Kayhan Elbirlik, Leyla

Özyeğin University

Research Title: Ottoman Family, Women, and Marriage in Early Modern Istanbul, 1750–1920

Dr. KayhanElbirlik holds MA and PhD degrees from Harvard University (History and Middle Eastern Studies, 2005 and 2013). Dr. Elbirlik’s most recent publications include “The Emotional Bond between Early Modern Children and Parents: A Case Study of Sünbülzade’s ‘Ideal’ Child” in Children and Childhood in the Ottoman Empire (14th20th Century) (Edinburgh University Press, 2021, edsFruma Zachs and Gülay Yılmaz); “Family and Neighborhood Lives” in Early Modern Istanbul. Brill Companion Series on Early Modern Cities (Brill, 2021, eds. Çiğdem Kafescioğlu and Shirine Hamadeh). Dr. Elbirlik collaborated in the EU Horizon 2020 project entitled PLOTINA during 20162020 at Özyeğin University. She is on the executive board of AMECYS (Association for Middle Eastern Childhood and Youth Studies), SES Equality and Solidarity Association, and a member of MESA (Middle East Studies Association), AHA (American Historical Association), and Global Relations Forum. Dr. Elbirlik received an ARIT-NEH grant in Summer 2020. At ANAMED she is working on her monograph which traces the history of the marital bond and its dissolution between the late eighteenth and early twentieth-century in Ottoman Istanbul. She focuses on exploring the actions of women in court, in their patterns of registering marriage and divorce-related settlements to protect their rights in the public sphere. Dr. Elbirlik is a faculty member at Özyeğin University. 

Click here for the fellow’s Introductory Video…


Fellow’s End of the Academic Year Research Report:

