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Ladies of Caubul (1848 lithograph, by James Rattray) showing unveiling in zenana areas

Harem (Arabic: حريم‎‎ ḥarīm, "a sacred inviolable place; harem; female members of the family"), also known as zenana in South Asia, properly refers to domestic spaces that are reserved for the women of the house in a Muslim family and are inaccessible to adult males except for close relations. Similar institutions have been common in other Mediterranean and Middle Eastern civilizations, especially among royal and upper-class families and the term is sometimes used in non-Islamic contexts. The structure of the harem and the extent of monogamy or polygamy has varied depending on the family's personalities, socio-economic status, and local customs. This private space has been traditionally understood as serving the purposes of maintaining the modesty, privilege, and protection of women. A harem may house a man's wife—or wives and concubines, as in royal harems of the past—their pre-pubescent male children, unmarried daughters, female domestic workers, and other unmarried female relatives. In former times, some harems were guarded by eunuchs who were allowed inside.[1]

Although the institution has experienced a sharp decline in the modern era, seclusion of women is still practiced in some parts of the world, such as rural Afghanistan and conservative states of the Gulf region.[2]

In the West, Orientalist imaginary conceptions of the harem as a fantasy world of forbidden sexuality where numerous women lounged in suggestive poses have influenced many paintings, stage productions, films and literary works. There are several Renaissance paintings dating to the 16th century that defy Orientalist tropes and portray the women of the Ottoman harem as individuals of status and political significance.[3] In many periods of Islamic history women in the harem exercised various degrees of political power. [4]


The word has been recorded in the English language since early 17th century. It comes from the Arabic ḥarīm, which can mean "a sacred inviolable place", "harem" or "female members of the family". In English the term harem can mean also "the wives (or concubines) of a polygamous man." The triliteral Ḥ-R-M appears in other terms related the notion of interdiction such as haram (forbidden), mahram (unmarriageable relative), ihram (a pilgrim's state of ritual consecration during the Hajj) and al-Ḥaram al-Šarīf ("the noble sanctuary", which can refer to the Temple Mount or the sanctuary of Mecca).[5]

In Turkish of the Ottoman era, the harem, i.e., the part of the house reserved for women was called haremlık, while the space open for men was known as selamlık.[6]

Some scholars have used the term to refer to polygynous royal households throughout history.[7] In Muscovite Russia the area of aristocratic houses where women were secluded was known as terem.[8]

Historical Background

File:4 New entrant to a princes harem. Jaipur, late 18 century, National Museum New Delhi (2).jpg
New entrant to a prince's harem. Jaipur, late 18 century, National Museum New Delhi

The idea of harem or seclusion of women did not originate with Muhammad or Islam. [4] These practices were well established amongst the upper classes of Iraq, the Byzantine Empire, Ancient Greece and Persia for thousands of years before the advent of Islam.

The practice of secluding women was common to many ancient near eastern communities, especially where polygamy was permitted.[9] In pre-Islamic Assyria, Persia, and Egypt, most royal courts had a harem, where the ruler’s wives and concubines lived with female attendants, and eunuchs.[4] South Asian traditions of female seclusion, called purdah, may have been influenced by Islamic customs, but the practice of segregation by gender predates the Islamic invasions of India.[10] The practice of female seclusion is not exclusive to Islam, but the English word harem denotes the domestic space reserved for women in Muslim households.[11][12]

The harem system first became fully institutionalized in the Islamic world under the Abbasid caliphate.[2] Some scholars believe that Islamic culture adopted the custom of secluding women from the Byzantine Empire and Persia, and then read those customs back into the Quran.[13] According to Eleanor Doumato, the practice of secluding women in Islam is based on both religious tradition and social custom.[2]

Although the term harem does not denote women's quarters in the Quran, some scholars point out that a number Quranic verses discussing modesty and seclusion were held up by Quranic commentators as religious rationale for the separation of women from men.[2][14] One verse in particular discusses hijab. In modern usage hijab colloquially refers to the religious attire worn by Muslim women, but its original meaning was a "veil" or "curtain" that physically separates female from male space.[15][11]

The practice of female seclusion witnessed a sharp decline in the early 20th century as a result of education and increased economic opportunity for women, but it is still practiced in some parts of the world, such as rural Afghanistan and conservative states of the Gulf region.[2]

The Ideal of Seclusion

Leila Ahmed describes the ideal of seclusion as a "a man's right to keep his women concealed-invisible to other men." Ahmed identifies the practice of seclusion as a social ideal and one of the four factors that shaped the lives of women in the Mediterranean Middle East. [16] For example, contemporary sources from the Byzantine Empire describe the social mores that governed women's lives. Women were not supposed to be seen in public. They were guarded by eunuchs and could only leave the home "veiled and suitably chaperoned." Some of these customs were borrowed from the Persians, but Greek society also influenced the development of patriarchal tradition.[17]

