Entangled Dependencies: The Case of the Runaway Domestic Worker Emine in Late Ottoman Istanbul (1910)

Müge Telci Özbek, Kadir Has University, Istanbul

Front Picture Data Story


From the late eighteenth century on, domestic slavery, until then the most common form of domestic work in the Ottoman Empire, began to decline because of the social and economic changes affecting Ottoman lives and households. In the second half of the nineteenth century, this decline sharpened due to a series of anti-slavery acts and regulations. At the turn of the twentieth century, the great majority of live-in domestic labourers in Istanbul were girls and young women, who were legally free. Some of these girls and women were hired out to wealthy households by their own poorer families as live-in domestic workers. The employment of widows and orphaned children as domestic workers, especially those who lacked family able to shelter and provide for them, was also a common practice (Özbay 1999; Maksudyan 2008; Toledano 2007; Zilfi 2010; Erdem 1996; Karamürsel 2016).

Understanding the experiences of domestic workers in the late Ottoman period is not an easy task. No personal documents generated by Ottoman domestic workers themselves are available to historians. Official documents of the era also rarely shed light on the topic. The one prominent set of documents that historians of late Ottoman domestic work can rely on are Sharia court records, which contain employment contracts (icar-ı sagir/e) signed during the recruitment process (Araz 2020). The other source of information available for the study of female domestic work are police archives.

This data story presents a case file from the late Ottoman police archives, dating from 1910. It concerns Emine, a live-in domestic worker in her early twenties. After having lived and worked in İshak Cevdet Paşa’s house for about twelve years, Emine makes three consecutive attempts to escape from her employer’s household. After her first two attempts, she is forced to return to her employer’s house. After her third escape, she files a petition to the police in order to avoid a possible third return.
The case file from the police archives is composed of four single-paged documents. The first document is the petition (istida) that Emine herself submitted to the Department of Public Security in Istanbul. The second document contains brief orders and notes written by various police officers during the investigation process. The third document is a statement by Emine’s employer, İshak Cevdet Paşa, which he had to provide to the local police station in response to Emine’s petition. Fortunately, İshak Cevdet Paşa also provides Emine’s employment contract alongside his personal statement. The contract is copied at the top of the page, preceding İshak Cevdet Paşa’s statement. The fourth page is blank.

Emine’s life course as a domestic worker: entry, extraction, exit – three phases of labour coercion

The documents contained in this file are inevitably marked by omissions, erasures, fabrications, and possibly also lies. Still, they document the sequence of events that defined the course of Emine’s life as a domestic worker: her entry into domestic work; her stay in İshak Cevdet Paşa’s household in Istanbul as a live-in domestic worker for twelve years; her attempts to escape her work; and finally, the likely remand of custody back to her father. In these documents, it is also possible to discern the elements of coercion that define Emine’s experience as a young female domestic worker.

Emine’s entry into domestic work

Emine moved from her hometown Ereğli to Istanbul to be employed as a domestic worker in İshak Cevdet Paşa’s house in 1899, when she was twelve years old. Her recruitment was conducted on the grounds of a hiring-out contract authorized by the Sharia court in Ereğli.

In the petition she submitted to the Police, Emine recounts her entry into domestic work: “12 years ago, I was given out to the house of the retired (mütekaidden) İshak Cevdet Paşa in Akarçeşme in the Gedikpaşa neighbourhood by my father to serve.” In the court record, her father, Hasan Ağa, employs the phrase “I order the renting-out and dispatching and submission of my twelve-year-old daughter Emine, as her father and custodian, because I am not able to provide for her, as is the custom to serve, starting from the date of the document for an indefinite period in Istanbul in the house of esteemed İshak Cevdet Paşa.” İshak Cevdet Paşa, on the other hand, states that ““Hasan Ağa from Ereğli left the above-mentioned Emine, his twelve-year-old daughter, in our service.” The choice of words in these three different accounts indicates that Emine’s move to Istanbul and her employment were not the result of her own will, but of her father’s—although “will” is a complicated concept in this case. In fact, the account by Emine’s father illustrates both his economic desperation and his patriarchal power over his daughter’s life, mobility, and labour.

