Women in the Early Ottoman Empire

The role of women in the early Ottoman Empire is a complex narrative. Like many expansive geopolitical entities, the Ottoman empire encompassed a number of distinct cultures and social classes. Each of these groups were held to changing standards over time. Men and women were legally treated differently from each other throughout all areas of the Ottoman social hierarchy. Therefore, in order to best understand women’s roles in the early Ottoman empire, one must examine as many different perspectives as possible.

Ottoman society on the whole was divided into three major classes. The highest were the askeri or military-administrative class, they were those who performed common public services, such as a militant or scribe, and paid no taxes.1 They were formally required to be Muslim or convert to Islam, be loyal to the Sultan, and be able to function within the norms of Ottoman society. The second class, designated muafs or musellems, was awarded certain tax exemptions and lands to cultivate in return for public services such as building roads or protecting mountain passes.2

The third class was known as the reaya, or protected flocks. This was the taxpayer class, but the amount of taxes paid depended on their religion, location, and occupation. Tuccars or Bazirgans, were the highest partition of this class, this group participated in long distance trade and, though classified as reaya, were initially unregulated. Craftsmen were a step below them. Then came esnaf, mercantile tradesmen operating locally. Peasants and those who reared livestock were the lowest class of subjects of the Ottoman empire. Gypsies, nomads, “and other people with no visible permanent affiliation” were coerced to settle or move away.3

Within those structures, the early Ottoman empire had different laws for Muslims and Non-Muslims. Dhimmis were formally defined in the Quran as a protected class comprised of followers of non-Muslim Abrahamic religions who believed in the one true God, initially these were Jews, Christians, and Sabians.4 Eventually, the definition of a dhimmi expanded to include other groups as Muslim rule progressed to incorporate religions like Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism.5 These dhimmis were organized distinct religious groups called millits and were subject to additional laws and taxes.

The social classification of women was based on their marital or household ties, unmarried women and slaves were placed in a servitor class and were defined by their labor role.6 Additionally, there was a further social distinction to be made between women of all classes, it divided women into those who were respectable, known as muhadderes, and those who were not. Respectable in this sense means a “reputation for chaste behavior and a practice of veiling and seclusion.”7 All women, even the non-Muslim, could be muhaddere, as long as they had respectable behavior.8

Veils were mainly worn by the upper class, but by the late 16th century, it became common for Turkish women to be veiled in public. This wasn’t absolute; it was hardly enforced for lower classes and rural subjects.9 Women who were considered muhaddere gave their husbands and families greater prestige. For instance, non-muhaddere women who were in a fight were punished more severely than muhaddere women.10 However, if a woman was not considered a muhaddere, it did not necessarily reflect poorly on the husband.11

Unmarried women had some of the least legal rights and lowest social standings of all Ottoman subjects.12 The female servant class was a subset of this population, but they were not looked down upon, and while in servitude they were often treated as a part of the family. Under Ottoman law, it was illegal to enslave compatriots, but that was not always followed. Generally female slaves were recruited from lands outside the empire.13 After completion of a certain amount of time, around 5 or 10 years, it was customary that they be freed, after which they often married into (higher) classes.14 All females, even slaves, could inherit property, but only at half the rate of what their male counterpart could.15

Marriage was the main way for women to increase their social status and it offered many benefits. Marriage also gave women full “legal control over their property”16, but, prior to marriage “[n]o husband, father, nor other relative could sell, rent or make use of any bit of a woman’s property without her consent.”17 Married males were expected to pay their wives a daily allowance for food and dress, and they were also required to provide for their children, all without using any of the women’s property.18

Under Islamic law men were able to have as many as 4 wives, but only if they had the means to support them and were able to treat them equally.19 Generally, due to these requirements, most in lower classes did not have more than one wife; a study of the a number of Anatolian estate records from 1545-1659 showed that of 1516 Turkish infantrymen, 92% had one wife, 7% had 2, and less than 1% had 3, none had 4.20

Family life in the artisan class was generally monogamous with no servants, so female heads of the household performed domestic duties, like cooking, cleaning, and childrearing. Women in the well-to-do households had slaves, but their responsibility was to supervise them, unless they had a slave to do that, which was in fact common in elite households.21

