This week Turkey’s first lady, Emine Erdogan praised the Ottoman-era harem as an educational center that prepared women for life.
“For the members of the Ottoman family, the harem was a school. It was a center of education, where women were prepared for life and organized volunteer activities,” she said at an event called “Mothers of Ottoman sultans who left a legacy on our history,” organized by the Ministry of Environment and Urbanization in Ankara.
The first lady also praised the so-called valide sultans, who led the household — the title of the legal mother of the sultan – by calling them “pioneers of their generation and examples to our mothers.”
The remark about the harems, which in the Ottoman palace would be the quarters where all the slave girls, concubines, eunuchs and the sultan’s female relatives resided, has caused a stir both in Turkey and in the EU.
“The kind of education provided to residents of the harem depended on the leader and the era in question. Yet it is known that the main role of the young females who were brought in as slaves was to please the sultan and have male babies, providing them the possibility of one day becoming valide sultan, the woman who rules the court,” wrote the US-based website on Turkish affairs Al-Monitor.
“I would like to call upon Mrs. Erdogan. The harem, which you referred to as a school, has students or concubines who were brought into the palace by force. They were minors whose bodies and minds were enslaved… I cannot comprehend how a president’s wife praises a part of culture adopted from Byzantium. This is where one has a brain freeze,” the outlet quotes Republican People's Party Deputy Chair Yasemin Cankurtaran as saying.
A group called Communist Women were much bolder, declaring war on Erdogan and urging the public to wake the Erdogan family from its visions of monarchy and harem. They proclaimed, “Everyone should know, women cannot be fitted into Erdogan’s harem dreams.”
“Was the harem really beyond the sexual intrigue? Everyone had a specific task, and their age, sexual identity and the role that they served was crucial. For example, the lesbian relationships between the concubines and the homosexual tendencies of certain sultans or sons of sultans, along with the stories of the eunuchs, play a crucial role in the survival system of the harem as well. It was a place where you were brought in rather young and robbed of your entire identity. So everyone had to reinvent themselves within the walls of the harem, and sexuality was the center of this identity,” the website quotes a scholar of history and cultural studies as saying; the academic requested anonymity for fear of losing her job.
The remark comes as yet another concern in the string of worries about Turkey's possible accession to the EU in the wake of continuous human rights violations in the country and the systematic eradication of free speech in Turkey. The EU media is addressing what its implications could be for the continental union.
“In Turkey, for instance, Erdogan could still call a non-compliant journalist a 'shameless militant woman' who should 'know her place'. While Turkish law has yet to enshrine all his prejudices, violence against women has soared during his leadership,” notes the UK Guardian.
“In some countries, a simple comment about a chapter in history might be insignificant, but the efforts by the Islamists in Turkey to redefine a woman’s place and role in the public domain have scarred relations between different segments of the society. It is no longer a question of whether a woman is wearing a headscarf, but of welcoming a regression in women’s rights and glorifying the idea of enslaving women,” says Al-Monitor.
The website also noted that multiple social media users and pundits also criticized the Erdogan family for enjoying the benefits of Western, secular education themselves — all four Erdogan children attended college in the West — while encouraging domestic audiences to adopt a different system. Hence, the most common and mind-numbing question circulating on social media concerned whether Erdogan’s words signaled intentions to establish a harem in their palace of more than 1,000 rooms.
“And if Erdogan’s EU application proceeds without his reversal on a number of gender issues, it’s not only Turkish men who are likely to be influenced by his personal values,” suggests The Guardian.
“It has been suggested, since Cologne, that a subset of men arriving in the EU from certain patriarchal cultures may struggle to perceive women as something other than mothers or slags,” it adds.
If that is correct, enlightenment seems unlikely to proceed from facilitating the membership of a country where those exact views are likely, as Erdogan digs in, to become even more normalized, it finally states.