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Free «The imperial harem: women and sovereignty in the ottoman empire by peirce book review and analysis» Essay Sample

Any discussion of The Imperial Harem work by Leslie Peirce should begin by establishing a definition of the Arabic word haram. The first definition refers to that which is forbidden and unlawful and also that which is sacred, inviolable, taboo. It is used to refer to places that are considered a sanctuary (e.g., the cities of Mecca and Medina are themselves haram) and that therefore are restricted to limited access and certain kinds of behavior (Lewis 18, 23). In her excellent study The Imperial Harem, Leslie Peirce further explains that the very presence of the sultan would render any place haram. Therefore, even before the women's quarters were moved into the Imperial Palace by Sultan Suleiman in the sixteenth century, the inner precincts of the palace, which were only inhabited by the sultan and his male companions, were already haram. Nevertheless, it is also true that the word refers to the restricted quarters of women or even the women themselves. Given the various related connotations of this word and the practices surrounding it, it is clear that Peirce is correct when she notes that, “The word haram is a term of respect, redolent of religious purity and honor and evocative of the requisite obeisance” (5). This paper, by referring to Leslie Peirce’s book The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire, discusses major themes and issues presented in this work, focusing on the analysis of the male/female political and social discourse in the Ottoman Empire as reflected by the author.

Peirce says that in addition to the fact that the word “harem” has a complex of meanings likely unknown to the Western reader, the physical layout of the palace structure may be equally mysterious (22-24). While the “harem” only refers properly to the inner (third) court, the palace was actually a vast complex of courts and buildings that provided a myriad of services. In his study of the palace complex published in 1937 upon its early opening to scholars and foreigners, N.

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M. Penzer noted the fact that the fame of the harem overwhelmed any other awareness of the palace structure: “the fact that the palace contained a great military School of State, over a dozen mosques, ten double kitchens, two bakeries, a flour-mill, two hospitals, and various baths, storerooms, sports fields, etc. is almost wholly ignored” (Qtd in Lewsi 56). The first court was public and the second was a semipublic space where government business, including the reception of ambassadors, was carried out. One then passed through the “gates of felicity”, into the women's harem. No one went beyond that point but the women, the sultan, and the black eunuchs (Lewis 67).

As noted by Peirce, the physical structure of the imperial harem reflects a characteristic conceptualization of power in Islamic thinking (45, 78-79). Similarly to this author, in The Political Language of Islam, Bernard Lewis explains that Western and Islamic thought both make use of spatial metaphors, denoting position and direction in space in order to envision how power operates (13). However, Western conceptualizations make copious use of up-down and front-back language, while Islamic metaphors figure power relations more often as in-out relationships. Lewis further shows that these metaphors have their manifestation in the technologies of power: “The nearer to the center, the greater the power; the further from the center, the less the power. In the Ottoman Imperial Palace, the entire complex of buildings was divided into three zones known as the Inside, the In-between, and the Outside” 15). Thus the physical penetration of the very center of the palace structure would equal the penetration of the very heart of the Ottoman Empire as a political entity.

As pointed by Peirce, the imperial harem was also the stage for behind-the-scenes politicking, which not infrequently influenced major court policies.

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At the helm stood the sultan's mother, who throughout the nineteenth century ruled over several hundred women and eunuchs (Peirce 122) The households of provincial governors and of elite members in the main urban centers, though smaller in size, were similarly structured. The non-elite groups could not afford to maintain such establishments and often had to relinquish the dual structure and separation altogether. Other forms would then remain: some sort of a divide, the veil, or the option of having the men of the family receive their male guests in a special room or outside the house.

Family politics, not sex, asserts Peirce, was the fundamental dynamic of the imperial harem (3, 6). Sex was only one of a number of animating forces in the imperial harem, and it was much less important than other factors. She agrees with some of the more judicious European observers that “the imperial harem was more like a nunnery in its hierarchical organization and the enforced chastity of the great majority of its members” (Peirce 6). She challenges the accepted view that divides the public/commonweal/male and the private/domestic/female, arguing that in the Ottoman order, the legitimate and natural force of politics was the sovereign's household and, more specifically, its innermost place-the harem. Authority was thus located in an inner circle, moving outward gradually as one went to the outer circles of the elite and society. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Peirce concludes, Ottoman society was divided along distinctions of the privileged versus the common and the sacred versus the profane, which cut across gender (Peirce 7-9).

By the end of the nineteenth century, the imperial harem included between four hundred and five hundred female slaves, who resided in a number of palaces and were divided among the main harem compound and the suites of the members of the royal family. The harem's population was only partially self-reproducing, because only the royal children continued to live on its various premises. Since many of the non-royal women were given in marriage to state officials and consequently left the harem, the ranks had to be constantly replenished through purchase or gift. Such gifts and the marriage of harem women to high-ranking members of the elite were both part of the royal patronage-building mechanism (Peirce 78, 90).

As already noted, harems in Ottoman cities formed a social network which was almost a system unto itself. Women interacted with other women, entertained and were entertained by each other, helped each other and competed among themselves, stood together in the men's world and, not infrequently, sought to influence the course of events in that world. On the highest level, such activities affected politics and the affairs of state (Peirce 229-234). On lower levels, daily life was, to a great extent, shaped by this dual structure of society.

To continue, because of European condemnation of all types of slavery in the Ottoman Empire, a twofold view of harem slaves evolved. Within Ottoman society, these were considered to be persons of slave origins who had been socialized in a harem type pattern, which by definition assumed a patron-client relationship of the master-slave kind. To have been raised under the shadow of slavery attached no dishonor to harem slaves, nor did it assimilate them into the group of domestic slaves familiar to members of the elite from their own households (Findley 64). As pointed by Peirce, in all senses, Ottoman society treated harem slavery as one of the paths to patronage, like kin, marriage, adoption, suckling, etc. Therefore, the division which some authors draw between patronage and slavery, because one is voluntary and the other is not, is alien to Ottoman realities.

At the same time, however, and as a defense mechanism of sorts, when faced with Western criticism of Ottoman slavery, the same elite mind collapsed the category of domestic slavery into that of harem slavery. Consequently, defense of Ottoman slavery was predicated on drawing a sharp distinction--which obviously existed --between the lot of slaves in Western society and the lot of Ottoman grand viziers and elite ladies.

Leslie Peirce shows that the various categories within harem slavery were quite familiar to all members of the Ottoman elite. There were three major types of female slaves: the menial domestic, the concubine, and the girl brought up in the household and later married off and set up in life (Melman 89). Findley claims that custom limited concubinage to cases of infertility-which is inaccurate--and required the consent of both the wife and the intended concubine. If the concubine did not bear children, she was then married off comfortably. Peirce, on the contrary, points out that concubinage was often the stepping stone to marriage (as the first wife) and was not necessarily related to infertility (35).

It is perhaps not surprising some women authors display greater empathy with the dilemma of even the most privileged of harem slaves. Thus, we learn of the pain of the wife whose husband takes two concubines, one after the other, but still cannot beget children because the infertility--naturally attributed to her--is probably his. We read about the anger and humiliation of the wife who attempts to prevent her husband from flirting with the slaves of the family (Melman 94-95). Leslie Peirce presents a very interesting account of the imperial harem life in Ottoman Empire, illustrating that females played an important role in the royal household despite their seemingly lower status. Some representatives of harem women were well respected and influenced the social and political life of the whole country.


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