation to the male who happened to be responsible for her at the time. In contrast to Leslie Peirce’s micro-history, in Off the Straight Path: Illicit Sex, Law, and Community in Ottoman Aleppo, Elyse Semerdjian looks at a much larger span of time by examining 359 years of court records from Ottoman Aleppo to discover how the laws regarding sexual indiscretion in the Ottoman Empire were typically applied. She does this to break down the “pervasive discourse of Muslim sexuality that has real effects on the way shariʿa is interpreted today”.[3] I will also introduce a counter-argument to Elyse Semerdjian’s conception of how Islamic law was skirted to allow for flexibility, written by James Baldwin in an article titled “Prostitution, Islamic Law and Ottoman Societies” from the Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient.

Islam, like most religions, puts a strong emphasis on tradition, with much of Muslim life revolving around emulating the sunna (the traditional life and sayings) of the Prophet Muhammad. Oddly enough, that concept of emulating traditional rulings was not present in the Islamic legal system. Judges may have referred to a fatwa (religious opinion) issued by a mufti (a religious scholar) presented during a hearing, but the judge’s opinion was not restricted to following past rulings. He was allowed quite a bit of leeway, though he was expected to operate within certain norms set by the community. The closest thing to legal precedents in the Islamic legal system were court records that attested to events and were witnessed to by male, free-born Muslims. These records, or court registers, are what many historians study today to discover how people may have interacted with the courts.

Islamic law, instead of being based on legal precedents, was based on the foundational texts of the religion: the Qur’an and the Hadith (also known as the sunna, or traditions of the Prophet). The Hadith, despite having gone through a lengthy verification process known as isnad, were often contradictory, which led to the possibility of multiple interpretations of law. Over time, multiple major schools of legal thought emerged, with most Sunni jurists falling into one of four categories: Hanafi, which was the dominant school of the Ottoman Empire Hanbali Shafiʿi and Maliki. The Shiʿa developed their own legal traditions based on the Qur’an and Hadith that were approved by their religious leaders.

In all of these legal systems, women played an important role, but the level of participation allowed to a woman, and how she was conceived of in terms of legal capacity, varied widely depending on the school. Analyzing a work by Haim Gerber, Tucker wrote that women were very active in the court system throughout the Ottoman period, despite the fact that they were an “underdog.”[4] The Ottoman court system was, in fact, a place where the ordinary citizen fought for their legal rights, which, in regards to women, showed clearly that they were aware of their legal rights and were willing to use them. Upper-class women often presented their views in court through male intermediaries, but middle- and lower-class women often appeared themselves.

Leslie Peirce wrote that upper-class women voluntarily refrained from using the court system and opted for arbitration instead. She explained that many women wrote to Ebu Suud, the Ottoman chief mufti from 1545 to 1574, asking what identified one as privileged, and he confirmed that female seclusion was, in his opinion, a marker of elite status.[5] This indicates that there was a level of class distinction involved in who used the court system among women, with women’s ability to exercise their legal rights being curtailed by the idea that by presenting themselves in court they would be violating social norms associated with being privileged. Leslie Peirce wrote that this conundrum bothered Ebu Suud, who was concerned that the removal of elite women from the court might cause them to be deprived of their rights.[6] Tucker explained that when women appeared in court and received validation of their rights by the judges, it helped to ensure that women’s legally guaranteed rights remained active in the community consciousness, despite the fact that men had been actively attempting to silence women and remove them from the public sphere for centuries.[7] Also working against attempts to remove women from the public sphere are the foundational texts of Islamic law themselves, which theoretically give women inalienable rights, or leave enough ambiguity to give women an opportunity for more representation. The fact that women’s rights are embedded in the foundational documents hasn’t stopped men from continually attempting to align the law with patriarchal standards, however. The most prominent area of gender conflict in Islamic law is probably marriage, since it is by definition a legal agreement between a man and a woman.

Judith Tucker writes that the doctrinal basis of marriage, as conceptualized in Islam, is found in both the Qur’an and the Hadith. For example, the Qur’an contains verses that describe wives as “a vestment for you and you [men] are a vestment for them” (2:187). Men and women were both informed that “He created for you, of yourselves, spouses, that you might repose in them, and he has set between you love and mercy” (30:21). These verses described marriage as something positive for both parties, but the Hadith presented a contradictory view of marriage. Some Hadith claimed that Muhammad would have ordered wives to prostrate to their husbands, had it been permissible to prostrate one’s self to another human being. Other Hadith claimed that women should be sexually available to their husbands at any time, even when riding a camel (!).[8]

Hadith are not as reliable as the Qur’an, which is considered to be the word of God, so the fact that there are contradictions between the Hadith and the Qur’an, and between different Hadith, left room for jurists to come to widely different conclusions about how to address the role of women in society. This was especially prominent in terms of how women’s sexuality was controlled, the primary vehicle of which was marriage. Because of the patriarchal structure of the system of jurists that developed, the laws governing women in marriage ultimately privileged men.[9]

Though Islamic marriages were presented as opportunities for two people to create a loving relationship, marriages were established as economic contracts that bound two people together in pledges of mutual support. These marriages were often arranged, and it was hoped that feelings of mutual affection would come later in the relationship. Marriage entailed trade-offs. For the woman, there was guaranteed economic support, a place to live, and a right to inheritance. In exchange, the man received sexual access, domestic labor and a woman to raise his children. In the Hanafi legal tradition (the official legal school in the Ottoman Empire), the nikāḥ, the marriage contract between a man and a woman, was specifically intended to legalize sexual intercourse. Specifically, Hanafis believed that “marriage is ownership by way of owning sexual pleasure in a person and this right is established by marriage.”[10] This conceptualization of marriage presented women as containers for their sexuality, turning their bodies into a commodity, passed from the family of birth to the husband.

Though women were technically required to give their consent to a marriage, their voices were typically silenced through a complex set of rules governing the giving away of brides to husbands. The most egregious example is that of the Shafiʿi jursits, who empowered a virgin woman’s guardian to compel her to marry against her will. Girls in their legal minority (pre-pubescent) could be married off at will by their legal guardian. This rule also applied to underage males, but in actual practice girls were more typically married off before puberty. A non-virgin woman did have some room for maneuver she could only be married with her vocal consent. Also, if a girl was married before she reached puberty, she could sue for annulment upon reaching her age of legal majority (puberty or fifteen years of age).

Even when a woman was given a choice in terms of her marriage partner, that choice was restricted by the imposed constraints of kafāʿa, or the suitability of her choice, which was determined by her guardian (nearest male relative) and essentially restricted her to a man of the same economic and social background or better. A woman was only allowed to marry laterally or to someone of a higher status to do otherwise would bring shame to the family.[11] Women were very much considered to be vessels carrying the family honor, a tradition that continues in modern times and results in the “honor killings” of daughters by their fathers for a perceived looseness of morals that stains the family’s name.

Judith Tucker wrote that it is hard to say with any certainty what Islamic law says about marriage due to the complexity of the legal traditions and the often contradictory sources. The growth of differences between and within the different Islamic legal schools further complicated the issue, though most of the differences revolve around minor issues. There are constants, like nafaqa (maintenance of the wife), but Tucker believed that Islamic marriage was inherently discriminatory, with women not always having an equal say in the making of a marriage contract or in how the household would be run. Islamic law also placed heavy burdens on men in a marriage, making him responsible for the material support of his wife, children, and all household expenses.[12] Essentially, what income a woman had belonged to the woman, and what income a man had also belonged to the woman, in the form of legally mandated material support. This legal requirement of maintaining the wife was a significant curb to polygamy, which required equal maintenance of all wives and balanced a man’s legally recognized right to sexual variety with a woman’s legally recognized right to maintenance.

Marriage status and the life-cycle of a woman indicated a perceived legal capacity. Leslie Peirce described this as part of a gendering and social stratification of society, which was reflected by court records in Aintab in 1540-1541. The court records of Aintab seemed to indicate that the free-born Muslim male was considered the default individual, to which people of all other social statuses were measured. Peirce reached this conclusion by examining the notations next to people’s names in the court registers from Aintab.[13] People were either male, in which case they were noted by their name, or they were something else, in which case they would be labeled by whatever set them apart from the free-born male Muslim: sex, religion, status as a slave or freed-person, nomadic tribal affiliation or status as a minor.[14] The largest category of “other” was female. This status was further broken down to indicate the age of a woman: “kiz, the female child or unmarried adolescent gelin, the newly married young woman and avret or hatun, the female adult, married or once-married and now divorced or widowed.”[15] Males had designations as well, but only for adolescents and the senile, indicating that the default and standard legal identity is the legally mature Muslim male. The fact that senile men had a separate category also indicates that the concept of being legally mature required mental maturity and ability as well, making the free-born Muslim male the standard against which women would be judged, or perhaps reflecting the fact that the Qur’an indicates that Muslim men are more competent to give testimony than women through its requirement of additional female witnesses. This issue will be addressed in greater detail below.

The changing life-cycle notations in the Aintab registers for women could also indicate how women’s status in society was conceptualized. It is interesting to note that a woman’s designation changed based on her physical location, whether in her parents’ home, her new husband’s home, or in a home that she and her husband had created together. Each of these situations were given attention in the court registers, indicating that they had some bearing on the validity of a woman’s testimony. Additionally, they demonstrate how a woman gained value in society, not through her own means, but in how she related to a male: as a father’s daughter, a husband’s new wife, or a husband’s children’s mother.[16]

Because a woman’s status as a householder rested on her having dependents, Peirce argued that infertility had to be overcome so she could establish herself as mature according to social standards. To do so, Peirce said she had to use social means, because legal means were not available to her. Where men could resort to using the existing legal structure to gain heirs through multiple wives or concubines (slaves were permissible for intercourse and produced legitimate offspring, as opposed to bastards as found in European traditions), women had to resort to adoption. I would argue that adoption was a legal structure as well, since Peirce reports that adoptions were recorded in courts by the new guardian, who agreed to take on responsibility for the child’s maintenance, which is a legal agreement between the guardian and the court. Peirce also mentions that a household could be constituted in other ways, such as having domestic slaves, so instead of giving birth to a child, a newly married couple could obtain slaves and then create a new household.

