Life for a woman in the harem was completely different, for the harem was almost a world unto its own, isolated until it had developed into its own society. It had a highly structured hierarchy and to disregard it through audacity or insolence was to commit a grave error and be proportionately punished. It was headed by the sultan's mother, the valide sultana, and ruled like a palace, but entirely of women.
The lowest ranking women were the novices, or cariye, the newly arrived kidnapped girls or slave girls given as gifts to the sultan. In some ways, this was a truly idealistic and noble system, for all began at the bottom, favored and distinguished neither by religion nor ethnicity nor cultural background nor birth. Only by their own merits - beauty, intelligence, aptitude, and inevitably, luck would they advance. First, it was necessary to become a Muslim, one of the few instances of forced conversion in an empire that otherwise was reputed to be quiet tolerant of religious differences. Then, under careful tuition, they studied the Ottoman language and needlework, and those with talent were trained in song or dance, for entertainment was inordinately popular. It was much like a seminary, and a slave remained at her service until a specific skill was mastered that would permit her to rise to a higher position. The most lovely and seductive of girls were promoted into the courts of the sultan's favorites or his mother's court, given the opportunity to become a favorite herself, while the less fortunate could advance into respectable positions by becoming skilled servants or governesses.
The workers of the harem were without exception women, excluding the eunuchs that guarded the harem, escorted the ladies, and sometimes oversaw lessons to ensure proper behavior between male teachers and the women. The valide sultana ruled at the top, and beneath her was the kethüda, a general overseer comparable to a prime minister that headed the group of ministers, the advisers to the valide sultana. There was the hazinedar usta, the treasurer that balanced the vast harem budge and administered the salaries. The çamasïr usta ran the laundry, and there was the chief taster that tried toe food of the sultan when he came to the harem to eliminate the chances of poisoning. The ibriktar usta ran the baths, an important aspect of Ottoman life, a popular place for gossip as well as relaxation. The poor could gather at the numerous public baths built from the charity of the wealthy, but the rich and the powerful had in their own private domains baths for their own personal use. Days sometimes were spent idling in the warm and fragrant saunas. The lavish banquets and extravagantly exotic diets of the sultan and his entourage called for a large pantry staff headed by the kilerci who ensured there were always vast quantities of the beloved sweets and cakes available to the women fond of dining upon them while reclining and engaging in small talk. The chief nurse was the hastalar usta, for unlike many of the other civilizations, the area of medicine was dominated by women in the Ottoman Empire. Not only were they skilled in herbs and ungruents and what today is called "alternative medicine", but they even knew a crude form of vaccination by taking some puss from the boils of one sick with a deadly disease and inserting some into a cut on their children. Each servant received a payment every three months based on a daily wage and an allowance of two cloth dresses, a silk dress, pale material for shirts and an even paler piece for handkerchiefs per year. Additional allowances were possible on the whim of the sultana valide and the sultan. Furthermore, they only needed to completely nine years of service before earning their freedom to marry or do as they pleased. Whatever they had amassed and whatever presents had been obtained over the years were returned to them, and after a certain length of service, the slaves were even eligible for homes and land bonuses. Thus, often slaves were freed after accumulating a substantial fortune and attracted many offers of marriage, particularly in view of the connections these women had among the eminent members of the Empire.
The road to becoming an ikbal or kadín was not easy. Firstly, it was necessary for the sultan to show some gesture of interest, no matter how small or insignificant. Immediately, she became known as a "gedikli". If the sultan sent for the girl for a night, she was properly bathed, perfumed, and dressed for the night and in the morning could expect a gift that was commensurate to how much favor she had won from him. From there, she could become a favorite, or ikbal, and once she bore a son, she became a kadín. A sultan, like all other Muslims, was limited to four official wives, though despite that title, very few sultans ever engaged in true matrimony complete with the proper ceremonies with any women. These four official wives were given elaborate aparments and immense allowances, of course with the first wife (mother of the heir, the first-born son) receiving the largest and the rest proportionally smaller ones in accordance with their rank. The wives were expected to use their vast incomes to fund public works of charity, such as baths, hospitals, mosques, and even kitchens for the poor.
More competition was made to be the mother of the heir and the first lady of the empire because with the death of the old sultan and the ascension of the new, only the new sultana valide remained at the House of Felicity. The old favorites and wives were moved to the dismal palace of a shady reputation where the sick, old, and disgraced were confined - the Palace of Tears. The only escape for these favorites and wives of the old sultan was to remarry men in the court of some rank and attain the good graces of the new faction in power.
The sultana valide held a special position, for though all mothers were highly revered and sons would show enormous deference to their mothers throughout their entire lives, the sultana valide possessed special power as her position as the mother of the sultan and therefore possessed exceptional influence and power. She was given control of the harem, and her wealth came from private inheritance, an imperial dowry, whatever proceeds came from the harem, and income from taxes as well as property given to her each time a new province was added. The sultana valide, like the kadín, was expected to donate a substantial portion of her wealth to funding the erection of public works.