Women and Markets in Ottoman Empire

Ottomans participated in international trade virtually from the start, and Ottoman women were involved in it throughout – as producers and consumers, financiers and landladies, dealers and commodities.

One of the principal Ottoman exports, starting as early as the fourteenth century, was silk, chiefly produced in Bursa and shipped to such markets as the Balkans, Hungary, and Muscovy. Although raw silk was initially imported from Persia, wartime disruptions during the sixteenth century resulted in extensive local silkworm cultivation as well. Silk production was mainly a domestic industry, and women were involved in many of its phases. For example, a 1678 survey reveals that at least 150 of 299 spinning wheels in Bursa and surrounding villages were owned and/or operated by women (Gerber 1988, 86). Another luxury fabric that the Ottomans exported, and for which they possessed virtually a world monopoly in the sixteenth century, was mohair. Produced from angora goats, this fabric was exported to Venice and Poland, and later also to England. A tax document dated 1590 records that there were 621 mohair looms in Ankara (Ergenç 1975); moreover, workshops were usually situated within residential buildings – as attested by the fact that they were seldom mentioned among the shops of Ankara’s business district (çarçı) (Faroqhi 1985) – suggesting that women took an active part in weaving the fabric. Busbecq and Dernschwam, who visited the area in 1555, both noted in their travelogues that it was local women who spun mohair yarn (Busbecq 1927, 46, Dernschwam 1923, 186). Indeed, when British and Dutch traders bought up all the goat hair on the market in 1690, depriving local artisans of raw material, riots erupted with such ferocity that special judges had to be dispatched from the capital to quell them, and an edict was issued to “the ladies of Ankara” appealing for calm during the proceedings (G. Ökçün in Ergenç 1975). Next to the delicate nature of the work, the fact that silk and mohair spinning were seasonal occupations is likely the chief reason for the heavy involvement of women in these industries. Some of the necessary capital, such as the cost of a mohair loom, was quite modest (Faroqhi 1985), so that a considerable number of women had no difficulty investing in the technology needed to become productive. They acted as independent contractors in a “putting-out system,” wherein merchants supplied them with raw materials and took charge of marketing the finished product. This system was very widespread in many branches of the Ottoman economy, and drew significantly upon female labor.

Another sector in which women were very active was the production of wool and woolens in the Balkans. During the fifteenth century, wool had been imported from Italy and Flanders; in the sixteenth century, Iberian Jews recently resettled in Salonica were charged by the Ottoman government with manufacturing woolens for the janissary corps (Faroqhi 1994), an early example of import-substitution industrialization. The production of woolens in Salonica during this period was very much based on home work, with the strong involvement of women (Nehama 1935, 127). In the early seventeenth century, however, the Levant Company began to dump cheap English woolens on the Ottoman market, in part in order to raise cash to finance monopolistic trade ventures in Britain. This led to the collapse of woolen production in Salonica (Braude 1979); the consequences of this collapse for the women involved in the industry remain to be studied. Woolens were also produced in large quantities in other parts of the Balkans, notably in Filibe (Plovdiv) and its environs, where seasonal work by women also played an important role. These textiles were exported to markets as farflung as France and India, and the growing demand led to the spread of woolen production throughout the area; moreover, the industry remained healthy well into the nineteenth century, despite foreign competition (Todorov 1967/8). Besides cloth and knitwear, wool yarn was used in weaving carpets, which are known to have been exported to Europe from very early on – as evidenced, for example, by their depiction in Flemish painting. Although women are known to have been very active in carpet weaving in later times, information is lacking as to the earlier periods. On the other hand, it is known that many embroiderers were women (see Fig. 2), and their work was much sought after in the Balkans, Hungary, and elsewhere during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Helmecke 1993). This was one of several areas in which guilds appealed to the government to protect their monopoly against incursions by unskilled workers, notably women. For instance, an imperial edict dated 1744 cites guildsmen as complaining that “plain and coarse cloth is taken by draftsmen (musavvir) to women in their homes, who are made to embroider flowers by imitative needlework, thus discrediting our craft” (Kal’a 1997a, 31–32; also 37–8, 149–50, 331–2). Whether these women were truly unskilled, or falsely accused to eliminate competition, is unclear.

