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Eric Dursteler



Offprint from the Journal of Mediterranean Studies Vol. 16, No. 1/2 (103112)

Mediterranean Institute University of Malta

Journal of Mediterranean Studies, 2006

ISSN: 1016-3476

Muslim Renegade Women

Vol. 16, No. 1/2: 103112


ERIC DURSTELER Brigham Young University
During the early modern era, the island of Milos was an important crossroads for travellers, merchants and corsairs. In 1637, the galleasses of the Venetian fleet docked in the port, and took on four passengers, a widow and her three daughters. The eldest daughter was married to the kadi, the islands most important Ottoman official. Dissatisified with her marriage, and fearful of being compelled to move to her husbands next posting, she and the other women fled to the Venetian stronghold of Corfu. There they all converted to Christianity, and married or entered monasteries. In traversing the frontier between Venice and the Ottoman Empire, and between Christianity and Islam, these women were able to resolve complex personal issues, and therefore exert a degree of agency, which would not have been possible without crossing political and religious boundaries.

In late March 1637, the galleasses of the Venetian Mediterranean fleet docked in the port of the small Ottoman island of Milos. Captained by Pietro Mocenigo, the fleet was charged with keeping the sea lanes of the Adriatic and beyond safe for Venetian and Ottoman shipping, a weighty task given the threats that seemed to lurk in every inlet. The arrival of ships from all corners of the Mediterranean was a regular occurrence in the protected port of the island which, because of its propitious location as the western gateway to the Cyclades, had been since antiquity a regular port of call for travellers, merchants, pilgrims and corsairs.1 During the early modern era, the island was less a destination than a convenient place to replenish supplies on the way to somewhere else, usually nearby Crete, Cyprus, Constantinople, or some other important Levantine port. Before the demographic decline of the later seventeenth century, Milos was peppered with villae multae . . . & unum caftellum, and it enjoyed a certain ecclesiastical importance in the region because of its status as the seat of a bishop, and because of the two Orthodox monasteries located in the mountains on the southern side of the island. Milos economy was
Copyright 2006 Mediterranean Institute, University of Malta.


Eric Dursteler

primarily agricultural, with cotton and grapes among its major products. The island was famed among both Muslim and Christian writers for its fine millstones, quarried from the characteristic white rock of the island; it was also noted for its sulphurous hot baths.2 Politically, the early modern era represented a time of transition for Milos. From the late fourteenth century the island had been ruled by the Crispo family, but in the last decades of their rule it became effectively a tributary of the Ottoman sultans, and following the death of the last Crispo in 1566, the island passed under more or less direct Ottoman rule.3 The Cyclades and the other islands of the Aegean belonged to the Ottoman eyelet of Djazair-i Bar-i Saf d (which was part of the lands of the Ottoman kapudanpas a), and were part of the Sancak of Naxos.4 Being under Ottoman , rule played out differently from island to island in the Aegean. The larger islandsRhodes, Chios, and Cretewere incorporated quite directly into the political and religious structures of the empire: inhabitants were forcibly resettled, Muslim immigrants moved to the islands, mosques were constructed and kadis and other Ottoman officials established. This model was generally applied, however, only on the largest islands, or those closest to the mainland. In the Cyclades, in contrast, the Porte made no attempt to Islamicize the population, and indeed it intervened to prevent colonization and complete integration into Ottoman administrative structures.5 The islands enjoyed significant autonomy from oversight and interference by the central power, which often only manifested itself during the annual levy of the harac. There were few Ottoman officials in the region: Milos was governed by an Ottoman bey responsible for the political and military administration of the island, and a kadi responsible for all legal matters.6 Jesuits who passed through the Cyclades reported that only Santorin, Sifnos, Andros and Milos had a permanent kadi, and in reality there were probably only one or two actual kadis who simply travelled between the small islands.7 Almost all of Milos 2,0004,000 inhabitants were Orthodox Christians, along with a small number of Roman Catholics; the Muslim population of Milos and the surrounding islands is more difficult to estimate. From travellers and missionaries accounts, it would appear that few Muslims lived on Milos, and those who did were almost invariably Ottoman officials.8 In commenting on the inhabitants of Milos, the many (invariably male) travellers to the island inevitably made mention of its women. Bernard Randolph reported the women are equal in beauty with any in the Archipelago, and pretend to exceed others in breeding; most of them speaking Italian.9 Thvenot found the women less alluring; he observed, their clothing is terribly ugly, they speak very badly and cannot pronounce the letter L.

