Marriage customs of Ottoman Turks

We North Americans have a tendency to throw our hands up in holy horror at the idea of a marriage including multiple wives. But we think nothing of a series of spouses – gained through divorce and remarriage. I find myself wondering how that is any better than the allowances Mohammed and his Koran made for Muslim men.

In my discussions with my Muslim students in my English classes, both the men and the women made it clear that the Koran’s allowance for multiple wives still had limits. A Muslim man can only take a maximum of four women as wife. There was the additional limitation of “only if he could support that many.” An undercurrent of opinion among the women included  their expectation of an evaluation by their fathers and brothers of their suitor. Each woman expected her father and/or brothers to make sure the suitor could provide for her and any children that came, especially if she was to be the second, third, or fourth wife.

In researching the situation for girls in Ottoman Turkey for my historical fiction Lavash: What Armenians ate if they could get it, I discovered that the person who usually initiated the process of finding a bride was a Turk’s mother, not the young man himself. His mother went from house to house to observe the daughters who dressed in their best to serve such a matronly guest. When the mother found a girl she liked she would approach her husband about her choice of bride for her son. Then the men of both families would make the arrangements for the marriage. Most of the time, the groom and the bride never saw each other before the day of the wedding. The young man had little say about who he married. And, unlike her Armenian counterpart, a Turkish girl had NO say in who she married. A fatalistic attitude mostly likely commandeered her mind.

A Turkish girl in the time of the Ottoman Empire had a maximally prescribed life. Her brothers monitored the modesty of her dress and did whatever they could to ensure her chastity. A girl’s contacts outside the family’s home were limited, rarely at her discretion.

Even in the days of the Ottoman Empire, a young Turk was allowed by his religion to take “a woman of the Book” to wife. Since “the Book” is a reference to the Bible, that meant a Muslim man could marry a Christian wife. Given the customs of bridal selection, it is doubtful that any marriage in Ottoman Turkey between a Turkish man and an Armenian girl was accomplished through her or her family’s choice. It would have been by force, usually through a kidnapping.

In Ottoman Turkey, then, neither a kidnapped Armenian nor a Turkish girl had any opportunity to set the general course of her life. Were girls simply cattle to be bred? To be disposed of as the men around them saw fit? This treatment of women was demeaning then and a direct indictment to this day of the soul-lessness of Islam – whenever it decides to relegate half of the world’s population to the status of cattle.

As “a woman of the Book,” I read the following, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them” (Genesis 1:27). From that sentence and other passages of the Bible, I understand that both men AND women are living souls.

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