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Odalisques blog

The Female Slave Market in Constantinople (1 Mar)
From the slave market to the sultan's bedchamber (17 Feb)
Buying a new slave for your harem (4 Feb)
Odalisquian books list now on Odalisques.com (29 Jan)
Edward Lane's descriptions and drawings of female clothing (27 Jan)
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"The Arab Scribe" by J.F. Lewis, 1852
"The Bath" by J.L. Gerome, in the Legion of Honor, San Francisco
"Odalisque" by Max Nonnenbruch
"By order of the sultan" by Antonio Fabres
"Idle Moments" by Frederick Arthur Bridgman, 1875
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© Tanos
1997-2016

Brass anklets for slaves and wives

Posted by Tanos on Sun 28 Apr 13, 2:23 AM

Solid brass anklets appear in several different places in the Odalisquian world, and still appear in modern day slavery in parts of Africa. I've pulled together some of these appearances, not least because anklets are so popular as symbols of ownership in O&P and M/s relationships.

To start with, here are two paintings of odalisques or harem slaves, both of which are wearing heavy brass anklets: on the left, Adrien Tanoux's "Namouna" is displayed naked for the pleasure of her master with a plain ring around her ankle; and on the right, Katherine Carl's "Oriental Beauty" shows a contented odalisque sitting on furs, wearing a C-shaped anklet, with the ends finishing in knobs which are shut together by hand or with tools.

Painters who visited Egypt or North Africa would have seen women wearing heavy brass anklets in the street, as it was a custom followed by wives. This was still true in the early 20th century when Aryout's "The Egyptian Peasant" described the drab clothes but bright jewellery of poor married women in the countryside:

The dullness of the women's attire is relieved by striking ornaments. ... On their ankles is the khulkhal, a massive ankle ring of bronze or silver, which is the wedding band, and must always be worn by a married woman. Everything else may be sold, but never this. If there is bereavement in the family, the earrings, necklaces and bracelets are laid aside for mourning: the fellaha (peasant) removes the khulkhal only upon the death of her lord and master. She never uses socks or stockings, but sometimes wears sandals or slippers like the men.

It wasn't just the humble rural women who wore these anklets above their usually bare feet - usually barefoot because money was spent on a husband's footwear first, then on robes that veiled wives' bodies and faces to bolster his pride and honour, and only finally on slippers to protect her soles from the hot stony ground. When we look at middle and upper class wives of North Africa, like this woman of Algiers, they often wore pairs of heavy anklets too, over the stockings they could afford to display their status.

In the 1830s, Edward Lane's account of his time living in Cairo described these C-shaped anklets ending in heavy knobs:

Anklets ("khulkhal"), of solid gold or silver ... are worn by some ladies; but are more uncommon than they formerly were. They are of course very heavy, and, knocking together as the wearer walks, make a ringing noise ; hence it is said in a song, "The ringing of thine anklets has deprived me of my reason."

Despite the paintings of harem slaves wearing them, the reality so far has been a symbol of marriage to free women, like a Western wedding ring. However, they were also worn by slaves, although with some important differences.

Charles White's "Three Years in Constantinople" describes a slave market in the Ottoman capital where slaves from south of the Sahara were sold with brass anklets fastened in place:

the newly imported black females are called forth ... The dress of these poor creatures ... consists of a red-striped cotton handkerchief twined round the head, a pair of coarse linen drawers, and the common Arab or Egyptian linen abba (wrapper), which serves as veil and robe. Some wear brass anklets and bracelets riveted on the leg or arm.

And even today, as part of the scandal of modern day slavery in countries like Niger, women wear heavy brass anklets to show their status as slaves of the Tuareg tribesmen who have controlled the region for generations. These nomadic tribes used to trade surplus and captured slaves across the Sahara desert to North Africa, including Egypt, and beyond to the rest of the Ottoman Empire.

The Koran allows Muslim men to marry up to four wives, but own as many slave concubines as they can afford (or capture in war) with free reign to use them sexually with or without consent. In these parts of Africa, the Arabised semi-nomadic tribes like the Tuaregs typically own some individual women in the hereditory slave tribes, just as each generation of an old European family might own a stable of horses and the individual animals alive at that time. When they exercise their right to take these women as concubines and enjoy them sexually, they are called "fifth wives" even though they are not legally married and a man might have several of his slaves as "fifth wives" at a time.

To me, this all sounds as if the heavy anklets were used as a symbol of possessing sexual rights over a woman, either as a wife or a slave, and that over time this has only survived as a way of marking slaves in western Africa south of the Sahara (particularly in Niger and Mali). The practice of riveting anklets shut that Charles White described sounds like a way of preventing slave women from escaping or denying their status, and reinforcing their position in their own minds. Riveted or not, the anklets are suggestive of shackles and other forms of bondage, and so were quite attractive symbols for Western painters of harem slaves to paint.

There is another connection between slavery and the C-shapred anklets and also bracelets. Along the West coast of Africa and further inland brass "manillas" or slave-currency were exchanged by Westerners for slaves as part of the Transatlantic trade to the Americas. Early European explorers found Africans trading and wearing solid metal bracelets and anklets, and began mass producing them in factories specifically for the slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries. Over time the manillas became standard-weight pieces of metal rather than wearable jewellery. Even when the slave trade was banned and fleets like the Royal Navy deployed West Africa Squadrons to stop slaving ships and hang their captains, smuggling continued. My two brass manillas in this photographs were made in England and loaded on to the trading ship Douro in 1843 as it set sail from Liverpool to Africa, before being shipwrecked off the Isles of Scilly and recovered by divers this century. The Douro was probably engaged in the legal palm oil trade, although the palm plantations in Africa themselves were worked with slaves who would have been bought from the interior with trade goods like manillas.

Solid, or at least hollow, rigid anklets and bracelets are worn by women in India too, and I bought these cheap bangles with bells from a street stall in Mumbai, along with an assortment of ankle bells and chains. Superificially they are a similar design to the C-shaped anklets, but in this case are made from a strip of steel that was beaten into a ring and has the knobs added. In India they don't seem to have been symbols of slavery or even marriage, but rather worn by dancers or just as jewellery.

With all these interesting associations that mix together power, sex, ownership, and sensuality, it's not surprising that anklets can be attractive items for people in modern day O&P or M/s relationships.

Edited Sun 28 Apr 13, 2:56 AM