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The Women of the Ottoman Imperial Harem During the 17th Century

It is an open secret that estimation of some cultural phenomena has been historically biased and affected by personal judgments. This is the case with the imperial women in the Ottoman Empire, who were believed to be self-indulgent and depraved according to traditional orientalists’ evidence. Yet, post-modern epoch appears to be the time to reconsider the true features and role of the harem women in correlation with Islamic culture and the historical period, in which they lived. So, post-modern historians prove the opinion of orientalists to be wrong by using specific case studies as well as explaining the roles of imperial women in the society of the time.

In order to understand the place of women of the Ottoman Imperial Harem in the seventeenth century, their belonging to Islamic culture should not be ignored. Despite their special place in the court there were rather severe rules of proper behavior that had to be followed by them based on Islamic formal and informal laws. As Herbert Bodman points out,  Western researchers have been unintentionally misleading the audience for centuries about the status of women in Islamic societies because they viewed them from the viewpoint of their own culture rather than trying to accept another cultural context. Thus, he unveils the stereotypes about women’s inferiority to men in Islam as many westerners think: “The Quran makes unmistakably clear that in the eyes of God women are equal to men…The righteous, both husbands and wives, will enjoy paradise” However, while relationship with God is shaped on the equal basis, there is a certain hierarchical order in human society. According to Islamic religious law, women are subordinate to men who guide them, in many ways like their spiritual teachers. However, unlike some stereotypical western views, this is done not at all to belittle women but on the contrary to protect her and secure her harmony as the core of the family circle. The nature of men and women is different, so it should be taken in account to make them live in alignment with their nature. There are certain requirements to women, which are determined by respect to religious law. These include dress code, which asks them to dress modestly in order avoid being temptation for men and thus provoking them to a sin. A Muslim woman is typically dressed beautifully in front of husband, while she wears hijab and other elements of protective clothes when in society. In terms of civic rights, a woman could have an opportunity for a divorce but laws were written in the way to secure family institution. For instance, children would be given to a husband in case when a wife demanded a divorce. Although she could remarry in three months, the risk of losing children was a serious factor that held the family union together.

To begin the discussion on imperial women of the seventeenth centuries, it is worth focusing on some of historical examples that reveal their role. As Leslie Pierce writes, “the harem is undoubtedly the most prevalent symbol in Western myths constructed around the theme of Muslim sensuality”. In fact, these myths first appeared around the sixteenth century at the background of severe medieval Christian asceticism which thrived in Europe at the time, which declared all bodily pleasures to be related to demonic work. Thus, it is obvious that the first authors in the west who covered the topic were quite biased, which affected the image of Harem women by being presented as depraved and self-indulgent, ruled by lust in the first place. There were not also cultural but also commercial interest about creating mythology:

"Descriptions of the harem and the sexual practices of the sultans clearly helped to sell books about the Ottomans and were therefore featured prominently. A mix of fact, hearsay, and fantasy, these works frequently conflate various descriptions of harem life that appear to have their origins in different stages of its evolution."However, researchers note that the Harem was a far more versatile and multifunctional institution than the resource of concubines for an emperor. For instance, it was used for training servants and as residence of royal family members. By no means was it considered to be a place of dishonor, and culturally it peacefully coexisted with Islamic values of modesty and worship of God.  The inhabitants of the Harem could indeed receive expensive gifts and clothing as a mercy from the emperor, especially if he enjoyed communication with a particular girl. However, their days were far from being idle and lazy waiting for a possible emperor’s call, which might have not happen at all. Most of the time that imperial women had was spent on education and practical skills like embroidery, because they knew this would help them make their living in the future when they got retired. In fact, few of the women managed to achieve extraordinary power, like for instance Hurrem Sultan who managed to become the favorite wife of Suleiman and to be a trusted advisor in decision making.  It was true that imperial women would have some property like gold and jewelry but it was not so much a way to live a luxurious life but a way to guarantee her standards of living. Researchers mention that there was a certain kind of “female economy”, as women could make business between them and resale gold or other estates to other women if necessary. It is also worth mentioning that not all women in the Harem became concubines but this does not mean that they were useless or not successful. Most of they got perfect education, which trained them more than just etiquette rules or dancing but a more broad range of theoretical and practical knowledge, which made them fit in nobility circles. Apparently, the career of each of the women depended very much on her character and personal appeal, as there was a certain competition. Yet, for smart, educated and goal oriented women there were means of growth in the place, which breaks the idea of sensual pleasures being the only focus for the Harem’s inhabitants. As Pierce mentions, “Women at this level of training who did not become royal concubines most probably went on to occupy the highest offices in the administrative/supervisory staff of the harem or to marry men high in the sultan’s service”. Furthermore, it is important to state that valide sultan, emperor’s mother always played a dominant role in the Harem. Whenever a concubine gave birth to an emperor’s child, she was under valide sultan’s protection and care, as she had to ensure the security and well-being of the newborn. It should  be noted that because of the wrong vision of harem by western authors, many of them believed that concubines had more power than valide sultan, which was not true. One had to change seeing the harem only in terms of its sexual influence to understand that its role was linked to keeping stability of the state and of emperor’s power in the first place. Yet, it took centuries of stereotypes for researchers to start seeing in a broader way, which meant placing the harem in the overall context of Islamic culture. One of the reasons why authors could not it was the factual lack of evidence because penetrating the harem was problematic if not impossible. As a secretary of French embassy wrote, “It appears that these writers would have [the harem] pass as a stage for numerous amorous scenes and gallant stories, which they report with such certainty that one would think they had been eye witnesses, so as to present all according to the tastes of their own country, which are not ours, where love is naught but the slave of nature for its satisfaction....”

In order to give insight in the way Harem functions in Ottoman empire, Douglas Scott Brookes chooses to write from three perspectives: a concubine, a teacher and a prince. The concubine Filizten is a person who managed to leave memories about her life in the imperial harem, which provides valuable historic and cultural evidence about the epoch and the way life in the palace was organized. The author breaks a traditional vision of  the Harem by revealing its more positive aspects: “"We have encountered the riches bestowed on a prince's children, concubines, and high-level staff, in line with their rank, and the opulence of their surroundings—riches that every royal court employs to underscore its claim to stand at the pinnacle of society. And in contrast to popular depictions of the Ottoman harem as a place of cruelty and fear, we have seen portrayals of warm and nurturing love between parents and children."

In conclusion, it is worth saying that orientalists vision of the Harem women and its overall structure was shaped under misleading influence of several factors such as cultural and religious bias and lack of valid information. Because the Harem mythology was at once attractive and derogatory for Westerners,  it evoked lasting interest among the readers, which urged writers balance at the brink of fantasy and reality. Besides, brought up in Christian tradition, they had a narrow vision of the actual place that imperial women too and confined it only to sensual aspect. However, more unbiased studies of post-modern authors prove that Harem was more than a place created for emperor’s pleasure, while women could participate in a wider range of activities than just waiting for emperor’s request. They were cultured and educated women, often smart and goal oriented, who had a number of options about continuing their further life. Some could take an honorable position within Harem itself without any compulsion to become concubines, or they could successfully marry high rank officials in emperor’s court. Besides, the ideas of lifestyles in the Harems as the place of luxury and lust are not exactly true because women had to spend a lot of their time on education and learning practical skills in order to be worthy of the high status which in fact the palace was. Moreover, this institution was part of unique cultural environment of imperial power, had strict hierarchy and order, and eventually ensured stability of the empire.