Joseph Szyliowicz, an anthropologist, wrote in his book Political Change in Rural Turkey (1966) that “Women were naturally regarded as inferior and not many would dare to assert their rights, even if they knew what they were. Furthermore, no practical recourse was available to a woman who wished to do so…”
For many decades, Western writers have attacked the status of women under the Islamic system by casting many aspersions on how they were treated during the period of Islamic rule, including in the era of the Uthmani Khilafah. One of the common beliefs that some in the Western and Muslim world hold is that under the implementation of the Shariah laws, women were denied property rights, and the ability to work and to earn money, as well as the right to manage and control any of their own wealth. They seem to mistakenly equate the lives of women under past Islamic rule to their true treatment historically within Western states, where until the end of the 19th, and in some countries the beginning of the 20th century, women had no legal status separate from that of their husbands. Thus, within these Western nations, women could not conduct any commercial act or contract without their husband’s consent and had no control over their own property. Only after a long and hard period of struggle that was full of painful experiences did women in the West acquire the political, economic, educational, and legal rights that they enjoy today. However, honest examination and sincere studies of the court records of the Uthmani Khilafah easily refute the common beliefs mentioned above regarding the economic status of women under Islamic rule.
In Part 1 of this two part article on ‘Women and their Economic Rights’ under the Uthmani Khilafah, we will give an insight into the economic environment enjoyed by women during the Ottoman era, as well as highlight their basic economic rights given by the Shariah and how these were implemented and protected by the institution of the Shariah courts of the State. In Part 2 of this article, a more detailed overview of the kind of economic activities conducted by the women of the time as evidenced from the contents of court registers will provide a more accurate view of the economic rights of women under Islamic rule than that often promoted by particular Western orientalists, feminists, and writers.
The Quran and Sunnah provide rulings about inheritance, testaments, debts, business and trade, contracts and more. Accordingly, Islamic law gives the woman the right to own property, to receive her share of inheritance, to bequeath, to make loan and business contracts and agreements, and to engage in various other economic activities. A woman has the absolute and only control over anything she may own. It is proven that Shariah courts under the Ottoman Khilafah ruled according to the Quran and Sunnah. And by doing so, one of their basic duties – obliged by the Shariah – was the “protection of the woman and her rights”. The Qadis (Shariah judges) judged in a way that ensured the protection of women’s rights according to the Shariah. One scholar who researched Ottoman court records in Cyprus states that, “Kadis (judges) had a special obligation to protect the weak and vulnerable. Much of the relatively secure position of women may be attributed to the concern of various kadis in Nicosia and elswhere on the island of Cyprus who staunchly maintained their legal rights in the face of oppression.” (From “Christians and Muslims in Ottoman Cyprus and the Mediterranean World, 1571-1640” (1993) by Ronald C. Jennings)
In cases where Ottoman women felt they were unable to obtain justice through their local courts, they were able to petition the Imperial Council in Istanbul for redress of their grievances. Regarding this, one scholar writes:
“We know that women and minorities appealed to the local shari’ah courts continually, but the Sublime Porte and the imperial council were farther away and out of reach. Despite distance and great hazards, women came from as far as Egypt to petition…” This indicated that the belief in “…’royal justice’ was widespread and strong enough to convince many, even those from the farthest corners of the Empire, to undertake a laborious journey to Istanbul to present their grievances in person.” I)
17th century judicial records from the city of Kayseri in Anatolia, Turkey show that courts maintained the inheritance shares afforded to women by Islam as scrupulously as any other property right. The women of Kayseri inherited regularly from a wide circle of relatives, received dowries upon marriage, and often kept their property separate from their husbands. When a woman’s parent, offspring, husband, or sibling died she was a major heir. Even when an uncle, aunt, or cousin died she might inherit some share of their estate or wealth. The following cases cited in court records illustrate the inheritance rights women enjoyed under the Uthmani Khilafah:
“Meryem (Zimmi) sets forth a claim in the presence of Tatar (Zimmi): When my mother Cevher died, I inherited a house at Kusakcilar Harmani mahalle from her. My brother Sirvan sold it without my permission to Tatar. I will not accept this. So Tatar is restrained from possession of the house.” (Kayseri record 1020 AH)(*)
“Emine bint Haci Musa has for vekil (legal representative) Huseyn bin Huseyn: When my muvekkile (charge) was under age, her nazir Seydi Ahmed sold houses belonging to her at Sultan Hamami mahalle to Haci Hasan. Now she is of age and wants them back. The court orders them given to her.” (Kayseri record 1033 AH)(*)
According to the Shariah, women are not obliged to spend any of their money on their own maintenance or upon their husbands or children, so they were often able to accumulate much money and property. At times, the courts would appoint experts to assess the estate of the deceased in order to assign the proper legal shares to women that they were due.
