The idea of public and private in Islamic societies can be quite different from western notions of space. The harem and the practice of seclusion were important aspects of life in the Ottoman Empire, but are often misunderstood by westerners. In the Ottoman Empire, social and political life for the upper class occurred solely within private spaces for men as well as women, while poor men and women lived and worked side by side in public spaces. Therefore, an individual's seclusion demonstrated both social and political status, and in no way was seclusion solely a female experience. In fact, the sultan's power was demonstrated through his seclusion within the harem; women were able to gain political and social power according to their proximity to him.
The Ottoman Harem
The term "harem" is derived from the Arabic root h-r-m, which means, among other things, sacred, and is a term of respect referring to religious purity. The harem of an Ottoman household, which was common only among the wealthy, did not simply consist of a male head and his wives, but included children, widowed sisters or mothers, and female servants as well. In the West, it is generally seen as a sexual place of female oppression where women lacked power and men were forbidden. Quite contrary to these beliefs, the harem was a patriarchal support system and the center of family and social life. Family politics, rather than sex, was the main force behind the harem and men and women both occupied the space. The Imperial Harem (harem-i humayun, the harem of the sultan), though similar in idea, was much more complex, and was an extremely organized system of administration and hierarchy.
Unlike structures of western government, where increased power often means increased public profiles, power in the Imperial Harem was linked to seclusion, as it demonstrated one's proximity to the sultan. Over the centuries of Ottoman rule, the sultan became increasingly secluded within the harem and the princes, or future rulers, stayed within its confines as well. This allowed royal women a greater ability to participate in politics. The valide sultan ruled the harem, with much influence over her sons, and played an important role in state affairs between rulers. The valide sultans were so powerful that the later Ottoman period has been referred to by some as "The Age of Women."
The Topkapi Harem
For centuries, the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul was the center of Ottoman politics and it was here, around 1620, that the harem's power hierarchy was developed. Individuals within the harem were divided into three groups: the elite, the administrative, and the rank-and-file services. The harem had at this point grown from a dynastic residence to a training institution for men and women to become the Ottoman elite under the sultan. Boys and girls were sent respectively to the gate and the harem, both slave training institutions. Women and men held administrative positions, and the institution could be seen as two complementary systems - one male and one female - which paralleled each other in governing and managing.
A strong power hierarchy was present among the elite within the harem. An individual's status was demonstrated through authority and wealth, which was distributed accordingly. The valide sultan maintained a superior position over all others. She was followed in status and stipend by the haseki, or favorite concubine to the sultan. The royal concubines were next, followed by the princes and princesses, who were not given much status or particularly large stipends. The sultan's wet nurse, the daye khatun, was considered a member of the family elite, as well as the ketkhuda khatun, who played an important administrative role as the harem stewardess. Both received generous stipends and patronized charitable works which demonstrated their status among the dynastic elite.
The architecture of the Topkapi depicts spacially the ideological power structure and hierarchies of the post-1620 Ottoman harem. Size and opulence (or lack thereof) of living quarters coincided with the rank and stature of the inhabitant, and space within the harem was rigidly controlled. The valide sultan's quarters were centrally situated, as she was the head of the harem and from here could supervise both the family apartments and those belonging to servants and administrators. Her position, and the positions of other administrative women within the harem, exemplifies the powerful roles women in elite Ottoman society were able to play. The harem was the center of political life in Ottoman society, thus the role of women was quite prominent in this effect.