Fatima Hatun: A Renegade Woman in the Early Modern Mediterranean


Harem scene, from Memorie Turche, Museo Civico Correr, Cicogna, 1971

by Eric Dursteler

In 1559, a ship sailed from Venice to the Dalmatian coast. On board were a mother and her four children, including her young daughter, Beatrice Michiel. As they crossed the Adriatic, corsairs waylaid the ship and took the family captive. The mother and daughters were ransomed; however the boys were enslaved and soon converted to Islam. The eldest, Gazanfer, entered the service of the sultan-in-waiting, Selim, who invited the boy to accompany him to Istanbul as part of his personal household. The price of this prestigious position, however, was castration. The opportunity was appealing enough that Gazanfer underwent the knife. Once in Istanbul, he advanced rapidly and by 1580 he held simultaneously two key Harem offices – chief of the gate and chief of the Privy Chamber – which made him effectively the sole mediator between the Sultan and the outside world.

Young Beatrice, in contrast, returned to Venice, married into a respected family and gave birth to two sons. Tragedy struck the young family in 1588 when her husband died, leaving Beatrice a widow with two boys under the age of five. She soon remarried, but quickly soured on the match because of her husband’s interference in her financial affairs. She was a wealthy woman, with an impressive 6000 ducat dowry, extensive land holdings and income from a Venetian office granted through Gazanfer’s intervention. Faced with a bad marriage, the aggressive attempts of her husband to control her finances and with limited options for dissolving the marriage, Beatrice took matters into her own hands. In 1591, she set sail for the Ottoman capital and a rendezvous with a brother she had not seen for over three decades.

Gazanfer and Sultan Mehmed III, from EÄŸri fethi tarihi. Topkapi Saray Museum Library, H. 1609, fol. 27a

She was received with great honor by a large company of Ottoman officials and ceremoniously conducted to her brother’s seraglio. A few days later, encouraged by Gazanfer, Beatrice converted to Islam, and took the name Fatima Hatun. While often seen as a profound, transformative experience, Fatima’s conversion seemed more one of convenience than conviction. Many in Istanbul believed her flight was motivated by a combination of marital dissatisfaction and a desire for economic independence, and that she preserved her Christian identity behind an artificial mask of Muslimness. She may also have been influenced by the more favorable situation of Ottoman women. Despite the popular image of Muslim women as oppressed victims, the reality is they enjoyed greater rights than European women. Indeed, Lady Elizabeth Craven claimed that “the Turks in their conduct towards our sex are an example to all other nations.” Ottoman girls were considered imperial subjects at puberty, and law and tradition granted women specific legal privileges, including the right to control property without male interference and to assert their legal prerogatives in court or before the sultan. Non-Muslim women often used Ottoman courts which were more sympathetic to women’s issues, and they often converted to Islam to be freed from an unwanted spouse since Ottoman women had more flexibility in ending unwanted marriages. Fatima seems to have accepted the external sacrifice of her religion as the price of liberating herself from her husband, and benefiting from her brother’s wealth and power.

She quickly adapted to her new surroundings. As an aggregated member of the Ottoman elite, Fatima spent all her days enclosed in either her husband’s, her brother’s, or the sultan’s harem. This institution has attracted endless erotic curiosity and has functioned as an icon of the Muslim women’s objectified status. This ignores the fact that in Ottoman society, harem women wielded significant influence because of their cloistered status: they patronized public projects and charitable works and they played an active role in state affairs. Instead of marginalizing them, their enclosure ensured royal women regular access to the sultan and conferred on them real power. Fatima used her enclosure and her new status in a similar manner, though on a smaller scale. She was clearly politically savvy; seasoned diplomats described her as “a woman of great valor and judgment,” who effectively navigated the palace. Over time she became conversant in the language and culture of the court, and for more than a decade, she enjoyed unusual access to the restricted spaces inhabited by the powerful women of the imperial palace and harem. She used this access to provide a unique perspective on the Ottoman military, political, and economic affairs not normally available to Venice’s male diplomats. She also used her influence to favor her sons by sending them large sums of money, expensive jewels and other goods, purchasing them a house and negotiating lucrative offices for them. Despite laws forbidding Veneto-Ottoman commercial partnerships, she also initiated a partnership between her new Ottoman husband, Ali Ağa, and several Venetian merchants with funds from within the imperial harem.

