Turkish first lady says harem was 'school' for women

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech, flanked by his wife Emine, at the Presidential Palace in Ankara on February 9, 2016 (AFP Photo/Adem Altan) (AFP)

Ankara (AFP) - The wife of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday hailed the harem of the Ottoman sultans as "a school for preparing women for life".

Emine Erdogan's comments come a day after the president triggered protests by saying he believed that "a woman is above all a mother" in a speech marking International Women's Day.

Critics have accused Erdogan's government of trying to impose strict Islamic values on Turkey and curtailing women's civil liberties.

"The harem was a school for members of the Ottoman dynasty and an educational establishment for preparing women for life," Emine Erdogan said at an official event on the Ottoman sultans in Ankara, according to Turkish TV stations.

President Erdogan has come under fire in the past for urging Turkish women to have at least three children and railing against efforts to promote birth control as "treason".

He and his wife regularly speak of their attachment to Islamic principles and the values of the old Ottoman empire, from the ruins of which the modern Turkish state was founded in 1923.

While the term "harem" has long titillated the Western imagination, in the Ottoman period it was an institution with very strict, detailed rules, which even the sultan had to follow, and precise guidelines on the recruitment and education of courtesans.

Each woman would receive an education in whichever discipline she showed the most promise -- for example calligraphy, decorative arts, music or foreign languages.

There was no age liimit for the harem and women of 60 could live along side young girls, while the most capable could rise to wield enormous influence over the court.

But a day after her husband's comments drew thousands of women into the streets of Istanbul in protest, Emine Erdogan's remarks came under fire on social media.

Ozlem Kurumlar, a professor at an Istanbul university, tweeted: "In the time of Murad III (a 16th century sultan), books were the only thing that never entered the harem."