Ottoman Women During the Advent of Western Feminism
by Zara Huda Faris
“As to women, as many, if not more than men, are to be seen in the streets [i.e. going about their daily activities, etc] […] I think I never saw a country where women may enjoy so much liberty, and free from all reproach, as in Turkey [...] The Turks in their conduct towards our sex are an example to all other nations; [...] and I repeat it, sir, I think no women have so much liberty, safe from apprehension, as the Turkish – and I think them in their manner of living, capable of being the happiest creatures breathing.”
- Lady Elizabeth Craven, A Journey Through the Crimea to Constantinople, 1789
Lady Elizabeth Craven, 18th century travel writer, playwright and author, made these observations about the women of the Ottoman Caliphate (an Islamic state) in 1789, before the advent of feminism in Europe and three years before Mary Wollstonecraft would publish A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), the 300-page appeal that would become the foundation stone and herald of modern feminism.
The observations of Lady Elizabeth Craven and others, along with records of court proceedings, financial dealings and political documents, reveal that women of the Ottoman Caliphate actually experienced greater liberty and protection than their post-enlightenment Western counterparts, and notably without the need for feminism. Yet, today, feminists strive to convince Muslim women of the exact opposite: that Muslim women have always suffered because of Islam and, in a strange twist of thought, advocate feminism as the solution to the problems of the Muslim world.
This article looks at the condition of women living under an Islamic Caliphate that continued to exist until as recently as 1924 – the Ottoman Caliphate – and compares their circumstances with the Western circumstances that gave rise to feminism in the West. As we will see, the very recent historical precedent of the Ottoman Caliphate demonstrates that women of the Muslim world historically never needed feminism in order to guarantee their rights – rather, they simply needed the full implementation of their own belief system – Islam.
Muslim country v. Islamic state
Before turning to the comparison, it is important to note the fundamental difference between a Muslim country and an Islamic state. The Ottoman Caliphate was an Islamic state – i.e. the shari’ah (the sacred law of Islam) ruled supreme as the only source of law – for over 600 years and until its cessation in the early 20th century. This shari’ah provided the Ottomans with their legal framework for governing public and private aspects of daily life, including personal, political, social and economic activities, both civil and criminal. This shari’ah also enabled the Ottoman Caliphate to include and protect women of Africa, Europe and Asia – which included Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Anatolian, Greek, North African, West Asian, and women of the Balkan Peninsula.
The Muslim countries of today, however, such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Turkey and much of the Middle East, are secular and not Islamic – i.e. the constitutions of these countries posit that Islam may be just one of many post-colonialist sources of the law. Otherwise, these countries are secular, corrupt, and tyrannical and cannot be looked upon for an example of Islam in practice. In fact, the ordinary men and women of these Muslim countries would be liberated by the establishing of an Islamic state in their lands.
In the West, women lost their own legal identity (and their names) upon marriage, at which point they could neither sue nor be sued, and their husbands would have to sue or be sued on their behalf.
In England, and most English speaking colonies, the doctrine of coverture identified women according to their marital status. A married woman did not have her own legal identity separate from that of her husband – upon marriage, hers was subsumed by her husband’s identity, and she was known as a feme covert (i.e. a married woman or, literally, a “covered” woman). This legal concept prevailed in the West from around the 12th century until the mid to late 19th century (i.e. almost alongside the entire period of the Ottoman Empire).
“By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing…”
- William Blackstone, 18th century English jurist and judge, explaining coverture[ii]
Coverture was a double edged sword, hindering the lives of all women and men together – denying the free will of wives also denied their accountability. For example, a married woman could not file lawsuits in her own name, and her husband would have to do so on her behalf, but this also meant that if someone wanted to take civil action against the wife, her husband would have to be sued in her stead. This devolving of accountability from the woman to her husband was even the subject of satire in English literature. In Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, a Mr Bumble was informed that “the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction“, to which Mr Bumble replied “If the law supposes that […] the law is a ass—a idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is that his eye may be opened by experience—by experience.vi] Muslim women also retain their own surnames upon marriage, as a reminder of their own identity and their own accountability.
Along with men, women were granted extensive legal rights, including the right to register complaints and claim their rights before the local Islamic judge (in Arabic, the Qadi), and they could do so independently. They did not need an accompanying male relative, in fact they could take legal action against their own husbands or male relatives if need be. Ottoman women of all social levels, from the countryside and the cities, frequently used the Islamic court system to defend their interests and, in most cases, judges upheld women’s legal and property rights.[vii]
In fact, Islamic Qadi courts were perceived to be so favourable in treating issues of concern to women, that even non-Muslim Ottoman women frequently preferred to take recourse in these Islamic Qadi courts despite the fact that, under the protection of the Ottoman Caliphate, each religious community had access to its own religious or cultural proceedings, as each religious community enjoyed cultural and legal autonomy, managing its own internal affairs, under the leadership of its own religious hierarchy.[viii]
In the West, women did not have control over their own property upon marriage; their husbands were responsible for their upkeep and were forced to pay off their debts.