These most elite women were raised in extravagant harems, each with a vast hierarchy of women and eunuch servants that they had or would have complete command over. 22 In the Ottoman world, harems were simply a separate dwelling in a domicile where female members of the household, children, and female and eunuch slaves resided. The only males allowed to enter into this realm was immediate family members. In upper classes they could be massive, whereas in lower classes they could include just the wife and children.23

The Ottoman sultans of the fourteenth and fifteenth century frequently used marriages to unite tribes24, in the late 17th century, the soon to be Bey of the semi-independent Ottoman principality of Tunisia participated in similar tactics to build power through political ties in an effort to keep the Algerians at bay.25 At one point in history, nearly the entire 1600s, for all intents and purposes women ruled the entire Ottoman empire from the Imperial Harem.26 Women in the Tunisian Ottoman ruling class also exercised power through diplomacy.27 This can be seen as an offshoot of the Ottoman empire’s historical beginnings: women in nomadic Turkic society frequently accompanied their husband leaders to battle sites.28  Mughal women participated in similar fashions.29

Islamic court documents play a key role in ascertaining the role of women in the early Ottoman empire because all women were able to freely go to court to protect their rights. Moreover, “the non-Muslim court’s decision was not recognized outside the [non-Muslim] community”, so to obtain any official and enforceable decisions regarding disputes of rights, dhimmis needed to visit a Muslim court.30 However, “a dhimmi could not testify against a Muslim, be the case a simple matter of debt or a serious matter of murder, though he could testify against another dhimmi, even if they were of different religions.”31 On top of that, a woman’s testimony was only worth half of that of a man’s.32

Historian Ronald Jennings examined the case documents of women in Early 17th Century Ottoman sharia court of the Anatolian city Kayseri. The Kayseri judges before and after served in other areas of Southwest Asia, and studies of courts in other Anatolian cities show similar data.33 Jennings tabulated that in this city, from 1600-1625, over 17% of the cases involved one or more women litigants, and of those, 73% were Muslim. He also found that there seemed to be no particular order in which women were heard in relation to men, rather it was a first come first serve basis.34 Women could publicly attend court whenever they wished, 80% represented themselves, and at times even sued members of their own family when they felt their rights had been breached.35

Married women were required to live with their husbands, but this was apparently not often enforceable.36 Husbands were able to unilaterally divorce women37, but it was considered socially unacceptable for a woman to initiate divorce.38 Nonetheless, a study of Egyptian court records during the Ottoman period in the 16th century showed that when women did seek divorce, even if the husband objected, there were no instances of the qadi rejecting the woman’s request.39 Divorcees were required to remain single for a period of three months to ensure they were not pregnant, during which time they received alimony. A pregnancy resulted the court asking the partners to reconsider divorce, but it was not mandated they remain together.40

The Quran allows the beating of wives, but only in a lawful place, such as the head or face, and not while angry. In fact it was only acceptable “for rebelliousness, and after warnings and banishment to separate beds had failed (Koran 4:34).”41 The courts often sided with women when they were beaten in manners not in accordance with the sharia.

In the economic sphere, the only public service women were known hold was the position of teachers. They often engaged in work roles relating to household labor, textile manufacture, or healthcare. Distribution of manufactured goods was often done by Jewish and Armenian women to prevent a mixing of Muslim male and female spheres. Music and dance were areas left largely to women. Turkish women, aside from elites, were excluded from holding religious roles and did not have advanced education of Arabic and Persian, which led to a paucity of female contributions to theology and the arts.42

For Ottomans, prostitutes were an aberration, by nature they could not respect the laws of a gender separated society. Ottomans did their best to confine their activities to certain areas, but most likely to little avail.43 Laws restricting the travel of women were primarily aimed at prostitutes. On paper they prevented women from leaving the house without being accompanied by men, unless it was for the pilgrimage. 44 In everyday life, it was merely the case that “the woman was expected to get [her husband’s] permission before going out of the house.”45

Muslim and dhimmi women in Kayseri sold buildings and land 2-4 times as often as they bought them. This was likely due to the tendency to inherit partial shares of land or buildings.46 Dhimmi women buying and selling land indicates that at least some non-Muslim peoples in Anatolia followed the inheritance and property laws which would have been unheard of in Christian Europe or Jewish cultures. In fact, it was common for Jewish women in the 15th and 16th centuries in the Islamic realm to go to court in order to protect the rights endowed upon them by Islamic law, such as inheritance and management of their own property.47

Dhimmis were impacted in other ways too, “Turkish laws on marriage had considerable effect on the marriage customs of the Christians, probably contributing to the substantial increase in concubinage which was also legally recognized by Turkish law. Christians frequently secured divorces from the [q]adis and the Church was forced to acknowledge these formally.”48 Jews also went to Islamic courts for issues such as divorce, even if such trips to the court were disapproved of by their Rabbis.49

The women of the early Ottoman empire had a vast array of roles within society and there is no single storyline to describe all of them. Their roles ranged from absolute power to a complete lack of it, but on the whole they seem to have had a comparatively greater amount of rights than those allotted to women in some countries today.


