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During the Seljuk and Ottoman periods, Turkish family structure was patriarchal, consisting of mother, father, children and sometimes other close relatives. Although woman in rural communities labored in the fields, her urban sister was confined to the house whatever her social status. Depending on the family's economic situation a woman spent her day doing household chores or supervising the servants (most of whom were cariyes (pronounced djar-ee-yeh)), taking care of her children, praying, sewing and embroidery, weaving or playing music.

Life for women outside the home was limited, but by no means non-existent. Special occasions, such as weddings, engagements, "kina gecesi" (henna night - a celebration among the women of the two families and the bride's friends prior to the marriage), paça günü (sheep feet soup day - a meal given by the bride and groom to their relatives, close friends and neighbors the day after the wedding), and mevlit (chanting in memory of a dead person) or visits to relatives and neighbors were opportunities to socialize and dress up in one's best clothes. Visits to the public baths and to cemeteries were frequent, and regarded as a woman's right.

Young men and women were not able to see or get to know one another, nor to choose the person they were to marry. The choice of a bride was the prerogative of the man's mother, and if the girl's family agreed, the matter would be settled by the parents among themselves. The marriage contract would be concluded by means of a bride and groom expressing their consent separately in the presence of witnesses, without seeing one another.

In the condition that their work did not involve association with men, women were allowed to earn a living. The most widespread forms of employment for women, both in the cities and in rural areas were weaving and embroidery. During the Seljuk period, the "Ahi" brotherhood (a semi-mystical organization and forerunner of the trade guilds - pronounced aah-hee) had a branch known as "Baciyan-i rum" (pronounced (bud-djian-eh rhoom)whose members were women engaged in weaving and related occupations. There is evidence that women in Kayseri, Konya and many other parts of Anatolia were employed in this way. During the Ottoman period, too, there were women engaged in weaving and the trading of textiles. Documents show that women in Manisa and Istanbul owned mills, bakeries and other workplaces. In the early 17th century in Kayseri there were bread shops and grocery shops owned by women.

House to house selling. which was a widespread marketing system, was an acceptable trade for middle-aged women, the majority of these peddlers known as bohçaci being Jewish or Armenian.

Medicine was an important field for women, since social morals made it essential that women work in these professions. Since few women were literate, midwives relied on knowledge passed on to them from their mothers or as trainees with an experienced midwife.


Patronage in the form of pious endowments known as vakif was an Islamic concept whose development parallels economic growth in Anatolia under the Seljuks and Ottomans. Although information about endowments founded by women during the Seljuk period is limited, there is a wealth of surviving documentation from the Ottoman era. Not only the valide sultans (mother of the reigning sultan), daughters and wives of the reigning sultans, but women administrators in the imperial harem, and many women of lower social standing founded thousands of vakifs.

Ottoman palace women often acquired power and founded endowments for the public good. Overt power was generally restricted to the valide sultans during their sons' reigns. with the notable exceptions of Hürrem Sultan (Roxelana) and her daughter Mihrumah, whose charismatic personalities brought them to a position of unrivaled power.

Pearl Seal
Istanbul, circa 1650. TSM.
The words "Valide-i Gazi Sultan Mehmed Han" are engraved in taliq script on an extraordinarily large, slightly convex pearl. This seal was made for Turhan Sultan after her son Mehmed acceded to the throne in 1648.

Portrait of Mihrumah Sultan
Anonymous, 17th century. Oil on canvas. Istanbul, Rahmi Koç Collection.
Mihrumah Sultan, like her mother Hürrem Sultan, fascinated Europeans due to the influence she wielded over her father. Both she and Hürrem Sultan were the subject of portraits by 16th century Italian artists. In the exhibited portrait, Mihrumah Sultan wears an orange dress and white bodice, a jewel-studded head ornament, and earrings. This painting is probably a 17th century copy of the portraits referred to above.

Portrait of the Poet Nigar Hanim
Anonymous, circa 1895. Pastels oncardboard TSM.
Nigar Hamm (1865-1918) is the best known poet of the late Ottoman period. Her first published book was Efsus (1886), and subsequently she published books of poetry, essays and translations. Her most successful work was Aksi Seda published in 1900. This portrait by an unknown artist depicts Nigar Hamm wearing a thin pale blue yasmak (head covering).

Self-Portrait by Mihri Hanim
Mihri, early 20th century. Pastels on paper. TSM.
One of the first Turkish women painters. Mihri Hamm (1886-1954) received a western education and studied painting under the palace artist Zonaro. The first woman professor in her field, Mihri Hanim's work consisted largely of portraits and still-lifes in oil and pastels. Her self-portrait on oval paper in pastels, using predominantly white, yellow and brown shades, is in a realistic style.

Automated Drink Server
Miniature from al-Jazari's "Kitab fi Marifet el-Hiyal el Handasiya (Knowledge of Mechanical Devices). Seljuk, Diyarbakir, 13th century. Leather binding.
The clothing of the automated concubine is an important example of female apparel in the 13th century. Her loose and long sleeved dress falls just below her knees and seems to be belted. It has tiraz bands on its arms, while similar bands go round the edges of her skirt and the short slit in the front of the dress. She has a pair of white lined red ankle length trousers and black house shoes with scalloped edges.

Woman Winding Her Headsearf
Signed Levni. Istanbul, ca. 1720-25. Gilt, silver and opaque watercolours on paper TSMK.
The miniature depicts a woman winding her scarf over her hotoz with a one-sided brim curving over one shoulder, which was fashionable during the Ahmed III period. She is wearing a striped pair of ankle-length trousers, an anklelength under tunic made of seersucker gauze (bürüncük) patterned with gold stripes, a long-sleeved hip-length cardigan with a flower pattern, and on top of all, a short sleeved grey gown with a flower pattern in gold thread.

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