While textiles constituted the Ottoman Empire’s principal manufactured exports, large quantities of certain raw materials were also exported – increasingly through the port of Izmir. Though the government frequently prohibited the exportation of staple goods such as cotton (needed to weave sailcloth) and foodstuffs (needed to provision the capital and the rest of the domain), these measures were unevenly enforced, and smuggling was always rife. Venetian, Ragusan, English, and Dutch traders actively pursued opportunities arising in European markets. In the mid-sixteenth century, for example, Latin vessels carried away grains from the Aegean coast to compensate for shortages in Italy; toward the end of the century, “the trickle became a torrent” as crop failures and famines in Europe led to significant importation of Ottoman grains and dried fruits (Goffman 1990, 36–45). Very little is known about the farming of grains at the time, and even less about women’s role in it. Certainly later evidence would suggest that female labor must have been crucial; however, information is lacking as to women’s participation in agriculture in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, and anachronistic projections of later data could be invalid. In terms of production and trade, cotton was the second most important sector in the Ottoman economy after grains. Processed cotton was exported early on to Black Sea and Danube ports, but the most significant quantities to be exported were of raw cotton, particularly in the eighteenth century (Inalcık 1979/80). By 1788, cotton held a 72 percent share in total Ottoman exports (Frangakis-Syrett 1998). Once again, firm information about cotton cultivation during the earliest periods is unavailable (Faroqhi 1979); however, it is known that by the eighteenth century, Western Anatolian cotton was produced in small family holdings or larger plantations (çiftlik) under the control of rural notables (ayan), and that the preeminence of small family holdings increased after the ottoman empire 269 central authority was reasserted in the nineteenth century and rural notables lost their power (Frangakis-Syrett 1998); this would suggest that women took an active role in cotton production at least from the eighteenth century on.

Regarding commerce, the practice of seclusion limited women’s mobility, and while lower-class women used this to their advantage, by functioning as purveyors of goods (some of which were imported) to harems, well-to-do women were seldom able to travel and personally engage in trade. However, they could, and did, participate in commerce as financiers. Court records and probate inventories contain many instances of women investing in foreign trade. When a Bursa merchant dealing in Persian silks died in 1636, five of the eight creditors who sued his estate were women (Gerber 1988, 118). This was by no means an isolated case. In a common arrangement known as mu∂àrebe, one partner – often a woman – would provide financing, and the other, generally a man, labor (Jennings 1973, 1975). In eighteenth-century Aleppo, a hub of foreign trade both eastern and western, women “figured prominently among the suppliers of credit. They made deals with borrowers outside the family circle, secured their loans, drew up contracts, and sued in court to protect their rights. Women from wealthy families possessed considerable savings to invest. . . . Men accepted them as guarantors for loans and sought them out for their own funds. In moneylending, women found one accessible avenue for investment and a good source of income. Their activated savings, in the form of credit, thus circulated in various sectors of the economy” (Marcus 1989, 187–8). In nineteenth-century Egypt, wealthy women were involved in commerce with Asia and Africa, investing in the sea trade of spices and the caravan slave trade (Tucker 1985, 83).

Another way in which women investors participated in foreign trade was as owners of the means of production and of commercial real estate. In Ottoman society, many crafts were regulated by guilds, which controlled the number of licences to practice (gedik) (Akarlı 1985/6, 2004). By the eighteenth century, such licences, and the associated tools and wherewithal, had become hereditary as private property (Inalcık 2000, 158). While most guilds were closed to women, craftsmen’s female descendants who inherited tools and licences sometimes rented them out to other craftsmen (Marsot 1995, 109, Marcus 1989, 164–5, 178–9). Whether through inheritance or by purchase, women also sometimes owned other property critical to export industries. A court case from Bursa reveals that in 1656, a water mill, the principal form of (non-human) power used in the silk industry there, was owned by a woman (Gerber 1988, 77). Shops where goods were manufactured or traded were also sometimes owned by women, who often invested in them as rental property. In Aleppo, for example, women made up fully one-third of the buyers of commercial real estate in 1750–1; furthermore, the deeds indicate that many of the commercial properties that women sold had originally come into their possession by way of purchase (Marcus 1989, 191–2). Finally, by far the largest number of rented shops in most Ottoman cities were owned by pious foundations (vakıf/waqf ), some of which had been endowed by women. Thus, a 1604 record shows that three Sarajevo sisters had donated three shops, and another woman two (Filan forthcoming). More than half the pious foundations established in Aleppo between 1770 and 1840 were endowed by women, and one-fifth of these consisted exclusively of commercial property (Meriwether 1997).