These life-cycle stages and the way they were observed in the Aintab court records do not coincide with the shariʿa concept of female maturity, but they were in use nonetheless, showing that social customs could and did elaborate on or modify legal theory.[17] They also demonstrated the emphasis on maturity being equated with the formation of a household, which for a woman meant being married and having dependents. Peirce argued that social practice in Aintab and elsewhere indicated that people were unwilling to designate any female but a householder as legally mature, indicated by the fact that the vast majority of the women who used the court in Aintab were labeled as avret or hatun.[18]

So, for women in Aintab, and presumably elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire, marriage was seen as an important stepping stone that allowed access to the legal structure of the court, where they could make their voices heard. This social restriction essentially placed women’s legal capacity under the power of men, encroaching on what should have been their inalienable rights to access to the courts without a guardian, as long as she had reached the age of legal majority. An example of where this might not be the case is one that Peirce gives. Suppose a girl is married prior to her age of legal majority and upon reaching that age she rejects her marriage in court and requests an annulment. Technically, that should leave her in a state of being legally and socially mature, but according to the prevailing social customs in Aintab, she would likely have fallen into a gray area where she was neither recognized as kiz, gelin, or hatun.

Writing about a divorce case in Jaffa in 1900 CE, Iris Agmon wrote that women were also disadvantaged in divorce. A regular divorce was always initiated by the man, because a divorce required the man’s consent, which was indicated by his proclaiming the divorce declaration loudly three times at court. Additionally, he was required to pay alimony to his wife for about three months, the period during which she was not allowed to remarry. This was supposedly for her benefit, to determine whether or not she was pregnant before the divorce became final. The reason this was important is because women were not expected to provide for anyone, not even for themselves, and if she were pregnant then the man who fathered the child would be required to provide maintenance until the child reached the age when he would pass from the mother’s care into the father’s.[19]

So, even though shariʿa law regarding divorce was obviously biased in favor of the male, it allowed a woman to demand maintenance, which seems to be practical and beneficial, except that in actual practice women sometimes forfeited their rights to financial maintenance to convince the husband to agree to the divorce.[20] And, because women were required to be under the protection of a male, this would require her to either remarry or return to her family of birth. So, like the young girl that Leslie Peirce described as receiving an annulment from a marriage formed before she reached the age of legal majority, divorce did not necessarily lead to liberation for women.

Women also faced difficulties in retaining control of their children after a divorce, despite it being mandated in Islamic law. Children were thought to be their father’s, not as jointly belonging to the couple, or to the mother. The woman’s job was simply to bear them and raise them to a certain age. This stemmed from the conception of society as being composed of patrilineal families.[21] A woman married into a man’s family, and she returned to her father’s family after divorce. She did not constitute her own family by herself. Even after divorce, during the period she retained custody of her children, she relied on maintenance supplied by her former husband. In other words, her place in society was still defined by her relation to a male. Men were conceived of as being responsible for themselves and their dependents, whereas women were not ultimately responsible for anything. Because of this, Agmon wrote that women were conceived of as “creatures who needed guidance, protection, and supervision—in other words, not responsible or “incomplete” human beings.”[22]

Incomplete is exactly how a woman would be described when giving testimony in court. A woman’s legal capacity to act on her own behalf in court was another area where Judith Tucker felt that women were clearly disadvantaged. Rules governing women’s testimony insinuated that they were less credible than men and some legal schools made women wards of male relatives while simultaneously limiting their ability to be guardians of their own children. After analyzing the writings of Islamic scholars on the topics of women’s property rights and ability to testify before the court, Tucker wrote that Islamic law, both in theory and in practice, suffered from inherent contradictions when confronted with matters of female legal capacity.[23]

Take the following verse from the Qur’an, for example:

And call into witness

Two witnesses, men or if the two

Be not men, then one man and two women,

Such witnesses as you approve of,

That if one of the two women errs/ the other will remind her. (2:282)[24]

As shown in the verse above, the Qur’an provides for a less than equitable dynamic for women offering testimony. By requiring two female witnesses for every one male witness, a woman’s mental ability is called into question. Judith Tucker argued that this insinuated that women were less trustworthy and less appropriate as legal witnesses than men.[25] But, she also described the situation as being much more complex than it at first seems, with women’s ability to navigate the courts being largely determined by the school of Islamic law the presiding qadi, or Islamic judge, followed.

She questioned whether the fact that most jurists were uncomfortable with having women in the courts was due to the social context, where women were, as much as possible, prevented from entering public spaces, or whether jurists simply felt that women were mentally inferior. Agmon believed that judge’s understood themselves to be fulfilling the role of a kind of guardian of social equilibrium, who sought to remedy situations at court by reinforcing the social equilibrium that existed in the patrilineal family unit.[26] To maintain a stable society, patriarchal norms were reinforced using interpretations of shariʿa as a justification. Because most schools and even jurists within schools differed widely in interpretation of the law on issues relating to a woman’s ability to present herself in court, Tucker believed it would be hard to come to any solid conclusions about exactly how women should be treated in court according to prevailing legal opinions.[27]

For example, Shafi claimed that women were not suited to give testimony in cases that resulted in serious consequences, such as adultery, fornication, theft, alcohol consumption and apostasy, because they suffered from weak intellects, deficient accuracy, and were incapable of ruling. Al-Marghinani, a Hanafi, engaged with this idea and claimed that women were capable of processing information just as well as a man, as evidenced by the acceptance of Hadith transmitted by women, but backpedaled a bit and admitted that women may have some lapses in memory that prevented them from being reliable witnesses, requiring them to have a second woman to corroborate their story. Additionally, Hanafis did not recognize the testimony of women in cases of hudūd and qiṣāṣ (laws with prescribed punishments). Al-Marghinani did not explain why women would be less capable of testifying in these cases, when their testimony was accepted in property cases.[28] Why would a woman be able to clearly process and understand information related to property disposal, but not criminal actions?

Women’s authority to testify concerning issues specific to women was accepted, such as in matters related to childbirth, or for establishing paternity based on the date of a child’s birth, or in determining whether or not a child was stillborn or died after birth. On the other hand, when two men testified against a man and two women, the testimony of the two men was held to be more valid, even though two women were established as having testimony equally valid as one man.[29] Whether because women were thought to be mentally inferior, or due to some concern with women being seen in public too much, women were deprived of their rights as often as possible and with any excuse possible, leading to further male privilege in a patriarchal society and legal system.

In terms of handling the disposal of property, jurists made little distinction between males and females. As long as a person was of the age of legal majority, he or she was fully empowered to enter into contracts and exercise sole control over the property that he or she owned. This opinion was derived from an exhortation in the Qur’an, which stated, “if you perceive/ in them right judgment, deliver to them/ their property” (4:6).[30] There were, however, qualifications as to what constituted legal majority beyond simply being pubescent. One was also required to demonstrate “rationality, good sense, and mental maturity.”[31] Tucker wrote that this additional qualification of legal majority could be proved through testimony of close relatives or even through hearsay. Tucker doesn’t address this issue in her chapter about Islamic marriage, but it is possible that the need for a woman to be recognized as mentally mature before she was allowed to manage her own property was an opportunity for abuse by male relatives who wanted to prolong their control of the woman’s assets. In the Maliki school of thought, a legal justification was created to alleviate this problem (for the male), allowing the guardian to continue managing the mature woman’s property, even after she was married. Even if a woman had witnesses testify to her mental maturity, a father still might legally impose himself on his daughter’s property for up to seven years, according to Maliki jurists. While there may have been some justification for this, it is hard to see one that does not clearly advantage the male guardian over the female’s rights to her own property.[32]

In the Hanafi Ottoman tradition, the concept of legal maturity was flexible. Both males and females were considered to have come of age when signs of physical maturity were observed (puberty) or, at the latest, at the age of fifteen. However, Ebu Suud, the Ottoman chief mufti from 1545 to 1574, raised the age of legal majority to seventeen for females and eighteen for males. Whether he did this to satisfy his own desire to raise the legal age of majority or because it reflected the popular will of the people to lengthen the period of legal minority is unknown.[33] But generally, once a woman’s legal majority was established, a woman could not be prevented from exercising her legal rights. In most cases, marriage had no impact on a woman’s rights to manage her own property. While a father may have continued to impose himself on his daughter by using a legally justified extension of his guardianship rights to maintain access to her property, the husband was theoretically never able to assume full control of his wife’s property. Most schools of Islamic law decided that a husband’s right to his wife’s sexuality in no way gave him a right over his wife’s money or other property. This ruling was challenged, but always held firm, because jurists could find no clear connection between rights to sexual availability and rights to take another person’s property, since a woman who was married was, by legal definition, her own guardian.[34] The Maliki school of law was again the exception, which gave a husband power over how his wife disposed of her property. He was able to prevent her from donating one-third of her property or from acting as a guarantor for one-third of a given sum. Maliki jurists justified this by claiming that a woman’s relationship to her husband was similar to that of a slave for her master, or a debtor for a creditor, and said the loss of wealth would damage the husband’s material well-being, which inherently assumed that a man had a right to benefit from his wife’s wealth, which was not supported by the other schools of law or the foundational documents of Islam.[35]

Property acquisition was another area of Islamic law where men and women were unequal. In different circumstances, both men and women had clear advantages over the other, but taken as a whole, the rights men and women had to gain property was probably established to compensate for the structure of society, which required men to expend more on maintenance of family members. For example, Islamic law specified that every wife should receive a mahr, or dower from her husband that became a part of her property. This property could not be accessed by anyone else unless the woman chose to share it of her own free will. Ideally, this property would become part of her untouchable property, but that may not have always been the case. If a woman fell under Maliki law, she might have been forced to concede property rights to a domineering father or she might have been prevented from disposing of her property as she saw fit by her husband.

