Book Review of ‘Ottoman Women – Myth and Reality’ by Asli Sancar

by Qaisra Shahraz Published on: 8th July 2009

4.9 / 5. Votes 191

No votes so far! Be the first to rate this post.

Aise Asli Sancar, a renowned writer and lecturer on women's issues 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 that Ottoman women were described as submissive and suppressed women entrapped in the harem, Sancar says the imperial harem was a more diverse and complex institution than she had formerly thought it to be. This is the main theme of her book: Ottoman Women: Myth and Reality reviewed in this article by Qaisra Shahraz, the well known writer and novelist. Suitable for all publics, the book, a well written and enjoyable to read piece, presents an engaging and appealing image of Ottoman women, far away from the clichés widely spread in the contemporary literature.


Qaisra Shahraz*

Review of Ottoman Women – Myth and Reality, by Aise Asli Sancar. New Jersey: The Light Publications, 2007. Paperback, 192 pages. ISBN-10: 978159784115-3 – ISBN-13: 978-1597841153. Dimensions: 9.3 x 8.7 x 0.5 inches.


1. A marvellous feast for the eyes and the mind
2. Extracts from the book
3. About the Author
4. Contents of the Book
5. Further resources


Figure 1: Front cover of Ottoman Women – Myth and Reality published by Aise Asli Sancar (New Jersey: The Light Publications, 2007)

1. A marvellous feast for the eyes and the mind

Born and raised in the USA but living in Istanbul for the last twenty five years, Aise Asli Sancar’s personal affection, fascination for and interest in Ottoman women clearly comes across page after page in this wonderful book entitled Ottoman Women, Myth and Reality. The author has lectured and written on Ottoman women and the Ottoman family. Her mission in this new work is to uncover the real status and effective role of women in Ottoman society.

Presented under a marvellous cover, the book is an easy to read text, entertaining, and with dozens of gorgeous, glossy paintings depicting the lives of Ottoman women of all classes and backgrounds, in different contexts, roles and settings. All these features can only seduce the reader’s senses and mind. The generous use of colour illustrations and paintings provide a breathtaking feast. Those paintings are full of beautiful landscapes and gardens, rooms in palaces and private homes, scenes of everyday Ottoman domestic and social life, picnics, wedding processions and so on.

The world of Ottoman society comes vibrantly alive before our eyes. The detailed narratives give the reader insight into all aspects of Ottoman women’s daily lives. For instance, we learn about the furniture in their homes, the clothes they wore, the food they ate, the visit to the communal baths (hammams), the customs and rituals relating to weddings and childbirth, as well as about some of the social activities they took part in their spare time.

Figure 2: Researcher Asli Sancar holding her book. (Source).

The structure of the book is organized in six headings:

  • Ottoman Women Through Western Eyes
  • Ottoman Women in the Household Harem
  • Ottoman Women as Slaves in the Harem
  • Ottoman Women in the Imperial Harem
  • Ottoman Women in Court Records
  • Ottoman Women in the Metaphysical Mirror

The author’s primary aim is to explore and debunk Western myths and challenge the so called ‘Orientalist view’ of Ottoman women and Muslim women at large. One such myth she challenges is to do with the concept of ‘Harem‘. The author explains its real meaning – space for women, to lead their lives, a place of domestic and spiritual sanctity and bliss; thus stripping away and debunking the sexual connotations and images often associated with this word in the Western mind.

Throughout, the author illustrates her ideas, where appropriate, by quotes taken from different sources: from the diaries, letters and journals of Western diplomats and travellers who visited and lived at the time in Istanbul. In addition, she has skilfully used their views, descriptions, and observations to illustrate the ‘reality’ about Ottoman women as opposed to the ‘myths’ to great effect.

Figure 3: Rogier, Drapers in the Grand Bazaar. Source: Ottoman Women – Myth and Reality.

The book is highly informative about the Islamic laws and Muslim customs relating to women’s roles and rights, their relationships with men, and their status in society at large. On the whole, according to the author and the historical sources she used, Ottoman women were treated well, enjoyed a great degree of respect, were often privileged in financial affairs and were very much in control of their lives.

This book is a marvellous treasure trove for both the historians and the general readers.

2. Extracts from the book


image alt text

Figure 4: Liotard, Turkish Woman in the bath. Source: Ottoman Women – Myth and Reality.

“Ottoman women have long been a subject of strong controversy. While the Orientalist view has portrayed them as exotic, indolent and depraved, some of their admirers have put them on a pedestal and practically relegated them to the realm of angels. Initially Ottoman women were a subject of disinterested curiosity for me. Having lived in Turkey for close to two decades, I had heard frequent references to the Ottomans and Ottoman society, usually very polarized ones that painted them either black or while. Some referred to the Ottomans as noble, enlightened exemplars of mankind, while others, particularly the official view, portrayed them as the personification of backwardness and reactionaryism. Ottoman women were described as capable and dignified ladies by some and as submissive and suppressed women entrapped in the harem by others.

