History

  • Issue 66 / November - December 2008



    A Journey of Discovery

    Asli Sancar

    I first became interested in Ottoman women in the early 1990s when I read a newly published book on the Ottoman harem. Although the book was beautifully illustrated, the text just basically repeated the time-worn sensationalist approach of the Orientalists: women in the harem were exotic, indolent and suppressed. I was not fully convinced, because I had met several Ottoman ladies in person during my long residence in Turkey who were anything but “exotic, indolent and suppressed.” To the contrary, they were all exceptionally respectable, active (two were writers and one was a founder of a private college) and independent ladies. However, I had no hard proof in my hands that the sensationalist stereotype or myth of the harem was false. So I decided to roll up my sleeves and investigate the subject for myself.

    I began my research by reading all the Turkish material I could find on the subject. Most of the works I found were Turkish translations of European travelers’ reports about Ottoman life. Of course, it was necessary to separate fact from fiction, because many travelers, males in particular, described aspects of Ottoman life they had never personally seen-the inside of the harem, for example. But in spite of this, I was able to glean a fairly accurate description of Ottoman women and the harem from a number of different travelers (mostly women) who can be considered as eye witnesses to harem life. The portrait of Ottoman women that emerged reflected a very feminine appearance and demeanor, refined manners and decorum, and a pious and chaste character. Their domestic roles of wife and mother further reinforced this strongly feminine image.

    The portrait of Ottoman women I found from my reading was a far cry from the Orientalists’ exotic stereotype. I learned that only approximately ten percent of the young slave girls in the imperial harem were actually royal concubines, and this number included concubines to the princes as well as to the sultan. The rest were groomed and trained for service to the royal family by means of the administrative hierarchy in the imperial harem. Even the belly dance, which is always associated with slave girls in the harem, apparently did not even exist in the imperial harem. That is what we are told by Leyla Saz Hanýmefendi who grew up in the palace from the age of four and who was closely associated with the royal family during the reign of six different sultans during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Armed with the information and knowledge I had gained from many travelers’ reports and secondary sources, I felt ready to challenge the sensationalist myth of the harem. Little did I know at the time, however, that an even greater discovery regarding Ottoman women awaited me in future research.

    By a quirk of fate, I found myself spending a year with my daughter who was studying for a master’s degree in Islamic studies at a leading North American university. One of the courses she took was related to the Muslim qadi or judge and Ottoman court records. Much to my amazement I learned that throughout the duration of the Ottoman state (six centuries) women had many significant legal rights, more perhaps during that time than any other women in the world. This was a point that had been somehow overlooked in the many sensationalist books on the harem! Investigating this point further, I learned that Ottoman women had legal agency or, in other words, they could sue and be sued in court independent of their husbands. They could enter into legal contracts like marriage contracts with their husbands, or into business contracts with others. They had the right to own property and to inherit it. They had the right to initiate divorce. They had full control over their own income and property and could do with it as they wished. Ottoman women also had the right to be guardian of their children in case of the death of or divorce from their husband. European women, on the other hand, gained these rights much later, and today in some parts of the world women are still struggling to obtain them. British women, for example, did not have these rights until 1882. Previous to that time they had to turn over any property, inheritance or income to their husband upon marriage. Women did not have legal agency nor were they able to make legal contracts independently. Also they were unable to defend themselves in divorce cases and they could not get legal guardianship of their own children.

    Furthermore, I learned that not only did Ottoman women have these legal rights, but that they actively pursued their rights as well. There are thousands of court records that attest to this. By no means were legal rights enjoyed just by a privileged few. They were accorded to Ottoman women of all social and economic strata. For example, one of my favorite cases was taken from early seventeenth-century Kayseri court records. It involves a woman named Teslime who was working on her land when her neighbor’s donkey strayed onto her property. When she seized the animal, her neighbor, who was a man, cursed her. Teslime immediately filed a complaint with the local qadi. Two witnesses were found to support her complaint and she won her case. While reading her case, I could not help but wonder how many women today would take a man to court for cursing them; and if they did so, how many would be taken seriously? There are countless recorded cases of Ottoman women who turned to the courts to get redress for injustices perpetrated against them. Upon review of such cases a different image of the Ottoman woman in the legal arena emerged: a strong and courageous woman who put Haqq (Truth and Justice) above everything else.

    It was the discovery of this side of Ottoman women that really clenched my respect and admiration for them, because it enlightened me in regard to how Muslim women should be. They were not only very feminine and refined, but they were also strong defenders of Haqq. Their feminine and masculine natures were amazingly well balanced. As a Muslim convert, I have found the female model I was looking for. Whenever I get into trouble, I first ask myself, “What would an Ottoman woman do?”

    Furthermore, I discovered that the spiritual nature of women was honored in Ottoman society.

    Ottoman women were honored in the harem, not imprisoned there. Unfortunately, this way of perceiving women has all but been lost today. Much of the time women are perceived mainly as physical beings and, in its lowest form, as sex objects. They are often valued to the degree that they can rival the accomplishments of men. Ottoman women, however, were honored and valued as women.

    I wanted to share these discoveries with others. I began lecturing on the subject of Ottoman women in Turkey, and these lectures eventually led to a small book in Turkish entitled, “Osmanlý Toplumunda Kadýn ve Aile (Women and Family in Ottoman Society).” Later on I began thinking about writing a book on Ottoman women in English-not an academic work, but a book giving a general overview that would appeal to any Western reader interested in the subject of women. Again, I rolled up my sleeves and set to work. As the book took form, so did my concept of how the book should be illustrated. I wanted it to reflect the spirit of the Ottoman woman-the beauty and harmony and refinement of her life. Once Tughra Books (formerly The Light, Inc.) agreed to publish the book and the design concept was agreed upon, members of their graphics design department did an extraordinary job that eventually led to the book being a finalist for the 2008 PMA Benjamin Franklin Award in the category of cover design/large format.

    My book was published under the title “Ottoman Women: Myth and Reality” at the end of 2007. In the spring of 2008 I went on a book promotion tour in some major US cities: Los Angeles, New York, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Pittsburg, Rochester and Newark. The people I met and spoke to-men and women, young and old, American and Turkish, Muslim and non-Muslim-all responded positively to the book. Many were surprised to learn about the high social status of Ottoman women, particularly about their legal rights. Some, young Turks in particular, were thankful that the myth of the harem was finally being challenged. Almost all commented on the beautiful design of the book. The highlight of the tour occurred on the evening of the annual PMA publishing awards dinner in Los Angeles. That night my long journey of discovery in regard to Ottoman women was crowned when my book won the PMA Benjamin Franklin publishing award in the category of history/politics.

    As a final comment, I would like to mention the great contribution to the book of my now deceased son, Sahin Sancar. He was with me every step of the way, from the signing of the contract with my publisher to the final touches in the design. He was a beautiful person and he contributed greatly to the beauty of the book. May he live eternally in beauty and light.

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