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What Odalık Embodies?

Words by Seda Öznal

Visuals by BORA

Hi! How are you?


Client: Hi! How are you?

Therapist: Hi.

The therapist smiles half-heartedly as the client feels uncomfortable

that her question was not answered. The silence makes the client even more uncomfortable, so she speaks impatiently with the first thought that crosses her mind.

C: Were you able to read the book abstract I sent you last week? Your thoughts on it are important to me because this research has been going on for a few years now, and I'm so excited to see it in the format of a book.

T: I can see that the odalık theme takes up a lot of space in your mind. It must be very important to you.

[The therapist looks at her notes. The client, disappointed by the shortness of the therapist's answer, tries desperately to change the topic.]

C: Well, Karabasan1 paid me another visit last night... Yeah,

I know it actually doesn't exist, but I don't know how else to refer to it. Guess I can say sleep paralysis instead, but I don't know; I'm used to this, and it's just more natural. This time I was in a room, and all four walls were getting closer to me as I inhaled the air in the room. I was completely trapped, no way out. Hate that feeling of helplessness...

T: How did you get out of it and wake up this time?

C: Same as always. I forced myself to say "anne"2 out loud so that I can wake up hearing my own voice. But it took so long this time. Trying so hard to scream, it was suffocating.

T: But you can't really breathe when screaming, can you?

Sexual slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries played a critical role in the imperial governance and elite social reproduction of the Ottoman Empire. The main sources of slaves were war captives of conquered lands, generally of Christian origin. "Cariye," the name given to female slaves who were all young girls, mostly Circassians, Syrians, and Nubians, and sold at the slave markets of Istanbul. Some would become servants, and some would "advance" to become sexual servants. Odalık (odalisque in French form, also transliterated as odahlic, odalisk, and odaliq) was a label given to a selected virgin cariye who was entitled to serve her master sexually (very similar to concubinage). What is critically disregarded throughout the historical narrative is how the origin of the word odalık in Turkish is both architecturally and sexually charged. Etymologically, "oda" meaning room and "-lık" a suffix expressing function, together signify odalık as "for the room" or "which belongs to the room," and almost connotes fixed furniture. While an odalık's status is defined by the space she is assigned to, the space is also carved around her. As she moves from the slave market to a harem and then to a room, her body spatializes the historical context in many ways. Since the 19th century, she has been at the nexus of history, clouded in misrepresentations and misinterpretations that are directly tied to body-space-politics. It is critical to expose pre-existing representations of odalık, and reveal the paradoxically historical yet fictional enforcement of ideas to set her free from the constructed roles.

C: Umm...Karabasan... I don't quite understand why this is

happening to me at random times like this. Also not so sure if it's triggered

physically or psychologically. Like was it something I had for dinner?

T: Is it really that random?

[Short silence as the client looks at the ceiling as if trying to remember

something. The therapist calmly continues.]

T: Don't you think it's almost symbolic that you're experiencing

this considering what's happening in your life right now? I mean, we've

been talking about belonging, being an immigrant and what that entails,

and what it means to go back home… for a while now.

[The client takes a moment to digest that. Not just what the therapist

meant but that she was unexpectedly straightforward about it.]

C: Hmm. Maybe. It's a similar feeling of being at Araf3,

actually. But I feel that way in both circumstances. When I'm here, as an

immigrant, no matter how much I adapt, I never feel I completely belong

here. Well, New York is never helpful in that way, haha. But I get a similar

feeling when I travel back home too. It's quite weird that I feel that way.

At times I even feel guilty. At the end of the day, it's the geography that I

was born and bred in. It's where I crafted my identity through its language,

culture, and representation. But every time I go back, I feel more and more

like a stranger. So it's like a neither/nor situation, where I just don't belong

at all. Or I only belong in Araf. And that's a subtle suffocating feeling that

is constantly present... Like Karabasan in that way.

Even though sexual slavery played an important role in the imperial

government and the elite social reproduction of the Ottoman

Empire, odalık is yet to be a widely researched topic in present-

day Turkey. On the contrary, the West has been more fruitful

in studying odalık, albeit from a point of view that strips odalık

from her spatial context and positions her as a fetishized object

instead, and in doing so creates a different type of discourse that

centers around her exotic body. From the Western perspective,

harem provokes a certain fascination in the European imagination,

likely related to fetishizing of the power structure.4 Whether

Orientalist art has been used as an instrument for reformulating

the Orient to keep the relative upper hand as Said suggests5, or it

produced cultural proximity, religious intimacy, and historical correspondence,

Orientalism is a strategic misreading of a positional

superiority. This desire of domination that merged with Foucault's

Scientia Sexualis in the nineteenth century produces a type of

psychosexual colonialism over the Orient and gets eroticized by

the upper hand, the Occident. Ali Behad sees it as "nothing but

a phantasm, a purely fictional construction onto which Europe's

own sexual repressions, erotic fantasies, and desires of domination

were projected." On this note, one might consider the odalık

to be one of the most obvious products of this phantasmic misreading.

