Reviewed by

Kim Jezabel Zinngrebe

(SOAS, University of London)

646 BGC12 Politics of Reproduction_Front

Gülhan Balsoy. The Politics of Reproduction in Ottoman Society, 1838-1900. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2013.

By the mid- to late nineteenth century the Ottoman Empire had experienced great territorial losses, significant migration movements, and widespread epidemics but also nationalist insurgencies engendering the emergence of expanding provincial autonomy and independent states. Having successfully demolished the Janissary corps in 1826, Sultan Mahmud II rapidly initiated a great programme of radical reforms in order to combat the territorial and demographic threats faced by his empire. His new policies relied heavily on a reconceptualisation of population as a ‘resource’, according to which a large population base was required to fulfill the empire’s pressing fiscal, administrative, and military needs. With the goal of counterbalancing population decrease, particularly among the Muslim population, the Ottoman state turned its attention to the up to this point considered ‘female’ sphere of reproduction in an effort to increase birth rates, ‘cure’ infertility, decrease the number of maternal deaths and stillborns as well as to put an end to abortion.

The Politics of Reproduction in Ottoman Society: 1838-1900 very extensively and thoroughly investigates the gendered manner in which Ottoman anxiety of depopulation was articulated by state and society within this period. More importantly, it explores how the agents most affected by pronatalist policies – Ottoman women – dealt with and perceived their new realities in complex ways. Along the lines of few other feminist historical explorations of reproductive politics in the Ottoman Empire, it is here where Gülhan Balsoy makes a very rich and profound contribution to this body of scholarship by unearthing the experiences of those whose voices remained by and large ignored. Using gender as an analytical category, she navigates her reader through a very vivid historical journey on Ottoman women’s experiences of increasing legal and medical control over their bodies and sexuality.

This book articulately and cogently explores how Ottoman pronatalist policies were not only tightly interwoven with the wider goal of the Tanzimat reforms to redefine the relationship between the state and its subjects but, moreover, how pronatalism constituted an integral component of this process (p. 120). Balsoy clearly outlines that pronatalist policies at the time were shaped along three registers which also provide the structure of her research: (1) the transformation of midwifery through the regulation and licensing of midwives; (2) a public anti-abortion debate launched and promoted by pronatalist bureaucrats and medical elites; and (3) the medicalisation of pregnancy and childbirth.

The author’s central argument is twofold: firstly, Balsoy claims that based on various aspects of women’s reproduction coming under increasing legal, medical, and institutional control, pregnancy and childbirth turned from what she refers to as ‘personal’ or ‘natural’ experiences into political subjects (see p. 1 and p. 123). Secondly, she asserts that this process, however, cannot be solely stigmatised as absolute control over female bodies but also as enabling opportunities for women’s agency as they received ‘their share in the promised redefinition of the relationship between the Ottoman state and society’ (p. 75). Overall, Balsoy’s findings convincingly testify to how Ottoman population and identity politics from the mid-nineteenth century onwards predominantly and progressively drew on women’s bodies as sites of state intervention. Moreover, she successfully illuminates how, by concentrating on the Muslim population, the Tanzimat reforms were, in fact, not so much about creating an overarching ‘Ottoman’ identity.

From a historian’s perspective, Balsoy’s research kicks off from an incredibly challenging starting point, that is the vast absence of first-hand sources representing the daily and very intimate experiences of reproduction among Ottoman women. Despite of this immense difficulty, she managed to collect and make use of a tremendous array of archival material produced by both state and non-state actors. The governmental sources used in her work consist mainly of ministerial documents, imperial decrees, and several register collections which include summaries of the correspondence between the Grand Vizierate office, other governmental offices, and local administration. Considering the dominance of governmental documentation on Balsoy’s research material, she succeeds in overcoming the bias of such data as she carefully examines it in relation to the specific contexts in which they were produced. Filtering out various biased inscriptions of the female body, Balsoy’s study identifies a meaningful story about the politicisation of reproduction. Non-state material employed in the book is comprised of advice books written for pregnant women as well as medical and normative literature on infertility. Balsoy also resorts to several dozen petitions produced by midwives and other ordinary people which provide invaluable insights into their everyday lives and practices. Moreover, and refreshingly so, her analysis draws on cultural sources such as contemporary theatre plays and paintings.

The Politics of Reproduction is divided into five chapters. The first chapter reviews existing historical scholarship about midwifery and obstetrics in the nineteenth century and underlines the central role played by the prominent medical man Besim Ömer whose ‘findings’ and argumentation on matters of reproduction were persistently adopted by modern historians, frequently so without making any alterations. Besim Ömer was very much situated at the centre of the first generation of male obstetricians who strove to gain social acceptance by demeaning ‘folk medicine’ and, more specifically, the practices of local midwives. Reverting to Besim Ömer’s written works such as ‘History of Birth’ and the pamphlet ‘My Admonitions to Midwives’, Balsoy determines how the dichotomy of the ‘old crone’ (local midwife) versus ‘obstetrician/licensed midwife’ continuously permeates this literature and how, furthermore, it continued to be uncritically adopted and reproduced by historians of medicine at least up until the 1980s. Nevertheless, drawing on the extremely rare memoirs of two midwives, the author stresses that licensed midwives did not construct their identities against male obstetricians but unlicensed midwives.