Muslim Renegade Women


They are very charitable to strangers.10 Philippe du Fresne-Canaye, who visited the island in 1573 on his way to Constantinople, was more explicit about the charitable reputation of the women of the island: it is said that on this island, as soon as a ship arrives, the young girls with their mothers run to the shore [and] lovingly receive the strangers, and with an infinity of caresses they invite them to serve themselves with the girls.11 When the ships of the Venetian fleet anchored in the port of Milos in late March of 1637, several women from the island did meet them, however, their intentions were quite different than those alluded to by male travel narratives. On the eve of the fleets departure, with the assistance of the local Venetian consul, four women from the islanda certain Maria and her three daughters, Aiss aged seventeen, Emin aged nine, and the youngest, Catig aged foursurreptitiously boarded Captain Mocenigos great galley, and slipped away from the island. Except for the hour, there was nothing particularly unusual about this occurrence; ships of the Venetian fleet often carried passengers between the various islands of the eastern Mediterranean. These four women were far from normal passengers, however, and their presence on the Venetian ships would eventually result in a significant political and diplomatic confrontation between the Porte and the Venetian Signoria.12 The oldest of the women, Maria, was in her late thirties and was the widow of Hassan Ag a, a janissary who had resided on the island. She claimed to have been kidnapped and forcibly married by her husband, but we have no way of knowing whether this was true, or whether her marriage had been arranged by her family (perhaps against her will). The latter was certainly a common occurrence, as Greek women often married (or were married to) Muslim men as a means of upward social mobility.13 Whether her marriage was voluntary or forced, it does not appear that Maria converted to Islam, which would not have been uncommon as Muslim men were permitted to marry non-Muslim women, though, of course, the converse was strictly forbidden. Maria claimed to have continued to live as a Christian after her marriage, and indeed to have baptized her three daughters without their fathers knowledge.14 Whatever her personal religious identity, and despite the fact she had baptized her daughters, Islamic law considered children of mixed marriages as Muslim, and by the girls own admission they were raised in their fathers faith.15 When the Venetian ships appeared in the port, the two youngest daughters still lived at home with their mother. The eldest, Aiss (named after Aisha, daughter of Abu Bakr and favourite wife of Muhammad), had been fairly recently married to a certain Mustafa Effendi, the kadi of the island. Ottoman


Eric Dursteler

kadis were trained in religious Sharia and secular kanun law, and were responsible for local judicial and administrative functions. Kadiships were limited in number and highly sought after, and so this represented a fine marriage for an isolated Muslim girl on a small, predominantly Christian island.16 Ultimately, however, Aisss dissatisfaction with her marriage precipitated her familys flight. One factor was the long absences of Mustafa, whose legal responsibilities took him to a number of the other small islands in the western Cyclades.17 More significant, however, was the fact that Aiss was soon to be constrained to follow her husband to the Black Sea, where he was to be transferred. This move would certainly not have been unexpected by the girl or her family, as by the seventeenth century kadis usually served one to two years in each posting, and were regularly transferred. This practice had developed to do away with nepotism, favouritism and malpractice among the Ottoman judiciary.18 Faced with this imminent separation from her mother and sisters, Aiss balked. Her husband, in an attempt to make her go, took all her most precious possessions such as pearls, jewels and necklaces. He may also have done this because he suspected she might try to flee Milos.19 Flight was not necessarily the only option available to Maria and her daughters, indeed while women in Islam have historically often been figured as oppressed and powerless victims, scholarship of the past twenty years has decisively challenged this orientalist view, which is based on normative literature rather than actual lived experience.20 Scholars have shown that Ottoman women had available to them what Madeline Zilfi has termed a wide field of action . . . despite an inherited gender system that prescribed womens subordination to men.21 Indeed, in some ways Ottoman women enjoyed legal and cultural rights and freedoms much greater than those of Christian women in many parts of Europe and the Mediterranean. Ottoman Muslim women were considered subjects of the empire upon reaching puberty, and Islamic law and tradition granted them the right to control property, to register complaints, and to defend their rights in court before the local kadi. These rights seem to have generally been protected by Ottoman jurists: scholars have found that both rural and urban women of all social levels regularly used the Ottoman court system to defend their interests, and in most instances judges upheld womens legal and property rights. Indeed, non-Muslim Ottoman women frequently had recourse to kadi courts because they were perceived as more favourably inclined towards issues of particular concern to women. Ottoman women also had more flexibility in ending unwanted marriages through divorce, separation and annulment, and while