The doctrine of coverture meant that, because the husband and wife were ‘one person’, the wife did not have control over her own property and her husband could use and dispose of her property without her permission (unless otherwise agreed before marriage).
As such, a wife could also not execute contracts. In the 19th century, in circumstances where a wife could dispose of her property (for example, if this was permitted by her husband), then a ‘privy examination’ would have to be conducted where she had to be separately examined by a judge (without her husband present), to determine whether her husband was pressuring her into signing the document. This was seen as a means of protecting married women’s property.
On the other hand, because they were seen to be the same person in the eyes of the law, the husband was also legally bound to provide for his wife, as much as himself. It also meant that if a woman entered the marriage already with debt, or she incurred debt for them, her husband was the debtor and obliged to pay off the debt – not the wife.
In Britain, this persisted at least until the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870, which altered the law so that a wife could own, buy and sell, sue and be sued, and be liable for her own debts.
Meanwhile, women of the Ottoman Caliphate had always been economically independent and active and, in some industries, so much so that guilds had to seek state intervention against women’s monopolies.
“The Turkish wife has been called a slave and a chattel. She is neither. Indeed, her legal status is preferable to that of the majority of wives in Europe, and until enactments of a comparatively recent date, the English was far more of a chattel than the Turkish wife, who has always had absolute control of her property. The law allows her the free use and disposal of anything she may possess at the time of her marriage, or that she may inherit afterwards. She may distribute it during her life or she may bequeath it to whom she chooses. In the eyes of the law she is a free agent. She may act independently of her husband, may sue in the courts or may be proceeded against, without regard to him. In these respects she enjoys greater freedom than her Chrisitan sisters.”
- Z. Duckett Ferriman, 1911
Amongst the Islamic rights delivered to women under the Ottoman Caliphate was the Islamic right to inherit, acquire, control and dispose of property according to their own will, without requiring consent from fathers or husbands. In other words, Ottoman women were legally entitled to manage their own wealth, and they very much did so.
In fact, women played a fundamental role in the Ottoman economy, including being landholders, holders of military fiefs, borrowers, lenders, private tax collectors, and partners in business. Ottoman women from various backgrounds were commonly trading and dealing in marketplaces.[ix]
It is documented that ‘upper class’ Ottoman women (who were more likely to be ‘cloistered’ behind screens) did not commonly deal directly with men, and were perceived by foreign observers as being ‘forced’ to use male employees and agents to act on their behalf. This prompted some observers to comment on this with strange sympathy, as if these ‘upper class’ women were somehow being oppressed, despite the fact that they were powerful business owners who are documented to have owned many of the shops in the market in the first place.
- How unfortunate these women must have been to have employees running their businesses for them! Also, these ‘upper class’ women wielded further influence through the patronage of fundamental architectural projects.
Women of the Ottoman Caliphate were also involved in crafts, silk and cotton spinning. In Mosul, cotton-thread making was an industry that was by and large carried out on a part time basis in the home. At one point, this industry was actually monopolized by women, to the extent that cotton-weaving guilds were forced to seek state intervention against this monopoly![xi]
Ottoman women also played a fundamental role in the distribution of wealth and, during the 18th century, Ottoman women of all classes established 20-30% of all charitable foundations/trusts (in Arabic waqf pl. awqaf). Schools, hospitals, caravansaries, baths, fountains, soup kitchens, hostels and mosques were financed throughout the empire by women from their own personal resources, for the benefit of the public.[xii]
In Britain, universal suffrage for men and women was not achieved until 1928.
In Britain, only very wealthy men could vote, which excluded the vast majority of men, and excluded women altogether! It was not until 1918 that all men over the age of 21 and women over the age of 30 could vote, and it was not until 1928 that all men and women over the age of 21 could vote.
Meanwhile, men and women of the Ottoman Caliphate were required to be politically active.
Under the Ottoman Caliphate, women had the same right as men to directly petition the Divan – the council where viziers debated the politics of the state, and men and women both had a right to pledge allegiance (equivalent of the vote) to the Ottoman Caliph.
The social segregation of women from men was most common among the upper class families, whilst women of lower classes were generally more free to circulate, partly because of their heavy involvement in economic activities.[xiii] As such, it was commonly believed by European foreigners that such upper class women must have been oppressed and restricted. In reality, the late 16th century of the Ottoman Caliphate was actually known as the “sultanate of the women”, when the mothers of the sultans and other royal women became increasingly powerful and influential from behind the veils and screens of the harem. Although the harem was not, and is not, an Islamic concept, the sultanate of the women does demonstrate emphatically that just because women are behind screens or veils, this does not mean their role in society is restricted.
In the West, neither men nor women had the right to divorce, and if they were wealthy enough to get a legal separation, remarrying meant the death penalty.