Women would also turn to the courts for settlement of inheritance disputes, having trust in them to secure their Islamic entitlements, even petitioning the Imperial Council when necessary. The following is such a case:
“Imperial Edict to the Beylerbeyi and kadı of Trabzon and kadis of Giresun: A man named Suleyman who was domiciled in Giresun was married but since he lived in another place, the wife was allotted support through an official document from the court, however, she died before receiving the support and clothing allowance which was sent. Her daughter who lives in Trabzon, applied to Istanbul and asked for the mahr (dowry) and support from Suleyman, which was transferred to her according to the sharia by way of inheritance. He refrained from giving by fabricating excuses, even though the kadi sent someone he persisted in not giving it and did not listen to the order of the sharia. This has been officially recorded and documented. Thus, I command that the aforementioned Suleyman be brought to Trabzon before the court and the mahr and support which he refrains from giving with false excuses must be taken from him and given to the rightful woman’s husband, Mustafa, whom she appointed as her power of attorney. (approx. date 1056 H.)II)
After studying Ottoman court records from Bursa, Turkey, Haim Gerber, Professor of Islamic History at Hebrew University and author of numerous books about Ottoman History, concluded:
“All these cases clearly show that males in Bursa were not unaware of the possibilities of disinheriting women. But they also show that women’s ability to enforce the Islamic law of inheritance was not merely theoretical, but real.”
A woman had entirely the same rights in giving away and bequeathing her property or wealth that her husband had. She might make all or part of her estate as a waqf (a trust or fund). She could also make bequests or gifts to anyone she wanted.
“Hatice binti Ahmet who died in the Yıldırım neighbourhood of Bursa in 1500 bequeathed 300 akçe. Sitti binti Ahmet who died at the same date in the Arap neighbourhood bequeathed 6000 akçe, and Ayshe binti Bali from Kefen Ignesi neighbourhood bequeathed 700 akçe from her property. Those testaments also included the money for the Imams for Qur’an reciting, benefit to the mosque and charity to the poors.” III)
Dowry in form of goods or money given by the groom to his bride is an important part of marriage in Islam and should be included in the marriage contract. Under the Uthmani Khilafah, if the husband refused to pay the wife’s dowry as agreed, he could face judicial consequences, including a prison sentence. In one particular case in Bursa where the husband did not give his wife her dowry that she was promised at the time of marriage, he was incarcerated for sixty days.
The following judicial records highlight how women used the courts to secure their dowry rights:
“40 silver nisfs were paid to the bride Farhana, who declared she had received half, the other half determined as a delayed dowry.” (Sharia court record from Alexandria, Egypt 1551)
“Fatima, whose husband Ahmed Aga died, applied to the Istanbul court to claim her dowry right from the deceased’s estate, which had been completely confiscated by her mother-in-law and brother-in-law.” (Yediyıldız)
“Ummu Gulsüm bint Abdullah requests at court the payment of her delayed dowry of 80,000 akçe from her divorced husband.” (Yediyıldız)
“Cennet bint Yusuf, received her husband’s house as a delayed dowry after his death. This caused dissent among his heirs. After examination, the court decides the house given to Cennet.” (Yediyıldız)IV)
Maintenance – Nafaka
Islam obliges the man to provide for his wife, his children, his parents and relatives in need within his capability. Within the Uthmani Khilafah, men were held accountable by the state for fulfilling this obligation. The duty upon a man to financially maintain his wife continued as long as they were married and for three months after divorce. And if the wife received custodianship over minor children, the father was obliged to pay alimony to provide for the needs of the children. Sometimes the court even ordered additional compensation for the woman who raised the children.
“Mehmet bin Veli and Kamer bint Murat get divorced. As their son Osman is going to stay with his mother Kamer, the court assignes nafaka of 3 akçe per day.” (Ankara Court Record, 1583/84)V)
If a husband was absent from home or disappeared, or refused to pay for the support of his family, the court would enforce payment of the woman’s nafaka from any part of her husband’s wealth or property. If necessary, the court ordered a loan to be made on the husband’s behalf, from which the wife would be supported and that he was responsible for.
“Cennet Ana bint Sheik Mehmet Efendi: “I am the wife of Abdul-Fettah bn Abdul-Kadir of Gulluk mahlle, who has been absent for a long time. I want maintenance allowance. Cennet Ana is asked to take an oath that her husband has allotted nothing for her. Then she is granted fifteen akçe per day and permission to seek a loan.” (*)
“Mehmet bn Abdullah from Bursa, instructed his relative Mustafa bn Osman to pay the nafaka for his family before he left for Izmir. As Mustafa did not fulfill his duty, Kerime Hatun bint Recep, wife of Mehmet, applied to the court for the payment of her maintenance.” (Koca)VI)
“Abdus-Selam sets forth a claim: My daughter Emine’s husband Ebu Bekr divorced her. He has gone elsewhere, without providing maintenance for Emine’s two children. I want 4 akce per day allotted for them. This is done.” (Amasya Court Record, 1034 AH)
Not only wives, but also mothers, daughters and sisters could complain to the court if their son, brother or father did not provide for their maintenance.
