Women, virginity and honor among the Ottomans

Examining a slave’ by Jean-Léon Gérôme.

Islam is a religion based on the patriarchal society of the 7th century A.D. A large portion of the rules it lays down, governing the society of that time and subsequent centuries, concern family and society. Some of these rules naturally concern women and where the rules were lacking, recourse would be made to the hadith (the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) and customary law.

The age of discernment for children was generally considered to be seven. At that time, boys would leave the harem or at least the care of women and start the education that would allow them to operate in the outside world, while girls would be kept at home. There, the girl would start to learn how to accomplish the tasks that she would be required to know as a wife.

She would look after her younger siblings and learn how to cook, clean, sew, embroider and the like. If the family was well off, she might be taught how to sing, dance and play an instrument such as an “ud” or lute, in order to provide entertainment for her husband and other members of his harem.

There was no reason for her to learn reading or writing because her guardian (father, paternal grandfather or, if they were no longer present, some other male relative who was a Muslim and deemed to be of good reputation) would look after her and her interests until she was married…