The Sultan had many wives, which was common of the time. This practice of have more than one wife is known as polygyny. Many of these wives came from (or were taken from) faraway places, which therefore created a diverse environment of women from many different ethnic, religious and social backgrounds. The place where these women lived and gathered was special part of the imperial household known as the harem.
The head of this part of the household was a very powerful woman who was the mother of the sultan; she became known as the “Queen Mother.” Generally, the Queen Mother was respected and admired by all members of the harem including the other wives and eunuchs who lived there. The Queen mother had political prowess too. It was common practice for the Queen Mother to recommend political appointments and settle disputes. Typically, her powers impacted society outside of the harem walls and beyond. The most famous of these women is one extraordinarily powerful woman, known as Hurrem and in the West she became known as “Roxelana.”
Hurrem was married to Suleiman, who was sultan that ruled during the Ottoman “Golden Age.” She eventually became a “valide sultan” or a regent who acted in place of the Sultan. This rise to power, however, is not a heroine’s story from what our sources indicate. Hurrem was born a slave, and she later became a concubine to the Sultan. It’s said that they fell in love and later married as result. Later, the two had a son named Selim. After a child was born this became the most important job of the women of the sultanate to ensure the success of their son, who they hoped would be a future heir to the throne. Hurrem perhaps took this responsibility to an extreme. As I mentioned before, the sultan had many wives and each wife strove to become a powerful “Queen Mom.” Hurrem was so determined that she ousted a rising sultan from his position, by planting the seeds of revolt around the imperial palace. Hurrem’s scandal proved to be successful and the young, aspiring sultan was replaced (and killed*) by her son, Selim, who became sultan after Mehmet II. In case you are wondering why this other son died, it’s because under Mehmet II, the Ottomans adopted a policy of fratricide or the killing of brothers. While this sort of practice would be condemned in our world today, in the past, Ottoman rulers, like Mehmet, saw this as an important way to sustain the royal Dynasty and ensure that the throne’s successor would not be contested.
This type of temporary rule, similar to a regent, was a tolerated practice in other societies, too. For example, Irene an 8th century Byzantine Queen ruled in place of her son, who was only ten years old at the time, or five years after her husband died. She even ordered that her own son be blinded in order to disqualify him as emperor, so that she could inherit the legislative powers of the throne. Although she signed legislation twice, most empresses did follow in Irene’s harsh and cruel rule.
Food for thought: I'm curious to hear what you believe about these powerful women and what their achievements and rise to power mean. Are they recognizable "achievements" or are they cruel ruthless examples of how powerful women acted during this time? What kinds of narratives can we use in place of these cruel and reckless empress stories? Do you think we give equal attention both powerful men and women? Is there different treatment towards men who behave cruelly, do we accept them differently, do you? Share your thoughts , please.