“Behzat bint Abdullah from Hamza Fakih neighbourhood of the Uskudar province in Istanbul applies to the court in presence of her son Şaban Çelebi: “I am very ill, old, poor and unable to provide for myself. As my son’s financial condition is good, I ask the court to fulfill his sharia obligation and to pay daily nafaka to me. Şaban Çelebi is asked and confirms what is said. The court allots 5 akçe per day. And she was allowed to use this money as she wishes. (Uskudar Court Record, 1090/1679)VII)
Rıfat Özdemir, who studied Ottoman court records of Kırşehir, Turkey between the years 1880 and 1906, concluded:
“When the records are examined, many are found which show that the kadı implemented the laws to the letter, that according to the conditions of the times the kadı assigned to women a daily allowance called ‘nafaka ve kisve baha’, and the husbands were held responsible for its payment.” VII)
Judicial records also show that no-one, including her husband could sell, rent or use a woman’s property, or spend her wealth without her consent, and if they did, she could and did initiate suits against them in court. The court would then render the transaction null and void as soon as her ownership was proven and demand the property or wealth be restored to her immediately. Similarly, minor girls on reaching maturity could complain to the judge if any of their property had been sold unjustly. If they proved their case, the property would be returned to them.
“Meryem (Zimmi) sets forth a claim in the presence of Tatar (Zimmi): When my mother Cevher died, I inherited a house at Kusakcilar Harmani mahalle from her. My brother Sirvan sold it without my permission to Tatar. I will not accept this. So Tatar is restrained from possession of the house.” (Kayseri records 1020 AH.) (*)
“Emine bint Haci Musa has for vekil (legal representative) Huseyn bin Huseyn: When my muvekkile (charge) was under age, her nazir Seydi Ahmed sold houses belonging to her at Sultan Hamami mahalle to Haci Hasan. Now she is of age and wants them back. The court orders them given to her.” (Kayseri records 1033 AH.) (*)
In conclusion, it can be clearly seen that under the Islamic rule of the Uthmani Khilafah, women’s economic rights were scrupulously protected and they were able to manage and spend their wealth independently without interference by their husband, family, or the state. All this was guaranteed through a strong court system and was just one of the fruits women enjoyed due the implementation of the Shariah laws upon them.
Women’s Section in the Central Media Office of Hizb ut Tahrir
(*) Examples from Ronald C. Jennings, “Women in Early 17th Century Ottoman Judicial Records The Sharia Court of Anatolian Kayseri”, “Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 18” (1975) and other articles of the author.
I) Fariba Zarinebaf-Shahr, “Women, Law and Imperial Justice in Ottoman Istanbul in the Late Seventeeth Century,” in Women, the Family, and Divorce Laws in Islamic History, edited by Madeline C. Zilfi, (Leiden-New York-Köln: Brill, 1997), 255-56
II) Mühimme Defteri 90, ed. Mertol Tulum (Istanbul: Türk Dünyası Araştırmaları Vakfı, 1993), 35-36) (Mühimme Defteri: Are recordings of Imperial Orders and charters formulated in the Divanuhumayun (advice council surrounding the Sultan including) until 1649. Later these were books recording chronologically any activities of the state)
III) Özdeğer, Hüseyin, 1463-1640 Yılları Bursa Şehri Tereke Defterleri (Estate Records from Bursa), İstanbul Üniversitesi türk İktisat ve İctimaiyat araştırmaları merkezi Yayını, İstanbul, 1988
IV) Yediyıldız, M. Asım, Şer’iye Sicillerine Göre Bursa’nın Sosyo Ekonomik Yapısı, Vakıflar Dergisi, Vakıflar Genel Müdürlüğü Yayını, Cilt: XXIII, Ankara, 1994 – The Socio Economic Structure of Bursa according to Sharia Records, by M. Asım Yediyıldız)
V) Koca, Kadriye Yılmaz, Osmanlı’da Kadın ve İktisat, Beyan Yayınları, İstanbul, 1998; Page 34
VI) Koca, Kadriye Yılmaz, Osmanlı’da Kadın ve İktisat, Beyan Yayınları, İstanbul, 1998, Page 36
VII) Sancar, Aslı; Ottoman Women Myth and Reality, Tughra Books, Clifton USA, 2011; Page 141