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Children, Family, and State: Evolving Conceptions of Childhood in the Ottoman Empire

Panel I-16, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, November 2 at 3:00 pm

Panel Description
This panel aims at historicizing the conception of the family and children vis-à-vis the state. It examines the evolution of the role that political power played in the lives of children, which went from minimum interference to a major intervention to oversee and regulate children’s lives. It also analyzes the development of new norms defining the family, including the relationship between the state, (or stateless) power, and children both in social and legal terms. Presentations cover an array of interconnected topics in chronological order. Participants will start with an analysis of the lives of young slaves who had to navigate a unique and, at times, tense Cypriot society with a blend of several cultures and confessions. The following presentation gives a closer look at the state/notables’ relationship manifested through cases documenting the incarceration by the state of minor males associated with the notables which is revealed in the collection of iltizām (tax-farming) contracts from Ottoman Tripoli. Also explored are times when the role of the state was noticeably absent or minimized. For the emerging Protestant community in mid-nineteenth century Beirut, transnational family networks and personal relations played more important roles in shaping the definition of the family during the period of significant legal transformation in the late nineteenth century. Again in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Beirut, marital conflicts and personal disputes in addition to women’s strategies in court within the context of legal and economic change will also be discussed. The presentations will conclude with an analysis of the role of childcare institutions as intermediaries between families and the state as well as spaces for the reproduction of power and interest relations amongst various political and religious actors in the last decades of the Ottoman Empire. This panel’s presentations are based on research conducted in different parts of the Ottoman Empire and the new Republic of Turkey and use various types of archival resources including registers from shari‘a courts, church and missionary records, state archives in addition to publications such as consular records, periodicals, and memoirs.
  • The age of Tanzimat was a turning point in the policies of the Ottoman state toward the younger subjects of the Empire. The state-led modernization culminated in a bureaucratic system modeled after the European states which made children and youth more visible within Ottoman society and state. This visibility was manifested by the establishment of state institutions to care for the children, which was a major departure from the state’s practices in the late eighteenth century. Using evidence from the sijillat (the shari‘a court registers) of the province of Tripoli, I argue that the Ottoman state was preoccupied with its social and political stability and economic interests and consequently turned a blind eye to ensure the “well-being” of its young Ottoman subjects. Iltizām contracts (tax farming) were annually executed between multazims (tax-farmers) and representatives of the state and were recorded in the sijillat. Between 1750 to1800, these contracts document an institutionalized practice by the state to incarcerate young and minor males associated with the families or clans of multazims to lure the latter to render payment of taxes. Multazims voluntarily turned in their male minor relatives to be incarcerated in government’s dungeons (in the citadels of Tripoli and Arwad) until commitment to collect taxes and render them to the state were fulfilled. Multazims agreed to the incarceration of their own minor sons, sons of their extended family members and clan, and children of inhabitants of nāhiyas where taxes were collected. Nuances to the state’s endeavor to maintain the ghibta (happiness) of children in cases pertaining to personal disputes, were completely absent in iltizām contracts. Minor males were thus caught between family and state; they were indeed Ottoman subjects but not always subjects of concern. This paper also attempts to explore what this forced incarceration meant for the agency of these minors. The ambiguity about the practice leaves many questions unanswered, namely the duration of incarceration and the proximity to the minors' family's residence. Incarceration of Tripolitan minors at the citadel of Arwad (modern-day Syria), must have limited family visitations taking into consideration the arduous journey between Tripoli and Arwad, even by today’s standards. Toward the last quarter of 18th-century, the registers demonstrate that this incarceration completely disappeared as a result of changes in the relations between multazims and the state though the fate of previously incarcerated minors remains unknown.
  • The wars, massacres, migrations, and epidemics in the Ottoman Empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries caused charity and philanthropy activities to come to the fore more than ever before, and childcare institutions like orphanages and industrial schools established by different political and religious factions served to recruit many orphaned and destitute children. Academic studies analyzing the emergence and spread of these institutions have analytically and methodologically remained within the boundaries of official discourse, which tended to foreground compassion, generosity, and humanity. Thus, they ignore their complex and intricate stories and their specific historicity. My paper addresses how childcare institutions can be conceptualized as one possible domain in which new techniques of discipline and surveillance mechanisms were carried out, power and interest relations were reproduced, and complex and contradictory politics between political and religious factions were created, legitimated, and challenged. It argues that these institutions were an important part of historical relationships and dramatic transformations. I present my argument by analyzing the history of an exemplary state orphanage, Dârüleytâm-ı Osmânî (the Ottoman Orphanage), established in Adana in the early 1900s for Armenian children orphaned due to the Adana massacres of 1909. My paper relies heavily on primary sources, including Ottoman archival documents, missionary and consul records, memoirs, and periodicals. While mapping out the distinctive roles of political and religious actors, such as Ottoman Armenians, local officials, and missionaries, I show that the Ottoman Orphanage became an important institution at the nexus of competition among different political and religious factions as they sought to legitimize their respective policies and that the history of the orphanage was part of the dramatic social, economic, and political changes taking place in the late Ottoman period. Through detailing the partnerships, disputes, and conflicts between different groups that emerged in discussion over the administration and control of the orphanage, I argue that this orphanage was established for control, surveillance, and a desire to raise “good Ottoman citizens” from Armenian children. In a broader context, my paper reflects upon the role of childcare institutions as concrete examples of the formation of identity, sovereignty, and capitalist processes. I believe that studying childcare institutions can contribute to our understanding of these significant issues in the context of the Middle East.