Emine’s father, Hasan Ağa, was a porter in the Port of Ereğli, a midsized town on the Black Sea coast. In the course of the nineteenth century, port cities on the Black Sea coast flourished due to the commercialization and commodification processes related to the further integration of the Ottoman Empire into global capitalist networks. This general trend brought about rapid impoverishment among port workers and an increase in labour struggles in various regions, including in the Black Sea ports (Nacar 2016). Given this context, we might infer that Emine came from a poverty-stricken, working-class background characteristic of a midsize port city on the Black Sea coast. Emine’s employer İshak Cevdet Paşa was a retired soldier. During his career, he was among the most senior military advisors to Sultan Abdulhamid II, as well as a member of the High Committee of Military Inspection, which was involved in strategic military planning and policymaking at that time. His military title was ferik in Ottoman Turkish, equivalent to a major-general in today’s terms. This makes clear that İshak Cevdet Paşa was among the military elite of the time, with access to Sultan Abdulhamid II’s inner circle of power. Clearly, the socio-economic inequality between the two families, the poverty which compelled Emine’s father to send his daughter to serve, and the wealth and power of Ishak Cevdet Paşa’s urban household, were the basis of their agreement.

From the available documents, we cannot know for sure whether Emine was willing or not to move to Istanbul as a live-in domestic worker. For her, accepting this arrangement might have been the obvious choice given her family’s poverty and inability to provide for her. She may or may not have had the power to object to her father’s decision. What we know for certain is that her father’s decision to rent her out was customarily accepted, and so her consent was not required to establish the legal authority of the contract.

Emine’s stay in İshak Cevdet Paşa’s house

We understand that Emine lived in İshak Cevdet Paşa’s house for about twelve years. However, we cannot learn much about the circumstances of her life in her employer’s house.

Powered by Time.Graphics

Emine’s attempts to leave İshak Cevdet Paşa’s house

Emine made three consecutive attempts to escape İshak Cevdet Paşa’s household but was forced to return after her first two attempts. In the petition that she submitted to the police, Emine states: “Recently, I had to leave because my comfort was spoiled.” This wording implies mistreatment, or at least discomfort of some kind, but details are lacking. What Emine may be trying to do here is to justify why she abandoned the service in her employers’ home, thereby preventing a third enforced return, without making outright accusations against her employer. It is also highly likely that the phrasing of her petition was mediated and distorted by the scribe she would have had to employ.

Upon submission of Emine’s petition, İshak Cevdet Paşa was invited to the local police station in his neighborhood and asked about the situation. While responding to Emine’s implication of mistreatment and/or discomfort in her petition, İshak Cevdet Paşa states that “she escaped from the house without any reason.” He claims she was “undutiful,” “not subservient at all,” and also “of slightly lower intelligence.” He also states that Emine's father, who was called to take back her daughter after Emine's earlier attempts to escape, “pleaded for Emine to stay with them” and consequently “out of pity we agreed to reluctantly employ her until now.” In his statement, İshak Cevdet Paşa not only refutes Emine’s implication of mistreatment, but also accuses her of being an undutiful woman, and portrays his recruitment of Emine as a form of charity. Secondary literature frequently emphasizes that the exploitation of girls and young women from poor or impoverished backgrounds in wealthier households was often disguised as charity (Ferhunde Özbay 1999; Maksudyan 2008). İshak Cevdet Paşa’s explanations reflect such a mindset.

Emine’s submission to her father

In his statement, İshak Cevdet Paşa also declares that he was no longer willing to employ Emine, and that her father had already been notified to come and take back his daughter. We do not know what happened to Emine after this point. It is most probable that she was remanded to her father. Then, she might have been placed in another well-off household as a domestic worker or taken back to her hometown by her father.

The involvement of the police

In the late Ottoman context, if a female domestic worker abandoned service this was not defined as a crime in and of itself. However, her act was perceived as an indication of deviance, moral laxity, or aversion to work, and was often associated with an inclination towards prostitution. Even without the official definition of crime, this could be grounds for arrest and confinement for the worker who escaped service. When a female domestic worker left the house where she worked, the word used to define her act was “escape.” In most cases, following the complaint of the employer the police started an investigation to find the runaway domestic worker. If she was found, she was kept in police custody until she was returned either to her employer or to her family (Balsoy 2015; Özbek 2019). It is most probable that Emine was arrested by the police after each of her three attempts to abandon her work and that she submitted her petition while in police custody. Although the involvement of the police is not explicit in the documents, it was most probably not hidden deliberately. Rather, it was not accounted for because it was common practice, understood as such by all parties involved.

