In the Western imagination, the harem of the Ottoman sultans was a place of sex, slavery, power, and decadence. But for the women and children who inhabited this realm of the imperial palace, the reality was vastly different. Far from being a place of debauchery, the harem was a family home in which polite and refined behavior prevailed.
More than a hundred years ago, western women writers began going to Istanbul, many with the goal of documenting and emancipating the Ottoman women who lived in the harem system. What they found was a surprise – not the bored odalisques of Orientalist painting, but women of intelligence, influence, and noble bearing. In 1908 a social movement was initiated in favor of liberty, equality, and education of women, monogamy and a place for women in public life.
Told in two parts, Hidden World of the Harem resonates with themes of sexual power and liberation in the turbulent collapse of the world’s greatest Islamic empire. This docudrama intercuts between the lives of two women: one a defiant princess seeking personal emancipation, the other a passionate activist fighting for the freedom of her people. Each of their journeys will lead to exile.
Hidden World of the Harem Episode 1: The Sultan’s Women
In 1876 Prince Murad, a democratic leader, is deposed after only 93 days as Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. He will be kept under palace arrest, with his harem of 80 women, children and eunuchs, for the next 28 years. Decades later Filizten, a slave-concubine, provides a detailed account of the years of repression.
Hidden World of the Harem Episode 2: From Empire to Exile
Halide Edib, a daughter of polygamy, defies the sultan in order to receive an education. Divorcing her husband when he takes a second wife, she becomes the champion of the Turkish nation in a crumbling Ottoman Empire. Speaking to a crowd of 200,000 on the eve of war in 1919, she galvanizes the people of Turkey to demand freedom. From the pages of her memoirs, Halide Edib speaks for the rights and education of women around the world.