The First Lady of Turkey comments on the harems of the Ottoman Empire and the role of women in society.
The news cycle in Turkey is often punctuated by public figures making statements and the equally public furore that ensues. The first lady of the Republic of Turkey, Mrs. Emine Erdoğan, has recently taken centre stage for saying that the harem of the Ottoman palace was a place of education for women. While the harem was certainly no school in the sense of the word as we understand it today, it is also true that no school at the time could ever teach women how to harness power within the inner circle of a male leader.
According to Mrs. Erdoğan, much of the popular understanding of the function of the harem has been heavily tainted by Orientalists. Simultaneously, critics accuse her of revisionism of what was de facto sex slavery. The harem was the household of the Ottoman palace for the sultan’s many concubines. And which European court did not have a similar arrangement for many centuries?
Henry VIII of England, during his 20-year marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, took on the daughters of noblemen as mistresses. It was expected, and it was normal. And chances are that had Anne Boleyn not been such an ambitious and politically intelligent (young) woman, she would have simply been yet another nobleman’s daughter to bear the king a bastard child. But Anne Boleyn played the political game at the highest level; she paid with her life, and her actions changed the course of history for England, with wider repercussions for greater Europe and the Vatican.
Or take Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, who, at the age of 24 and already married, was invited to a ball at the palace of Versailles. Within a month, she had officially separated from her husband and become King Louis XV’s chief mistress – a position she maintained until her death some 19 years later. Poisson did not wield any formal political power but was an astute and important political operative behind the scenes.
The power of women, for the vast majority of written history, has only been recorded obliquely, thus cultivating the notion that women were passive observers rather than active participants.
A personal favourite of mine is Livia Drusilla, a woman who at the age of 19 met Octavian (who later became the Emperor Augustus) and for 51 years was not only his wife but his private counsellor and a figure that shaped Ancient Rome probably as much as her husband, if not more so. She had two sons from her previous marriage, and although Augustus also fathered a daughter with his first wife, for reasons unknown Livia and Augustus did not have any children of their own. Thus, it was Livia’s bloodline that carried through in the Julio-Claudian dynasty, and her influence arguably superseded her husband and his adoptive father, Caesar.
When Mrs. Erdoğan speaks of the harem, perhaps it is this feminine manifest of power she is alluding to. The concubines and mothers of sultans did exercise considerable political power. The most well-known example of this is Roxelana, or as she became later known, Haseki Hürrem Sultan. She entered the harem around the age of 15 as a slave girl from modern-day Ukraine and came to wield so much power – similar to Anne Boleyn – that she succeeded in overcoming a 200-year-old tradition and became the first concubine in the harem to legally become the wife of a sultan. And, similar to Livia, Hürrem became the most trusted advisor of her husband, Süleyman the Magnificent.
To our modern sensibilities, young women and girls being brought into a power context dominated by men and undoubtedly sexually exploited in the effort to continue bloodlines is various degrees of abhorrent. Although frankly it may be worthwhile questioning how different the institution of marriage is from what I just outlined.
Girls are taught how to negotiate and manage men from a very early age; it is the type of knowledge passed down from generation to generation. Little girls, for example, seem to have an instinctive knack for knowing how to pull on the heart strings of their fathers and go on to exercise this power for the rest of their lives – something I imagine President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s youngest daughter Sümeyye very able to do, as she has demonstrated a few times already. I remember being taught by my mother how to behave towards my numerous conservative male relatives. I was taught that showing deference and respect was a means to an end. In Turkey, at least, it may not be possible to ‘demand’ anything of a husband, father, or male contact, but it is possible to lead a man to water.
Only a few months ago, an older male and more powerful professional contact looked me in the eye during a meeting and said, “I normally don’t treat women well, but you are special.” I laughed off the comment and expressed my gratitude for his cooperation, thereby not jeopardising the work at hand, and I got out of the meeting room as soon as was politely possible. The working lives of women, never mind our personal and public lives, are a constant risk assessment of what we want to achieve and how much risk we are exposing ourselves to in the process.
In that regard, women – past and present – who have found themselves or engineered for themselves to be in a particular context and come to heavily influence or even dominate power structures inspire not only respect but a deep sense of curiosity.
However, very little is known about the wives of the men that dominate the Turkish political sphere. Emine Gülbaran, although born and brought up in Istanbul’s Fatih district, is the youngest child of a large family originally from Siirt province. As one irate contributor to the popular website Ekşi Sözlük noted at an event in 2004, she greeted the crowd in Arabic. What the contributor did not seem to be aware of was that Arabic is spoken relatively widely in Siirt, as the province does have a local Arab population.
She married Recep Tayyip Erdoğan when she was 23. He was 24. While her husband’s Wikipedia page is extremely long and detailed, Mrs. Erdoğan is only afforded about 10 sentences. But surely Mrs. Erdoğan has been one of the best observers, if not participants, in Mr. Erdoğan gradual meteoric rise. And to what degree did Mrs. Erdoğan’s background and natural affinity for Arabs inform her husband’s sensibilities?
As someone who was the youngest child and the only girl with four older brothers, Mrs. Erdoğan must have learned how to manage men from an early age. It is widely reported that she became covered at the age of 16 upon the request of her eldest brother.
Mrs. Erdoğan is said to be a staunch supporter of her husband – something that former President Abdullah Gül must look on to with a degree of envy. Hayrünissa Özyurt became Hayrünissa Gül only three days after her 15th birthday. At the time of marriage, Abdullah Gül was double her age. Mrs. Gül has been a more visible and vocal spouse, whose public profile may have hurt her husband’s political standing rather than helped him.
When scouring written sources for information on either of these two first ladies, it is revealing to see just how much has been written about their headscarves in comparison to whatever else they are wearing (from Hayrünnisa’s infamous grey boots during a state visit to the UK to the rose-shaped rosette worn by Mrs. Erdoğan at a conference) and to what degree they are physically beautiful or ugly. Even now, commentators rush to give history lessons on the imperial Ottoman harem without really questioning what Mrs. Erdoğan’s intent or meaning was with such a statement.
All this obscures and, fittingly, shows that even today women embedded and operating within power structures are seen only obliquely or not at all. And if history teaches us anything, it is that Mrs. Erdoğan’s story deserves just as much of our attention and curiosity as that of her husband.