All About Turkey

Ottoman women

Daily Life

During the Seljuk and Ottoman periods, Turkish family structure was patriarchal, consisting of mother, father, children and sometimes other close relatives. Although woman in rural communities labored in the fields, her urban sister was confined to the house whatever her social status. Depending on the family's economic situation a woman spent her day doing household chores or supervising the servants (most of whom were cariyes (pronounced djar-ee-yeh)), taking care of her children, praying, sewing and embroidery, weaving or playing music.

Life for women outside the home was limited, but by no means non-existent. Special occasions, such as weddings, engagements, "kina gecesi" (henna night - a celebration among the women of the two families and the bride's friends prior to the marriage), paca günü (sheep feet soup day - a meal given by the bride and groom to their relatives, close friends and neighbors the day after the wedding), and mevlit (chanting in memory of a dead person) or visits to relatives and neighbors were opportunities to socialize and dress up in one's best clothes. Visits to the public baths and to cemeteries were frequent, and regarded as a woman's right.

Young men and women were not able to see or get to know one another, nor to choose the person they were to marry. The choice of a bride was the prerogative of the man's mother, and if the girl's family agreed, the matter would be settled by the parents among themselves. The marriage contract would be concluded by means of a bride and groom expressing their consent separately in the presence of witnesses, without seeing one another.

In the condition that their work did not involve association with men, women were allowed to earn a living. The most widespread forms of employment for women, both in the cities and in rural areas were weaving and embroidery. During the Seljuk period, the "Ahi" brotherhood (a semi-mystical organization and forerunner of the trade guilds - pronounced aah-hee) had a branch known as "Baciyan-i rum" (pronounced (bud-djian-eh rhoom)) whose members were women engaged in weaving and related occupations. There is evidence that women in Kayseri, Konya and many other parts of Anatolia were employed in this way. During the Ottoman period, too, there were women engaged in weaving and the trading of textiles. Documents show that women in Manisa and Istanbul owned mills, bakeries and other workplaces. In the early 17th century in Kayseri there were bread shops and grocery shops owned by women.

House to house selling. which was a widespread marketing system, was an acceptable trade for middle-aged women, the majority of these peddlers known as bohcaci being Jewish or Armenian.

Medicine was an important field for women, since social morals made it essential that women work in these professions. Since few women were literate, midwives relied on knowledge passed on to them from their mothers or as trainees with an experienced midwife.

The Power and Patronage of Imperial Women

Patronage in the form of pious endowments known as vakif was an Islamic concept whose development parallels economic growth in Anatolia under the Seljuks and Ottomans. Although information about endowments founded by women during the Seljuk period is limited, there is a wealth of surviving documentation from the Ottoman era. Not only the valide sultans (mother of the reigning sultan), daughters and wives of the reigning sultans, but women administrators in the imperial harem, and many women of lower social standing founded thousands of vakifs.

Ottoman palace women often acquired power and founded endowments for the public good. Overt power was generally restricted to the valide sultans during their sons' reigns with the notable exceptions of Hürrem Sultan (Roxelana), wife of Süleyman the Magnificent, and her daughter Mihrimah, whose charismatic personalities brought them to a position of unrivaled power.

Women and the Arts

With little chance to pursue their education due to social constraints, and leading secluded lives, women were not able to make significant impact on the world of art or literature. However, there are poets and some artists among the daughters of educated families. Women got the chance to express themselves only after the Tanzimat (Reforms of 1839 pronounced tahn-zee-maht), when more liberal attitudes enabled a number to take up careers as poets, translators, novelists and journalists. The same was true for arts such as calligraphy, illumination and design which required special training.

The period of modernization following the establishment of constitutional government in 1876 gave women the chance to receive an education in western-style painting. The talented daughters of educated families received private tutoring from famous painters, and some even went abroad for further studies. Music and dancing were the two fields most accessible to women in previous centuries, and there were many women composers, musicians, singers and dancers, both amateur and professional. They obtained their training in the imperial harem or the households of the upper classes.

Women's Clothing

For many centuries during the Seljuk and most of the Ottoman period, women's articles of dress were similar to those of men and bore the same name. The main items were the salvar (ankle-length trousers - pronounced shal-vhaar), gömlek (under tunic - pronounced ghoem-lhekh), hirka (cardigan - pronounced kher-kah), entari (gown - pronounced aehn-tah-ree) which could sometimes be called a kaftan (caftan - pronounced khahf-tahn) and ferace (overmantle - pronounced feh-rah-djeh) which was for wearing out of doors. Apart from the quality of the fabrics, there was little difference in style or articles of dress between rich and poor, nor between those of Muslim or non-Muslim women.

Because Islam forbade women to appear unveiled before men other than their husbands and close relatives, women's outdoor clothing was subject to strict regulations. During the Anatolian Seljuk period women covered their heads, but were not veiled, as we learn from contemporary visual material. For summer they were made of silk, and for winter of wool, often lined with fur. Through the 16th and 17th centuries the style of the ferace remained unchanged. the yasmak (pronounced yhash-mahkh) consisted of two pieces of fine white muslin covering the head, the upper piece tied around the forehead and the lower piece across the mouth below the nose. Over this was a pece (veil pronounced pech-eh).

From the turn of the 18th century changes began to come about in feraces and veils. A broad collar, about a handspun in width was added to the ferace leaving the neck slightly open, and Muslim women began to wear feraces of pastel colors (referred to as "unseemly colors" in proscriptive laws of the period) in fine fabrics. What is more, the fabric of veils, became more transparent, and with the introduction of hotoz (high cap) which added height to the headdress, veils began to be tied more loosely, and to be adorned with gold thread of various types.

Far more detailed information is available about the dress of the 16th and 17th centuries, after Istanbul became the capital of the Ottoman Empire. The main items of dress for women were again ankle-length trousers, long sleeved under tunics made of seersucker gauze (bürümcük - bue-ruem-djuek) reaching down to the ankles, a cardigan and a gown, which was sometimes called a caftan, and which could have either short or long sleeves. A diversity in minor modification of detail, such as the cut of the cuff or tightness of the bodice, emerged in women's dress in the early 18th century, the period known as the Tulip Era. It was during this period that the trousers became baggier. The miniatures of Levni and Abdullah Buhari also depict the dress of the time in close detail.

The headdresses worn by women in the 12th to 14th centuries are illustrated in miniatures, tiles and stone carvings. Seljuk women usually wore their hair in braids down to their ankles. They either wore embroidered cloths on their heads or a diadem adorned with a gem in the shape of a drop in the center of the forehead. From the early 17th century onwards women's caps worn in the Capital Istanbul became lighter, tapering towards the top. as is manifested by extant examples. Towards the middle of the century hotoz (a type of cap reminiscent of the bogtag), worn by the Ilkhanid period palace women, with a narrow base and broad crown came into fashion. In the Istanbul of Ahmed III, when the Ottoman Empire was relatively undisturbed by political troubles, women's headdresses began to take a diversity of exaggerated forms, quite unlike those of earlier periods. Hotoz with a one-sided brim curving over one shoulder is the most striking innovation of this period. During the reign of Mahmud I and his successors, women's headdresses were widely varied and ornate.

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