  1. Çelik, Faika. Gypsies (Roma) in the Orbit of Islam: The Ottoman Experience (1450-1600). Ottowa: Library and Archives Canada, 2003, 37.
  2. Ibid., p. 38.
  3. Ibid., p. 39.
  4. “AL-BAQARA (THE COW).” Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement. Accessed March 19, 2016. http://www.usc.edu/org/cmje/religious-texts/quran/verses/002-qmt.php#002.062.
  5. Çelik, 45.
  6. Dengler, Ian C. “Turkish Women in the Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age.” In Women in the Muslim World. Edited by Lois Beck and Nikki R. Keddie. 229-244. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978, p. 232.
  7. Peirce, Leslie. “Gender, Class, and Social Hierarchy.” In Morality Tales: Law and Gender in the Ottoman Court of Aintab, 143-75. Berkeley; Los Angeles; London: University of California Press, 2003, p. 156.
  8. Ibid., p.158
  9. Dengler, p. 229.
  10. Peirce, p.159.
  11. Sancar, Selin H., and A. Turgay (advisor). The Security of Women in the Ottoman Empire. PhD diss., McGill University Montreal, ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, 1999, p. 54.
  12. Dengler, p. 231.
  13. Peirce, Leslie. “Writing Histories of Sexuality in the Middle East.” The American Historical Review 114, no. 5 (2009): 1326.
  14. Dengler, p. 234.
  15. Jennings, Ronald C. “Women in Early 17th Century Ottoman Judicial Records: the Sharia Court of Anatolian Kayseri.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 18, no. 1 (1975): 53-114, p. 72.
  16. Dengler, p. 232.
  17. Jennings, p. 66.
  18. Sancar, p. 50.
  19. Delong-Bas, Natana J. “The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Women.” Women and Islam, 2013. Accessed March 07, 2016.
  20. Jennings, p. 98.
  21. Dengler, p. 235.
  22. Ibid., p. 236.
  23. Delong-Bas, Natana J. “The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Women.” Harem, 2013. Accessed March 07, 2016.
  24. Elouafi, Amy A. Being Ottoman: Family and the Politics of Modernity in the Province of Tunisia. PhD diss., University of California, Berkeley, ProQuest, 2007, p. 46.
  25. Ibid., p. 47.
  26. Dengler, p. 237.
  27. Elouafi, p. 31.
  28. Hilloowala, Women’s Role in Politics in the Medieval Muslim World. Master thesis, University of Arizona, 1993, p. 65.
  29. Elouafi, p. 31.
  30. Braude, Benjamin. “Venture and Faith in the Commercial Life of the Ottoman Balkans, 1500–1650.” The International History Review 7, no. 4 (1985): 519-42, p. 530.
  31. Ibid., p. 529.
  32. Jennings, p. 72.
  33. Ibid., p. 112.
  34. Ibid., p. 59.
  35. Ibid., p. 66.
  36. Ibid., p. 85.
  37. Delong-Bas, Natana J. “The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Women.” Divorce, 2013. Accessed March 07, 2016.
  38. Jennings, p. 96.
  39. Sonbol, Amira El Azhary. Women, the Family, and Divorce Laws in Islamic History. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1996, p. 106.
  40. Sancar, p. 70.
  41. Jennings, p. 91.
  42. Dengler, p. 230-31.
  43. Ibid., p. 233.
  44. Ibid., p. 230.
  45. Sancar, p. 50.
  46. Jennings, p. 99.
  47. Hofmeester, Karin. “Jewish Ethics and Women’s Work in the Late Medieval and Early Modern Arab-Islamic World.” International Review of Social History 56, no. S19 (2011): 141-64, p. 151.
  48. Vryonis, Speros. “The Byzantine Legacy and Ottoman Forms.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 23 (1969): 296.
  49. Hofmeester, p. 157.