“Then I began reading European travelers’ accounts regarding Ottoman society, I found the same divergent views. The Orientalist view again depicted the Ottomans as barbaric despots, at worst, and as naive infidels, at best. It was claimed that Muslim women were denied to have souls and that they were merely the chattels of their husbands. On the other hand, these views were later openly disclaimed by such female travelers as Lady Montague, Julia Pardoe, and Lucy Garnett who actually lived in Ottoman lands for significant periods of time. At the other end of the spectrum, they argued that Ottoman women were perhaps the freest in the universe and that the treatment of Turkish women should be an example to all nations.

image alt text

Figure 5: Lewis, In the Bey’s Garden. Source: Ottoman Women – Myth and Reality.

“The disparity between these two views became resolved only in the light of court records involving Ottoman women. Western scholars have led the way in the investigation of the legal rights of Ottoman women and the effectiveness of their use of the courts to protect those rights. Evidence so far overwhelmingly shows that Ottoman women, far from being suppressed and helpless members of society, were legally free agents who could and did frequently use the courts to defend their rights, even against their husbands and other male relatives, if need be. There are examples of women coming to Istanbul from as far away as Egypt to petition the Sultan for redress of injustices when they could not get satisfactory legal results locally.

“In view of the image of Ottoman women that is reflected in court records, I could no longer remain “disinterested” regarding them. I found in the Ottoman woman a female model that transcends time and place. Physically and in demeanor, she was extremely feminine, graceful and refined. However; in spirit she was a fighter; a staunch and courageous defender of her God—given rights. Both her masculine and feminine natures were highly developed and in balance, which enabled her to act as a powerful pillar in the family and play an extremely important, if not visible, role in the social structure. In short, she was neither the demon nor the angel she had been portrayed to lie, but rather a highly developed human being who lived her feminine nature to the fullest and who was appreciated and respected as a woman.

Figure 6: Twin pavilions, Topkapi Palace. Source: Ottoman Women – Myth and Reality.

“Today, at a time when women worldwide are casting aside an image that has constrained them for centuries and are searching for a new and better identity, the Ottoman woman offers a powerful model of how to lie. She had a deep and abiding connection with her Creator, which compelled her to manifest the All-Merciful’s Compassion and Love, at times, and the Almighty’s Majesty and Power at other times. Of course, women’s social parameters have changed today; however; the principles that molded the Ottoman woman’s identity are just as relevant to the twenty—first century as they were to former times” (Ottoman Women: Myth and Reality, introduction of the book).

On Hürrem Sultan

“One of the most famous royal concubines is Hürrem Sultan, who was a haseki (favorite) of Sultan Süleyman. She was the daughter of a Polish priest and is known in Western sources as Roxelana. Süleyman greatly loved Hürrem and eventually made her his legal wife, in contradiction to the custom of royal concubinage at the time. So great was the Sultan’s dedication to Hürrem, that he forewent all other sexual partners. Hürrem bore him five sons, also in contradiction to the custom of one mother—one prince. Prince Mustafa, son to Süleyman and his first consort, Mahidevran Hatun, was the only rival to Hürrem’s sons. Mustafa, greatly loved by the people, was eventually executed by his father on charges of treason, allegedly at the instigation of Hürrem, her daughter Mihrimah and son—in—law Rüstem Pasa. Hürrem’s suspected involvement in Mustafa’s execution made her unpopular with the people. However, she sponsored a number of significant public works:

image alt text

Figure 7: Wilkie, Mrs. Young. Source: Ottoman Women – Myth and Reality.

“Major philanthropic institutions existed in her name in Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem, the holiest cities of the Islamic world, and in Istanbul and Edirne, the principal seats of the Ottoman sultanate after 1453. The earliest of these, the Istanbul complex, constructed between 1537 and 1539, consisted of a mosque, a religious college, a soup kitchen, a hospital, and a primary school. The well-endowed complex in Jerusalem, completed in the early 1550s, contained a mosque, a fifty-five room dwelling for religious pilgrims, an area devoted to charitable services for the poor (including a baker soup kitchen, storeroom, and public toilets), and an inn and stable for travelers. The Edirne complex consisted of a mosque, soup kitchen and inn.” (Ottoman Women: Myth and Reality, p. 122).


“Ottoman princesses were also called sultan, but their title was put after their first name. These women were born into a world of majesty and magnificence. From the moment a princess opened her eyes, she was surrounded by splendor. The royal family ceremonially celebrated the births of both princes and princesses. A large room in the imperial harem would be set aside for the royal birth and decorated in a manner that clearly reflected the magnificence of the Ottoman court. The cradle and the mother’s bed were furnished with new luxurious covers decorated with pearls, jewels and gold and silver thread. Curtains, divan covers and their cushions were made from the best material and decorated with sequins and gold and silver embroidery worked into beautiful designs. There were also silver and gilded brass basins and ewers to be used during the birth. The cradle, sometimes made from gold, would be decorated with valuable jewels. The outlay of money for royal births was often huge. Many valuable gifts were given, and the palace was illuminated with oil lamps and lanterns, as were the mansions of high state officials. Public celebrations sometimes lasted seven days during which the people were entertained with fireworks, tumblers and acrobats. Ottoman state officials and the people were informed of royal births by cannon fire. The birth of a princess was announced with the firing of five cannon balls and the birth of a prince with seven. Edicts were also sent throughout the Empire announcing the royal birth” (Ottoman Women: Myth and Reality, p. 124).

