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

23 Şubat 2023

Dr. Müge Özbek

March 6, Monday, 15:00-16:30


In this talk, I will present 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 living and working 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 to avoid a possible third return. Through the documents in this file, we can follow 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. This individual case also provides important insight into how 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. Through the entangled dependencies that shaped Emine’s experience, it sheds light on the gendered patterns and dynamics of labor coercion and domestic work in early twentieth-century Istanbul. Finally, this case opens up a gateway to interrogate the crucial links between patriarchy, the control of im/mobility, and labor coercion in a more general sense. On the other hand, the study refrains from depicting Emine as a victim and makes us sense her power as she holds onto her desire to live freely through courage and resistance. Her case leads us beyond the limits of historical knowledge, which is often incomplete, and makes us think about how it must have felt to be a domestic worker in late Ottoman Istanbul – bound to your employer’s household through your hems and yet having the will and courage to live your own life in the city? Müge Özbek is a visiting scholar in the Core Program at Kadir Has University. She completed her Ph.D. at Boğaziçi University with a dissertation titled Single, Poor Women in Istanbul, 1850–1915: Prostitution, Sexuality, and Female Labor in 2017. She has articles and book chapters on female labor, urban space, and im/mobility in the late Ottoman Empire. She also published an article on the question of late Ottoman women’s activism and the rise of nationalism in Middle Eastern Studies. Özbek is currently working on new research on fatherhood, the labor of childrearing, and affective labor in Late Ottoman middle-class families and on everyday mobilities in late Ottoman Istanbul.