Lady with Rose and Carnations, from Abdülcelil Çelebi Levnani, Topkapi Saray Museum Library. H.2164

This life of wealth and influence changed dramatically in 1603, when a mob of imperial cavalry penetrated the palace seeking an audience with Sultan Mehmed III. The rebels demanded numerous reforms, including the exile of the sultan’s mother, whom they believed was usurping authority. When Mehmed refused this insult to his honor, the soldiers countered by demanding either Gazanfer’s head or the sultan’s throne. Gazanfer was stripped to the waist, and begged his sovereign, whom he had known since Mehmed was a boy, for mercy. The sultan attempted to stay the execution, but to no avail, and Gazanfer was decapitated, while the sultan wept fiercely “for having seen murdered before his very eyes the dearest person that he had in the world.”

Fatima’s husband was killed several months later in the ongoing turmoil, and she found herself suddenly deprived of standing. Though she had claimed to desire to return to Christendom, she made no effort to flee Istanbul, which was a practical decision given the wealth and privilege she had become accustomed to. After the disorder had subsided, in recognition of the loss of his friend and adviser Gazanfer, Mehmed awarded Fatima a house in the capital so she could live “honorably.” With this, she fades from the historical record, save a brief announcement of her death in 1613. She left a large estate in Venice to several religious institutions, including one dedicated to rescuing fallen women, particularly prostitutes and courtesans and maybe even a renegade woman. Perhaps in her last testament, Fatima was able finally to do her penance and find a degree of peace with her decision to abandon her home, her young children, and her religion for the prestige and fabulous wealth of the Porte.

Beyond narrating a fascinating life, the story of Fatima/Beatrice Michiel, one of several microhistories I present in my book Renegade Women: Gender, Identity and Boundaries in the Early Modern Mediterranean (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011), provides a window into a range of broader issues regarding gender and religious identity in the early modern Mediterranean. While much has been written about the phenomenon of renegades (Christian converts to Islam), almost nothing has been written about renegade women. Fatima’s tale helps to recover the experience of the many such women. While men were drawn to convert by the greater opportunities for social mobility and financial gain available in the Ottoman Empire, the conversion of women, like Fatima, usually centered on complex familial situations— financially grasping or neglectful husbands, the inability to dissolve unhappy marriages or daughters trying to avoid undesirable marriages imposed by their parents. As Fatima’s case shows, socio-economic factors could also figure in women’s conversions. Religious conversion was complex, multivalent, and motivated by a web of factors.

Fatima’s case also forces us to complicate assumptions about early modern women’s religious identity. The view that women are more inherently religious than men, and therefore less susceptible to conversion, is deeply rooted in both sociological and historical literature. Fatima’s experience shows that conversion was not always a product of coercion of compulsion, but could be the result of rational reflection. This supports studies in other contexts that have also found that women were often very open to religious change, in some cases even more so than men. In other words, there is not a single model of early modern women’s faith: they might resist or embrace conversion out of belief, self-interest, fear, or compulsion, and we should be cautious about sweeping generalizations regarding some essentialized and uniquely “female” religiosity.

Finally, Fatima’s odyssey opens a door onto ways in which women in the Mediterranean were able to effectively subordinate societal and cultural mentalities and structures. While scholars have convincingly shown that women were “active agents in their own destinies rather than passive victims,” this story illuminates the unique modes of subversion available to Mediterranean women. Fatima used the sea’s political, religious and cultural frontiers as a fulcrum to exert “shaping power” over her life. While only the story of one woman, the experience of Fatima Hatun is in many ways representative of the many thousands of renegade women of the early modern Mediterranean.

About the Author:

Eric R Dursteler is Associate Professor of History at Brigham Young University, and Editor at News on the Rialto. His is also a Book Review Editor for the Journal of Early Modern History. He is the author of Renegade Women: Gender, Identity, and Boundaries in the Early Modern Mediterranean.