  • My paper analyzes entries that appear in the sijills of the shari’ah court in Beirut between 1875 and 1914 in which wives, while still married to their husbands, appeared in court to demand at least one of the following: maintenance, a legal residence (maskan shar’i), and/or the rest of their prompt dower. In addition, some women also claimed that their husbands were refusing to relinquish their private belongings. In all cases, husbands and wives, while still married, were in fact separated. The analysis of the entries is grounded in the overall context of economic and legal change, and focuses on the strategies women used, and the extent to which they were successful in their demands. I argue, based on the evidence I gather from the entries that I discuss at length in my paper, that women in late-Ottoman Beirut, like their counterparts in other parts of the late Ottoman Empire, were knowledgeable of their rights under shari’ah, and of the ways in which they could use the law to their advantage.
  • Following World War 1, the unprecedented increase in the number of orphaned children challenged the Ottoman state to reorganize the institutions offering social welfare to children. Large numbers of orphaned and displaced children resulted in the reallocation of responsibilities from the state to intermediary charity organizations such as the Children’s Protection Society. The political rivalry on owning the future (future read as children) also led to an evolving conception of a family, where children belonged to their nation-state rather than their parents. In 1917, following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the Children’s Protection Society was established to provide social welfare and relief to large numbers of children and women. By 1946, the CPS had more than 700 centers and 13,336,000 publications with articles from famous public figures on childrearing. The CPS did not only replace Ottoman imperial forms and institutions providing welfare to children but also played an instrumental role in the social engineering of the newly established Republic of Turkey. Through its centers at the local level and its publications at the national, the CPS acquired an intermediary role not only between the Ottoman past and the Republican present, but also between the political authorities, the child, and the mother. This paper will locate the growing concern for the protection of children and the establishment of the Children’s Protection Society (1917) in the aftermath of World War 1. I explore the ways in which the war and international rivalries opened a new space for the emergence of multiple claims on children, founded on new scientific discourses that perceived children as vulnerable creatures in need of societal protection. I argue that the CPS, with its unprecedented structure, displays shifting patterns in the patronage of charity, and the definition of humanitarianism in the Ottoman- Turkish context. This paper will also try to map the intellectual debates among the CPS’s administrative team, who were mostly politicians and doctors, and the various opinions they offer for (what they refer to as) ‘the Child Question.”
  • A few months after her arrival to Beirut, American Protestant missionary Catherine DeForest wrote a note to her brother-in-law, a merchant in New York, requesting that various items be sent to her from the United States. This included “Two Muslin dresses for Khozma [Witwat] and Lulu [Shibly] to be alike.” Although only an addendum to a longer letter, this note, requesting American-made dresses for the two “adopted” girls living in Catherine’s home, illuminates the forging of a complex transnational family network that linked Catherine, her husband Henry, their families in the United States, with her new “missionary family” on the field, the young girls who resided in the DeForest household, and the students of the DeForest Female Seminary in Beirut during the mid-19th century. Drawing upon research of personal correspondences, Mission Church records, and the Sijil of the Syrian Protestant Church, my paper investigates the complexities over what defined a transnational family residing in Ottoman Beirut during the mid-19th century, the relationship between members and their varying embodiments of power, and different perceptions of this family by its members and of their position within it. It will focus specially on the experiences of three children in the family: Charles Smith, the child of another missionary couple who was placed in the care of the DeForests after the death of his mother, and Kozma Witwat and Lulu Shibly, two Syrian children who were “adopted” by Catherine and Henry and lived in the family during the DeForests residency in Ottoman Syria. In addition to highlighting the central, but often overlooked role of extended family relations in missionary encounters, this study will explore the complexities of developing and defining families, as social and legal relationships, within a new religious community in the Ottoman Empire, the Protestant community, that was only legally recognized as an independent millet in 1850. Exploring the transnational DeForest Family thus offers a unique insight into family life during a dynamic period of encounter and social transformation in the Ottoman Empire of the mid-19th century, as experienced by American and Syrian members of this hybrid family, and during a period when the state had minimal role in defining and regulating families amongst Christian communities during the era of legal transformation of the Tanzimat.