Emine’s payments

In the original employment contract between İshak Cevdet Paşa and Emine’s father, the monthly pay for Emine’s work was defined as “a 20 kuruş monthly salary—15 kuruş of the above-mentioned amount will be charged and used for the subsistence, clothing, and basic needs of the aforementioned minor, whereas the remaining 5 kuruş will be kept on her behalf.” In 1897, a few years before Emine was hired, the daily wage for an unqualified male worker was 8.5 kuruş and the wage for a qualified worker was 18 kuruş. Compared to these wages, the monthly salary agreed for Emine is abysmally low. The documents also indicate that she did not receive these payments herself. In her petition, Emine stated that “they refrain from giving me my belongings and paying my allowances that accumulated during this period. I request that you order to establish justice on this matter.” On the other hand, İshak Cevdet Paşa states that Emine’s father, who came to Istanbul occasionally during Emine’s period of employment, “collected the accumulated earnings of his daughter.” İshak Cevdet Paşa also highlights that if there wass any remaining money that he had to pay he would pay it to her father, Hasan Ağa, when he arrived İstanbul to receive his daughter. This means that Emine’s control over the money paid for her work was clearly restricted.

Interpreting Coercion

Emine’s case provides us important insight into the ways in which girls and young women from impoverished provincial backgrounds were commodified in their capacity to work as live-in domestic workers in well-off Istanbul households. It sheds light on the role that gendered power relations played in shaping patterns and dynamics of severe labour exploitation and coercive labour in domestic work. This case also opens up a gateway to interrogate the crucial links between patriarchy, the control of im/mobility, and labour coercion in a more general sense.
In legal terms, Emine was a free individual and a contracted wage worker. However, in an adult-dominated, patriarchal, and class-based reality, she was situated in a network of relationships and obligations, which tied her into a forced and unpaid labour relationship with a bond that was extremely hard for her to disavow. First of all, her father possessed the customary and legal power to decide to send his minor daughter off to Istanbul to be employed as a domestic worker, without need of her consent. Once in Istanbul, she was immobilized behind the walls of her employer’s house for twelve years by a gendered form of social bondage. Even when she grew into adulthood, she was not permitted to abandon her employer’s household of her on will, because she was deemed a household dependent, rather than a free worker or a free person, due to her gender. In her multiple attempts to escape her employer’s house and her job, she was arrested by the police and forced to return either to her employer or, presumably, to her father.

I identify three firmly interrelated key mechanisms that lock Emine into a coercive labour relationship. The first one is the customary and legal setting that enabled the senior adults of households to move children and younger women back and forth between households without needing their consent. The second one is the patriarchal complicity of family members and employers in their unified effort to keep female domestic workers bound to the customary households. Negotiations between family members and employers were marked by the context of stark socio-economic disparity between the two parties. But what this case also highlights is that both parties may co-perpetuate a circuit of female labour coercion, mainly by classifying and keeping women and girls as household dependents, a situation from which both families and employers benefit. Third, over-policing of lower-class women in urban settings robbed female domestic workers of the ability to abandon their employers’ households and to live a life on their own terms in Istanbul, further securing and solidifying their dependent status.

Overall, Emine’s case provides us yet another example that destabilizes the static conceptualizations of free and unfree labour, waged and unwaged work, and voluntary and forced movement as discrete and easily isolated categories, shedding light, through the entangled dependencies that shaped Emine’s experience, on the nature of labour and work. It also provides us a fresh perspective to investigate more general questions, such as What makes women particularly vulnerable to severe labour exploitation and coercive labour in so-called feminized industries, such as domestic service, caregiving, and sex work? How and why did patriarchal relations create and maintain coerced labour? Finally, this case is a reminder of the fact that the way in which severe labour exploitation and coercive labour relations were established was also, and crucially, a matter of governing the mobility—and immobility—of the workers themselves.