The ideal of seclusion was not fully realized as social reality. One reason for this is because working class women often held jobs that required interaction with men.[11] Women participated in economic life as midwives, doctors, bath attendants and artisans. At times they lent and invested money and engaged in other commercial activities. [18] Female seclusion has historically signaled social and economic prestige.[11]

Eventually, the norms of female seclusion spread beyond the elites, but the practice remained characteristic of upper and middle classes, for whom the financial ability to allow one's wife to remain at home was a mark of high status.[2][11] In some regions, such as the Arabian peninsula, seclusion of women was practiced by poor families at the cost of great hardship, but it was generally economically unrealistic for the lower classes.[2]

Historical records shows that the women of 14th century Mamluk Cairo freely visited public events alongside men, despite objections of religious scholars.[11]

Harem in Islamic Cultures

Eunuchs, slavery and imperial harems

19th-century depiction of the Chief Black Eunuch (left), a court dwarf (middle) and the Chief White Eunuch (right)

Eunuchs were probably introduced into Islam through the influence of Persian and Byzantine imperial courts.[19] The Ottomans employed eunuchs as guardians of the harem. Istanbul's Topkapı Palace housed several hundred eunuchs in the late-sixteenth century. The head eunuch who guarded the entrance of the harem was known as kızlar ağası.[20] Eunuchs were either Nilotic slaves captured in the Nile vicinity and transported through ports in Upper Egypt, the Sudan and Abyssinia,[21] or European slaves such as Slavs and Franks.[19]

According to Encyclopedia of Islam, castration was prohibited in Islamic law "by a sort of tacit consensus" and eunuchs were acquired from Christian and Jewish traders.[22] Al-Muqaddasi identifies a town in Spain where the operation was performed by Jews and the survivors were then sent overseas.[22] Encyclopedia Judaica states that Talmudic law counts castration among mutilations entitling a slave to immediate release, so that the ability of Jewish slave traders to supply eunuchs to harems depended on whether they could acquire castrated males.[23] In the Ottoman court, white eunuchs, who were mostly brought from castration centers in Christian Europe and Circassia, were responsible for much of palace administration, while black eunuchs, who had undergone a more radical form of castration, were the only male slaves employed in the royal harem.[24]

Nineteenth-century travelers accounts tell of being served by black eunuch slaves.[25] The trade was suppressed in the Ottoman Empire beginning in the mid-19th century, and slavery was legally abolished in 1887 or 1888.[26] Late 19th-century slaves in Palestine included enslaved Africans and the sold daughters of poor Palestinian peasants. Both Arabs and Jews owned slaves.[26] Circassians and Abazins from North of the Black Sea may have also be involved in the Ottoman slave trade.[27][page needed]

Imperial Harem of the Ottoman Empire

File:Mihrimah Sultan.jpg
Mihrimah Sultan daughter of Suleiman the Magnificent

The Imperial Harem of the Ottoman sultan, which was also called seraglio in the West, was part of Topkapı Palace. It also housed the Valide Sultan, as well as the sultan's daughters and other female relatives. Eunuchs and servant girls were also part of the harem. During the later periods, the sons of the sultan lived in the Harem until they were 12 years old.[28]

Some women of Ottoman harem, especially wives, mothers and sisters of sultans, played very important political roles in Ottoman history, and in times it was said that the empire was ruled from harem. Hürrem Sultan (wife of Suleiman the Magnificent, mother of Selim II), was one of the most powerful women in Ottoman history.

It is being more commonly acknowledged today that the purpose of harems during the Ottoman Empire was for the royal upbringing of the future wives of noble and royal men. These women would be educated so that they were able to appear in public as a royal wife.[29]

Sultan Ibrahim the Mad, Ottoman ruler from 1640 to 1648, is said to have drowned 280 concubines of his harem in the Bosphorus.[30][better source needed]

In Istanbul, the separation of men's and women's quarters was never practiced among the poor, and by 1920s and 1930s it had become a thing of the past in middle and upper-class homes.[31]

The Mughal Harem

The king's wives, concubines, dancing girls and slaves were not the only women of the Mughal harem. Many others, including the king's mother lived in the harem. Aunts, grandmothers, sisters, daughters and other female relatives of the king all lived in the harem. Male children also lived in the harem until they grew up.[32] Within the precincts of the harem were markets, bazaars, laundries, kitchens, playgrounds, schools and baths. The harem had a hierarchy, its chief authorities being the wives and female relatives of the emperor and below them were the concubines.[33]

Safavid royal harem

The royal harem played an important role in the history of Safavid Persia. In the early Safavid period, young princes were placed in the care of a lala (high-ranking Qizilbash chief who acted as a guardian) and eventually given charge of important governorates.[34] Although this system had the danger of encouraging regional rebellions against the shah, it gave the princes education and training which prepared them for dynastic succession.[34] This policy was changed by Shah Abbas I (1571-1629), who "largely banished" the princes to the harem, where their social interactions were limited to the ladies of the harem and eunuchs.[35] This deprived them of administrative and military training as well as experience of dealing with the aristocracy of the realm, which, together with the princes' indulgent upbringing, made them not only unprepared to carry out royal responsibilities, but often also uninterested in doing so.[35] The confinement of royal princes to the harem was an important factor contributing to the decline of the Safavid dynasty.[34][36]

