Women in Turkey - The Harem


oices Unveiled: Turkish Women Who Dare illuminates the complex historical, social, political, religious, economic and cultural forces that shape Turkey, the only democratic and secular country with a 99% Muslim population.

ince the last century of the Ottoman Empire (19th century), the Turkish intellectuals, politicians and theologians have been bridging the great divide between the Western style democracy and Islamic way of governing. These democratic reformations that were put into motion during the reign of the Ottoman Sultan, Mahmud II (1830s) gained tremendous momentum when Kemal Ataturk formed the Turkish Republic from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in 1923.

urkey is the first Muslim nation to grant equal rights to women in the early 20th century. But, before the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923, women still lived in the harems. The word harem, derived from the Arabic haram, means "unlawful", "protected," or "forbidden." Harem refers to the separate, protected part of a household where women, children, and servants live in maximum seclusion and privacy. For hundreds of years the Ottoman women just like their sisters in other Islamic societies lived secluded lives forbidden to enter the public sector and forbidden to socialize with any men except for their fathers, husbands and sons.

taturk made a clear decision to turn the country towards the West. He banned the clothing, scripture and religious orders that reminded people of their Eastern heritage, instead he introduced the Latin Alphabet, the European dress code and equal rights to women. He accomplished all these changes within a short period of time before his death in 1938. During this time, women were given the right the vote and all the basic rights that their Western sisters worked very hard to attain. However, in the 1980s, partially fueled by Khomeini's ascendancy in Iran and the American policies of supporting Islamic fundamentalism against the Cold War's communist threat, Turkey saw a resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism. Therefore, the issue of women's dress code became a war ground between the seculars and fundamentalist Muslims. Women's lives have become the arena where the attempts at modernizing or politicizing Islam are played out

oday, as Turkey prepares to join the European Union, it presents itself as a fascinating study for the peaceful co-existence of secularism, democracy and Islamic values. With the political emergence of Islamic fundamentalism, there is a pressing need for an ongoing analysis of the history and the current events of one of the most logistically important nations in the Middle East, Turkey.

oday, Turkey presents itself as a fascinating study for the peaceful co-existence of secularism, democracy and Islamic values. Turkey is an Islamic nation, but one which is secular. The country straddles two continents, with pressures pulling it in each direction. Turkey is literally - geographically, culturally, and economically - caught between East and West. Recently the European Commission started the EU membership talks with Turkey. But there are still many hurdles to clear before Turkey is admitted into the European Union. And current events are forcing Turks to make serious decisions about who they are and who they want to be.


t the dawn of the second millennium, The Turks, a nomadic race from the steppes of Siberia, swept through Mesopotamia all the way into Saudi Arabia. Along this journey, the nature-worshipping, horseback riding, nomadic warriors, took the religion of the lands they conquered. By the 13th century most of the Turks had converted to Islam. As Europe was mired in the bleakness and the ignorance of the Middle Ages, the Turkic tribes founded the highly civilized Ottoman Empire, which would extend from Africa to Asia to Europe and span six hundred years. With the capture of the holy cities Mecca and Medina in the early 15th century, the Ottoman Sultan took the title of the Caliph, the supreme leader of all the Muslims in the world. When the Ottomans conquered Constantinople from the Byzantines in 1453, the city flourished as the center of Islamic, art, architecture and literature.

uch has been documented about the Ottomans except for their women. At the end of the first millennium, the Turkic women would ride alongside their men and exert incredible degrees of authority. Free huntresses and warriors, these women had precise duties, carried responsibility within their tribe, and their role was important in the sparse nomadic habitat. However, with the adoption of Islam and its strict moral code, Turkish society and the place of women within it changed. The Ottomans separated and silenced their women by putting them behind the closed doors of the harems.

he word "harem" comes from the Arabic word "haram" and means "unlawful," "protected," or "forbidden." According to Islam several things are "haram" including eating pork and viewing another manís wives. Harem, a world of isolated women, is the combined result of several traditions. It suggests a clear idea of the separation between the sacred and the profane. Under such a system, men and women are among the first to be divided. Women symbolize passion; men, reason. Islam imposed segregation and the veil upon women, claiming that they had to be kept away from men who were not close relatives for their own protection. Thus the need for secluded dwelling places for women became imperative. The women had to protect their bodies and honor by living apart from men. Therefore, the harem became the separate part of a household where women, children, and servants live in maximum privacy.

he most opulent and intriguing Harem in the Islamic world was the Harem of the Ottoman Sultan in Istanbul. Young girls of extraordinary beauty, plucked from the slave market, were sent to the sultanís court, often as gifts from his governors. The girls were all non-Muslims and came from around the world, but mostly from the Caucasus region, Asia and Africa. Once the slave girl was confined in the harem, her given name would be changed to a Persian one that suited her particular qualities. She was forced to convert to Islam and hence began an arduous training in palace etiquette and Islamic culture. They were taught to dance, recite poetry, play musical instruments, and master the erotic arts.

o be a slave to the sultan was a privilege and an opportunity. Many free-born Muslims bribed or cajoled their way into the sultanís household or voluntarily gave their girls to the harem. The slavery system in the Ottoman court was different than the "Western" idea of slavery. With talent, smarts and manipulation, any slave could rise to become a powerful person in the Empire. Accepting the status of slave to the Sultan was to become an Ottoman. To be an Ottoman was to accept the duties of a caste: absolute loyalty and obedience. In return the sultan provided a career, a status and a salary for life.

he oppressive system and the elusive promise of absolute power motivated the harem women to act in fierce competition for the coveted title of the "Sultanís Mother". Violent murders, betrayals, poisonings became the norm in the Royal Harem. Over time the dominance of the harem system became a cancer within the Empire. The excessive interference of the harem women in state politics was instrumental in the ultimate decline and fall of the Ottomans.

Excerpts on the harem and photograph from Harem: The World Behind the Veil by Alev Croutier (© 1989 Alev Lytle Croutier, Published by Abbeville Press). For more information, visit www.alevcroutier.com