Western male artists and writers produced descriptive

renderings and detailed narratives to capture the unattainable

odalık and her life in the harem—a space that was completely

forbidden to the Western male gaze. As they delineated the

space they have never been to and the body they've never seen,

these artists produced historical documents completely based

on speculation and fantasy. Odalık found herself trapped by the

19th-century Romantic painters' serpentine lines. From Ingres

(La Grande Odalisque, 1814) to Delacroix (Odalisque, 1825),

and later from Manet (Odalisque, 1868) to Matisse (Odalisque

couch.e aux magnolias, 1923) and Picasso (Odalisque au coussin,

plate 40, 1970), European artists have shaped a discourse

around her mystical body. The desire to possess, name, dissect

her conquered the most sacred, private, forbidden. The canvas

is as long as the reclining body as this Venus-esque figure defines

the boundaries of the composition. There's hardly any space

left to portray the mythological setting she is in, which is ironic

because there can't be an 'odalisque' without an oda. It is now

clear that both the identity of the female and the feminine space

in these paintings are constructs of gender politics and power

relations of that specific moment in time in a male-dominated

society. These spaces that are created according to socio-cultural

and socio-economic structures of the time were male imposed

femininity, while the female body was also re-spatialized according

to the roles and images patriarchal ideology had assigned.

T: I know we talked about this in different ways but what

exactly stops you from feeling that you belong in New York?

C: It's the temporality. New York makes sure to remind you that

you don't belong.

T: How about that New Yorker who told you that you are "the

most New Yorker" person he knows? He thought that you fit in the city

just right. What did he see in you that you don't?

C: You see, that sentence had all the contradictions in it. Maybe

the more you don't belong, the more of a New Yorker you are. It's that

temporality that makes New York New York.

T: So being an immigrant is part of this temporality, and

temporality is what makes New York New York?

C: I guess... but that sometimes becomes my identity. I

mean, being an immigrant. [Stops to swallow that sentence fully and

find a good example that could support her argument.] Sometimes I

see myself in a crowd talking all about my nationality on and on... Ugh.

How annoying! I find it super awkward and even pretentious. Because

I never see my nationality as the most important part of my identity...

What I mean is that here, it's as if my nationality is the only interesting

thing about me, the only thing that I can share that's unique. Which is

nonsense. I am beyond my nationality, just like everybody else. Hate to

be "that girl from Turkey." I don't even know what I represent exactly.

But the person who is allowing that label to define me is also me.

Odalık serves as a fruitful concept for creating a discourse on the

marginalization of space and the contextualization of the other.

It is also one of the many examples of patriarchal colonial forces

configuring space through gender to construct their own identities.

When colonialism is viewed through the lens of space and

gender, it can be observed that the conquest of and the occupation

of space becomes contextualized through the female body.

In this representation, while the exploitation and the colonial are

coded as masculine, the exploited and the colonized are coded

as feminine. It is curious to note that when this approach is regarded

from a linguistic perspective, it can be seen that different

languages define space through the same approach. Representations

in the West gender spaces as feminine and subsequently

the colonized spaces are also defined with sexuality and nudity9.

Irvin Cemil Schick discusses the sexualization of geography

under the topics of 'Representing a Foreign Place as a Paradise

for Sexuality,' 'The Imagery of the Other as Actively Sexual with

Everything,' 'Representation of the Female Other as a Threat,'

'Representation of the Male Other as Feminine and Womanly,'

and the 'Representation of the Female Other as a Victim of Rape.'

