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Aişe Aslı Sancar: in search of reality surrounding Ottoman women
1.       Roswitha
4132 posts
 12 Jun 2008 Thu 10:58 pm

Aişe Aslı Sancar, a renowned writer and lecturer on women's issues and the author of "Ottoman Women: Myth and Reality," has said when she began investigating the subject of Ottoman women, she realized that they were much more complex and multifaceted than they are usually portrayed to be.

Noting, though, that Ottoman women were described as submissive and suppressed women entrapped in the harem by some, Sancar says the imperial harem was a more diverse and complex institution than she had formerly thought it to be.
In an exclusive interview with Sunday's Zaman, Sancar cast fresh light on the shroud of mist that surrounds Ottoman women and life in the harem.

What prompted you to work on a book on Ottoman women? What was the underlying reason for such a project?

After moving to Turkey from the US, I read and heard very divergent views about Ottoman women over the years. Some of these views were quite positive; but others, the Orientalist view in particular, portrayed Ottoman women with what we can call an erotic stereotype. In the early 1990s I read a book on the harem based on this erotic stereotype. I did not find this image convincing, but, on the other hand, I did not have any evidence to the contrary. Since I had already been writing magazine articles on women and the family, I decided to research the subject of Ottoman women and learn the reality of the matter for myself.

Interestingly enough, I found a great deal more on the subject than I had anticipated. Previously, for example, I had never heard or read about Ottoman women's involvement in the courts. I was not aware that they were active in taking their complaints of injustice to the kadı (judge), even if this meant taking their husbands or other male family members to court.

Similarly, I learned that the imperial harem was a much more diverse and complex institution than I had formerly thought it to be. On the one hand, it was, of course, the home of the Ottoman sultan and his family. But beyond that, it was a training and educational institution for young slave girls who would eventually be married to men from the Ottoman military and bureaucratic elite, many of whom had been trained and educated in the male quarters of the royal palace as well.

How long did you work on your book?

Actually, this book sort of naturally evolved over the years. During the UN Year of the Family [1994] I was invited to speak on Ottoman woman and family in a panel discussion, and this speech was printed in brochure form. A number of years later I was asked to expand the brochure to book form, which was published in 1999 under the title "Osmanlı Toplumda Kadın ve Aile." Subsequently I realized that although there are a number of academic works on this subject in English, there are very few popular works except for those that present the sensationalist, erotic view of Ottoman women. I think that most Westerners probably have very little accurate information about Ottoman women. That realization led me to further expand the book into the current coffee-table book form in English.

Why do you say in your book that you were guided by the accounts of such female travelers as Lady Montague, Julia Pardoe and Lucy Garnett?

Lady Montague, Julia Pardoe and Lucy Garnett all made a sincere attempt to break away from describing Ottoman women strictly according to the Orientalist erotic stereotype as most European men had done earlier. Pardoe and Garnett were fairly objective observers of Ottoman life. Lady Montague was also more objective than her predecessors, but she did not hesitate to bend the truth when it suited her purposes, as I mention in my book. Of course, it is natural for all foreigners to have a certain amount of cultural bias, but these women and other Europeans like D'Ohsson and Ferriman can be considered fairly objective eyewitnesses to Ottoman life.

You said the subject of Ottoman women has fascinated Western readers for centuries. Could the reason be the fact that Ottomans were extremely private people and did not want to divulge their private lives to foreigners?

The Ottomans were extremely private people, and that probably helped to perpetuate the myth of the harem, but it was not the cause of it. The basis for the harem myth lies in the early translated works of the Orientalists like the tales in the book "Thousand and One Nights." These tales contained stories about erotic and depraved Oriental women. Sensational topics always fascinate some people. The fact that Ottoman women lived in harems and that polygamy was legally permissible seemed exotic customs to most Westerners. Associating these customs with Oriental tales was enough to brand Ottoman women as erotic and Ottoman men as lustful. Westerners as a whole did not question these stereotypes until some European women began to enter Ottoman harems and attempted to correct these images. The erotic stereotypes, however, made such a powerful impression on the minds of Westerners that they have persisted over the centuries.

Your book states that Orientalist writers describe Turkish women as exotic, indolent and depraved, while some Europeans usually describe them as noble and elegant. Is the difference between Orientalist and other European points of view really so sharp?