The second chapter deals in much detail with the transformation of midwifery under the Tanzimat which aimed to improve the education of midwives most notably by regulating and controlling their practices through licensing and the establishment of a Midwifery School in 1842. Differentiating between an increasing visibility of malpractices at the time rather than an increase in the actual number of malpractices conducted by midwives, Balsoy shows that the educational aims of the Ottoman state proved unsuccessful due to the government devoting most of its efforts to the licensing and regulating of midwives rather than their training. She examines this increase carefully in the broader political context in which midwives were problematised and scrutinised by pronatalist elites. Making a powerful turn, this chapter goes on to investigate how licensed midwives enjoyed and used their newly earned professional status and social privileges even though they were now banned from practicing what had been some of their basic tasks, e.g. turning the fetus inside of the mother’s uterus. In a series of expressive anecdotes Balsoy illustrates how the Ottoman state did not simply replace midwives with male nurses and obstetricians but (based on the state’s inability to offer salaries to those groups) how it turned licensed midwives into important agents of Ottoman society who in many cases and often successfully claimed housing and financial aid and pay rise.

Notwithstanding the new abortion legislation under the Tanzimat reforms and the public anti-abortion discourse which targeted the female body, Balsoy’s third chapter argues that, in fact, Ottoman women gained legal subjectivity and emerged as legitimate actors of social change who ‘[…] in return for bearing the children needed for a prosperous country, (women) received their share in the promised redefinition of the relationship between the Ottoman state and society’ (p. 75). By examining Ottoman abortion legislation not only in terms of its legal framework but also in terms of the complexities involved for the main agents of abortion – Ottoman women – Balsoy follows suit of more recent scholars such as Selçuk Akşin Somel, Tuba Demirci, and Ruth Miller. Balsoy’s study specifically suggests and emphasises time and again that the Ottoman state did not ban abortion altogether but that it strove to prevent it specifically among Muslim women. In addition, contrary to the discursive strategy of government and pronatalist elites who identified ‘misery’ (sefalet) and ‘debauchery’ (sefahat) as the two key reasons for women to abort their pregnancies, Balsoy’s research reveals that poverty played a central role in almost all of the abortion cases that she managed to access.

‘Pregnancy as a Site of Medical Intervention’ concentrates on the medicalisation process of pregnancy and childbirth marked by the opening of institutions such as maternity hospitals and the targeting of women via medical treatises and normative advice books. Along the lines of an intersectional approach, Balsoy’s fourth chapter sheds light on how the ‘new female body’ was not only defined by its ability to give birth, but also how women’s bodies were targeted in different ways according to their class background: while maternity hospitals were mostly visited by the most desperate and poor women, normative pronatalist literature was produced with an upper-class audience in mind. Again, the author underlines the opportunities for women’s agency as women continued to be the key decision-makers on how to structure their individual ‘motherly lifestyle’.

The final chapter investigates the various ways in which infertility was reconceptualised as a problem in the context of Ottoman pronatalism. It outlines how some parts of the medical elite perceived it as a medical problem and suggested medical solutions while others defined it as consequence or punishment of wrongdoing and, accordingly, proposed moral lifestyle changes. Nevertheless, the study depicts how both camps shared a perception of infertility as detrimental to their pronatalist goals and, most likely as a result of this, portrayed it as the worst of all the calamities a woman could experience.

Returning to Balsoy’s twofold argument, I had conceptual difficulties in understanding what was meant exactly by her claim that women’s experiences of pregnancy and childbirth turned from ‘personal’ or ‘natural’ experiences to ‘political’ subjects. From a feminist perspective, one could raise the questions of what constitutes a ‘natural’ experience, the blurry lines between the ‘personal’ and ‘political’ and, above all, at which point in time matters of reproduction did not constitute a ‘political subject’. Also the possibility that pregnancy and childbirth could, perhaps, entail both aspects was not sufficiently explored to my mind. While being led through and convinced by Balsoy’s argumentation that Ottoman women continued to express their agency despite of their bodies and sexuality becoming under increasing state control, I was left curious to find out more about women’s and midwives’ narratives constructed and strategies created vis-à-vis state structures in order to realise their interests at a time when they received unprecedented attention by the government.

While I personally oppose the idea of a distinctive feminist method or use of ‘gender’ as a method of research (p. 123), Balsoy’s extensive use of gender as an analytical category as well as a topic of historical research conduces to her book as a fascinating ‘must-read’ not only for feminist historians but students interested in Ottoman history and identity, history of medicine, and the politics of sexuality. Most notably, this study demonstrates clearly and convincingly how an exploration of Ottoman pronatalism adds to the contestation of the boundaries between the binary constructs of the ‘public’ and the ‘private’, the ‘state’ and ‘family’, the ‘political’ and ‘personal’. Above all, I valued Balsoy’s awareness of issues of intersectionality such as differences along the lines of ethnicity, religion, and class which remain ever so often ignored by existing scholarly works about the history of women in the Ottoman Empire.


Kim is a third year PhD candidate at the Centre for Gender Studies, SOAS, University of London. Her research interests include gender and feminist theory, history and politics of the Middle East, feminist perspectives on citizenship theory, and women’s activism in Palestine_Israel.