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An Empire for Women: Muslim Women Under Ottoman Rule

As we continue the discussion regarding women and Islam, it would be wise to look at Muslim women in time periods beyond that of the life of the Prophet. Throughout history there have been several dynasties and kingdoms that have come and gone as civilizations do, but the Ottoman Empire sticks out as one of the largest and longest-lasting empires of all time. Indeed, the Ottoman Empire stretched from north-western Africa (modern day Algeria) all the way to the Red Sea, up into the Levant and Mesopotamia and to the top of the Balkan peninsula. The areas controlled by the Ottoman Sultans would eventually come to shape the layout of the modern Middle East as we know it today following the end of World War I. Within this large swath of land, the Ottomans ruled over various types of religious believers and ethnicities. The rules that governed the interactions among and between individuals were dictated by their religious communities and respected by the Ottoman’s laws (which were most informed by Islamic law). When we take a closer look at women living under Ottoman law at this time, what we see is a very different picture than that of women in other parts of Europe.
As with all societies, the role of men and women are constantly being negotiated and renegotiated. This was no different during Ottoman times. There is an increasing amount of research written about women in the Ottoman Empire, particularly their role in society, and how that view has been shaped primarily by Western travelers influenced by orientalism. Interestingly, however, that some Westerners have viewed women in the Ottoman times as fairly free. “This is further confirmed in the early 18th century letters of Lady Mary Wortley-Montague, in which she exclaims that nowhere else are women as free as they are in the Ottoman Empire.”
Research on Muslim women in the Ottoman Empire have revealed much. What we see are two levels of society, both defined in their own right by the power of the women in her particular sphere of influence.“Leslie Pearce argues…that women were allowed access to the public world in such instances as attending mosques for purposes of religious teachings, and that some religious leaders did approve of this type of female public appearance.” And as with most societies, Muslim women’s activities and roles varied between the upper and lower classes. For upper-class women, a sense of segregation unfortunately resulted in the Western misinterpretation of the term “harem,” which comes from the Arabic world “haram,” or forbidden. While the stereotype sees these women as powerless sexual objects, in reality, they held much influence over the wealthier men, such as the Sultan and his associates. Research even suggests that these women were the driving forces behind the development of charitable organizations and political decisions. This influence was enshrined in the position of the valide sultan (the “mother of the sultan”). Probably one of the most famous of the valide sultans was Hafsa Sultan, the mother of Suleiman the Magnificent. There are reports as well that lower-class women also developed their own charitable organizations (or, “awqaf” in Arabic). These women were able to use their personal influence via ties to wealthier subjects in society (read: men) to make their personal initiatives come to life. For lower-class women in Ottoman society, there was a sense of mobility and autonomy in public that was very different than that of more wealthy women. Many women were landholders, tax farmers, and other professions. Depending on the location that they lived within the empire, they may have been craftswomen or involved in textiles as well.
As mentioned above, Ottoman law takes into account Islamic law. In the case of inheritance, women were able to inherit land and other property. This is generally permitted in Islamic jurisprudence. In attempts to degrade the religion, critics often point to the fact that women usually only get half as much inheritance as men, but then again, there are no provisions for women to use their inheritance to support a family. Women can use it as they see fit. While arranged marriages were common practice at this time in the Ottoman Empire, women had the right to refuse a proposal. Divorce was also common and accepted and, interestingly as one scholar notes, “For non-Muslim Ottoman women whose traditions did not normally permit divorce, conversion to Islam was a common way to be liberated from an unwanted spouse.”
This last piece is very telling. How can we compare Muslim women in the Ottoman Empire to other women at this time period? In the United States up until the twentieth century, women could not easily own property unless they were unmarried. “When women married, as the vast majority did, they still had legal rights but no longer had autonomy. Instead, they found themselves in positions of almost total dependency on their husbands which the law called coverture.” This law essentially put all legal dealings for property into the hands of the man in the relationship, which was also the practice in several European countries at this time. Divorce and women working outside the home was also less common than in the Ottoman Empire at this time in Europe and the United States for reasons relating to social and religious interpretations of a woman’s place in society.
It is interesting to note the juxtaposition between Ottoman society and Western societies. While the Ottoman Empire eventually fell and gave rise to various Middle Eastern countries as we know them today, their interpretations of Islamic law varies and depends on the local context for interpretations of what it means to be a Muslim woman at that time. For Ottomans, it was women’s personal right to have access to their rightly-owned property, ability to refuse marriage if they wanted, and also to own work various crafts. This is of course different than what the more wealthy women experienced, and different still than women around the world at that time. The key is that we are able to identify examples throughout history where women were empowered due to real implementation of religious laws during the negotiations that were taking place in society at that time.