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Ottoman Women: Myth and Reality
Sep 1, 2008

Asli Sancar, born and raised in the United States of America, has been living in Istanbul for over twenty years. For more than half of this period she intermittently pursued studies on the social status of Ottoman women and Ottoman family. Struck by the difference between the image of Eastern women in the West and the legacy left by Ottoman women themselves, the author researched the real status and role of women in the Ottoman Empire.

Asli Sancar has two more books and numerous articles, mainly dealing with women and family.

This book by the author, entitled “Ottoman Women: Myth and Reality,” combines both splendid design and objective narration, and could be referred to as a proof of the real status of women at that time giving full information on every aspect of their lives.

World of women-not as seen on TV

In our time when the rights of women are not well protected but are at least widely spoken about, it is very important to have research on the position of Ottoman women based not on common imagination (sometimes very colourful), but on the historical truth.

Unfortunately the further the topic moves to the East the more deviated the data becomes. Remarks untrue from the very beginning are more and more likely to be decorated with what-somebody-thinks-(s)he-could-have-seen. So for decades, when it came to the issue of a woman living in Muslim society there were only two options: whether a sultan’s harem full of silk, coffee, gold, hatred and intrigues or a harem in a mud house managed by a cruel and uneducated husband.

The truth had always been a card – laid at the table, played and beaten. Real facts were mixed with fruits of imagination; objective data was presented only when it could have been useful for the narrator.

In her book the author successfully presents the real state of affairs proving her point of view by documents from Ottoman records and remarks by Western travelers. Ottoman society was a highly organized and sophisticated system, so the position of a woman – should the issue concern her life in a household harem, childbirth and custody, charity and social activities – was regulated by religion and law. Even the foreigners disliking Muslim society and bearing hostility towards the Ottoman Empire, in particular, could not help but admit that Ottoman women enjoyed much more freedom and were way more respected and loved than their Christian sisters.

Ottoman woman: social position, rights, life in the harem

This research consists of six main chapters describing all the main aspects of Ottoman women’s lives. The chapters are dedicated to description of Ottoman women by Western travelers, life in the household harem, the status of slaves in the harem, the imperial harem, Ottoman women in court records and the metaphysical meaning of being a woman in the Ottoman Empire. The first chapter presents observations through Westerners eyes. Placing this part at the beginning is quite logical in respect to putting things in order and separating proven documentary facts from the fairy tale. Special attention was paid to the remarks of several female travelers and persons who had stayed in the Ottoman Empire for a long time and thus witnessed Ottoman life.

Even travelers’ comments needed to be studied with great care. Their accuracy had to be taken into consideration. The Ottomans would never have tolerated any interfering in their private life, so even female travelers with well-established diplomatic connections were accepted into the Ottoman harems with great restrictions.

Arabian nights vs. Ottoman daylight: outbeating the harem myth

When a woman needs to struggle with an enemy, she does it in a very delicate, feminine way. Here we see the author beating the harmful myth of harem life in a very confident and logical manner. “Women are not prisoners in any sense of the word, nor are they pining behind the latticed windows as we are sometimes led to believe…,” Elizabeth Cooper wrote in 1916.

Starting the second chapter of the book dedicated to life in the household harem by breaking with a popular myth presenting Ottoman and thus Oriental women as prisoners of their homes, is both bold and logical. It can be clearly seen that Ottoman women were never captives of their part of the house. But the fantasies of the Arabian nights made her image a hostage to common opinion in Western eyes. French translation of Arabian tales published in Europe at the beginning of XVIII century served the Ottoman women badly, turning them into sensual, infidel, vile creatures inventing one intrigue after another while spending their days in the sweet laziness of the harem.

Contradiction between exotic tales and reality should be solved fairly – this is what the author wants, and what women would have desired. They were secluded because they were loved and cared about, not imprisoned. The harem had never been a prison, but a sacred space where all the family enjoyed everyday life, celebrated holidays and was engaged in various social activities. Richer women were busy with distributing charity and caring for orphans and the disabled. They hardly had time for gossip, and their strong faith in God and the education they had would never have let them act improperly.

