Staying Clean: A History Of Segregation In Women’s Baths During The Ottoman Empire

Ambiguous bathing laws may seem innocent on the surface, at most a mild inconvenience. But it was only the tip of a massive authoritarian iceberg.

Hammams, or Islamic bathhouses, are quite unlike your private bathtub at home. An interior entirely made of stone and marble, the smallest voices and splashing water echo across the hot steam. Bathers lie atop the central polygonal stone, covered in foam as attendants scrub their bodies with their full weights.

The image is understandably appealing, but Europeans probably took the appeal too far. They, upon their travels to the hammams, have written about women’s hammams as worlds of erotic fantasy and homosexual deviance.

Hammam de la Rose Marrakech
FACEBOOK Hammam de la Rose Marrakech

“Women would go to the hammam with others, and they wash each other. It is common knowledge that as a result of this familiarity in washing and rubbing, women fall in love with each other… , on seeing a beautiful girl, seek occasion to with her, just to see her naked and touch her.” (Luigi Bassano, Italian traveler, 1545)

These observations were wrapped up in the wider European colonialist trend of romanticizing the non-European (“Eastern”) cultural landscape, and at times demonizing it — a trend that has been coined “Orientalism.”

In reality, the bathhouse, with its primary purpose of washing, has always been intricately tied to the Islamic idea of purity. Purity in Islam is comprised of multiple definitions: cleanliness, modesty, and purity of belief, to name a few. Cleanliness isn’t just about getting rid of germs; one must be clean both in body and mind before praying to God. Islamic standards of modesty require one to cover up especially the part from the navel to the knees, for both men and women, expect for in the presence of kin or spouse. But fundamentally, women, for the sake of being women, had been considered “impure.” While Western men may have looked upon the hammam with a lustful eye, Muslim men in Ottoman times saw it as a space and an opportunity to “purify” Muslim women. Being a non-believer (in Islam) was also grounds for being “impure.”

After The Bath
After the Bath (19th century) by Jean Leon Gerome, one of the many European Orientalist paintings, depicts the women’s hammam as an erotic paradise. PHOTO:

Corrupt Women, Dangerous Women

“Purifying” didn’t only take place within the insulated sphere of the bathhouse. Rather, the hammam was only one of the multitude of spaces in which turbulent historical and political shifts manifested. Istanbul, as the rapidly-diversifying capital of the Ottoman Empire, increasingly eased its religious conversion system from the 17th century. Conversions, increasing immigration, and intermarriages all played a part in blurring the boundaries between religions. Not only was it easy to convert religions for various purposes, it was also easy to feign religions: as Ottoman society diversified, it was becoming near-impossible to distinguish one’s religion based merely on how they looked.

In addition, the Empire’s increased absorption into the Western economy meant that consumption trends also followed the West. Notably, this included women’s fashion choices: transparent veils, variations in color, and tight-fitting dress were some of the radical visual transformations sought by Muslim women. These changes were resented by men, who accused them of dressing provocatively and in conflict with their faith. Religion was getting ever harder to express through attire.

modern-day Istanbul
Modern-day Istanbul. Photo by Samet Kurtkus on Unsplash

Throughout the 18th century, the Empire sought to re-instill religious distinctions by introducing harsher regulations, primarily targeting minorities. Different clothing laws were established for Muslim and non-Muslim women; neither was permitted to “pass” as the other. If a Muslim woman dressed as a non-Muslim, it would be interpreted as having renounced Islam and would be grounds for the death penalty.

A non-Muslim person was called dhimmi — literally, “protected person” — and was granted various rights by the Empire under its rule. Theoretically, sharia law protected each dhimmi’s life, property, and freedom of religion. In exchange for these rights, a dhimmi would be required to pay taxes to the state, which was separate from taxes paid by Muslims. But in reality, these weren’t quite irrevocable rights as much as they were subjects of ambiguous and ever-changing laws. A dhimmi’s autonomy would increasingly come into question as segregation laws expanded ever further — and into the realm of the bathhouse.