Action Phrases

In Emine’s account in her petition

  • beray-ı hademe verilmiş idim - I was given out to serve
  • istirahatim münselib olduğundan - as my comfort was spoiled
  • infikaka mecbur oldum - I had to leave
  • mahsusatımın i‛tasından imtina‛ etmekte idüklerinden - as they refrain from paying my allowances

In the account of Hasan Ağa, Emine’s father, in the employment contract

  • mevkufa icar ve irsal ve teslim … emr eyledim - I order the renting-out and dispatching and submission of (Emine) to (İshak Cevdet Paşa)
  • infak ve iksâsına kudret-yab olamadığımdan - because I am not able to provide for her
  • ber-mu‛tad hizmet etmek üzere - as is the custom to serve

In İshak Cevdet Paşa’s account in his statement

  • hizmetimize terk ettiği - (Hasan Ağa) left (Emine) in our service
  • ara sıra dersa‛adete gelerek kerimesinin müterakim istihkakını almakda bulunduğu - (Hasan Ağa) has come occasionally to (Istanbul) and collected the accumulated earnings of his daughter
  • hiçbir sebeb olmaksızın haneden firar etmiş olduğu - escaped from the house without any reason
  • merhameten kabul olunarak şimdiye kadar zaruri istihdam olunmuş - out of pity we agreed to reluctantly employ her until now
  • vürudunda bir gûna matlubu kalmış ise i‛tası tabi‛i bulunmuş olduğ - upon his arrival he will be provided the remaining amount of money we owe to him, if there remains any

Some Other Archival Cases of Runaway Domestic Workers

BOA, ZB, 422/157, 1323.Teşrinisani.27 (10 December 1907).
BOA, ZB, 429/26, 1322.Şubat.20 (5 March 1907).
BOA, ZB, 437/60, 1320.Teşrinievvel.09 (22 October 1904).
BOA, ZB, 437/96, 1320.Şubat.13 (26 February 1905).
BOA, DH.EUM.THR, 34/70, 1326.Mayıs.15 (28 May 1910).
BOA, DH.EUM.THR, 96/7, 1328.R.07 (18 April 1910).

List of References Cited

Araz, Yahya, and İrfan Kokdaş. “In Between Market and Charity: Child Domestic Work and Changing Labor Relations in Nineteenth-Century Ottoman Istanbul.” International Labor and Working-Class History 97, no. 1 (2020): 81–108.
Balsoy, Gülhan. “Bir Kadın Hastenesi Olarak Haseki Hastenesi ve 19. Yüzyıl İstanbul'unda Bikes ve Bimesken bir Kadın Olmak.” Toplumsal Tarih, no. 257 (2015): 80–84.
Erdem, Y. Hakan. Slavery in the Ottoman Empire and Its Demise, 1800–1909. London: Palgrave McMillan, 1996.
Karamürsel, Ceyda. “The Uncertainties of Freedom: The Second Constitutional Era and the End of Slavery in the Late Ottoman Empire.” Journal of Women's History 28, no. 3 (2016): 138–61.
Maksudyan, Nazan. “Foster-Daughter or Servant, Charity or Abuse: Beslemes in the Late Ottoman Empire.” Journal of Historical Sociology 21, no. 4 (2008): 488–512.
Nacar, Can. “20. yüzyılın başında Samsun limanında çalışmak: Serbest ticaret ve nöbet usulü tartışması.” Toplum ve Bilim, no. 136 (2016): 40–60.
———. “Free Trade or an Alternative Path: The Queue System and Struggle over the Conditions of Work in Ottoman Ports, 1900–1910.” Middle Eastern Studies 52, no. 5 (2016): 772–86.
Özbay, Ferhunde. Turkish Female Child Labor in Domestic Work: Past and Present. Istanbul: ILO/IPEC, 1999.
Özbek, Müge. “'Disorderly Women' and the Politics of Urban Space in Early Twentieth-Century Istanbul, 1900–1914.” In Crime, Poverty, and Survival in the Middle East and North Africa: The “Dangerous Classes” since 1800, edited by Stephanie Cronin, 51–64. London: I.B. Tauris, 2019.
Toledano, Ehud R. As If Silent and Absent: Bonds of Enslavement in the Islamic Middle East. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.
Zilfi, Madeline C. Women and Slavery in the Late Ottoman Empire: The Design of Difference. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.