By: Alexandra Kinias
Walking down the hallways of the opulent Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul was an intriguing experience. The lavish interior of the Ottoman Sultan’s residence was immensely admired by the visitors who listened to the tour guide’s explanation about the lack of historical references to prove the claims about the Sultan’s Harem. According to him they were legends woven by the fertile imagination of writers and poets. He went on with his defense as far as redefining concubines as women of services to the court rather than the Sultan’s mistresses, as the world came to believe. As a believer that history can be distorted but never rewritten, embellishing the reputation of their ancestors, regarding this sensitive issue, had a haunting poignancy. Needles to say that any historian will refute and discredit this claim within moments. It is well known that the royal palaces were filled with hundreds of women who were hand picked and selected with scrutiny from all the lands of the empire. Their qualifications were beauty, charm and seductiveness because in the Sultan’s bedchambers nothing else mattered.
Growing up in Egypt, it was common to watch historical movies that depicted this era. However, it was a daunting experience to actually walk down the dark hallways and corridors of the Topkapi Palace, which became to be known to historians as The Golden Cage, where for centuries hundreds of perfumed and pampered women were kept in perpetual captivity. Their sole purpose was to entertain and satisfy the pleasures of the Sultan who possessed the wealth and power to own as many women as he desired. For that, hundreds of women were kept at his disposal. They competed for his love, affection and bliss, for which they were generously rewarded with jewelry, money and a comfortable life.
The existence of slave concubines was deeply embedded in the fabric of the Ottoman culture and history. The purpose of having them was to produce male heirs to the Sultanate. Slave concubines, unlike wives, had no recognized lineage and thus were not feared that their loyalties would be to their families rather than to their husbands.
The confinement of the women inside the Harem weaved an aura of mystery and glamor that engulfed the legends born out of their seclusion. Their only encounter with the world outside the gates of the palaces was through the eunuchs, or watching from the terraces the view of the Bosporus, which had also witnessed the sacking and drowning of a number of them.
Over centuries, young girls and women were kidnapped from the various lands of the empire, bought from slave markets, or sold by their parents with a promise of a luxury and glamorous life. Beautiful girls who had the chance to be presented to the Sultan were taught music, poetry, singing, dancing, and erotic arts of seduction. Living in captivity among conspiracies, competition, rumors and gossip, without a chance of leaving alive, and viewed as nothing more than sex objects and reproduction machines, their survival instincts taught them submission and servitude; a classic case of human trafficking.
From a young age, women of the empire were brainwashed that beauty, and not intellect, was the key that opened the door to a better life, and that submission and slavery should be every woman’s ultimate goal. As a result, living in secluded extravaganza became a dream of many women. These abhorrent misconceptions chiseled women’s status for many centuries. The years after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire saw an emergence of women rights groups that exerted tremendous efforts — paralleled with obscure resistance, by decision makers — to emancipate the women. Their efforts resulted in substantial improvements in women’s status.
A century later, the Egyptian society is witnessing a reversal of attitude by young women whose interests are no longer to have a career, but rather to secure a husband who can support them while they play the classic role of housewives. The lost desire to achieve progress in the workforce by young women has not reached an alarming level. Yet, with the encouragement of the voices that are calling for the return of women back to their homes, one can not disregard that the snowball has started rolling.
It is saddening to see that while women have been physically set free from the golden cages, they are still mentally jailed. Both the women and the voices of those who are calling for their return to the confinement of their homes should not be surprised to see their societies regress. Unfortunately when that happens, women will be the first to suffer.
The subjects of the Ottoman Empire woke up after its collapse to the realization that they belonged at the tail of the world. Its fragile and rotten state proved again that no society ever prospered when half of its population was idle. They didn’t have to look too far to see the difference. The status of the women in the neighboring states said it all.