Property laws also differed in terms of inheritance, which was an extremely complicated system that distinguished inheritance shares based on the number, gender, and relationship of surviving kin. What impacted women most, however, was that they were legally restricted to only receiving one-half of a share of inheritance, compared to their male relatives, which parallels the limitation of a woman’s testimony as being equal to one-half that of a man’s. Despite being explained as referring to economic issues of men providing maintenance, this conception of woman in Islamic law reinforced the idea of a woman being worth only half the value of a man. Additionally, inheritance laws heavily favored the paternal line of surviving kin. This was tempered by the fact that women were designated by law to inherit from many of their male relatives and they could not legally be disinherited. They also had free reign to dispose of their property.[36]

Whether or not women benefited from laws concerning sexuality and zina crimes is questionable. Zina, as defined in volumes of juridical writings produced by Muslim scholars, encompassed a wide range of sexual violations, including adultery, prostitution, procurement, abduction, incest, bestiality, sodomy and rape.[37] In the legal discourse concerning sexuality and reproduction, human sexual desire was conceived of as being equally “powerful and ubiquitous” in men and women and was designed to prevent undesirable social pairings that would result in children of uncertain parentage who would cause “social and economic liabilities in a kin-based society.”[38] This theoretically placed women on an equal footing with men, but the actual implementation of law in society was modified by social customs.

The muftis who formulated laws governing sex crimes believed that they were taming something that they had helped to create, because “sexuality is constituted in society and history, not biologically ordained.”[39] Their approach to controlling desire was not to try to reform or eliminate what was considered a powerful and universal urge, but rather to create social constraints that would channel sexual desire into socially useful directions, rather than allowing it to cause disorder.[40] This may have been why, rather than punishing women guilty of adultery by death, judges in Aleppo chose instead to banish them to other neighborhoods. Prostitutes did, after all, serve what they considered a socially useful purpose: they curbed the sexual appetites of men who might otherwise engage in rape, including the Janissaries.[41]

The overwhelming amount of thought put into the construction of legal theory regarding sexuality catered to the idea that male sexuality was more active and demanding than that of females, though there was no real differentiation between ideas of heterosexual and homosexual desire.[42] In some instances, a pretty boy was considered to be sexually dangerous, but he was not required to be veiled or separated from men during prayer because sexuality was something that was attributed to him only because of his likeness to a woman. In other words, it was something separate from himself, whereas sexuality was considered to be an inherent part of what a woman was, “always present and powerful, always to be guarded against.”[43] This conceptualization of sexuality was inherently disadvantageous to women, who found themselves bearing the brunt of managing sexuality and desire by covering themselves, remaining secluded, and avoiding contact with or being alone with unrelated men.

Shariʿa law regarding inappropriate relationships was structured in a way that attempted to prevent illicit unions, but that did not prevent them from happening. However, it was rare that actual hadd (prescribed) punishments were carried out. Typically, the judges had enough leeway to give lighter punishments that were more in line with community ideals, which they justified as being for the good of the community.[44] Local neighborhood representatives approached the courts with reported violations of the moral code, reflecting both the action of the community in the court system and the role of the court as a mediator of public affairs, or as Iris Agmon put it, maintainers of the established patrilineal social equilibrium, also attested to by the notations of social position that Leslie Peirce discovered the Aintab registers.[45]

To demonstrate the flexibility of the court system, Elyse Semerdjian examined sets of court registers from Ottoman Aleppo that covered a span of 359 years in an attempt to create a more realistic narrative about the relationship between sexuality and shariʿa law, revealing the sharp distinction between the prescribed hadd penalties for sexual offences and the actual punishments meted out by judges.[46] Rather than stoning or lashing offenders, penalties usually included eviction from the neighborhood or fining. Deflecting corporal punishment was accomplished through various methods, including shubha (the introduction of legal doubt), the legitimation of a conversion from physical punishment to fines, the requirement of the four witnesses to actually see the act of penetration, and by justifying prostitution as quasi-ownership and therefore not subject to hadd penalties.

Ottoman laws concerning punishment differed so drastically from shariʿa law that Semerdjian speculated that it might have been an attempt to reconcile the law with the empire’s diverse population, since the shariʿa courts, though belonging to the Muslim community, were open to anyone. She also argued that the concepts of istiḥsān and istiṣlāḥ (forming laws based on public interest) played an important role in allowing judges to pass rulings that did not comply with traditional understandings of shariʿa law. She believed that no matter how widely practices had diverged from previously accepted norms, legitimation for the changes in punishments all had their foundations in principles of Islamic jurisprudence.[47]

James Baldwin disagreed with how Semerdjian conceptualized Islamic law and found her explanation of how Ottoman judges were able to evade handing out hadd punishments for prostitution offenses unsatisfactory. He wrote that Semerdjian’s arguement that judges made rulings based on local custom, rather than Islamic law, framed the discussion in a way that depicted shariʿa law as a problem that had to be skirted in order to pass more humane sentences.[48] Baldwin argued that almost all major Hanafi jurists of the period had excluded prostitutes and their clients from fixed penalties, which is something that Semerdjian acknowledged as well, but he elaborated on this point by expanding his definition of what constituted Islamic law.[49] Instead of arguing that there was a gulf between Islamic law as an ideal and actual practice, he instead argued that that all of the different components of legal writing at the time, including matn (manual), sharḥ (commentary), fatwa (opinion) and ḳānūnnāme (codified orders of the Sultan), together with the day-to-day practices of the judges, litigants and state officials all collectively constituted Islamic law.[50] He understood Islamic law as a working system, rather than as an inert body of knowledge, judicial practices, or as an exertion of state power.[51]

James Baldwin’s approach to Islamic law might be the best method for women today to positively address Judith Tucker’s question, presented at the beginning of this paper, that questioned how women, and people in general, could hold up Islam as a fount of righteousness when the history of the religions legal system is riddled with gender inequalities. Throughout this paper, I’ve examined the ways that gender, and women specifically, have been approached in Ottoman legal history. In each situation, for better or worse, shariʿa has been molded and adapted to local concerns, and if one imagines Islamic law as a living system that evolves through opinion and discourse to remain relevant, then there is reason to believe that a generation of Islamic feminists can help redefine shariʿa and women’s place both within the legal system and in their societies.

[1] Judith E. Tucker, Women, Family, and Gender in Islamic Law (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 1.

The Sultanate of Women

Mihrimah Sultan (source)

During the 16th and 17th centuries, there was a period of about 130 years when the Ottoman Empire was ruled or greatly influenced by the women of the harem. This period is called the Sultanate of Women and the reasons for their influence were the same as in many other countries of the time. The Emperors were either minors, incompetent to rule, or simply had great respect for their mothers as in the case of Suleiman the Magnificent and his mother Ayşe Hafsa Sultan.

Ayşe Hafsa Sultan (c. 1479 – 1534), was the consort of Selim I and mother of Suleiman the Magnificent. From 1513 to 1520, Hafsa Sultan resided with her son Suleiman in Manisa (now in western Turkey) while he was the administrator of the area. She is responsible for the building of a mosque, primary school, college, and a hospice in Manisa where there is a monument honoring her. She also initiated the “Mesir Festival” which is still in practice today. After Suleiman came to power in 1520, she was one of the most powerful people in the empire. Pietro Bragadin, the Venetian ambassador to Suleiman’s court, noted that he saw “a very beautiful woman of 48, for whom the Sultan bears great reverence and love.”

Reconstructed scene of a Vâlide Sultân and her attendants in her apartments at Topkapı Palace (source)

Ayşe Hafsa Sultan was the first woman honored with the title Valide Sultan. The Valide Sultan was the title given to the mother of the Sultan. The title Haseki Sultan was given to the mother of a prince. The Valide Sultan had the most powerful position in the royal harem followed by the Haseki Sultan of the heir apparent. However, it was always possible for the Haseki Sultan to lose favor and her position in the harem, such as when Hürrem Sultan was given favor over Mahidevran Sultan.

Hürrem Sultan (c. 1500 – 1558) was born Alexandra Anastasia Lisowska, or Roxelana, in the town of Rohatyn in what was then the Kingdom of Poland and is now in western Ukraine. The area was often subject to raiding by Crimean Tatars, and during one raid Roxelana was taken captive and sold as a slave. Taken to Istanbul, she was selected for Suleiman’s harem. Hürrem caught the attention of Suleiman, and encountered the jealousy of Mahidevran Sultan, one of his favorites and the mother of the heir apparent Mustafa. One day Mahidevran beat Hürrem badly and was banished to a provincal town with her son.

As the new favorite, Hürrem asked to be instructed in Islam. Suleiman approved this and when she said she wished to convert he was happy. After her conversion however, she told him that she couldn’t sleep with a man who wasn’t her husband. After a time, he agreed and made her his wife. Suleiman obviously favored her a great deal to do this, but he eventually went a step further and freed her so that she became his actual legal wife. This was rare and gave Hürrem great influence.

Hürrem Sultan (source)

Hürrem gave birth to five of Suleiman’s children, including the future Selim II. At least two letters Hürrem wrote to the King of Poland survived and some historians believe that she influenced Suleiman to curb Tartar slave-raiding in her homeland. Active in charitable works, she established a soup kitchen, a mosque, two Koranic schools, and a women’s hospital. She has inspired novels, paintings, and musical works, including Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 63.

Another of Hürrem’s children, Mihrimah Sultan (1522 – 1578) followed in her mother’s footsteps (pictured at the top of the post). At the age of 17, Mihrimah was married to Rüstem Pasha the Grand Vizier under her father. The marriage appears to have been an unhappy one and Mihrimah continued the practice of traveling with her father throughout his empire. It is even written in Persian literature that she went into the Battle of Gizah with him on an Arabian stallion named Batal.

Mihrimah had considerable resources. She was a patron of the arts and promised to build 400 galleys at her own expense for her father in a campaign against Malta. When her father died, she lent 50,000 gold sovereigns to her brother Selim. Her power wasn’t just in gold, however. By the time Selim II came to power, his mother had died, so Mihrimah took on the role of Valide Sultan for him. In addition to encouraging her father to launch the campaign against Malta, there is also evidence that, like her mother, she wrote letters in a diplomatic capacity to Sigismund II, the King of Poland.