When analyzing the discourse that belongs to colonialist powers,

a discourse that gendered and sexualized the 'other,' it can

be observed that colonialist powers legalized and justified their

governance of the other while constructing their own identities

within that space. An example of this, which was a popular motif

amongst the supporters of colonialism, was the anthropomorphic

approach of naming unexplored places "virgin" lands. This

motif allowed colonists to use gender and sexuality to legalize

their use of violence for the sake of bringing civilization to "virgin"

lands. Meyda Yeğenoğlu (2005) studies the colonialist discourse

surrounding the bodies of Muslim women and states that every

act working towards constructing a norm is primarily centered

around the phallus. Yeğenoğlu suggests that this is the underlying

force that dictates the colonialists' desire to unveil the hijab, niqab,

or the burqa of Muslim women. She further notes that her use of

the phrase "being phallus centered" isn't to define the pressure

put by men on women but rather to define the construct built

around the execution of legal practices by a single side only, the

masculine10. The construction process of any norm—the norm

that is erected—can be examined from multiple perspectives: the

exploration of virgin lands, the exploitation of culture, the penetration

of households, and the taming of women's bodies. Odalık

serves as a rich historical concept that makes this investigation

possible on a multitude of layers.

T: "That girl from Turkey." So your gender is the other half of

what defines you?

C: I guess, and I kinda wish it didn't.

[The client is now in complete silence. For the first time, it's not because

she doesn't know how to express herself, but on the contrary, it is the

stability of her thoughts. Reading this stability on the client's face, the

therapist looks startled.]

T: What do you mean by that?

C: Don't get me wrong please, I absolutely love being a

woman outside the male gaze and patriarchal constructs. But it's

impossible to live without those; they are so ingrained in our daily lives, in

our culture, in our language…It is hard to be conceived as a woman at first

glance because it puts you in immediate danger... just like the gender of

the person behind you decides whether or not to be scared when walking

down the street by yourself. I hate it when being a woman means...

you have to tell someone you have a boyfriend to be left alone, you're

interested in someone just because you engaged in conversation. It's

the small things and it's everywhere. I'm sure you're very much aware.

The harem (Arabic: ميرح†harīm11) proves very resourceful when

we want to observe and think about the spatial representation of

gender stereotypes in society. The harem symbolizes both a segregated

holy and domestic space for Muslim women and a community

of women belonging to noble families. Contrary to popular

belief, the harem isn't bound by strict physical and social borders.

Instead, the domestic space is separated into public areas with

designated areas for different gatherings. This molds the harem

into a dynamic space beyond mere sexual associations as it becomes

a gendered domain. The grandiose harem of the Ottoman

Empire consisted of the wives of the Sultan secluded from the

public eye, their servants (cariyes and hanımağa), relatives of the

women, and the concubines (odalık). At its foundation, this establishment

had a strictly hierarchical organization, and as a symbol

of the Sultan's limitless masculine power; the harem had a say

on the domestic and foreign matters of the Ottoman Empire by

playing a pivotal social role in the Ottoman judicial court (divan).

Despite the fact that it was a feminine space, one must not forget

that the harem was controlled by masculine power. The repetitive

paradox belonging to patriarchies—seeing women either

as powerless beings that must be pitied or as powerful beings

that must be feared—was also present in the notion of the harem.

In her book Unveiling the Harem, Mary Fay approaches the

perception of the harem as secluded from society "...the harem

shouldn't be conceptualized as a closed physical space, and the

women of the harem shouldn't be regarded as being placed in a

household that they cannot escape. On the contrary, the harem

should be understood as a notion engraved into the bodies of the

women due to the effects of their movement in a vacant space

which affects both the interior and the exterior of the harem. What

convinced me to hold this approach towards the harem was the

organization and the architecture of the rooms of the harem. Most

importantly the use of mashrabiyya; the men only being allowed

to have a single hall at the entry-level for themselves as opposed

to women owning most of the whole household space." This approach

recognizes the harem as a space created by women for

themselves with their own bodies as opposed to defining the harem

as a place of limitations. By leaving a trace within the space

through the movement of her body, the woman demands this

space and claims it for herself. As a result, the harem goes beyond

the concept of a mere physical space provided to women

and becomes re-conceptualized through the traces women leave

within the space.

[The therapist repeats the last word the client has used.]

T: "Aware." When or where are you more aware of your...

[The client does not wait to hear the last word "gender" to reply.]

C: When I'm back home. I feel more aware of my body to

start with but in the most toxic way, not in a healthy way. I feel more

aware of the size of my body. The first thing people tell me after saying

hello is whether I gained or lost weight. Many girls who live abroad

go on a diet the month before they travel home for a vacation. How

stupid is that, Right? [She tries to see some type of affirmation in the

therapist's eyes but can't get any.] What else, hmm… Awareness of the

way I move my body. So many things could be "inappropriate" for a girl.