Ottoman Family, Women, and Marriage in Early Modern Istanbul, 1750–1840


This year, an ANAMED Senior Fellowship offered me the time and space that was necessary to prepare a monograph for publication. My research explores the history of the Ottoman family and of women in Istanbul, with a specific focus on the marital bond and its dissolution between 1750 and 1840. In studying the marital records, inheritance deeds, and registration of divorce settlements, I particularly emphasize the economic negotiations that formed the family in the transitional era prior to the founding of the Republic of Turkey. For this project, I am interested mainly in property allocation practices with respect to gender roles both within family and among kin. A close reading of several thousands of court registers and fatwas suggests that marriage was regarded as a means to accumulate and share one’s wealth and social status, providing for some a public reassurance and protection. One could even propose that the contractual basis of the marital union was in its foundation akin to a business transaction that held the conjugal pair jointly responsible for one another.
            My project maintains that women’s increasing visibility and agency in court could be interpreted as a pressing need for the redefinition of the laws regulating relationships within marriage. The autonomy women displayed in court settlements with regard to their economic dealings in marriage and divorce prods us to once again reconsider the social uses and meaning of the law in Ottoman society. To that end, my main research questions concentrate on the way individuals used the court with reference to the marital union. I am curious to establish whether the family in Istanbul has a discernable character/structure during this period. I also question the legal changes that elicited more state involvement in personal status laws to evaluate whether these transformations generated a difference in gender roles within the family.
It is not an easy task to clearly determine the nature of the relationship between men and women in marriage in this society. This is particularly because while women appear to experience many social and legal drawbacks; their entitlement to property ownership, a right that European women did not attain until after the late nineteenth century, complicates certain pre-conceived assumptions regarding the lives of Ottoman women. The frequency of divorce and remarriage in this predominantly Islamic society is another factor that informs my contentions. The precedence of mutual economic interests in marriage and men’s unilateral right to divorce is one way to interpret how a society mainly defined and managed by Islamic codes adjusted to such norms. In fact, until the early twentieth century, the state did not interfere with the laws constituting marriage and divorce.
By consulting the registers of three different courts located in Istanbul between the years 1750 and 1840, using a sample of 42 ledgers, I accumulated basic data as to the nature of divorce and the way it was generally registered in court records. I consult fatwa collections to present a comprehensive portrayal of the legal framework and mentality within which language and text were actively negotiated. Additionally, the inventory of estate records allows the evaluation of inheritance strategies and property allocation practices. The estate records are registers that systematically list the immovable and movable property, as well as the donations, alms, endowments, debts, and loans of the deceased, and outline its allotment among family, kin, and other legal heirs. In my contextualization of marriage and divorce, I incorporate treatises on morals and conduct, encyclopedic and literary compositions, and chronicles of contemporary historians, as well as women’s periodicals from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. These texts provide the essential background for my understanding of the existing social patterns and popular notions with respect to marriage, divorce settlements, and child-rearing practices.
Whereas much family and gender-related research has been conducted in Anatolian cities and in the Arab and Balkan provinces of the empire, very little is known about the subject in Istanbul prior to the legal and administrative Tanzimat reforms in 1839. That said, there is also limited qualitative and quantitative research on the effects of the short-lived Ottoman Law of Family Rights of 1917. My monograph promises to be the first comprehensive research that reflects on the family by evaluating the changing dynamics of the household between the pre-Tanzimat period and the period in which some preliminary modernizing attempts were made by the state in 1917. By expanding my research focus to the early twentieth century, I explore the influence of individual and social agency in pressing for a more systematized approach to personal status laws that affected the family.
In the first part of my monograph, I discuss the legal conceptualization of matrimony pertaining to the nature of the Islamic marriage contract to evaluate its meaning in this particular society.  Specifically, I explore the animate relationship between individuals and the court in the judiciary and extra-judiciary spheres, as well as the court’s intermediary position in terms of its participation in private life to comprehend its involvement in the way the eighteenth-century matrimonial institution was composed and perceived. Given the multitude of registered settlements by men and women regarding the marital union, I argue that the wide-ranging practice of registration in court could be identified as preliminary to the codification of marriage in the following decades.
In the second part, I explore the nature of divorce settlements. I first discuss the two different categories of shari’a divorce as they were commonly practiced in eighteenth-century Istanbul. The thematic discussion of those categories is substantiated by examples of court cases. Secondly, I examine the fatwas with regard to their instructive role in keeping proper conduct. Finally, and most importantly, I identify that a specific court, the Davud Pasha court, had acquired a specialized function regarding the resolution of matrimonial suits and explore how this is reflected in late eighteenth-century Ottoman society. Although the specialization of courts is not the primary concern of this book, the Davud Pasha court’s seeming concentration in marital issues such as divorce- and alimony-related claims is a truly significant phenomenon that has a bearing on the social values and customs, matrimonial patterns, economic affairs, and gender constructions embodied within specific localities of Istanbul during this period.  Perhaps this precise development was the society’s—and especially women’s—response to the successive wars and the social and legal challenges generated by their impact.
In the following section, I examine property allocation practices in marriage. I particularly study the transfer of materials of financial value—including money and immovable property—between the nuptial couple in exchange for, or freedom from, certain rights and responsibilities. I provide detailed definitions of the specific terminology used to discuss property and marriage—namely dower and allowance—to inform the broader discussion of why individuals desired marriage, and possibly remarriage, during this period in Istanbul. I argue that the marital union put women in the center of a network system, equipping them with a sense of empowerment under what could be considered to be tenuous circumstances.
In the final section regarding death and marriage, I address the question of property ownership by women in terms of their involvement and agency in transmission and allocation patterns in marriage. For this reason, in my discussion of women’s activities and practices in managing the transmission of their possessions, I use estate inventories and bequests to corroborate my interpretation of their relationship to property as they were manifested in the archival documents. The primary objective is to depict the level of initiative and administrative control that women asserted, especially with respect to their participation in this era’s innovations.
My research demonstrates that women in Istanbul used a range of sophisticated legal instruments to cope with the requisites of the court. My exploration of marriage and divorce in Ottoman Istanbul has three main objectives. The first and principal one elucidates the importance of the agency of women seeking justice and defending their rights in court and their applications of strategies to circumvent certain laws that worked against their interest in matrimony. My second objective addresses a blatant gap in the history of the Ottoman family.  Drawing on the court records and estate inventories of Istanbul, this study focuses in depth on a wide range of matrimony-related cases in order to create a collage that depicts a portrait of the family in the capital city of the empire. I am deeply indebted to ANAMED for supporting my book project, which I aim to bring to completion in the near future.