Mihrimah Sultan Mosque in Edirnekapı (source)

One meaning of her name, Mehr-î-Mâh, is “Sun and Moon.” There is a lovely legend about Mihrimah. Two mosques bear her name in the area of Istanbul, Mihrimah Mosque and Iskele Mosque. Both were built by Mimar Sinan, Selim’s chief architect and an admirer of his daughter. It is said that he fell in love with her and built the second of the two mosques, Mihrimah Mosque in Edirnekapi, at his own expense without palace approval. The legend says that if you stand with a clear view of both mosques on the Spring Equinox (March 21, also her birthday), you will see that as the sun sets behind the minaret of the mosque in Edirnekapi, the moon will rise between the two minarets of the larger mosque.

Kösem Sultan (1589 – 1651) was the orphaned daughter of a priest on the island of Tinos, a Greek island in the Aegean Sea. Her given name was Anastasia, and it is unsure how she got to Constantinople, but at the age of 15 she was a slave in the royal harem.

Kösem Sultan (source)

Kösem Sultan endured very tumultuous times during her life. She was the second wife of Ahmed I who came to power when he was only 13. Ahmed broke with the tradition of fratricide and instead sent his brother Mustafa to the old palace at Bayezit with his grandmother Safiye Sultan. This set the stage for several coups following his death at the age of 27.

Mustafa came to power when Ahmed died, but was displaced by a coup which put Osman II, the son of Ahmed’s first wife, in power. Osman was assassinated by the Janissaries, giving Mustafa a second chance, but Mustafa was mentally unstable and unable to rule. This led to his deposition by Kösem Sultan’s son Murad IV.

Murad was only 11 when his reign began and Kösem was appointed Valide Sultan and the official regent for her son. From 1623 to 1632, she ruled the empire, attending meetings of the cabinet (Divan) from behind the curtain. She continued this even after Murad reached his majority in 1632. During the time that Kösem ruled there were many problems, invasions, revolts, and rebellions. The Janissaries even stormed the palace and killed the Grand Vizier in 1631. Murad decided to exert his power and hopefully avoid the fate of Osman. This he did, but he died of natural causes in 1640.

On his death bed, Murad ordered the execution of his mentally unstable brother, Ibrahim, but the command was not carried out and Ibrahim became the Sultan. He was unofficially called Ibrahim the Deranged because of his mental condition and largely stayed out of politics at first leaving rule of the Empire again in the hands of Kösem. He was deposed and eventually strangled in Constantinople in 1648.

Murad IV (source) Ibrahim I (source)

Kösem’s sons who ruled with her as regent.

Mehmed IV whose mother Turhan Hatice protected his position from Kösem Sultan (source)

When Ibrahim was deposed, Kösem presented her grandson Mehmed IV to the Divan as emperor, basically declaring herself regent again. Mehmed was only six years old and it was his mother Turhan Hatice who was Kösem’s undoing. Turhan Hatice should have been named Valide Sultan as the new Sultan’s mother, but Kösem took over. A power struggle ensued. Kösem planned to dethrone Mehmed and replace him with another grandson, possibly one with a less ambitious mother, but her plan was unsuccessful. Instead, she was assassinated leaving the regency in the hands of another powerful woman, Turhan Hatice, who happened to have been a slave captured by Crimean Tartars and sold into the harem.

Although the Empire did not flourish under Kösem’s rule, she was mourned for 3 days. She was remembered for her charity work and for the fact that she freed her slaves after 3 years of service.

The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire by Leslie Peirce
The Private World of Ottoman Women by Godfrey Goodwin


The word harem is derived from the Arabic harim or haram which give connotations of the sacred and forbidden. The female quarters of Turkish households were then referred to as haremlik due to their prevailing exclusivity. [3] [ page needed ]

As the sultan became increasingly sedentary in the palace, his family members, previously dispersed between provincial capitals, were eventually relieved of their public duties and gathered in the imperial capital. At the end of the sixteenth century, except for the sultan himself, no member of the royal family, male or female, left the capital. Both children and mothers were permanent occupants of the inner world of the palace. [4] The harem was the ultimate symbol of the sultan's power. His ownership of women, mostly slaves, was a sign of wealth, power, and sexual prowess. The institution was introduced in the Turkish society with adoption of Islam, under the influence of the Arab caliphate, which the Ottomans emulated. To ensure the obedience of the women, many of them were bought and kept into slavery. However, not all members of the harem were slaves. The main wives, especially those taken into marriage to consolidate personal and dynastic alliances were free women. This was the exception, not the rule. The relationship between slavery and polygamy/harems in the Turkish harem continued until 1908, at the very least. [ citation needed ]

The imperial harem also served as a parallel institution to the sultan's household of male servants. The women were provided with an education roughly on par with that provided to male pages, and at the end of their respective educations they would be married off to one another, as the latter graduated from the palace to occupy administrative posts in the empire's provinces. [5] Consequently, only a small fraction of the women in the harem actually engaged in sexual relations with the sultan, as most were destined to marry members of the Ottoman political elite, or else to continue service to the valide sultan. [6] A network was founded on family-based relationships between women of the harem. This family was not limited to blood connections but included the whole royal household, consisting of slaves for the majority. Within the harem, the mother of the sultan and his favourite concubine or concubines were more effectively able to create factional support for themselves or their sons, creating a bridge between the palace and the outside world. [4]

The Imperial Harem occupied one of the large sections of the private apartments of the sultan at the Topkapi Palace which encompassed more than 400 rooms. The harem had been moved to Topkapi in the early 1530s. After 1853, an equally lavish harem quarter was occupied at the new imperial palace at Dolmabahçe.

Role of the valide sultan Edit

The mother of a new sultan came to the harem with pomp and circumstance and assumed the title of valide sultan or sultana mother upon her son's ascension. She was paramount chief and ran the harem and ruled over the members of the dynasty. The valide sultan who influenced the political life of the Ottoman Empire during various periods of history (such as the Sultanate of Women in the 16th and 17th centuries) had the authority to regulate the relations between the sultan and his wives and children. When a prince left the capital for his provincial governorate, he was accompanied by his mother. This was in order for her to complete her role of presiding over the prince’s domestic household and performing her duty of training and supervision. [2] At times the valide sultan acted as regent for her son, particularly in the seventeenth century, when a series of accidents necessitated regencies that endowed the position of queen mother with great political power. [4]

The valide sultan influenced the way that the Ottoman sultans waged wars of conquest. The Ottoman conquests were mostly in the West until the mid-1500s, however, the ethnic background of the valide sultan was an independent and major determinant of whether these conquests would be for North Africa or the Middle East, or in Europe. The sultans were more likely to be mindful of their matrilineal descent. The rule of a sultan with a European maternal ethnic background was sufficient to counteract more than 70 per cent of the empire's western orientation in imperial conquests. In contrast, the sultans with European matrilineal descent had no discernable influence on the empire's eastern conflicts whereas the Ottomans' military ventures in Europe were generally reinforced by a Muslim matrilineal genealogy. Regardless of how the Ottoman harem had developed over time as an organization, the main observation is that the mothers of the princes were solely responsible for their upbringing the royal mothers had the most direct and sustained interaction with the future sultans of the Ottoman Empire. [2]

In 1868, Empress Eugénie of France visited the Imperial Harem, which was to have a lasting effect. She was taken by the sultan Abdülaziz to his mother, Valide Sultan Pertevniyal Sultan, but reportedly, Pertevniyal became outraged by the presence of a foreign woman in her harem, and greeted the empress with a slap in the face, almost provoking an international incident. [7] The visit of the empress, however, did lead to a dress reform in the harem by making Western fashion popular among the harem women, who dressed according to Western fashion from then on. [8]

Role of the court ladies Edit

For the perpetuation and service of the Ottoman dynasty, beautiful and intelligent slave girls were either captured in war, recruited within the empire, or procured from neighbouring countries to become imperial court ladies (cariyes).

Odalisque, a word derived from the Turkish Oda, meaning chamber: thus connoting odalisque to mean chamber girl or attendant, was not a term synonymous with concubine however, in western usage the term has come to refer specifically to the harem concubine. [3] [ page needed ]

The cariyes, who were introduced into the harem at a tender age, were brought up in the discipline of the palace. They were promoted according to their capacities and became Kalfas and Ustas.

The cariyes with whom the sultan shared his bed became a member of the dynasty and rose in rank to attain the status of gözde ('the favorite'), ikbal ('the fortunate') or kadin ('the woman/wife'). The highest position was the valide sultan, the legal mother of the sultan, who herself used to be a wife or a concubine of the sultan's father and rose to the supreme rank in the harem. No court lady could leave or enter the premises of the harem without the explicit permission of the valide sultan. The power of the valide sultan over concubines even extended to questions of life and death, with eunuchs directly reporting to her.

The court ladies either lived in the halls beneath the apartments of the consorts, the valide sultan and the sultan, or in separate chambers. The kadıns, who numbered up to four, formed the group who came next in rank to the valide sultan. Right below the kadıns in rank were the ikbals, whose number was unspecified. Last in the hierarchy were the gözdes. [9]

During 16th and 17th century, chief consort of the sultan received title haseki sultan or sultana consort. This title surpassed other titles and ranks by which the prominent consorts of the sultans had been known (hatun and kadın). When the position of valide sultan was vacant, a haseki could take the valide's role, have access to considerable economic resources, become chief of the Imperial Harem, become the sultan's advisor in political matters, and even have an influence upon foreign policy and international politics. Such cases happened during the eras of the Hürrem Sultan and Kösem Sultan.

Royal concubines of non-haseki status Edit

In the century following the deaths of Suleyman and Hurrem, concubines who were not favourites of the sultan would become forgotten women of the harem. The only ones remembered are those that were brought into the public eye by the question of succession. Their status was inferior to the preferred concubines. They were also not identified among the family elite of the harem. [4]

The court ladies had contact with the outside world through the services of intermediaries such as the Kira.

