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  • Response
  • Leslie Peirce (bio)

I would like to begin by saying what a privilege it is for me to have three new colleagues—Indrani Chatterjee, Julie Hardwick, and Patricia Skinner—comment so thoughtfully on my work, and what an opportunity it is for all of us to have this forum for the exchange of ideas and information and even of good book titles. So I thank each commentator individually for her insights and I also thank the editors of Journal of Women's History for making this exchange possible.

My immediate reactions upon reading the three essays were several. The first was just plain excitement at the sheer volume of fascinating insights that such a comparative project can spawn. At the simplest level, comparative history has the power to highlight what is specific to the cultures we study as well as what is universal, or at least trans-regional, either because of the basic demands of human existence or the limited repertoire of mechanisms available to governments in controlling their populations.

My second reaction was consciousness of my own shortcomings: I was rather sorry I hadn't thought of the incisive phrases that pepper the three comments—learned normativity, collusion with the dominant discourse as a positive tactic of women in court—which might have saved some pages of labored explication. I also felt "unnerved," to borrow from Hardwick's confession, by my ignorance of histories that ran on intersecting tracks with the history I attempted to recount. My ignorance was willed to a degree (this is not an excuse), as I sat myself mentally in Aintab in order to work out what was going on locally and didn't look much beyond the surrounding region, except occasionally towards Istanbul. In the process, I seem to have reinvented some wheels that might have moved the project along more rapidly had I done more comparative reading.

In what follows, I will not comment for the most part on commonalities among the histories featured here, since the reader can deduce these for herself. I would rather use this space to raise a few bigger issues that stem from (apparent) difference. But I cannot restrain myself from citing at least a few shared features of which I am now aware as a result of reading the three commentaries (those I cite are from Skinner's): the matter of publica fama, the transfer of land ownership to the person who had cultivated it unchallenged, and the persecution as witches/heretics of older, resourceless women. I am not sure why it is a pleasurable sensation to recognize shared foibles, habits, and aspirations among peoples across time and [End Page 197] space—perhaps it is our defensive attachment to the societies we study. It may also be useful here, while I am getting things out of the way, to mark one major difference that contributed to legal life in the Ottoman empire: the tribal communities that populated the hinterlands of Ottoman Anatolia, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and even the Balkans, with its Gypsy communities. One of the "backstories" to the evolution of Ottoman legal practice was the challenge of controlling these fiercely independent and fractious sectors of the population.

One of the big questions that was sparked by my reading of the commentaries is whether there is a domain that can be isolated as "secular" in the early modern Ottoman world. This question was inspired by Skinner's recognition that tensions between religious and secular domains were shared by Europeans and Ottomans, and Hardwick's comments about the rise of secular courts. "Secular" is a word I rarely use in my writing or teaching (if I did use it in the book, the word is probably in quotes). We would not, I think, speak of a specifically secularist thrust, in the sense of derivation from non-religious sources of authority, in law or any other domain until later, modern, times in the Ottoman empire. In the realm of law, kanun—which can mean both customary and imperial law, law that is normative in large part because it is based on actual practice or practical needs—may at first seem a secular counterbalance to sharia (Islamic jurisprudence and...


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