“The dhimmi woman is like an unrelated man and it is most correct that she should not gaze upon any part of a Muslim woman’s body.” (1762 Judicial Ruling, Aleppo)

The above quote does not refer to homosexual contact between Muslim and non-Muslim women; rather, it presumes that a non-Muslim (dhimmi) woman can and will act as a substitute man in the women’s hammam (bathhouse,) where an actual man is not present. By casting her gaze on the Muslim woman, the law expected that the dhimmi woman would then discuss her body with another man. Discussing about a woman to whom a man is not married would be grounds for infidelity and corruption. Therefore, to prevent this from happening in the first place, dhimmi women were forbidden to bathe in the same space as a Muslim woman.

As baffling as this logic is, the bathhouse segregation laws would become so extreme that, in 18th-century Aleppo, a hammam located within the Jewish quarter would restrict access to Jewish women to only one day a week. While granting Muslim women the privilege to access the hammam on Fridays (being the religious day for Islam,) few granted Christians and Jewish women the same privilege on their respective religious days (Sundays and Saturdays,)

These severe restrictions meant it was harder for minorities to fulfill their religious obligations, not to mention stay physically clean. There is some evidence suggesting that women frequently broke bathing rules, as it wasn’t too difficult to fake religions. Specifically, Judaism placed a heavy emphasis on women’s purity, such as requirements to clean oneself after having sex or at the end of menstruation. Women, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, did not care for the segregation laws and may have prioritized their convenience. It is astounding that men, who had nothing to do with what went on in the female-only hammams, took far lengths to implement such laws. (Interestingly, religious segregation didn’t exist in the men’s hammams, apart from wearing identifiable towels.)

These laws arose out of an unnerving contradiction: that a dhimmi woman was on the lowest rung of the social ladder — as non-Muslim women — and, simultaneously, on one of the highest — as men, or at least possessing the male gaze, capable of sharing knowledge of women with Muslim men and thereby corrupting them. Being from another religion, they were “corrupt” in the eyes of Muslims and therefore possessed the power to disrupt the Islamic society in which they lived.

And finally, it was not just dhimmi women who were feared, but women in general. During Ottoman times, women were prohibited from all social activities, including: gathering at the coffeehouses, or smoking tobacco. The only occasion for mingling with those who weren’t family or spouse was bathing; in fact, the hammam has been considered the women’s coffee house. In modern-day Morocco, visiting the hammam as a woman can still be considered as an act of “trespassing into the men’s universe,” because it entails social mingling. To this day, some women seek out the permission of their husbands or the escort of an elderly woman before taking a trip to the public bath.

Hammam illustration
Hammam Illustration. PHOTO:

Fear is a difficult thing to pinpoint, as it can manifest in various forms across different power structures. What was being feared by the Ottoman ruling class was, perhaps beyond women or beyond Judaism, the petrifying idea that Ottoman people were becoming harder to compartmentalize in the face of diversification. Was a non-Muslim woman a woman or a man in disguise? Did a woman become a man once she socialized with other women? Was a woman still a Muslim if she wore Western clothes? In history, blurry social categories have always led to a difficult time for those in power to maintain its control, unable to wield a divide-and-conquer strategy. Ambiguous bathing laws may seem innocent on the surface, at most a mild inconvenience. But it was only the tip of a massive authoritarian iceberg.

Valerie Staats, during her two-year-long stay in Morocco in the 1980s, frequented the local hammam every week. She had observed and participated in the collective culture of the women’s bathhouse — where marriages and childbirth were celebrated publicly, where information was exchanged freely and nothing was exempt. Women gossiped on their families and spouses, discussed personal medical situations, and shared reviews of local doctors, all while freely touching and cleaning each other. The hammam didn’t only serve its immediate function of bodily hygiene; it also indirectly took care of women’s health by being the only available space where they could offer each other a mental and physical refuge, hidden from men’s critical gaze.

Staats noted that going to the hammam, usually a weekly ritual, was the only time in a week that a Moroccan woman could spend on herself. Aka “me-time,” it was a time and space in which one was reminded of her own value. It’s not surprising, then, that Ottoman men had been afraid of the women’s hammam. There is nothing as powerful as a group of women who are conscious of their own value.

Lyon Nishizawa


Lyon is a lifelong traveler, who looks at each destination as her next classroom and playground. She is fascinated by the stories, music, and languages of the world. Her parents are Japanese, but she spent her childhood in multiple cultures and identifies as a third culture kid.

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