Role of the eunuchs Edit

At Topkapı Palace, at the court of the Ottoman sultans, the harem staff included eunuchs. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the corps of harem eunuchs numbered between 800 and 1,200. This was the highest number of eunuchs ever in the harem, and it would remain the most amount ever employed at the harem. [10] These were Nilotic slaves captured in the Nile vicinity. [11] The sultans were able to obtain these slaves because of their conquest of Egypt in 1517, which gave direct access to slave caravans who used those routes. The conquest of northeastern Sudan in the 1550s continued to expand the empire's reach and access to slave caravans that used trade routes through Sudan. [10] The castrated servicemen in the Muslim and Turkish states in the Middle Ages were recruited to serve in the palace from the times of Sultan Mehmed I onwards. These eunuchs who were trained in the palace and were given the charge of guarding the harem rose in rank after serving in many positions. [12] The harem eunuchs and the harem organization were under the command of the chief harem eunuch, who was also called the Master of the Girls (Kızlar Ağası) or chief black eunuch. They supervised the quarters where the female population of the palace lived. They had influence on the palace and later on the state administration in the 17th and 18th centuries as they had access to the sultan and the sultan's family and became very powerful.

The office of the chief harem eunuch was created in 1574. [10] The chief black eunuch was sometimes considered second only to the grand vizier (head of the imperial government, but often working in his own palace or even away, e.g., on military campaigns) in the confidence of the Sultan, to whom he had and arranged access (including his bedchamber, the ne plus ultra for every harem lady), also being his confidential messenger. As commander of an imperial army corps, the halberdiers (baltacı), he even held the supreme military dignity of three-horsetail pasha (general). [ citation needed ]

Meanwhile, the chief white eunuch (Kapı Ağası), was in charge of 300 to 900 white eunuchs as head of the 'Inner Service' (the palace bureaucracy, controlling all messages, petitions, and State documents addressed to the Sultan), head of the Palace School, gatekeeper-in-chief, head of the infirmary, and master of ceremonies of the Seraglio, and was originally the only one allowed to speak to the Sultan in private. In 1591, Murad III transferred the powers of the white to the black eunuchs as there was too much embezzlement and various other nefarious crimes attributed to the white eunuchs, but later they regained some favour. [ citation needed ]

During the Sultanate of Women (Kadınlar Saltanatı), eunuchs increased their political leverage by taking advantage of minor or mentally incompetent sultans. Teenage sultans were "guided" by regencies formed by the queen mother (valide sultan), the grand vizier and the valide's other supporters – and the chief black eunuch was the queen mother's and chief consorts' intimate and valued accomplice. Kösem Sultan, mother of Sultan Ibrahim (r. 1640-1648) and grandmother of Sultan Mehmed IV (r. 1648-1687), was killed at the instigation of the mother of Mehmed IV, Turhan Sultan, by harem eunuchs in 1651. [10]

Kızlar ağası: The kızlar ağası was the chief black eunuch of the Ottoman seraglio. The title literally means 'chief of the girls', and he was charged with the protection and maintenance of the harem women.

Kapı ağası: Whereas the kızlar ağası was responsible for guarding the virtue of the odalisques, the kapı ağası was a chamberlain to the ladies. His name means 'lord of the door', and he was the chief of the white eunuchs, acting as a chief servant and procurer.

Valide sultan: The valide sultan was the mother of the reigning sultan and the most powerful woman in the harem, not to mention the empire. She was the absolute authority in the seraglio, and she, with the help of the kapı ağa and the kızlar ağası, often her confidantes, or even men she herself had chosen upon her accession, had a finger in every aspect of harem life.

Haseki sultan: This was the title reserved for the chief consort and lawfully wedded wife of the Ottoman sultan. [13] A haseki sultan had an important place in the palace, being the most powerful woman and enjoyed the greatest status in the imperial harem after the valide sultan and usually had chambers close to the sultan's chamber. The haseki had no blood relation with the reigning sultan but ranked higher than the sultan's own sisters and aunts, the princesses of the dynasty. Her elevated imperial status derived from the fact that she was the mother of a potential future sultan. Hurrem Sultan was the first to hold this title after she became legally married to Suleiman the Magnificent, [14] the first instance of a sultan marrying one of his slaves. [15] The last haseki was Rabia Sultan, the haseki of the sultan Ahmed II. After her deposing in 1695, the title was no longer given to any consorts.

Kadın: Among the women of the Imperial Harem, the kadın was the woman (or women) who have given the sultan a child, preferably a son. Kadin was equivalent to a wife. The first kadin mentioned was during the reign of Mehmed IV.

Baş kadın: The first/most senior consorts were called baş kadın or birinci kadin. The consort who held the title baş kadın was in the second rank and most powerful after the valide sultan in the harem. She had a great influence in the harem. Before the creation and after the abolition of the title haseki, the title baş kadın was the most powerful position among the sultan's consorts. [16] A sultan did not have more than four kadins (the same law used for legal wives in Islam). [17] Their position as the possible mother of a future sultan gave them much influence and power in the harem.

Ikbal: Beneath the kadın was the ikbal, the harem members with whom the sultan had slept at least once. These women needed not necessarily to have given a child to the sultan, but simply needed to have taken his fancy. Many of these women were referred to as gözde (meaning 'favorite'), or 'in the eye', having done just that: caught the eye of the sultan.

Cariye: These were the women who served the valide sultan, ikbal's, kadin's and the sultan's children. They could be promoted to kalfas which meant they were free and earned wages, otherwise they were the property of the sultan and would reside in the harem. Such women were free to go after nine years of service.

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Turkey: Ottoman and Post Ottoman

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, far-reaching changes took place in the Ottoman Empire in the political, social and geopolitical spheres. From the late nineteenth century until 1923, Turkey was frequently at war. The Treaty of Lausanne (1923) established the borders of the Turkish nation-state, with a population that was ninety-six percent Muslim. In the wake of the Tanzimat reforms, the “Young Turks” rebellion (1908), geopolitical shifts and the establishment of the Republic, the Turkish state imposed a process of “Turkification” on its residents.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Jews of Turkey constituted the largest Jewish community in the Ottoman Empire, centered primarily around Istanbul and Izmir. After 1923 the Jews gathered in these cities, effectively eliminating the smaller communities in Western Anatolia and Romelia. Concurrently, a massive migration to Europe and the Americas took place. In the 1930s, out of a total Turkish population of fifteen million, 150,000–200,000 were Jews. Between 1927 and 1938 the number of Jews plummeted to seventy thousand. At the end of the twentieth century, the Jewish community of Turkey numbered about twenty thousand people.

The Women’s Domain

One of the central features in the lives of Jewish, Christian and Muslim women was the separation between men and women. This separation had an impact on numerous aspects of everyday life, among them the division of labor between the genders, the restriction of women to the home, and the exterior architecture and interior design of the living space. The consignment of the Jewish woman to the home derives not only from the Jewish tradition which holds that “all the honor of the king’s daughter is within” (Psalms 45:14), but also from the dual influence of Muslim society and Sephardic custom.

The public space, which included the streets, the marketplaces, the port and its piers, the coffee houses and the synagogue, was considered the masculine domain. The private space, associated with the women, was limited to the home, the courtyard, the communal oven, the well, the Ritual bath mikveh (ritual bath) and the women’s section and courtyard of the synagogue. Neither married nor single women ventured out into the street alone they emerged only in groups, with a defined destination for their visits (vijitas)—either other homes or the mikveh. Separation was also the rule with respect to burial and shiva (the one-week mourning period) women did not attend funerals, instead visiting the cemetery in groups, primarily on rosh hodesh (the festival of the new month).

Since the entry of women into the public space placed their modesty at risk, a woman’s attire served as a protective barrier outside the home while at the same time defining her nationality and her social and economic status. Rich and poor women alike wore the same clothing, but there was a difference in the quality of the workmanship, the richness of the fabric and the accompanying jewelry. The presence or absence of the latter testified to the woman’s marital status. Jewish women, like their Muslim and Christian sisters, went out into the street wrapped from head to toe in a cloak of sorts (ferace) topped with a veil (marama). As a result of European influences in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Western clothing “infiltrated” all levels of society, although few Muslim women abandoned the veil.

Language represented an additional barrier that relegated women to the private space and prevented them from playing a role in the public domain. Until the mid–1950s, -Spanish (Djidio, in Ladino) was the primary spoken language of the Jews. While most of the men knew how to speak Turkish, chiefly as a result of work and business connections, and some Hebrew, acquired as part of their religious studies, the language of women’s discourse was Ladino. Lack of knowledge of the official languages did not hinder the women’s communication with others, however, since all of their neighbors (including the non-Jews) spoke and understood Ladino. The Jews lived together in neighborhoods where they constituted the majority. Their homes, which opened onto shared courtyards, were simple dwellings referred to by the locals as yahudihane (in Turkish) and by the Jews as cortijo, or “cottage.” The entrance to the courtyard was guarded by a heavy wooden door reinforced with iron bands and locked with a vertical iron bolt. An opening between the courtyards allowed the women to move from one enclosure to another without exiting into the street.

The interior of the home was the woman’s domain, as reflected in the custom of providing a dowry (ashugar, in Ladino) to the woman upon her marriage. The bride brought with her the furnishings and interior fixtures of the bed chamber (cama armada), the household and kitchen utensils, curtains and tablecloths, in addition to clothing, jewels and money. The custom of dowry indicates that the woman and her family expected her to have a home in which to place these objects.

Women’s Sense of Time

The majority of the women were illiterate. Since they could not read newspapers and were not taught to read the yearly calendar that formed the basis of Jewish life, the women had their own unique sense of time and place. The opening of special schools for girls, compulsory education instituted by the Turkish authorities, and the penetration of radio, gramophones and films, all influenced the women and brought the wider world to their doorstep. In other words, the women were aware of changes in time and space, but these did not lead to a synchronization between the broader world of Turkey and beyond, on the one hand, and their own sense of time, on the other. It was essentially the latter that continued to serve the needs of the family.