All this is not to say that women never personally engaged in trade. A Bursa woman who died in 1682 had been involved in a large number of loans as both debtor and creditor, suggesting that she had been active in business; another who died in 1674 must have “engaged in large-scale trade in textiles,” for her estate included “huge quantities” of wool and other fabrics (Gerber 1980). One of the most important businesses in which women partook as dealers was the slave trade. Numerous official documents refer to both accredited (defterlü ve kefîllü) and non-accredited female slave dealers, the latter invariably accused of immorality and malpractice (Erdem 1996, 33–9, Kal’a 1997b, 92–3, Zilfi 2000). In 1641, the slave dealers’ guild in Istanbul included 33 men and 8 women (Erdem 1996, 37). After slave markets were closed and the slave trade officially banned by imperial edicts starting in 1847, an informal human commerce took hold in which women played an important role. British consular sources indicate that 14 out of 42 slave dealers in Istanbul during 1881–4 were women (Toledano 1982, 59). The composer and poetess Leylâ Saz, who grew up in the imperial palace of Çıra‘an in Istanbul, describes how very young Circassian girls would be purchased by wealthy ladies “for lucre and speculation,” and, it must be added, social network building; they would be trained and resold, through female slave dealers, to other prominent Ottoman households – a practice which, she notes, was common and “not something to make one blush” ([Saz] 1925, 58–64).

Women also figured in foreign trade as commodities, for many slaves bought and sold in the Ottoman Empire were female. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Ottomans and neighboring principalities exported (either for ransom or for sale) captives acquired in battle or through raids, to such destinations as Genoa, Venice, and Egypt; likewise, captured Turks were sold at various slave markets by Latin and other traders (Fleet 1999, 37–58). Although conquest initially satisfied demand for servile labor, with the decline of the empire’s military fortunes, slaves were increasingly bought and imported from East Africa, particularly Nubia and Sudan, and the Northern Caucasus, particularly Circassia and Georgia (Toledano 1982, 14–54). Female slaves were largely used for domestic work, and, in rare instances, in agriculture and manufacture (for example silk in Bursa). Manumission after a certain number of years of service was widespread, as was intermarriage (particularly between free men and slave women); as a result, foreign-born slaves were usually integrated into Ottoman society within a generation or two.

We also find Ottoman women, of course, as consumers of foreign goods. In the absence of archaeological evidence, it is difficult to determine exactly what the common people consumed (Carroll 2000). Only indirectly is it possible to infer – from such data as customs records – that, for example, imported Indian cotton fabrics were widely used at all levels of Ottoman society during the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries (Inalcık 1979/80), and Venetian soap as early as the fourteenth (Fleet 1999, 24). On the other hand, available information on the middle and upper classes shows that consumption was not only geared toward satisfying basic necessities, but also establishing class distinctions and even ethnic identities. Thus, starting in the mid-eighteenth century, elite women in Walachia and Moldavia increasingly used Western European (especially French) clothes and fashion accessories, household items, and luxury goods to construct both individual and collective – proto-national – identities; in this, moreover, they differed from elite men who, due in part to their participation in the Ottoman imperial administration, retained “traditional” patterns of dress and consumption for some time longer (Jianu forthcoming). During the same period, it became common for the sisters and daughters of sultans to move out of the historic peninsula of Istanbul and into palatial residences along the Bosphorus where, through displays of conspicuous consumption, they bolstered the monarch’s prestige at a time when military charismatic legitimation had ceased to be effective; luxury textiles and garments, clocks, mirrors, silver and crystal vessels, and other imported goods played a key role in this display (Artan 1993). It has also been suggested that the consumption of goods imported from Europe was instrumental in the self-fashioning of a nascent, ethnically-differentiated urban middle class (Göçek 1996), although an analysis of how this process may have been gendered remains to be undertaken. The Ottoman government tried, through the periodic imposition of sumptuary laws, to control sartorial transgressions (often using imported fabrics) on the part of religious groups and social classes, as well as women. Thus, a 1206/1792 edict that forbade the wearing of women’s overcoats (ferâce) made of Ankara camlet recalled that an earlier edict had similarly prohibited British camlet, because “being excessively fine, other clothes worn by a woman underneath it can be discerned from the outside” (Altınay 1932, 4).

Finally, until feminist theoretical interventions in recent decades, it was seldom acknowledged that the production and reproduction of the working class involves a significant unmeasured and difficult to quantify component, in the form of unremunerated productive and reproductive activities by family members, principally women. Yet, as early as 1839–40, Mikhail Petrovich Vronchenko wrote that since all surplus was expropriated from Ottoman craftsmen, some “barely manage to survive with the help of the labor of their families, who either work the land or otherwise lighten the task of the head of the household in procuring the means of subsistence” ([Vronchenko] 1839–40, ii, 282). While specifics are lacking as to the value of the contribution of domestic labor to goods exported by the Ottoman Empire, it is crucial not to lose sight of this element as a vitally important open problem in economic historiography.

Source: Encyclopedia od Women and Islamic Cultures, vol. 4, Brill, pp. 168-172 (Authors od article: Irvin Cemil Schick and Nilüfer A. Isvan)


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