Muslim Renegade Women


these were not always easily obtained, in eighteenth-century Istanbul divorces initiated by women became common enough that they attracted concerned comment by social observers. Motivations for divorce in these cases included abuse, abandonment, and failure to provide adequate financial support. In addition to utilizing kadi courts, for non-Muslim Ottoman women whose traditions did not normally permit divorce, conversion to Islam was a relatively easy way to be liberated from an unwanted spouse, and these types of conversions were quite common.22 Of course, in the case of Aiss, since she was married to the local kadi, her legal options were clearly significantly more limited. After boarding the Venetian ship, Maria and her daughters travelled with the fleet for two months, until they arrived at the fortified Venetian island of Corfu. Upon their arrival, several of the chief citizens of the town made offers of marriage to the two oldest girls, even though they were allegedly without dowries. In an interesting reversal of the practice of Christian women converting to Islam to free themselves from an undesired marriage, Aiss quickly married Santo Marlion, one of the chief gentlemen of that city, and in doing so severed her ties to her Muslim husband. The two youngest girls were sent to live with another important Corfiot family, and Emin was promised to one of the familys sons. The mother, Maria, in contrast, chose to enter a monastery.23 The speed with which these marriages were arranged suggests that the women were financially better off than they claimed in a subsequent depositions, in which they alleged they had left Milos with nothing more than a few personal effects. Arranging marriages so quickly was a clever move on the part of the women, as it effectively forced Venices hand when the matter mushroomed into a major diplomatic issue. Already, for the patriarchal rulers of Venice the thought of sending innocent women who had converted to Christianity back into Muslim hands was distasteful, and the fact that they were married to Christian men, or in a monastery, made such an action nearly impossible. To close the door on any lingering thoughts of forcing the women to return to Milos, within a month of her marriage, Aiss announced she was pregnant.24 Once it was discovered that the women had fled Milos for Corfu, their case quickly became a complex political and diplomatic affair. Aisss husband, Mustafa, went to Constantinople and claimed variously that the women had been forced onto the galley and kidnapped, or that they had fled voluntarily but had stolen significant assets belonging to him. Whatever the details of their departure, he insisted that this represented an affront not only to his own honour and property, but was also against Islamic law and the capitulations that existed between Venice and the Ottomans, which


Eric Dursteler

expressly forbade Muslim conversions to Christianity, particularly those of women and young girls. The Venetian Signoria and its representative in Constantinople, the able and experienced Bailo Alvise Contarini, countered that the women had left of their own free will and had taken no possessions which did not belong to them, and that their conversions were entirely voluntary. The political and diplomatic machinations of Aisss husband and his supporters in the divan, and Contarini and other Venetian officials in Constantinople and in Venice raged until the end of 1637. Venice engaged a wide range of its bureaucracy, including the Captain of the Gulf and the Inquisitors in the Levant, and expended significant amounts of money in gifts and bribes to many of the parties involved, all to avoid the unsavoury possibility of returning the women with the attendant blow to the prestige and honour of Venice. In the end, a settlement was arrived at in which Venice agreed to pay a rather small settlement to the aggrieved husband, which in turn he was constrained to divide among his chief supporters in the Ottoman capital. With this monetary settlement, the case and the four women of Milos disappeared completely from the documentary record. While on one level the case of Maria and her daughters functions as an engaging narrative, it also serves as a valuable window into questions of religious identity and conversion, and suggests ways in which the unique frontier setting of the Mediterranean provided women with additional, or alternate modes of subordinating the gender roles and expectations of their society and culture. Of course, to say early modern women were agents is not to say anything particularly new. Much work in recent years in both the Ottoman and European contexts has illustrated that women were active agents in their own destinies rather than passive victims.25 This case (and a number of others which will form the basis of a forthcoming study) contributes to this discourse by illuminating the unique modes of subversion available to women in the context of the early modern Mediterranean. Maria and her family utilized the Mediterraneans intersecting political, religious and cultural frontiers as a means to free themselves from a troubled personal situation, and as a form of leverage which functioned to protect them from being compelled to return to Milos once their flight had been found out. This case also suggests the need to complicate some of our assumptions about early modern womens religious identity. Women are often axiomatically assumed to be more profoundly religious than men, and therefore more solidly rooted in and less likely to alter their religious identities. Mark Meyerson and Mary Elizabeth Perry have argued that Iberian Jewish and Muslim women were more resistant to conversion because of their acute