From the way in which Jewish women allocated their time, it is apparent that they were preoccupied with household tasks. Their attention, their time, their feelings were devoted to the home and family, in particular to cooking and cleaning, the means through which the woman made her unique mark on her home. A clean home testified to the character of the housewife, who thereby earned the appreciation of the household, the family and the neighbors. Cleaning and cooking took up most of her time, dictating her daily schedule and the dishes that she prepared. A special day was set aside for laundry. The tasks of running the household were numerous and the prevailing attitude was that girls did not need to study. What they required was guidance, warmth and love, which their mothers bestowed in abundance. Consequently, young girls remained in the home to oversee the smaller children and to help clean house.

The Kitchen

Food was prepared and served in accordance with the season, the festivals and the Jewish dietary laws. The names and flavors of the dishes were reminiscent of the community’s origins in Spain and Portugal (prior to the Expulsions of 1492 and 1497): pan de españa, tortas, fila-dona, frojalda and kezada, to name a few. Foods that were prepared quickly and were not the product of hours of work were evidence of a lazy, gluttonous housewife. Special dishes were prepared for the Sabbath and holidays. In the period preceding A seven-day festival to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt (eight days outside Israel) beginning on the 15 th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan. Also called the "Festival of Ma zz ot" the "Festival of Spring" Pesa h . Passover , the women rarely left the home, due mainly to the work of housecleaning and preparing the special festive meals.

Food preparation and cooking were done individually. In contrast to laundry day, which was a social event, the peeling of vegetables and preparation of dough were carried out within the privacy of the home. Young girls learned how to cook in their own home, from their mother. A girl who did not know how to cook and was unschooled in the tasks of homemaking brought shame not only upon herself and her husband but on her mother and family and even harmed the marital prospects of her sisters, since the deeds of the daughter reflected on the mother, who had not succeeded in preparing her daughter to perform household chores. Women prepared the food, but endeavored to avoid eating in public and ate slowly and in small portions. A woman who never complained, did not crave luxuries, was frugal, healthy and did laundry earned the title nikuchira, meaning a good housewife who runs her home properly.

Through her delicacies and baked goods, in which she invested hours of toil and devotion, the wife and mother was able to create a sense of uniqueness. Women sent homemade foods to newlywed couples during the seven days of post-wedding festivities, or, by contrast, to relatives and friends whose family member had passed away. Women did not take part in political activity in the community, but did participate in communal life through the distribution of food. Affluent women provided food to soup kitchens, while poorer women donated breast milk to orphaned infants whose mothers had died in childbirth or had insufficient milk. They shared their meager bread with people poorer than themselves, with the birds, the dogs and the street cats, as part of the network of charity and compassion that characterizes women.

Healing Women

Virtually every ailment was attributed to “the evil eye” or to fear. Until the late nineteenth–early twentieth century, the custom of indulco (ritual confinement) was widespread throughout the Ottoman Empire. The treatment ritual was carried out by a woman with special healing powers who was known for her ability to exorcise demons, generally those that had entered a woman. Women who were trained in this practice were sought out due to a shortage of doctors, lack of money, concerns of modesty and the belief that the ancient treatment was effective. An examination of the substances used by the healer in the ritual shows that these were foodstuffs commonly found in any Sephardic Jewish woman’s kitchen throughout the Mediterranean Basin: water, rose water, honey, salt and eggs. In the early twentieth century, this custom faded into obscurity, largely due to the ban imposed by the rabbis, the establishment of hospitals, and the system of public health care. Jewish women played a role in this communal health network through women’s societies that collected donations for hospitals, in addition to serving as nurses, attendants and auxiliary personnel.


Until the late nineteenth century it was customary in Turkey to marry at an early age, with the grooms generally being seventeen to eighteen years old and the brides fourteen to fifteen. The reasons for marrying young included the high mortality rate and short life expectancy (parents wished to see their children settled, meaning that they had produced offspring and the family line had not been extinguished) the fear that the girl would be seduced and bring shame upon her family and the fear of conversion and intermarriage to a Muslim or Christian. However, the practice of marrying girls off at a young age sometimes led to tragic results. The first year of marriage carried the highest incidence of mortality for women and newborns since the young girls had not yet reached physical and sexual maturity due to malnutrition, poor hygiene and family pressure to produce offspring early in the marriage.

There was generally a set hierarchy within the family: the oldest daughter married first, followed by the remaining sisters in descending order of age. An important prerequisite for marriageability, apart from obedience, modesty, a good reputation and virginity, was the dowry (dota y ashugar, in Ladino). Without a dowry, there was no marriage. Haim Nahoum, the chief rabbi of Turkey from 1892 to 1923, requested a loan to marry off his sister (“one of my sisters, who became engaged two years ago, is forced to postpone her wedding until the Messiah comes [i.e., indefinitely] for want of 1,000 francs, which she promised to provide in legal tender to her betrothed”).

In addition to currency, the bride brought to the marriage her own apparel and the furnishings for the bedchamber. In the twentieth century new items made their way into the traditional dowry: girls who had studied at one of the foreign schools or at the school of the Alliance Israélite Universelle added books in French and Italian as well as training in bookkeeping, administration and a musical instrument. An additional article was the sewing machine, which was not only a symbol of modesty and of being tied to the home but also a manufacturing tool: the woman could now work at home, as a subcontractor to sewing workshops. The preoccupation with the dowry as an integral part of marriage was a cause for concern among the community leaders in order to reduce the social pressure and the moral problems liable to be caused by the surplus of single young women, the community set up a “dowry fund” aimed at providing dowries to orphaned and impoverished young girls. Money for the fund came from inheritance taxes, levies imposed on dowries and generous donations.

Most of the matches took place within the family (to cousins or other relatives) and were determined by the parents. Wealthy families, such as the Camondos or the Agimans, married within the family or with other wealthy, high-born urban families.

The modern education in the Alliance schools and the inclusion of the girls in youth movements and communal activities expanded the selection available to young men and women and narrowed the age gap between couples. Despite the element of personal choice, however, and largely because this was a class-based society, the encounters were not spontaneous and the choice of spouse did not extend beyond one’s own social group.

Wedding festivities, which in the past had lasted for two weeks, were now shortened, mainly for economic reasons. In the nineteenth century wedding ceremonies and festivities took place separately for men and women, but in the twentieth century these celebrations became mixed.

The wedding ceremony comprised several elements. The personal and feminine component was represented by the bride. Though the bride was not an active participant at any stage of the wedding—she was chosen, dressed, led and “acquired” with a wedding ring or other valuable— the wedding ceremony was nevertheless the most significant event of her life and the culmination of a process toward which she had been guided since childhood, that of becoming a wife and mother. The groom’s obligations toward his bride were anchored in the Marriage document (in Aramaic) dictating husband's personal and financial obligations to his wife. ketubbah (marriage contract), which served as a legal document protecting the rights and property of the woman.

The one portion of the wedding festivities in which women alone took part was the day of the bride’s immersion in the ritual bath (el dia del banio, in Ladino). Each part of the ceremony had a special significance. The pristine waters of the spring symbolized the purity of the bride. Pieces of sugar were added to the water to ensure a sweet life. The immersion was not an intimate event but a ceremony attended by all the women of the family. The bride was perfumed with rose water and each of those present helped to dress her. The ceremony was accompanied by traditional songs praising the bride’s beauty, innocence, modesty and her future as a married woman. In Izmir it was customary to break a cake-ring (kezada) over the head of the bride.

The bride’s procession from her home to that of the groom was not a private event of two families joining together in marriage. The entire assemblage of family members and guests took part in the rejoicing, accompanying the bride with music and song. The ceremonial escorting of the bride to the home of the groom was similar to the festivities surrounding the dedication of a new Torah she-bi-khetav : Lit. "the written Torah." The Bible the Pentateuch Tanakh (the Pentateuch, Prophets and Hagiographia) Torah scroll for the synagogue and the wedding songs were mixed with hymns praising God’s Torah and the Land of Israel, climaxing with the breaking of the goblet by the groom in remembrance of the Temple’s destruction. The custom of publicly escorting the bride began to die out early in the twentieth century, primarily due to the processes of Westernization and “Turkification” under the Republic.

After the wedding the newly married couple moved into the house of the groom’s parents. Living together with the mother of the groom was at times problematic. The bride brought with her opinions, ideas and habits learned in her own mother’s home that did not always conform to the practices in the home of her mother-in-law. The bride and her mother-in-law vied for the use of the oven and the sink, not to mention the approval of the son/husband. Often, the bride, the mother-in-law and the sisters-in-law (the sisters of the groom, or other daughters-in-law living under the same roof) had trouble getting along, turning life in the home into a series of quarrels and squabbles that sometimes required the groom to take a stand and even led to divorce.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the changes in the traditional marriage customs were compounded by other factors: migration, conscription, wars in the Ottoman Empire and the Family and Matrimonial Law enacted in 1925. The new law, inspired by similar legislation in Switzerland, made civil marriage mandatory, although a religious ceremony was still permitted.

The period of the woman’s pregnancy was a time of rejoicing mixed with fear. During the fifth month of pregnancy, a diaper-preparation ceremony (cortar fashdura) took place, attended by the women of the family and female friends and neighbors. The birth of a daughter, unlike that of a son, was met with disappointment, principally due to the burden of providing a dowry.

When a daughter was born, a fadamiento or siete candelas ceremony was held (corresponding to the circumcision ceremony), at which the baby girl was given a name. The ceremony was usually held in the home or at the synagogue, with the infant dressed in clothing embroidered with gold and silver. Each of those present lit a candle and blessed the newborn girl with a life of joy and prosperity.