Also, the amount of skin I show; you can't really wear shorts in public

transportation cause it might be "triggering" for someone. It's as if it's

the society that owns the sovereignty of my body. And the space around

it where I feel comfortable is getting smaller and smaller... It wasn't

always like this, you know...

[Complete silence. The therapist has her "I empathize with you, and I'm

also sad" face on. The client appreciates the effort, although she never

brings it up.]

C: Well, all that and also waking up to news of another

femicide almost every day. Knowing that over three thousand five

hundred women have been killed in the last 14 years and just feeling

helpless with that knowledge embedded in my head. [She takes a deep

breath, knowing no breath could be deep enough to digest that.] And that

right there is the real awareness deep down women have to deal with.

I remember someone saying, "Being a woman in Turkey is hard; dying a

woman, however, is easy."

[Short silence]

C: Huh.

T: What's that?

C: I was just thinking how tragicomic it is that all I'm talking

about is social troubles during my very own private therapy session.

Cause that's the core of my reality, and it's at that level where it is


Throughout the course of history, both the West and the East

used art, religion, and politics to represent the harem as powerless.

The West uses weakened representations to create a narrative

around the women, which reinforce a negative approach

towards them by using clich.s such as adulterous wives, neglectful

mothers, perverse lesbians, gossiping sisters, lazy narcissists,

exotic prostitutes, jealous enemies, wasteful consumers, and children

with precocious sexual development.12 The East characterizes

this narrative of livelihood as a sort of imprisonment; feeding

into the notion that not much beyond a general sense of freedom

lies for the women who are bound within the limits of domesticity

and devalues the woman in the harem by taking advantage of

the religious loopholes when analyzing this context. The myth of

a monolithic and rigidly oppressive Islam also helped solidify the

narrative of the West over odalık. According to Islamic laws, men

were allowed to have four legal wives and a countless number

of cariyes. Yet, the concept of cariyelik (concubinage) was more

widespread than legal polygamy in the Ottoman Empire. While

the Qur'an advised men to treat their cariyes 14 with respect and

urged them to legally marry them, it also advised married Muslim

men against pursuing sexual relations with their cariyes. The fact

that these laws were open to interpretation in Muslim societies

caused Islam to be put under pressure within the narrative created

by the West and helped create the conviction that Islam was

the driving force for underdeveloped societies. As both the West

and the East interpreted Islam accordingly with what best suited

their interests, religious notions were used to restrict the odalık.

Yet, reviewing the harem solely as a product of religious loopholes

would be a and overly simplified perspective for handling

it. An important point to make here is that Muslim women re-instilled

restrictions resulting from centuries of oppression—be it

spatial, political, social, or economic—as they attempted to use

it to their own advantage. The way in which these women molded

spatial structures in their surroundings as a result of the rules

dictated upon them never became a topic of interest for the East

or the West. Women were not treated as subjects beyond the

sexualization and the abstraction of their bodies. Yet, in reality, the

harem serves as one of the best examples as to how the presence

of women can transform a spatial abstraction into a fortified and

wholly integrated area 15. Viewing the harem solely as an erotically

charged space embodying erotic bodies is the natural consequence

of institutionalized male proprietorship.

[The client gazes off into space, thoughts scattered around.]

T: So...what else constructs your identity?

C: Ugh. [laughs] Umm… according to my ID, I'm Muslim.

But I don't think that defines me much because I don't practice it. You

could even say I know more about Judaism. [laughs again, reluctantly

this time] But I'm trying to educate myself because I'm from a Muslimmajority

country, and it's getting harder to empathize with other citizens

as political Islam takes over. I'm trying to make that differentiation in my

mind very clearly, I mean, being an Islamist and a Muslim. I'm currently

taking a class about feminism and Islam. I am doing this not just because

of my research about odalık but also to understand that intersectionality

and to break down the wrong interpretations of Islam embedded in our

culture. What is the role of secular activists in Muslim society anyway?

When there's a tendency of reducing women into one dimension of their

lives, whether it's giving birth or housework or their body or their clothes...

There are so many diverse modalities of being a woman! It's not fair that

society fails to conceptualize women's status in society as a historically

evolving phenomenon. 16

[The therapist looks puzzled, so the client has the immediate urge to


C: I'm sorry, I guess I'm just babbling and way off topic.

T: It still is along our discussion of labels. However, I'd like to

anchor all this to you moving back home.

