Engraving of threshing near Ogosta, Bulgaria, second half of the 19th century

A new volume of essays looks afresh at women’s lives during the 600 years of the Ottoman empire. The book challenges the stereotypes of female lives confined to the harem and hamam – and reveals how women were surprisingly visible in public spaces.

The desire to protect women’s honour had less to do with women than it did with concern with the well-being of society as a whole, for an immoral woman meant an immoral society.

Ebru Boyar

Ottoman women shopped. They didn’t just shop; they also ran businesses, owned property and, on occasion, stormed buildings to stage protest meetings. Not only did they flirt and dance – and infuriate their husbands with demands for the latest fashions – but they exerted genuine political and economic power. And they did all this much more visibly than is often assumed.

In Ottoman Women in Public Space, a group of scholars of the Middle East and the Islamic world turn their attention to a neglected topic: what life was actually like for women at the height of an empire that lasted for 600 years (right up until the turn of the 20th century) and, at its most powerful, stretched eastwards from present-day Hungary, southwards to the religious centre of Mecca, and westwards around the southern Mediterranean to the bustling port of Algiers.  

Edited by Dr Kate Fleet and Ebru Boyar (Faculty of History and Skilliter Centre for Ottoman Studies at Newnham College), Ottoman Women in Public Space is a collection of essays by specialists based in five countries and from a range of academic disciplines. In drawing on sources that span from court records to poetry, the contributors challenge the notion that female life was confined to the sequestered spaces of the harem and the hamam (traditional Turkish bath).

The conventional narrative places Ottoman women firmly in the domestic sphere and fails to see how visible they were outside the home, either in the mahalle (neighbourhood) or beyond. Female lives, viewed in modern western terms, were undoubtedly proscribed. But scholars are now exploring the extent to which women were publically visible, whether they were members of the elite sampling the delights of the pleasure gardens of great cities or peasants labouring in the fields. 

Why have women been missing from histories of the Ottoman empire – and why have narratives about females centred on the seclusion of the harem? As Boyar and Fleet explain, women’s voices are absent in records which were almost exclusively produced by men. When female voices are heard, they are mediated through a male narrator. It’s a universal reality, they point out, that a large proportion of women – those who are older or of low status – have long been effectively ‘invisible’ in public.

How visible a woman was, where she was free to go and what she was able to do, depended largely on who she was. The mobility of noble women was more constricted than that of poor women. In the countryside, female labour was essential to agriculture. An 19th-century engraving of harvesting in Bulgaria shows two women at work. With a child on her lap and a whip in her hand, the younger woman drives a horse and threshing sledge over the crop to separate the grain from the chaff.

In cities the most visible of all women were the thousands of slaves who ranged from poor serving girls to powerful concubines. In a chapter devoted to the extremes of visibility, Fleet writes: “While women were positioned at various points along the trajectory of visibility … slave women moved through the whole gamut of visibility from physical invisibility and seclusion at one end of the spectrum to total exposure on the market place, a level of display unthinkable for any other Ottoman woman, at the other.”

Slaves crossed private/public boundaries. Vital to the smooth-running of the home behind closed doors, they were also a marker of public respectability. A hand-coloured portrait (late 16th century) of a lady walking to the baths accompanied by her slave shows both dressed to impress. The slave’s presence signalled that the lady being accompanied was legitimately out in public and under the close protection of her family.

As commodities, slaves were bought and sold, traded and transported. “The visibility of slaves on the market varied from complete exposure in public slave markets to the more private display within a slave dealer’s house, or presentation of a slave dealer within the konak (residence) of a potential buyer,” writes Fleet. An English visitor to Istanbul at the end of the 16th century described its slave market: “They sell many Christian slaves of all sects and adge, in manner as they sell thier horses, looking them in the eyes, mouth, and all other parts.”

At the other end of the social spectrum, and with more agency at their disposal but less mobility in public spaces, wealthy women devised numerous ways to make their presence felt without jeopardising their reputations: they used perfumes; they appeared on balconies, briefly visible to passers-by; sweet sounds of their voices carried into the street. Their bodies may have been covered as they negotiated public spaces, but they walked with a sway of their hips and used tokens as a secret language to convey messages of love.

Male control of women was underpinned by notions of moral rectitude but women were out and about much more than has previously been thought. They were (at least sometimes) visible to the gaze of foreign observers, curious about a culture so seemingly exotic. In the collection of the Correr Museum in Venice is an illustrated travel manuscript showing scenes of Istanbul in the late 17th century. Among them is a delightful sketch of a group of women enjoying an outing in a boat rowed by three handsome oarsmen sporting splendid black moustaches. 

Notions of honour ran deep in Ottoman society. Boyar writes: “The desire to protect women’s honour had less to do with women than it did with concern with the well-being of society as a whole, for an immoral woman meant an immoral society.” Women could be seen in public but how they behaved, and how they were perceived, was of paramount importance. For women to be seen visiting the graves of their relatives, or shines of holy personages, was acceptable; for women visiting a cemetery to be seen drinking and eating with unrelated men was not.

Women’s lives were controlled not just by the state, argues Boyar, but also by “an imagined moral community” with the “power to label a woman as honourable or dishonourable as it thought fit, leaving the woman concerned with no recourse to this judgment”. However, social perceptions of respectability were fluid – and varied across time and space. An Anatolian visitor to Cairo was shocked to see the wives of high-ranking men riding on donkeys. His reaction was coloured by the practice elsewhere for prostitutes to be punished by being displayed on donkeys.

It was within the intimacy of the mahalle (neighbourhood) that the question of reputation was most potent. “For a woman to be labelled a prostitute had significant ramifications for it left her exposed without the protection of either family, society or the state,” writes Boyar. “She was seen as challenging the imagined moral community and as seeking to build a life outside its boundaries and control.” On one hand condemnation could mean ruin, on the other marginalisation could be empowering. Brothels were everywhere. Not only did prostitutes have access to public spaces but, as an integral part of society, they were sometimes invited to important celebrations and took part in street processions.

By the turn of the 20th century, the Ottoman empire was crumbling. Its demise had opened up new opportunities for women to enter public spheres. As Boyar writes: “Their progress and the speed of change in both the level of their participation and the acceptance of their new position owed much to the dire circumstances that the empire found itself in in that period and to certain changes, in particular the emergence of the press and the development of female education.”

Unsurprisingly, so profound a societal change was by no means unopposed. As late as 1915, a regional governor expressly forbad women discussing the government to “create demoralisation with their lying and inaccurate words and gossip”. But even this condemnation of female gossip shows how much women were present and how their voices were heard in the Ottoman public space.

With this new volume, Fleet and Boyar and their contributors lift the lid on many thousands of lives previously marginalised by academic histories.

Ottoman Women in Public Space is published by Brill.


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