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Review June 2024

Women of the Ottoman Empire

Review by Nora Lafi
Suraiya Faroqhi, 2023
ISBN 9780755638253
328 Pages
Published by: Bloomsbury Publishing
Sepia picture of Nezihe Muhiddin. In the portrait picture, she is looking into the distance. There is Arabic writing on the lower left-hand corner of the picture. Nezihe Muhiddin, a feminist activist from the early 20th century.

In contrast to historical narratives that structure history according to dates, facts, episodes and achievements dependent on a masculine vision, Suraiya Faroqhi proposes at the start of this highly stimulating book a chronological timeline centred on women. This great idea introduces 16th-century poet Miri Hatun, entrepreneur Despineta Argyraia from the turn of the 17th to 18th centuries, and teacher Nezihe Muhiddin, a feminist activist from the early 20th century. Most of all, it defines the spirit of the book, which is to focus on female agency. In the introduction, indeed, the author insists on the heuristic necessity of considering women as agents, to give them forms of historical visibility, that both the societies of their times and history writing often denied them. Suraiya Faroqhi also underlines the need to investigate a variety of archival sources, in order to unearth under-evaluated aspects of their diverse ways of being actively involved in family and social life. Conscious of the risk of forgetting the fate of less active women, Faroqhi justifies her posture at both a methodological and philosophical level: “There are good reasons for privileging active women, at least if we avoid defining agency in too narrow a fashion. In certain situations, sheer survival and retaining mental and emotional balance was an art [but] only active women can be ‘political’ in the very broad sense intended by the title of this book” (p. 5). The introduction is also the opportunity to reflect on the nature of the available archival resources about women, and on the debates among historians regarding their use and interpretation. From court records, for which she develops interesting methodological questions, to diaries, archives produced by men, and other traces that could open up an understanding of female agency, the aim is to diversify the resources.

The book is organized chronologically, except for a prologue, which focuses on a series of moments and places, chosen for their potential to support a female perspective. Among such moments are the Ottoman-Safavid conflict, seen as a way to read geopolitics and the very process of structuration of Ottoman power through the lens of women; the question of the Harem, seen as an entry into the understanding of political life and power organization within the imperial palace (and not from a mere orientalist erotic perspective), and the period of the “defensive modernization” (p. 28) at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, for which an interpretation of the issue of women’s access to education and the public sphere is key. The author’s suggestion is that this way of changing the perspective on history can constitute the basis for an innovative general narrative of Ottoman history.

The first part of the book is then dedicated to the 16th and 17th centuries. It begins with an examination of the legal framework regulating family life, particularly regarding women. The approach is first normative, around reflections on the nature of Islamic Law and its accommodation during the construction phase of the Ottoman imperial state. The notions of marriage, inheritance, repudiation and divorce are examined, as are aspects of the normative framework applied to Christian and Jewish women. These passages would have benefited from being more closely integrated into a reflection that considers the formation and stabilisation of Islamic jurisprudence over the preceding centuries, as well as the way in which the legal construction of Ottoman rule mixed these foundations with various heritages, including Byzantine, Anatolian and Persian. The following paragraphs, dedicated to precise situations in Ottoman Syria and Egypt, provide a better view, closer to the daily life of Ottoman women: that of the diversity of norms, and also of daily accommodations with norms. Rather than a synthesis based on legal schools by rites, an entry based on specific cases would perhaps have enabled the author to go further in this direction, as she does for the situation of the Jewish women of Salonica.

Suraiya Faroqhi illustrates how women were in many cases active agents in the management of legal structures relating to real estate and wealth.

The passages devoted to the question of work open in a way that indicates a strong choice of perspective on the part of the author. Work, indeed, is first examined for those women “left out of support” (p. 57). Rather than starting by examining the place of women in working practices in general, both in cities and in the countryside, the author starts from the pre-supposition that women mostly worked in situations of widowhood or distress, due to divorce, repudiation, exile or refuge: “If everything had gone according to plan […] there should not have been any women who needed to find paid work and/or to resort to charity” (p. 57). There is undoubtedly a source effect here, due to the preponderance in the studies cited of examinations of judicial sources relating precisely to these situations. But even in these cases, the life stories presented in court could have been interpreted as mirrors of the banality of women at work in various sectors.

Interesting paragraphs are dedicated to the question of women’s pious foundations. Suraiya Faroqhi illustrates how women were in many cases active agents in the management of legal structures relating to real estate and wealth. She also proposes a kind of typology of female slave labour that, based on precise life itineraries, introduces stimulating interpretive perspectives on the position of working women, mostly as servants in wealthy households.

The second part examines the condition of Ottoman women from the 18th century to the period of imperial modernization. Regarding female agency and diversity in Ottoman Syria and Egypt, Faroqhi presents, in a very efficient manner, a synthesis of studies on family organisation, the historical anthropology of marriage, and the way in which women repositioned themselves, or were repositioned, in family and commercial networks after widowhood. Here again, the perspective may be too strongly oriented towards what the author calls survival, and less towards daily life in less adverse conditions, but the general picture, nurtured by precise examples and reflections on the nature of the sources, is highly useful.

the female perspective the author is proposing represents an alternative narrative to the general history of the Ottoman empire and, notably, to its bureaucratization process during the phase in which the central imperial structure was reinforced.