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sense of responsibility for perpetuating . . . traditions through socializing their children . . . Baptism signified for them not just a personal abandonment of [their faiths] but also a negation of their accustomed maternal role in the lives of their children. The case of Maria and her daughters does not controvert this position, but it certainly does elaborate it. This case and many other similar cases suggest that some early modern women chose conversion without coercion or compulsion, and indeed conversion may have functioned as a means of asserting their maternal role in the lives of their children.26 This case also says something about masculinity, it seems to me, or perhaps better about what notions of honour imposed on male-dominated political institutions in their dealings with women. The paternalistic attitudes of public bodies, both Venetian and Ottoman, treated womens religiosity as paradoxically both weak and powerful. Women were stereotypically considered more spiritually inclined than men, yet they (along with children) were also judged more susceptible to conversion.27 Thus one of the roles of male ruling classes was to protect the fragile faith of women. Religion and manhood, as expressed in the institutions of the state, required that Venice protect the Milos women, even though doing so carried a potentially high political price, and ultimately did cost Venice significant financial outlays in the form of bribes. The degree to which these women were aware of this situation and even consciously played on the burden of honour that both states were under is difficult to answer. The quick marriages or entry into convents suggests strongly to me that they understood the functioning of this system of honour and employed this knowledge as a means of exerting influence on the decisions that these institutions made that affected them. If societal attitudes and structures subordinated women, they also afforded a certain power to subvert and to manipulate gender structures in ways that benefited them, all, of course, within the limits of socially assigned and accepted roles.28 And the intersection of religious and political boundaries in the early modern Mediterranean created a unique context in which crossing these boundaries permitted women to assert a degree of agency in ways unique to this time and place.

110 Notes

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1. Elisabetta Borromeo, Les Cyclades lpoque ottomane. Linsularit vue par les missionnaires jsuites, in Insularits ottomanes, eds. Nicolas Vatin and Gilles Veinstein (Paris: Maisonneuve and Larose, 2004), 128. 2. Turcograeciae Libri octo a Martino Crusio, in Academia Tybingensi Graeco & Latino Professore, utraque lingua edita. Quibus Graecorum status sub imperio Turcico, in Politia & Ecclesia, Oeconomia & Scholis, iam inde ab amissa Constantinopoli, ad haec usque tempora, luculenter describitur . . . (Basel: Leonhard Ostein fr Verlag Sebastian Henricpetris, 1584), 207; Robert Dankoff and Robert Leslie, Evliya Celebi in Albania and Adjacent Regions (Kosovo, Montenegro, Ohrid) (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 143; William Lithgow, The Totall Discourse of The Rare Adventures and Painefull Peregrinations . . . to the most famous Kingdomes in Europe, Asia and Affrica (Glasgow: James MacLehose and Sons, 1906), 84; Ermanno Armao, In Giro Per Il Mar Egeo con Vincenzo Coronelli: Note di Topologia, Toponomastica e storia medievali dinasti e famiglie italiane in levante (Florence: Olschki, 1951), 259261; Cecil Roth, The House of Nasi: The Duke of Naxos (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 57081948), 81. 3. Charles Frazee, The Island Princes of Greece: The Dukes of the Archipelago (Amsterdam: Adolf M. Hakkert, 1988), 11 42, 63, 8789. 4. Djazair-i bahr-i safid, Encyclopedia of Islam, New Edition, ed. Bernard Lewis, et alii (Leiden: Brill, 1979), 2:521. 5. Nicolas Vatin, les grecques ? les ottomanes ? Linsertion des les de lgee dans lEmpire ottoman la fin du XVIe sicle, in Insularits ottomanes, eds. Nicolas Vatin and Gilles Veinstein (Paris: Maisonneuve and Larose, 2004), 7273; B.J. Slot, Archipelagus Turbatus: les Cylades entre colonisation latine et occupation ottomane c. 15001718 (Istanbul: Nederlands HistorischArchaeologisch Instituut te Istanbul, 1982), 9192. 6. Slot, Archipelagus turbatus,1: 14, 2425, 100101, 286287. Ber. Randolph, The Present State of the Islands in the Archipelago, or Arches, Sea of Constantinople and Gulph [sic] of Smyrna; With the Islands of Candia and Rhodes (Oxford: n.p., 1687), 32-4. 7. Borromeo, Les Cyclades lpoque ottomane, 133134; 133134; Elizabeth Zachariadou, The sandjak of Naxos in 1641, in Festgabe an Josef Matuz: Osmanistik Turkologie Diplomatik, eds. Christa Fragner and Klaus Schwarz (Berlin: Klause Schwarz Verlag, 1992), 329330, 337. For a comparative context, see Halil Inalcik, Ottoman Methods of Conquest Studia Islamica 2 (1954): 104129. 8. Borromeo, Les Cyclades lpoque ottomane, 134135. 9. Randolph, The Present State of the Islands in the Archipelago, 3234. 10. Jean Thnevot, Voyage du Levant, ed. Stphane Yerasimos (Paris: Franois Maspero, 1980),174175. 11. Philippe du Fresne-Canaye, Le Voyage du Levant, ed. M. H. Hauser (Paris:

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Ernest Leroux, 1897), 171172. 12. Archivio di stato di Venezia (hereafter ASV), Bailo a Costantinopoli, b. 364, Sept 1637; ASV, Capitano delle Galeazze, b. 1375, #64, 20 July 1637, Pietro Mocenigo to Senate. 13. Paul Saint Cassia, Religion, politics and ethnicity in Cyprus during the Turkocratia (15711878), Archives Europennes de Sociologie 27 (1986): 22; Suraiya Faroqhi, Subjects of the Sultans (London: I. B. Tauris, 2000), 102. 14. ASV, Bailo a Costantinopoli, b. 364, 15 July 1637. 15. Faroqhi, Subjects of the Sultans, 102. 16. Norman Iskowitz, The Ottoman Empire and Islamic Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972), 43; Halil Inalcik, Decision Making in the Ottoman State, in Decision Making and Change in the Ottoman Empire, ed. Caesar E. Farah (Kirksville, Mo: Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1993), 14 15. 17. Biblioteca Marciana, IT VII 1085 (8522), cc. 61v65r, 28 May 1637, Alvise Contarini to Senate. 18. Inalcik, Decision Making in the Ottoman State, 1415; Ronald Jennings, Kadi, Court, and Legal Procedure in 17 th Century Ottoman Kayseri, Studia Islamica 48 (1978): 136138. 19. ASV, Bailo a Costantinopoli, b. 364, 15 July 1637. 20. Haim Gerber, Social and Economic Position of Women in an Ottoman City, Bursa, 16001700, International Journal of Middle East Studies 12 (1980): 231; Mohja Kahf, Western Representations of the Muslim Woman (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999). 21. Madeline C. Zilfi, Introduction, in Women in the Ottoman Empire: Middle Eastern Women in the Early Modern Era, ed. Madeline C. Zilfi (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 5. 22. Gerber, Social and Economic Position of Women in an Ottoman City, 231 33; Suraiya Faroqhi, Crisis and Change, 15901699, in An Economic and Social History of the Ottoman Empire, eds. Halil Inalcik and Donald Quataert (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1994), 2: 598599; Madeline C. Zilfi, We Dont Get Along, in Women in the Ottoman Empire: Middle Eastern Women in the Early Modern Era, ed. Madeline C. Zilfi (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 269272. 23. ASV, Capitano delle Galeazze, b. 1375, #64, 20 July 1637, Pietro Mocenigo to Senate; ASV, Inquisitori in Levante, b. 1192, #97, 30 Aug 1637, Inquisitors to Senate. 24. ASV, Senato Deliberazioni Costantinopoli, Minute, b. 24, c. 60v, 19 Sept 1637, Senate to Alvise Contarini; ASV, Inquisitori in Levante, b. 1192, #97, 30 Aug 1637, Inquisitors to Senate. 25. Sally Scully, Marriage or a Career?: Witchcraft as an Alternative in Seventeenth-Century Venice, Journal of Social History 28 (1995): 857. 26. Mark D. Meyerson, Aragonese and Catalan Jewish Converts at the Time of the Expulsion, Jewish History 6 (1992): 138; Mary Elizabeth Perry, Contested Identities: The Morisca Visionary Beatriz de Robles, in Women in the Inqui-


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sition: Spain and the New World, ed. Mary Giles (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 179, 181. 27. Bartolom Bennassar and Lucile Bennassar, Les chrtiens dAllah : lhistoire extraordinaire des rengats, XVIeXVIIe sicles (Paris: Perrin, 1989), 235; Robert Mantran, Istanbul au sicle de Soliman le Magnifique (Paris: Hachette, 1994), 168; Stephen Clissold, Christian Renegades and Barbary Corsairs, History Today 26 (1976): 510. 28. Joan Wallach Scott, Gender: A Useful Category of Analysis, American Historical Review 91 (1986): 10721073; Matthew Restall, He Wished It in Vain: Subordination and Resistance among Maya Women in Post-Conquest Yucatan, Ethnohistory 42 (1995): 578580, 586.