The image of Ottoman women presented by some Orientalist scholars was, of course, an extreme image that emphasized and exaggerated the physical nature of women. It reduced them to exotic sex objects. Victorian women, on the other hand, domesticated Ottoman women in their writing and portrayed them in their roles as wives and mothers. Of course, both images are incomplete. I think that one of the important factors that enabled Ottoman women to become balanced individuals was that both Ottoman men and women recognized the spiritual as well as physical nature of women. That is the basic reason why Ottoman men wanted to honor and protect women in the harem and why Ottoman women were willing to be secluded there. In regard to Ottoman women being described as noble and elegant, I think that was an accurate description, particularly of the elite.

What is your personal opinion about harem life? Did it restrict or protect women?

There is a saying in English: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I think that is true in regard to how we perceive reality as well. In other words, the same reality can be either positive or negative depending on the perspective it is viewed from. The harem could be a source of happiness or suffering, depending on how one perceives it. Ottoman women obviously were happy with harem life. They felt they were being honored as women by being protected from the coarseness of public life. Many European women, on the other hand, saw the harem as restrictive and tried to liberate Ottoman women from harem life.

What do pictures, photographs and engravings in the book reflect? The aesthetics of harem life?

The illustrations in the book do reflect the aesthetics of harem life. Ottomans beautified everything in their surroundings. Items such as clothing, bed linens, towels, covers and prayer rugs were all skillfully embroidered with floral motifs. Kitchen utensils like water ewers, copper bowls, pots and metal trays were always engraved with delicate designs. Even the location of the houses often allowed for a beautiful view of sea and nature. Gardens and orchards enhanced many Ottoman homes, but more than that, I wanted the book illustrations to reflect the spirit of Ottoman harem life. There was a great deal of refinement and consideration of others in Ottoman human relations, which lent beauty to Ottoman life.

Europeans and Americans are becoming more and more interested in Ottoman and Turkish women. What do you think about this development? What could the reason be?

There is an increase of interest regarding Ottoman women within Western academic circles. I think it stems in part from the pioneering work in this field by scholars like Richard Jennings who made studies of Ottoman court records in Kayseri and Cyprus. Halil İnalcık and his students were also instrumental in an awakened interest in Ottoman studies in general. Until recent decades Ottoman culture has basically been a "hidden treasure." Its art, music, literature and customs are not yet well known in the West. Hopefully the more this treasure is revealed, the greater the interest in it will become because Ottoman culture has a great deal to offer to the rest of mankind.

What are the most significant differences between Ottoman and European women in the social field?

One of the most significant differences between Ottoman and European women was in the area of legal rights. For centuries Ottoman women had individual legal agency, that is, they could own property, sue for divorce (under limited conditions), become guardians of their children in case of the father's death and sue others and be sued by others in court. European women, on the other hand, were considered to be the chattel of their husbands and they did not have individual legal agency. It was not until the latter part of the 19th century that married women began to gain individual legal rights in Europe. For example, married women were not granted property rights in Britain until 1882, whereas Ottoman women always had the right to own property.

In one of your previous interviews you said: "Today Western women focus on equality between men and women. But one of the most important notions in the Ottoman Empire was justice." Can you comment on your remarks?

Equality and justice are essentially separate concepts and have led to very different approaches in regard to human rights. In the West women have basically struggled to gain equality with men. Ottoman society, however, recognized that men and women were equal as human beings, but they also recognized differences between the natures of men and women. The seclusion of women in harems is the clearest indication of this. The harem was seen as the most suitable sphere for women to develop and exercise their feminine and motherly natures. Also the rights and responsibilities of women were similar to men's in some cases, but different in others. There was no effort on the part of either men or women to gain strict equality between the sexes, but men, women and the kadıs as a whole were extremely careful in regard to everyone getting their rights. This pertained not only to human rights, but the rights of all creatures. For example, it was illegal to load a beast of burden with more than it could carry. If someone dared to do so, he was punished by having to carry the load on his own back. According to research by Heim Gerber of 17th and 18th century Ottoman court records, the courts were careful in preventing the stronger party from oppressing the weaker party. In cases between men and women, for example, women won 77 percent of the cases under study. Non-Muslims won 80 pecent of cases against Muslims. In general, it can be said that there was a serious effort to maintain justice in Ottoman society.

2.       serhattugral
210 posts
 12 Jun 2008 Thu 11:53 pm

Dear roswitha, You are being a turkish culture and art history expert step by step did you realized?

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