The names of the women bear witness to the changes in time and space, as well as the cultural and social transformations, which took place over the course of generations. Until the late nineteenth century, women were as a rule given ancient Hebrew names such as Sarah, Esther or Rachel, or names originating from the Iberian Peninsula, including Oro (gold, in Ladino), Estreya (star), Alegre (happiness), Amada (beloved), Bolisa (housewife), Joya (jewel), Vida (life), Luna (moon), Sol (sun) and Regina (queen). It is no coincidence that girls were given names that expressed beauty and sweetness these names conformed to the expectations of beauty and modesty that were placed on women. All of the names reflected the longing for, and promise of, a good life, but names such as Merkada (acquired, in Ladino), Haya (life), and Bohora (firstborn) carried an additional meaning. Merkado/Merkada was not a name bestowed on a child at birth but instead was given to a man or woman in danger of dying. To confound the Angel of Death, the person was symbolically “sold” to a family member. Other names that were particularly popular were Dudun and Hanum. The name Dudun was given when the baby’s mother and paternal grandmother had the same names. Hanum is a corruption of the Turkish word hanim, meaning lady or mistress. Over the centuries the Jews assimilated into the surrounding community and took on local names, but these still differed from the first names customary among the Muslims. One example is the name Sultana, which corresponds to the Hebrew name Malka (queen) and to Reina and Regina in the Spanish despite its Turkish origins, Muslim women did not use this name. With the infusion of the French language and culture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, new names were added: Mazalto(v) became Fortune, Gracia became Germaine and Regina became Regine, to mention a few. In the 1950s, the desire to become part of Turkish society also had an impact on patterns of baby-naming and girls were given Turkish names.


The spectrum of values reflected in the concept of “honor,” in the sense of generosity, honesty, seriousness, loyalty to friends and family and defense of the weak (i.e., women and children), relates to men. The honor of women, by contrast, is expressed through their modesty, particularly in the sexual realm. The woman was expected to sublimate her sexuality, the appropriate means of entry to the community at large lying in the number of offspring—preferably male—that she brought into the world. Women learned to keep silent and to accept their fate. A unique form of expression for women was poetry, through which they gave voice to their emotional state, to their hopes and dreams. The ancient romansas (narrative ballads) originating in the Iberian Peninsula express the problem of cultural identity, or more precisely, cultural alienation from the immediate time and place, in this case the Turkish state. Concurrent with the romansas, and inspired by Turkish folk poetry, a new poetry emerged that drew on the surrounding reality and expressed the women’s social status, their hopes and aspirations.

Education and Schooling

One way for women to be integrated into the communal space was via education. Since few Jewish schools existed, Jewish girls studied at schools under the auspices of the Christian mission. Fees at these private schools were high and the prevailing attitude among the men, and even more so, the mothers, was that young girls did not need to be “smart” as a result, most of the girls were not sent to school. Young girls from affluent families studied in private schools under the patronage of the convents or with private tutors.

In the late nineteenth century, the Alliance Israélite established schools for boys and girls, with the aim of revitalizing Ottoman Jewry through education and changing the status of Jewish women in the Sephardic communities. The girls’ curriculum differed from that of the boys in addition to French, general studies and Turkish (in Izmir, they studied Greek), the girls learned sewing and embroidery. In 1872 the Alliance decided to include women among the teaching personnel. By 1929 seventy-nine young Jewish women from Turkey had completed teachers’ college in Paris. This low figure suggests that, despite the social prestige of the profession, most families preferred the time-honored practice of marrying off their daughters.

Young girls of fourteen who excelled in their studies were sent to study at the teachers’ college in Paris, after which they taught or served as principals at girls’ schools in Tunis, Morocco, Istanbul, Haifa and elsewhere. From the reports of women principals of Alliance schools to the central office in Paris, the portrait emerges of a vigorous, independent new Sephardic Jewish woman that emerged from the Alliance schools. They considered themselves a part of both general Ottoman society and the Jewish community yet, as representatives of the Alliance, they sometimes found themselves in conflict with the Jewish community and its leadership, who were fearful of changes in the standing of Jewish women. During the Balkan wars and World War I the women operated workshops in the schools that produced sheets and bandages for hospitals in the large cities of Edirne and Istanbul and ran a fundraising and assistance network within the Jewish and local communities.

Turkish Jewry was not unaffected by the changing times. The subject of education for women came up at conferences conducted by the Jewish community, with the general attitude being that women were equal to men and had the same right to an education since they had different functions to fulfill, however, their education must be suited to their future role, that of being a mother. With the establishment of the Republic, sweeping changes were instituted in Turkey’s national educational system and many teachers lost their jobs.

Leisure Time

Women as a whole made similar use of leisure time, although there were differences between the classes. The more affluent women met in the homes of female relatives or friends. At these gatherings, they caught up on the local gossip and mothers of young men surveyed the “pool of potential brides” who came with their mothers, checking their manners and personal traits, and analyzing the economic status of the well-known families and the marriage market in general. Women and young girls knitted, embroidered and exchanged recipes. On occasion, a table would be set out, and a few of the women would launch a friendly game of cards for small sums of money, some of which was donated for charitable purposes. Women’s organizations were established whose primary goals were the organizing of donations for destitute orphans, fundraising for the dowries of poor girls and volunteering in charitable institutions of the community, such as orphanages, hospitals and soup kitchens.

Dozens of Jewish newspapers were published in Istanbul and Izmir, but there were initially none geared specifically to women (even the humor sections appearing under women’s names, such as Kadonika and others, were not necessarily written by women). In 1895, a Turkish-language magazine for women appeared for the first time in Istanbul.

The Ladino literature and folk ballads that flourished in the late nineteenth century offer evidence of a new factor that had entered the lives of Jewish women in Turkey: love. Owing to the power and influence of the family, this concept was rarely acted upon, and young girls who “strayed” in the name of love paid for it with their honor and sometimes with their lives. One form of leisure-time activity that captivated all of Turkish Jewish society, men and women alike, was the cinema. Women went out to movie theaters, accompanied by female relatives, friends and neighbors. Another popular form of entertainment was festive balls organized by the Jewish community, largely to raise funds for Jewish charitable institutions and for the Turkish army.

Political Sphere

The silence of women both inside and outside the home was reflected in the realm of communal activity. Women did not take part in political and social decision-making, nor did they participate in elections to the community council. While Turkish women ventured out of the home to study in state schools for training teachers and midwives, and from 1908 onwards were permitted to study at university, Jewish women did not study in these schools, principally because they did not speak Turkish. Although a number of Jewish men participated in the political changes taking place in Turkey, including the Young Turks rebellion, and Jews were elected to the Turkish parliament, the women’s voice was not heard.

The revolt of the Young Turks had an impact on the perception of the Turkish woman and the notion began to spread that women should be politically aware in order to educate their children. In other words, a new aspect was added to motherhood, that of nationalism. The entire family was enlisted in the Zionist cause, with politically aware Jewish girls and women recruited to assist the Jewish national movement, which operated openly from 1908 to 1910. Parents sent their daughters to the Girls’ Section of the Maccabi Gymnastics Club, to movement hikes and to other activities but after political and national gatherings were banned, Jewish men and women alike vanished from the political arena. During World War I Jewish girls and women went out to work in factories, both to assist in the war effort and as a means of supporting themselves in the wake of the conscription of the men. Late in World War I, a group sponsored by the Joint Distribution Committee of American Funds for the Relief of Jewish War Sufferers (later known as the JDC, or the Joint), in conjunction with B’nai B’rith, distributed six thousand food parcels daily to Jewish women whose husbands were missing in action, war orphans (1,500 in number), refugees and other needy Jews.

As a result of the ban on activities of political organizations not affiliated with the state, there is virtually no information on public activities of the women’s Zionist organizations, although there is evidence, chiefly from oral testimonies, that young girls took part, together with young men, in clandestine Zionist groups. Despite the fact that women did not participate in politics, Jewish women served as the pretext for a slur campaign maligning the patriotism of Turkish Jewry. In addition to the claim that the Jews ate different food and spoke a different language, and that their loyalty to the Turkish state was suspect, the question was raised of why Jewish women did not marry Muslims. The campaign reached its climax with the Aliza Niego affair, in which a young Jewish girl was murdered by a married Muslim suitor, his father and grandfather while walking along an Istanbul street with her sister. The mass funeral that followed offered a ready excuse for nationalist elements to attack the Jews, claiming that the gathering was a demonstration against the Turkish Republic and a disturbance of the peace. The prosecutor in the case later referred to Aliza Niego as a “daughter of Zion,” noting that the Jews bore the coffin of the deceased as if she symbolized Turkish Jewry in its entirety.

In 1934 men and women above the age of twenty-two were granted the right to vote in parliamentary elections and to stand as candidates. Jewish women entered the political scene at a slower pace than their Turkish counterparts, not because of a lack of skills but because all the minorities—among them, Jews in general and Jewish women in particular—were not (and did not always wish to be) integrated into the Turkish national space. Those young Jewish girls who were politically aware—largely as a result of antisemitism and the masses of refugees who streamed from occupied Europe during World War II—secretly dreamed of The Land of Israel Erez Israel , some even taking part in clandestine activities of the Ne’emanei Zion and He-Halutz associations operating in Izmir and Istanbul and the Betar movement in Edirne. The young girls who participated in the activities of the Zionist movement did not breach the accepted frameworks, but acted with the blessing and approval of their families. “Young girls scarcely take part in the prohibited activities of the He-Halutz movement, and this is because, despite all the rights granted them under the law, they cannot walk around by themselves at night. And this does not stem solely from the conservatism of the parents rather, there is a genuine danger, because they could be snatched from a street corner and the matter could end in tragedy. Turkish women in general are not seen on the streets. One sees only Jewish and Greek women.” (Central Zionist Archives, S25/6308, June 29, 1946)

Strict separation was maintained between girls and boys in all the groups. Young women served as group leaders for the girls and were involved in community life, tutoring pupils, helping at orphanages, teaching Hebrew, putting on plays and founding a choir. During World War II they assisted Jewish refugees from Europe who had fled to Turkey and took part in the smuggling of Jews to Palestine. The liaison with the “border crossers” in the eastern city of Gaziantep was a woman known as the Night Seamstress. World War II, in particular the activities of the Rescue Committee and the Zionist emissaries from Palestine based in Constantinople, led to a certain shift in the political attitudes of both the young girls and their parents, which expressed itself in the immigration of young people to Palestine. Young girls who in Turkey had not ventured out of their doors for fear of harassment were sent to A voluntary collective community, mainly agricultural, in which there is no private wealth and which is responsible for all the needs of its members and their families. kibbutzim in Palestine at the age of fourteen or fifteen as part of Aliyyat ha-No’ar (Youth Lit. "ascent." A "calling up" to the Torah during its reading in the synagogue. Aliyah ).


