Islamic women who lived in the Ottoman Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries are the focus of this inquiry. What was their social life like in terms fun, vice, pleasure, and other activities that involved sensuality or illegal interactions? What do various authors report regarding the activities women engaged in during this era the Ottoman Empire? This paper reviews and critiques the literature relating to the subject of women and their activities in this period of Islamic history.
Mary Ann Fay -- "Women and WAQF" (background)
In her essay, Mary Ann Fay discusses Mamluk politics and society in 18th century Ottoman Egypt, pointing to the fact that women of Mamluk households enjoyed "considerable economic autonomy" because they were owners and managers of property (Fay, 1997, 31). That gave them a certain degree of social power but as Fay explains, Mamluk women also derived power from "the importance of marital and non-marital sexual unions" -- which gave them "independent sources of information and influence" (31). The interpretation of Islamic law -- the Shari'ah -- in that era clearly gave women not only the right to own property, but also the "political power they could exercise inside the household itself," Fay continues (32). Women thus had avenues and strategies they could utilize to build on their credibility, their independence, their "influence, and power" (Fay, 32). Having mentioned the rights women had under the law Fay is quick to admit that historians are not certain as to "the extend to which women were able to exercise these rights" (32).
Fatma Muge Gocek / Mark David Baer -- Women's Social Boundaries (background)
Gocek and Baer argue that much of the historic literature on the experiences women had in the 18th Century Ottoman Empire -- at least the literature that has survived -- "is highly selective" and tends to be a "disadvantage to women" (Gocek, et al., 1997, p. 49). The authors do point out -- as Fay did in the previous page -- that women "…could and did obtain great levels of fiscal capital"; in fact Fatma Hatun owned "substantial numbers of diamonds and pearls and freehold property" that amounted to 138,300 akces (Gocek, 50). That having been pointed out, the authors add that having wealth did not "necessarily translate into power"; what did translate into power was the "location of women within the Ottoman social structure," Gocek explains on page 50.
The authors review court cases and report that women had rights of inheritance, of guardianship and they were respected in courtrooms. The missing link in completing the details about women in legal matters is that there are few records of inheritance for those women who chose not to use the courts to obtain their rights and possessions. Moreover, some goods that women rightfully should have been bequeathed "were hidden from the judge" and hence, the "inventoried goods women possessed at the end of their lives" will not generally reflect their actual material wealth, "or their downward and upward mobility" (Gocek, 54). Additional research needs to be done to more fully understand the "social boundaries of the women's experience" based on registers such as inheritance registers, Gocek continues (54).
Dina Rizk Khoury -- Moral and Spatial Boundaries -- Including Prostitution
Khoury explains that the lower class and middle class women in 19th Century Ottoman society had more flexibility to leave the house; she could have her "slippers ready at the door" and use "public spaces" to go to the market, the quarter, and elsewhere (Khoury, 1997, 114). Elite women were for the most part bound to the household; they were "…first and foremost wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters" and they remained in the household a good share of the time, Khoury explains on page 115.
Interestingly one of the places that lower and middle class women frequented was the mausolea (mausoleum) where they would participate in the "rituals and celebrations that were at times openly political in nature," Khoury continues (121). Being at the mausolea gave women the chance to "gender these spaces by attributing meanings" that were relevant to women regarding "the intercessionary powers of their saints" (121). In one case women "actually created the sainthood of a man who broke social barriers and taboos by eloping with a married woman," Khoury explains. That man was caught and killed for his deeds. But meantime the women who visited his mausoleum believed that if they could pluck one single hair from his beard they would have the power "to raise the dead" (121).
Khoury gets down to the truth about some of the "lower class" (AKA, "marginal") women on pages 118-119. They were "drawn" from certain "social groups," the author writes, including "prostitutes and rural migrant women, who were beyond the strictures of what was considered good behavior" among the urban "literati" and the middle classes (118). One particular religious scholar (whose name Khoury gives as Mullah Jirjis) tended to boast about his "exploits" with lower class women "with a degree of relish that makes one suspect envy," Khoury continues on page 119. He encountered one particular prostitute on the street and asked her how she got into her profession (or so the story goes). Her response was that "…she was an orphan and had no protectors" (119).
The story continues as the Mullah goes to her house and the two "…engaged in a sexual encounter" after which the Mullah wrote a rhyming vernacular poem regarding the "banter" that took place during the sexual encounter with the prostitute "…about the sexual prowess and libidinal drive of each" (Khoury, 119). The truly interesting part of this story that Khoury relates is that the Mullah poem -- meant to "shock" and "entertain" its readers -- was inserted into a manuscript that the Mullah wrote, a commentary on the "political and social order" in the community (119). Khoury believes the sexually explicit poem -- planted in the middle of an otherwise non-controversial narrative that read like a chamber of commerce piece -- may have been put there to represent "a world that has its own logic and moral code which separated it from that of women" (119).
There's more to the story of the wealthy, hedonistic Mullah Jirjis; he had a household with several wives and "some forty slave women," which makes a reader wonder why he would solicit sex on the street from a prostitute. In a way he was "flaunting" his wealth and he apparently symbolized the "new moral and political order of the city," Khoury writes (120). The higher class religious leaders in the city gave recognition to holy men who were "protectors of marginal women" -- which sounds like the clergy was using the guise of "protection" in order to enjoy the benefits of sexual encounters with those marginal women, in which case one could say the women were used but perhaps not abused by holy men. Another holy man, Majdub Ahmad, "was always wandering the city" and living with prostitutes, the author explains on page 120. In fact Majdub Ahmad raised money for the prostitutes and in the process defied social convention but apparently led to a lessening of social mores.
Fanny Davis -- Polygamy & the Ottoman Lady in the Harem
Author Fanny Davis reports from first and secondary sources that polygamy among the Ottoman Turks in the period of Abdulhamit II was "generally known" albeit there is no evidence that it was widespread (Davis, 1986, 87). The men who had multiple wives as a rule were "…usually those who owned large mansions where there was room for each wife to have a separate establishment," Davis writes (87). There were "legitimate reasons" for polygamy to be practiced during this period of the Ottoman Empire, Davis contends -- albeit from the perspective of the 21st Century they seem vague and even flaky. For example" a) polygamy "…prevented men with wives who were ill from patronizing prostitutes"; b) polygamy "increased the population"; and c) polygamy saved "unmarried women and widows from a state of manlessness and a lack of protection" (87-88).
The practice of polygamy was given momentum through the legal practice of concubinage, Davis continues; the law during that period (middle to late 19th Century) permitted a man "as many female slaves as he could maintain" in his concubine (88). The explanation for why this practice was justified and accepted seems far-fetched from the point-of-view of modern society, but Davis has done the research and her narrative has to be taken as realistic in that context. For example, having a concubine was a "recourse often preferred by both the men and their wives" because it gave the man freedom "…from the trouble of dickering with inlaws over a marriage settlement," Davis explains (88).
Moreover, if the marriage was not pleasing or acceptable to the wife -- in particular if she was an "independent-spirited Turkish woman" -- the man with beautiful, always available, sexy slaves needn't contend with that wife who could threaten to take her…