The gender identity roles attributed to women and the space that

they exist in are products of servitude towards male power and

male supremacy. The fantasized body of the odalık and her private

pictorial space cannot be imagined separately. It becomes

impossible to differentiate whether it is the subject's sexuality

that defines the spatiality or vice versa. As the body of the odalık

creates a space within a space, it is subject to infinite misconceptions.

It is not just the word odalık that suggests this sexual

and architectural overlap but the nature of the body, space, and

politics that can never be distilled from one another. Beatriz Colomina

explains this notion by suggesting that we abandon approaching

traditional architecture as an object. She suggests

that when approaching architecture, we should see it as being

handled by independent subjects and beyond the limits of its

existence that is defined by how a body experiences space and

adds that "the body should be viewed as the product of political

structure and representational systems instead of being defined

by the tools that it encounters." 17 Within this context, the limits of

the obedient odalık's body, the limits of any room, and the limits

of this particular and irrelevant room: all surpass the political, the

religious, and the power relations. One must not forget odalık's

body and blurring the boundaries of the room that she belongs

in (her bedroom) by charging the room with erotic content is an

approach that is the product of a patriarchal society. Madeline

Zilfi's research on women slaves during the late Ottoman Empire

period states: "The institutionalization of female disadvantage

through gender segregation, discriminatory labor practices,

physical sequestering and the exclusion of women from venues

of publicly recognized authority, fell most heavily on young marriageable

women. The fecund female was essential to the patriarchal

society. Her sexuality nonetheless posed a threat to patriarchal

order and its female-centered notions of honor, hence the

institutionalization of male ownership of women's reproductive

capacities through marriage and concubinage." 18

[The therapist rephrases what she just said into a question.]

T: How do you see all this projected on your feelings about

moving back home?

[The client doesn't like being outsmarted, of course, and she is well

aware of the "projections." She feels challenged and ready to fight.]

C: It's all about the variety of freedoms I need to give up on.

Starting with my body, I feel trapped; the size, the clothes, the gender.

Oh! There's a curfew because of COVID-19 back home, which means

I'll be stuck within four walls. Probably I'll have no personal space, cause

I'll be moving back in with my parents. And personal space is not even

a thing in our culture! And beyond all this physical entrapment, my

thoughts are not only being valued but could be easily prisoned like those

of many academics. Not that long ago, I received notes from my editor

saying we should censor a whole paragraph of an article. You know what

I did? Instead of removing it, I extended the paragraph into a whole new

chapter. I gave it its own space to breathe. I carved my way around it. But

it gets tiring. I find myself censoring my own thoughts at times. I want

to scream, but I find myself voiceless. I want to protest, but my lungs are

filled with pepper spray. So yes, I am well aware of the projections!

[The client is out of breath, looks directly at the eyes of the therapist. She

feels tired. The therapist takes a deep breath, perhaps in the hopes of

taking all that in at once. After a short silence, she exhales.]

T: An odalık. Is that what you will become when you move

back home?

[The therapist takes a minute for the client to sit with that. The client's

eyes look frozen.]

In history, gender stereotypes and sexuality have both been represented

and conceptualized through the parameters of a male

approach. It is critical that these norms, which have made their

place in cultural memory, language, social order, and political

framework, are rebuilt, and that experiences are unveiled, and

the construct of the current environment is examined and reconstructed.

Understanding gender roles through their socio-spatial

relation and urging towards a discourse that reconstructs the

concept within theoretical, historical, and critical debates carries

an urgency, especially in light of rapidly-changing modern-day

life. Odalık is one of many concepts that need to be revisited,

re-examined, and reconstructed. In odalık's case, the social order

which misinterprets the body of the odalık from the perspective

of the West or of the East, for the sake of Islam or any religion,

and this social order which de-contextualizes and fetishizes the

harem will continue to perpetuate as long as male dominant socio-

spatial relations continue to exist. Yet, women have always

been able to carve a space for themselves within the physical and

philosophical limitations put forth by antithetical ideologies. As

the West over-simplifies truths and the East exaggerates truths,

all defined borders will keep changing as women attempt to

construct their own realities. The silenced body of the odalık will

continue to remain an enigma lost within contradictory images

and imaginaires.19 She is either all the contradictory statements

that she has come to represent, or she represents nothing and

thus stands as something beyond our grasp of understanding.

The odalık stands at the crux of all these narratives, starting with

the borders of her confined room and expanding towards the limitations

exercised by religion, tradition, and politics and that she

defies all of them by keeping her truth to herself.