Soleiman I and his courtiers (1670)

The administration of the royal harem constituted an independent branch of the court, staffed mainly by eunuchs.[37] These were initially black eunuchs, but white eunuchs from Georgia also began to be employed from the time of Abbas I.[37] The mothers of rival princes together with eunuchs engaged in palace intrigues in an attempt to place their candidate on the throne.[34] From the middle of the sixteenth century, rivalries between Georgian and Circassian women in the royal harem gave rise to dynastic struggles of an ethnic nature previously unknown at the court.[38] When Shah Abbas II died in 1666, palace eunuchs engineered the succession of Suleiman I and effectively seized control of the state.[39][40] Suleiman set up a privy council, which included the most important eunuchs, in the harem, thereby depriving traditional state institutions of their functions.[39] The eunuchs' influence over military and civil affairs was checked only by their internal rivalries and the religious movement led by Muhammad Baqir Majlisi.[40] The royal harem reached such proportions under Sultan Husayn (1668–1726) that it consumed a large part of state revenues.[40] After the fall of the Safavid dynasty, which occurred soon afterwards, eunuchs were never again able to achieve significant political influence as a class in Persia.[40]

Western representations

The institution of the harem exerted a certain fascination on the European imagination, especially during the Age of Romanticism, and was a central trope of Orientalism in the arts, due in part to the writings of the adventurer Richard Francis Burton. Images through paintings and later films were particularly powerful ways of expressing these tropes.

A centuries-old theme in Western culture is the depiction of European women forcibly taken into Oriental harems—evident for example in the Mozart opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail ("The Abduction from the Seraglio") concerning the attempt of the hero Belmonte to rescue his beloved Konstanze from the seraglio/harem of the Pasha Selim; or in Voltaire's Candide, in chapter 12 of which the old woman relates her experiences of being sold into harems across the Ottoman Empire.

Much of Verdi's opera Il corsaro takes place in the harem of the Pasha Seid—where Gulnara, the Pasha's favorite, chafes at life in the harem, and longs for freedom and true love. Eventually she falls in love with the dashing invading corsair Corrado, kills the Pasha and escapes with the corsair—only to discover that he loves another woman.

The Lustful Turk, a well-known British erotic novel, was also based on the theme of Western women forced into sexual slavery in the harem of the Dey of Algiers, while in A Night in a Moorish Harem, a Western man is invited into a harem and enjoys forbidden sex with nine concubines. In both works, the theme of "West vs. Orient" is clearly interwoven with the sexual themes.

The Sheik novel and the Sheik film, a Hollywood production from 1921, are both controversial and probably the best known works created by exploiting the motive.[41] Much criticism ensued over decades, especially recently, on various strong and unambiguous Orientalist and colonialist elements, and in particularly directed at ideas closely related to the central rape plot in which for women, sexual submission is a necessary and natural condition, and that interracial love between an Englishwoman and Arab, a "native", is avoided, while the rape is ultimately justified by having the rapist turn out to be European rather than Arab.[42][43][44][45]

Image gallery

Many Western artists have depicted their imaginary conceptions of the harem.

See also



  1. Cartwright-Jones 2013.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 Eleanor Abdella Doumato (2009). "Seclusion". In John L. Esposito. The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Subscription required (help)).<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Madar 2011.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Britannica 2002.
  5. Wehr 1976, pp. 171-172.
  6. Quataert 2005, p. 152.
  7. Betzig 2013.
  8. Fay 2012, pp. 38-39.
  9.  Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Harem". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Kumkum Chatterjee. "Purdah". In Colin Blakemore, Sheila Jennett. The Oxford Companion to the Body. p. 570. Purdah [...] refers to the various modes of shielding women from the sight primarily of men (other than their husbands or men of their natal family) in the South Asian subcontinent. [...] The purdah, as veiling, was possibly influenced by Islamic custom, [...] But, in the sense of seclusion and the segregation of men and women, purdah predates the Islamic invasions of India. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 11.4 11.5 Youshaa Patel (2013). "Seclusion". The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Women. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Subscription required (help)).<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. "harem". Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House. Retrieved 2017-04-04.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  14. Siddiqui, Mona (2006). "Veil". In Jane Dammen McAuliffe. Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān. Brill. (Subscription required (help)).<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. [Quran 33:53 (Translated by Yusuf Ali)]
  16. Ahmed 1992, p. 103.
  17. Ahmed 1992, pp. 26-28.
  18. Ahmed 1992, p. 27.
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  43. Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
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Further reading

External links