Divorce was not legal under English law until the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857. Prior to 1857, a form of legal separation could be achieved only through a complex annulment process or through the passing of a Private Act of Parliament (which entailed lengthy public debates about the couple’s intimate life in the House of Commons). Both of these measures were highly costly procedures, and so this legal separation was restricted to the very wealthy.
Not only this, but husbands and wives who had so separated were prohibited from remarrying – ‘bigamy’ was first prohibited and prosecutable by the church and then, in 1604, bigamy was made a legal felony and was punishable with the death penalty![xiv]
Meanwhile, in the Ottoman Caliphate, polygamy was rare and divorce, whilst a last resort, was initiated by both men and women.
“Turks rule countries and their wives rule them. Turkish women go around and enjoy themselves much more than any others. Polygamy is absent. They must have tried it but then given it up because it leads to much trouble and expense.”
- Saomon Schweigger, German Protestant minister who travelled to the Ottoman Empire at the end of the 16th century.
Marriages were mostly arranged by parents and families, emphasizing the importance of family in Ottoman society. Women of the Ottoman Caliphate had the right to refuse a match, and prenuptial contracts were not uncommon. Polygamy was permitted, in accordance with Islamic law, but in practise was actually quite rare, with over 95% of men having only one wife.[xv]
Ottoman jurists “viewed married couples as enjoying reciprocal, as opposed to symmetrical rights”.[xvi] For example, a married woman of the Ottoman Caliphate was duty bound to obey the husband she consented to marry – as long as he did not ask her to do something bad or haram - the legal status and political and economic activity of women clearly demonstrates, however, that Muslim men were not overbearing or oppressive to their wives. Furthermore, because men are, in the eyes of the law, financially responsible for women and children, divorce procedures are different for men than they are from women, although both are allowed to seek divorce. In practice, women of the Ottoman Caliphate had a great deal of flexibility in ending unwanted marriages. In 18th century Istanbul, for example, separations, annulments and divorces initiated by women were frequent enough to even create concern amongst social observers. Being a union of two families as opposed to just two people, divorce was distressing regardless of who initiated it, but divorce was nevertheless an option for either the husband or the wife.[xvii]
Legitimate causes for divorce from either party included incompatibility, financial problems that led to altercations between spouses, ill treatment including physical abuse, adultery, failure of either party to keep to the basic expectations of marriage, especially not doing the work the family needed from either husband or wife. In some cases, divorce was initiated by the wife if she was not satisfied with the house to which her husband had taken her, or by the husband if his wife did not produce sons.[xviii]
After divorce, both men and women were free to marry again. For non-Muslim Ottoman women whose religions or traditions did not normally permit divorce, conversion to Islam was a common path to liberation from unhappy marriages.
Do Muslim women need feminism?
As we can see, the women of the Ottoman Caliphate had no need for feminism in order to obtain the rights ordained for them by their Creator. Not only did the Ottoman Caliphate implement and protect the rights of Muslim men and women, but it also accommodated the vast and various groups of non-Muslim women living under its protection. It should be emphasized that this justice and prosperity amongst men and women long preceded the advent of feminism in the West, and continued until very recently (the early 20th century). Unlike women of the ‘post-enlightenment’ West, Muslim women never needed the patch-work and gender-biased solution of feminism in order to seek justice and obtain their rights, which were guaranteed under the Islamic Caliphate. It would seem that Western women invented feminism out of desperation, because they did not have Islam. So the question we must ask ourselves is, given that Muslim women had always found Islam sufficient for their rights, why would they ever need feminism?
Elizabeth Craven (Baroness), A Journey Through the Crimea to Constantinople: In a Series of Letters from the Right Honourable Elizabeth Lady Craven to His Serene Highness The Margrave of Brandebourg, Anspach, and Bareith, London.
[ii] William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England (Vol. 1, 1765, pages 442-445)
[iii] Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, 1838, chapter 51
[v]The Law: Up from Coverture, Time Magazine, published Monday, March 20, 1972, accessed at http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,942533,00.html
[vi] Jenie R. Ebeling, Lynda Garland, Guity Nashat, Eric R. Dursteler “West Asia” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History. Ed Bonnie G. Smith. Oxford University Press, 2008. Brigham Young University (BYU). 1 November 2010
[vii] Ebeling, Garland, Nashat, and Dursteler
[viii] Colin Imber, The Ottoman Empire, 1300-1650: The Structure of Power, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002
[ix] Mehrdad Kia, Daily Life in The Ottoman Empire, Greenwood, 2011
[xi] Ebeling, Garland, Nashat, and Dursteler
[xiv] Bernard Capp, Bigamous Marriage in Early Modern England, University of Warwick, 2009
[xv] Ebeling, Garland, Nashat, and Dursteler
[xvi] Kia, M.
[xvii] Ebeling, Garland, Nashat, and Dursteler
[xviii] Justin McCarthy, The Ottoman Turks: An Introductory History to 1923 (London, New York: Wesley Longman Limited, 1997)