The Turkish first lady has praised the Ottoman-era harem as an educational center that prepared women for life, the latest in a string of controversial remarks by Turkish dignitaries on women's roles.

At a speech delivered during a meeting on the mothers of Ottoman rulers, Emine Erdogan, wife of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said that contrary to western perceptions, the harems were schools and educational establishments for women and places from where they organized their charity work.

Her words were reported in several newspapers on Thursday.

Erdogan himself has upset women's right advocates by saying that men and women are not equal and that a woman's primary role is motherhood.

A former deputy prime minister caused a storm in 2014 by declaring that women should not laugh aloud in public.