The Ottoman Empire was one of the most powerful states in the Middle Ages. The laws of Islam governed the empire and it is often believed that women who lived in the Ottoman Empire were oppressed. Thus, academic work on the development of the empire concentrates on “all-embracing context of Islam”, segregation, and the harem (Köksal & Falierou, 2013). In many cases, females did not enjoy many rights and could have only limited roles in their families. However, this was true for people of less privileged social strata.
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When it came to the royal court, the traditions were somewhat different. Females could affect the policy of the entire empire and often played an important role in the life of the country. It is noteworthy that some believe that excessive influence of the sultan’s harem led to the decline of the empire (Fleischer, 2014). Whereas some argue that the rule of females in some period of development of the Ottoman Empire was effective and enabled the country to remain powerful in the times when male rulers were unable to reign properly (Keddie, 2012). This paper dwells upon gender roles in the Ottoman Empire with specific emphasis on the role of women in the country’s political agenda.
Gender Roles in the Society
As has been mentioned above, the Ottoman Empire was a Muslim state and the laws of Islam were the laws of the country. The society was highly patriarchal and fathers (in some cases, brother) made all decisions. Females did not have any property of their own and they could hardly choose a husband as marriages were pre-arranged. Notably, the concept of marriage was of paramount importance and the rules were well established since the marriage was seen as a primary tool of controlled demographic situation in the empire and its colonies (Kern, 2014).
At the same time, women’s rights were also protected by the law and it was especially true when it came to divorce. Thus, a woman could divorce her husband if he could not “adequately provide financial support” (Öztürk, 2014, p. 57). Therefore, it is possible to note that women had certain rights and could be protected by the law. However, females could not participate in any part of social life as they were assigned particular roles.
The sphere where women had boundless control was their households. Taking care of the household was the primary concern of a woman. Once the female became a wife, she had to take control over the household as well as her children. Importantly, mothers played a crucial role in their children’s education and development. Women were often involved in arranging marriages for their sons. It is necessary to add that wealthy men could have harems where wives and concubines lived. More so, all men who could provide for their wives could have several wives. This led to development of strict hierarchies in the families and harems. The hierarchy was especially apparent in the Imperial Harem.
Gender Roles in the Royal Court
The Imperial Harem
The Imperial Harem was the “private quarters” of the Sultan where his wives, concubines and “his imperial offspring” dwelt (Iyigun, 2013). The harem was a sanctum of the sultan and, hence, it was hidden from other people’s eyes. Females who lived in the harem rarely left its borders and could only leave it in special cases (when they got married to a man, were sent to keep their sons’ households in distant colonies).
The Sultan had a great number of concubines and he could have only four wives whose children could be heirs to the throne (Inalcik, 2013). The Sultan’s wives chose concubines for the sultan and were responsible for keeping the harem. Notably, some concubines and sometimes daughters of the sultan became wives of noble people of the empire (Lapidus, 2014). Again, the sultan’s wives and/or the queen mother played an important role in this process.
It is noteworthy that prior to the fifteenth century the queen mother with her imperial son went to one of the provincial governorates and settled her son’s harem there. However, in the middle of the fifteenth century and in the sixteenth century the queen mother acquired significant institutional and often political power and could affect the policies of the empire. Iyigun (2013) notes that this can be a result of the influence the queen mothers had on future sultans as they were responsible for their son’s education and spend a lot of time together. It is possible to provide an example of one of the most powerful women in the sultan’s harems as well as in the entire empire.
That powerful female was the third wife of Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, Hurrem Sultan also known as Roxelana. The woman was one of women sold to the sultan’s harem but she soon obtained great influenced over the ruler of the empire. An example of this influence was the exile of the sultan’s son who was his heir (Talhami, 2013). It is also believed that she was the designer of the plot against the heir and his death.
Kunt and Woodhead (2014) note that this was one of her most serious interferences in the political agenda of the empire as the sultan’s son Mustafa had lots of supporters and his death led to certain tension in the society and the court life. The woman played quite an important role in the society as she order to build mosques and baths. She also donated a lot of money to help the poor. This made her even more influential as she gained support of many people. It is also believed that Hurrem affected her husband’s and then her son’s political decisions including international affairs.
To sum up, it is possible to note that the notion that women in the Ottoman Empire were deprived of any rights in the society is rather controversial. On the one hand, ordinary females did not play a meaningful role in the society and did not even have property of their own or could not hold a post. On the other hand, they were totally free to run their households and their rights (especially when it came to marriage issues) were protected by the law.
More so, sultan’s wives and the queen mother often played a significant role in the political agenda of the empire through their influence on the sultan. Those women also played an important part in development of the society through donations and charity. Such females as Hurrem Sultan can be regarded as a bright example of such influence as the sultan’s wife is still referred to as one of the most influential female rulers in the world. Hence, it is possible to conclude that women in the Ottoman Empire had particular roles and contributed greatly to the development of the country.
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Inalcik, H. (2013). The Ottoman Empire: 1300-1600. London: Hachette UK.
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Iyigun, M. (2013). Lessons from the Ottoman harem (On ethnicity, religion and war). Economic Development and Cultural Change, 61(4), 693-730.
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Kern, K.M. (2014). Imperial citizen: Marriage and citizenship in the Ottoman frontier provinces of Iraq. New York, NY: Syracuse University Press.
Köksal, D., & Falierou, A. (2006). Introduction: Historiography of late Ottoman women. In D. Köksal & A. Falierou (Eds.), A social history of late ottoman women: New perspectives (pp. 1-31). Danvers, MA: BRILL.
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Öztürk, F. (2014). Ottoman and Turkish law. Bloomington, IN: iUniverse.
Talhami, G.H. (2013). Historical dictionary of women in the Middle East and North Africa. Plymouth, UK: Rowman & Littlefield.