For centuries, widows had immigrated to The Land of Israel Erez Israel to live out their final days there and be buried in its soil. They were supported by their sons who remained behind in the city of their birth and sent them a yearly stipend known as añada. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a wave of emigration began, primarily to France and the Americas, due mainly to political instability, the economic crisis/the Depression, wars and mandatory conscription of minorities.

This emigration also had a gender aspect. In the wake of the departure of the young men, many young women of marriageable age were left behind in Turkey, as portrayed in the folk song “Buenos Aires”: “As soon as it opened/it filled with boys./The first is my lover/He went and left me.”

Many young women understood that if they waited until their prospective grooms had saved enough money to marry off their unmarried sisters and bring over their parents and only then be free to marry them, they themselves would remain unmarried for a long time. Young girls immigrated to pre-state Palestine as part of Youth Lit. "ascent." A "calling up" to the Torah during its reading in the synagogue. Aliyah , while women whose husbands had emigrated to avoid conscription took the children and left Turkey in any way possible.

Turkey became a multi-party democracy between 1945 and 1948. Following the elections of 1946, the rights previously stripped from them were restored to the Jews. Beginning in 1947, Jewish institutions and organizations began to renew their activities: sports groups, B’nai B’rith and camps for Jewish children were established.

In schools with a majority of Jewish children, Hebrew and religion were studied once more. With the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Jews were forbidden to immigrate there, but when the government changed in 1949, a mass aliyah began. Within four years, over half of Turkey’s Jews reached Israel. At the end of the twentieth century, there were some twenty thousand Jews living in Turkey, who were involved in all spheres of society, the economy, education, science and culture. While the younger generation is no longer fluent in Ladino, the community has a Ladino theater group, a musical group, Ladino journal and a museum. Jewish women poets and writers are publishing poetry, collections of sayings, stories and cookbooks in Ladino and Turkish.

Primary Sources (Archives)

Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem. S3/463/2, February 26, 1941.

S75/1504 1505, 1506, 1943–1944.

Archives de l’Alliance Israélite Universelle. Dossiers: Turquie XCVI E, carton 7145. Turquie II B4–7, carton 657, 1–4.

English Secondary Sources (books and articles)

Benbassa, Esther. H ayim Nahoum, A Sephardic Chief Rabbi in Politics, 1892–1923: Selected Letters and Documents (Hebrew). Jerusalem: 1998 (English edition, Tuscaloosa, AL: 1995).

Duben, Alan, and Cem Behar. Istanbul Households: Marriage, Family and Fertility, 1880–1940. Cambridge: 1991.

Jelavich, Barbara. History of the Balkans: Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. 2 vol. Cambridge: 1983.

Karpat, Kemal H. Ottoman Population, 1830–1914: Demographic and Social Characteristics. Madison: 1985.

Lamdan, Ruth. A Separate People: Jewish Women in Palestine, Syria and Egypt in the Sixteenth Century. Leiden: 2000.

Levy, Avigdor. The Sephardim of the Ottoman Empire. Princeton: 1992.

Idem, ed. The Jews of the Ottoman Empire . Princeton: 1994.

Lewis, Bernard. The Emergence of Modern Turkey . 3rd edition. New York-Oxford: 2002.

McCarthy, Justin. Muslims and Minorities: The Population of Ottoman Anatolia and the End of the Empire. New York: 1983.

Rodrigue, Aron. French Jews, Turkish Jews: The Alliance Israélite Universelle and the Politics of Jewish Schooling in Turkey, 1860–1925. Bloomington, IN: 1990.

Hebrew, Ladino and French Secondary Sources (books and articles)

Attias, Moshe. Romancero Sefaradi: Romansas y cantes populares en Judeo-Español (Hebrew and Ladino). Jerusalem: 1961.

Idem. Jewish-Sephardic Cancionero: Folk Songs in Judeo-Spanish (Hebrew). Jerusalem: 1972.

Bardavid, Beki. “The Life of Turkey’s Jews from 1850 to 1950” (Ladino). Aki Yerushalayim 61 (1999): 15–17.

Benbassa, Esther, and Aron Rodrigue. Jews of the Balkans: Judeo-Iberian Spaces, Fourteenth–Twentieth Centuries (French). Paris: 1993.

Bornstein-Makovetsky, Lea. “Activities of the American Mission” (Hebrew). In Yemei ha-Sahar: Peraqim be-Toledot ha-Yehudim ba-Imperiyah ha-Otmanit , edited by M. Rozen, 273–310. Tel Aviv: 1996.

Idem. “Immigration to Erez Israel from the Ottoman Empire in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries” (Hebrew). Shorashim ba-Mizra h : Kevatzim le- H eker ha-Tenu’ah ha- Z ionit ha- H alutzit be-Kehilot Sefarad ve-ha-Islam 5 (2002): 71–96.

Chikorel, Avraham, Araham Strumza, and Shelomo Rabi, eds. History of the Ne’emanei Tzion–He- H alutz Movement in Izmir, Turkey (Hebrew). Tel Aviv: 2002.

Falkon, Mordehay, Daniel Tzipper, and Mashih Avidan, eds. Zionism and the Jews of Turkey (Hebrew). Jerusalem: 2000.

Friling, Tuvia. “Between Friendly and Hostile Neutrality: Turkey and the Jews During World War II.” In The Last Ottoman Century and Beyond: The Jews in Turkey and the Balkans, 1808–1945 , edited by Minna Rozen, vol. 2, 309–423 (Hebrew). Tel Aviv: 2002.

Galante, Avraham. History of the Jews of Turkey (French). 9 vol. Istanbul: 1985.

Gerber, Hayim, and Ya’akov Barnai. Jews of Izmir in the Nineteenth Century: Turkish Documents from the Shar’i Religious Court (Hebrew). Jerusalem: 1985.

Levi, Avner. “Attitude of the Turkish Authorities and Society towards the Jews in Connection with the Alizah Niego Affair” (Hebrew). In H evrah ve-Kehilah, mi-Divrei ha-Kongres ha-Beinleumi ha-Sheni le- H eker Moreshet Yahadut Sefarad ve-ha-Mizra h , 1984 , edited by A. Hayim, 237–246. Jerusalem: 1991.

Idem. History of the Jews in the Republic of Turkey: Their Political and Judicial Status (Hebrew). Jerusalem: 1992.

Nahum, Henri. “The Jews of Izmir in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries” (Hebrew). Shorashim ba-Mizra h : Kevatzim le- H eker ha-Tenu’ah ha- Z ionit ha- H alutzit be-Kehilot Sefarad ve-ha-Islam 5 (2002): 122–151.

Rosanes, S. A. History of the Jews of Turkey and the Eastern Countries in Recent Generations (Hebrew). Jerusalem: 1945.

Rozen, Minna. “The Life Cycle and Significance of Old Age During the Ottoman Period” (Hebrew). In Daniel Carpi Jubilee Volume , edited by Dina Porat, Minna Rozen, and Anita Shapira, 109–175. Tel Aviv: 1996.

Idem. “Public Space and Private Space Among the Jews of Istanbul in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries” (Hebrew). Turcica 30 (1998): 331–346.

Idem, ed. Days of the Crescent: Chapters in the History of the Jews in the Ottoman Empire (Hebrew). Tel Aviv: 1996.

Idem. The Last Ottoman Century and Beyond: The Jews in Turkey and the Balkans, 1808–1945 (Hebrew), vol. 2. Tel Aviv: 2002.

Idem. The Last Ottoman Century and Beyond: The Jews in Turkey and the Balkans, 1808–1945 (Hebrew), vol. 1 (forthcoming).

Shaul, Eli. Folklore of the Jews of Turkey (Ladino). Istanbul: 1994.

Yohas, Esther, ed. Sephardic Jews in the Ottoman Empire: Aspects of Material Culture (Hebrew). Jerusalem: 1989.

Idem. “Characteristic Jewish Attire.” In Yehudei Sefarad ba-Imperiyah ha-Otmanit: Perakim be-Tarbut ha- H omrit, edited by Esther Yohas, 120–171 (Hebrew). Jerusalem: 1989.

Her Hunger for Power Led to Kösem Sultan’s Demise

Kösem died because of her strongest desire - power. She was murdered by a woman who served Turhan Hatice Sultan. After years of domination, Kösem was killed in the same way as she had done away with so many others. Turhan blamed Kösem for Ibrahim’s death and she wanted to end her rule to protect Mehmet. She was afraid that Kösem Sultan would try to become the regent once again.

During her lifetime, Kösem (and all of the six sultans who ruled in this period) destroyed the palace’s budget. Kösem had no mercy for her political enemies, but she seemed to care for the poor people who asked her for help. Her husband Ahmed's name was remembered through the centuries for to the impressive Blue Mosque, which was built to his orders.

After Kösem’s death, influential pashas decided that no other woman should be able to rule the Ottoman Empire. It was the end of an influential period for women in Topkapi Palace (started by Hurrem Sultan in the first half of the 16th century). Turhan was a regent with Mehmet IV, but she never became as important politically as Kösem. However, she apparently had no ambitions to do so either.

Nowadays, Kösem Sultan is a main character in many movies and novels. She is portrayed as a loyal wife and mother and a powerful woman whose life looked like one big battle to dominate Topkapi. It seems that she was stronger and a more radical politician than many women in history.

She was more than a delicate decoration to accompany the sultan, Kösem was a forceful figure dressed in a female kaftan.

Top Image: Representative image of a sultan’s powerful wife. Source: fotohelen /Adobe Stock

Watch the video: Hürrem Sultan, Ottoman Empress


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