The question of the specialization of the imperial administration, as seen through the interaction between the central structure and local interpretations of norms regulating social life that Faroqhi examines in detail is also very interesting. It introduces a feminized perspective on a narrative that is generally related only through male visions. Here again, the female perspective the author is proposing represents an alternative narrative to the general history of the Ottoman empire and, notably, to its bureaucratization process during the phase in which the central imperial structure was reinforced.

However, like the first part, this part is less convincing when it comes to examining the place of women as active agents in the world of work. Although they represented millions of working women across the empire, women farmers are largely ignored: “we do not discuss them due to a notorious lack of sources” (p. 119). One could instead have imagined a discussion on the archival means of documenting the active physical presence of women in the public space, in production processes and in the vital decisions of daily life.

It is much the same for manufacturing. Admittedly, women’s guilds were rare in Ottoman history, but the place of women in guilds, and their work on the fringes of guilds, could have been examined in more detail. This analysis however, which in my opinion tends to underestimate female agency in the world of work during the Ottoman old regime, is offset by some very stimulating pages on the extension of dependent capitalism in textile manufacturing and on the role of women in this process, both from home, where textile work was common in many regions, and in workshops that were tending to become factories already in the 18th century. Similarly, the paragraphs devoted to the evolution of women’s work as servants are fascinating, with a focus on the context of the famine of 1845 in Anatolia, which led to the emergence of contracts for the placement of girls serving affluent families and thus constituted an evolution in the nature of the work done by women.

Part III of the book deals with the era of the Tanzimat, until the First World War and the dislocation of the Empire. It focuses on the rise of modern educational institutions, with a focus both on Jewish and Orthodox Christian schools and on the Istanbul Darülmuallimat, an institution that trained female teachers and which played a key role in the diffusion of school education among women. This part also features fascinating reflections on historical studies on the anthropology of family and reproduction, with an analysis of the consequences for women’s position in society resulting from the increase in the age of marriage in 19th century Istanbul. The author also draws on historical studies for examples of marriages that were validated at neighbourhood level even though they did not comply with Sharia law, and thus introduces the reader to new considerations of the social value of norms, from small arrangements, negotiations between families and sometimes repression and exclusion.

As for work, Suraiya Faroqhi proposes, through a focus on women, a revised narrative of the history of Ottoman capitalist manufacturing. She follows the phases of the shift from homebased manufacturing to factory work and examines the various reasons women participated in this decisive economic evolution, from Christian women saving for their dowry to families preparing for emigration or Christian women being chosen preferentially by foreign industrial investors, to the entrance of Jewish and Muslim women into this new labour market. Silk and tobacco factories across the Empire are the main examples. Paid household help was also during this period the object of significant mutations, with a decrease in slave work, which Faroqhi sees as indicators of change regarding the female condition in general. Another strong focus in the book is the evolution of the involvement of women in charity, as well as their role in the modernization of medicine.

this book constitutes a seminal contribution to the field not only of the history of women, but to Ottoman history in general.

The end of the book is dedicated to the often-tragic fate of women in the numerous phases of the Empire’s disintegration. Here again, an alternative narrative emerges, through touching paragraphs on rural women petitioning by telegraph against violence, on Armenian women as victims of rape, enslavement and forced conversions, and on the memory of such events. The end of the period is also marked by the growth of female salaried employment. The author provides precise examples for banks, the Istanbul telephone company and nursing. She also focuses on the history of the Association for the employment of Muslim women during the First World War and, in general, on the changing nature of social care during this time.

Overall, this book constitutes a seminal contribution to the field not only of the history of women, but to Ottoman history in general. Based on an immense knowledge of the historiography and on precise, first-hand research in a series of archives, it proposes innovative interpretations and opens new research perspectives. A few narrative choices, however, merit discussion. First, the concept of survival, which sometimes makes female agency in ordinary life less visible. Recourse to more chronicles and petitions may have provided a different vision. Then there is the presence throughout the book of a dichotomy between the “central” provinces of the Empire and the “peripheries” of the Arab world. Ottoman history writing has significantly challenged this perspective during the last few decades, insisting on defining the nature of the empire along lines different from that of centre/alleged peripheries and instead on the centrality of impulses and people, including women’s agency, who came from and lived in provinces far from Istanbul. It is a pity, from this point of view, that Ottoman North Africa, a region where women’s agency was strong, is not represented. Nevertheless, the book remains a fundamental basis for understanding not only the place of women, but also the nature of the Ottoman Empire.

Nora Lafi (PhD 1999; Habil. 2011) is a historian and a Senior Research Fellow at MECAM/Université de Tunis, with a research project on the history of female resistance against colonization in North Africa. She is the author of numerous articles on the history of women in the Ottoman Empire, including: “Early Republican Turkish Orientalism? in Women and the City, Women in the City, edited by Nazan Maksudyan published in 2014 and “Finding women and gender in the sources” in The Journal of North African Studies published in 2018. She has also published numerous books and articles on the history of the cities of the Ottoman Empire and on the question of heritage.