The chapter dedicated to the imperial harem is marvelous. Whoever thinks of “dolce far niente” practiced by the harem women day after day should study it carefully. A reader will see that not a single creature in the imperial harem possibly could be accused of doing nothing. If one takes a walk in modern Istanbul, no matter what the route is, he/she will surely see a mosque, a public bath, a hospital, a market complex, a water-spring, or a school ordered to be built by a queen mother, or by a mother of a prince, or by any other high-ranked lady from the harem. For God’s sake when did they manage to do all these? Between gossiping and intriguing? Oh that’s a shame! There should be some Turkish coffee break in between…

Winning her rights back: court records

Imagine an Ottoman woman coming to the court to protect her rights.

An Ottoman woman appealing to an Ottoman court. Winning the case, having been restored in her rights. It is not simply “possible.” This was a real documented process clearly showing that a woman living in the Ottoman Empire should never be thought of as something between a nice pet and a piece of the home decor. For centuries she was free in her half of the house which was considered sacred.

Here I can give a lot of examples of what an Ottoman woman did in her life. And the reader acquainted with Oriental life and traditions only by means of pocket novels written in a month, read in a couple of days and forgotten forever, could think that this book is just another fantasy product attributing more freedom to the prisoners of the harem in order to gain more attention by female readers.

The truth is even more shocking. A creature considered indolent, depraved and exotic will sooner or later come to the court of civilization and appeal to get back her dignity and good name. Indeed she has all the evidence of what she really was – the author presents citing from the Ottoman court records as well as the opinion of Lucy M. Garnett who in 1909 wrote: “With regard to their legal status, Turkish women – already possess the legal, personal, and proprietary rights necessary to give them a social position equal, if not superior to that of European women generally.”

Design of the book

“The interior is as exciting and rich as the exterior. Images are beautifully reproduced be they photographs, drawings or old paintings.” (PMA review of the design of the book)

“Her beauty is of color rather than of line”, says Z. Duckett Ferriman. Design of this book is both of color and line. It is of luxury worthy of the Topkapý Palace. Graphical concept is deeply connected with the spirit of the book. Richness of colors and illustrations, selected with major taste and care, seem to reflect the position and respect an Ottoman woman enjoyed. The very notion of East has always been associated with luxury, mystery and wonderful colors that could hardly be seen in the West. This time this is not just a stereotype. That is why there are so many attractive definitions like “Oriental green,” “Turquoise,” “Glow of the Desert” used especially for goods closely related to style and fashion. The cover could be called royal green with semi-sweet coffee foam beige and wedding bracelet gold on it. Gentlemen in charge of art and graphic design did everything possible to turn this book into a real pearl of the harem – with textile details and paintings by Osman Hamdi, every page takes us to the world of women – beautiful, pure and splendidly decorated.

The book was highly appreciated by PMA for its perfect design. Everyone who will read it will be deeply impressed by the luxury of every single page, clarity of paintings, photographs and any other illustrations - each of them in its place, in total harmony with the message of the “Ottoman Women.”

Ottoman woman: year 2008

Finishing this review, I would like to express my sincere gratitude and admiration to the author, Asli Sancar Hanimefendi, for marvellously starring in two roles at the same time: one of them is that of an American-born lady writing fairly on Ottoman women (almost three hundred years after Lady Montague, one hundred and seventy after Miss Julia Pardoe and nearly a hundred years after Z. Duckett Ferriman), and the other is the role of a Turkish woman, member of the new society feeling respect and devotion to history and the truth. There is also a third one behind every line and in every color of this book.

An Ottoman woman in the court.

Presenting her book.

Calling for justice.

Valeria Kolos is a Ukrainian Turkish-English-Russian translator. Having graduated from the Oriental Studies Department of the Kyiv Shevchenko National University in 1999, she has been living in Istanbul for 6 years. V.Kolos has some publications (poems in Turkish) in several literature magazines.