3. About the Author

Aise Asli Sancar, born and raised in the U.S.A., but living in Istanbul for the last twenty-three years, has researched, written about and lectured on Ottoman Woman and the Ottoman family intermittently for more than a decade. Intrigued by the contradictions between the Orientalist image of Eastern women and the legacy of Ottoman women in Turkey, she set out to discover for herself the real status and role of women in Ottoman society. It was an enormously fulfilling quest that often spilled over into her personal life, throwing light on the cosmic dimensions of male-female dynamics as well. The author has two other books and numerous articles published, mainly on the subject of women and family. Sancar is a practicing Muslim and often speaks publicly on her decision to wear the headscarf. Coming from such a unique perspective (an American Christian convert to Islam), the author is well-grounded to investigate the dichotomies of two cultures.

Figure 8: Portrait of Hurrem Sultan. Source: Ottoman Women – Myth and Reality.

4. Table of Contents
Introduction – 6
I Ottoman Woman through Western eyes – 9
II Ottoman Woman in the Household Harem – 37
III Ottoman Woman as slaves in the Harem – 87
IV Ottoman Woman in the Imperial Harem – 101
V Ottoman Woman in court records – 137
VI Ottoman Woman in the Metaphysical Mirro – 165
Acknowledgements – 174
Picture credits – 175
Notes – 179
Glossary of Turkish Words – 184
Bibliography – 185
Index – 189

5. Further resources

  • [FSTC], Women and learning in Islam: quoted from Scott, S.P. History of the Moorish Empire in Europe, 3 vols; J.B. Lippincott Company, 1904, pp. 447-48 (published 21 July, 2002).[], Harem and women (2002).
  • Al-Hassani, Salim, Lecture: Great Men and Women of Science in Muslim Heritage. Lecture at The Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, 21 November 2006.
  • Asli Sancar, Aise, “In search of reality surrounding Ottoman women“, Interview with Sunday’s Zaman (Istanbul) 06 January 2008.
  • Coco, Carla, Secrets of the Harem, London: Philip Wilson, 1997.
  • Croutier, Alev Lytle, Harem: the world behind the veil, New York: Abbeville Press, 1989.
  • Durukan, Zeynep M., The Harem of the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul: Hilal Matbaasi, 1973.
  • Goodwin, Godfrey, The Private World of Ottoman Women. London: Al Saqi, 1997. Reprint 2000.
  • Gost, Roswitha, Der Harem, 2. bs. Köln: Dumont Buchverlag, 1994.
  • Lewis, Reina, Rethinking Orientalism: Women, Travel and the Ottoman Harem. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2004.
  • Necipoglu, Gülru, “The Formation of an Ottoman Imperial Tradition: The Topkapi Palace in the 15th and 16th Centuries”, PhD dissertation, Harvard University 1985.
  • Peirce, Leslie P. The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire. Oxford University Press, 1993, “Studies in Middle Eastern History” (Paperback).
  • Penzer, N. M., The Harem. An account of the institution as it existed in the Palace of the Turkish Sultans with a history of the Grand Seraglio from its foundation to modern times, (London: George G. Harrap and Co., 1936.
  • Pierce, Leslie P., The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire, New York: Oxford University, 1993.
  • Sari, Nil, Women Dealing with Health during the Ottoman Reign (published 28 February, 2009).
  • Saz Hanimefendi, Leyla, The Imperial Harem of the Sultans: Daily Life at the Çiragan Palace during the 19th Century Memoirs of Leyla (Saz) Hanimefendi, translated from the French by Thomas Landon, Istanbul: Peva Publication, 1994.
  • Stein, Mark, Review of Women in the Ottoman Empire: Middle Eastern Women in the Early Modern Era. Edited by Madeline C. Zilfi, Journal of the American Oriental Society, April-June, 2000. To read the review online, click here.
  • Whitlock, Gillian, Rethinking Orientalism: Women, Travel and the Ottoman Harem (review by Gillian Whitlock in Biography (University of Hawai Press ), vol. 29, N° 2, Spring 2006, pp. 383-385.
  • [Wikipedia), Category:Women of the Ottoman Empire (retrieved 24.06.2009).
  • Zilfi, Madeline C. (Editor), Women in the Ottoman Empire: Middle Eastern Women in the Early Modern Era. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1997, “The Ottoman Empire and its Heritage: Politics, Society and Economy”, vol. 10.

*Qaisra Shahraz is a novelist and scriptwriter. See Qaisra Shahraz on Contemporary

4.9 / 5. Votes 191

No votes so far! Be the first to rate this post.