This contains some factual information busting the bizarre tales and fantasies surrounding the Harem embedded in Western minds. It can actually be defined as part of the Western tradition that originated from the stories of Western travelers visiting the Arab/Muslim world centuries ago. Unfortunately the myth still persists, providing fodder to writers and movie makers producing exotic fictions for box-office hits and in the process grossly misinterpreting the medieval Muslim society.
The pronunciation and spelling "harem" is itself an error by the West. In Arabic language there is no such word as "harem." Rather, it's the term "hrm" or "هرم" that has its root in Arabic. The word "harem" entered the English language as a distortion of "hrm." "Hrm" simply refers to a private space set aside for use. "Hrm" (or Hrm Sharif) is also applied to the Kaaba in Mecca denoting it as a special, sacred place designated only for the worship of ONE God. When we talk of "hrm" for women or men, it means private residences or spaces allotted to men and women within a household, without any gender specifications.
Please take the time to read the following collection of passages from well-read writers, along with original links of their sources, to learn how this practice of tale-telling began and the depth of its inaccuracy.
Quoting Shohreh Gholsorkhi from "Pari Khan Khanum: A masterful Safavid Princess."
"The royal harem is perhaps the most misunderstood institution of the Islamic social order. Myths surrounded harems originated primarily in the west fomented by European travelers over a period of several centuries. As is well known, Islamic empires at their zenith attracted numerous European merchants and traders as well as adventurers, emissaries and missionaries. Many of them took up residence in Muslim countries, some for a short time and some for many years. They toured cities and saw the countryside and got acquainted with the local people. In several instances, some made their way into the royal courts. Many of these travelers kept extensive notes about their journeys and left careful sketches of various aspects of the society with which they came in contact. Often, upon their return home, many made their narratives available at courts and sometimes to the public. There are numerous references to royal harems that some of the European visitors encountered. While these visitors (most of them men) could observe city women on the streets (in their covers and costumes or even in the case of village women without headcover) , they were prohibited from making contact with women of the royal household. This prohibition with its mystery and hint of forbidden pleasures merely served to intrigue the traveler. The typical traveler’s portrayal of the harem was based largely on hearsay, gossips and embroidered stories from the natives in addition to the accounts of other travelers, or in some cases, even their own wild imagination. Gradually the image grew. To the western traveler, the harem became a pleasure palace kept solely for the king with beautiful women, scantily clad and heavily perfumed languished as they awaited the call of their master. This image remained intact for centuries partly because it conformed to earlier notions, the main one being that women in Islamic societies were relegated to a subservient status vis-à-vis men. Although modern scholarly research in on the role of women in Islamic societies remains slim, recent scholarship has modified many earlier tenets."
Quoting from Dismantling Arab Stereotype: What is Oreintalism?
" 'Orientalism' is a way of seeing that imagines, emphasizes, exaggerates and distorts differences of Arab peoples and cultures as compared to that of Europe and the U.S. It often involves seeing Arab culture as exotic, backward, uncivilized, and at times dangerous.
According to Edward E. Said, Orientalism dates from the period of European Enlightenment and colonization of the Arab World. Orientalism provided a rationalization for European colonialism based on a self-serving history in which “the West” constructed “the East” as extremely different and inferior, and therefore in need of Western intervention or “rescue”.
The paintings, created by European artists of the 19th and early 20th centuries, depict the Arab World as an exotic and mysterious place of sand, harems and belly dancers, reflecting a long history of Orientalist fantasies ….
France colonized Algeria from 1830 to 1962. From roughly 1900 to 1930, French entrepreneurs produced postcards of Algerian women that were circulated in France. While Algerian women are portrayed in these photographs as if the camera is capturing a real moment in their everyday lives, the women are actually set up in the photographer’s studio. ...... these photographs were circulated as evidence of the exotic, backwards and strange customs of Algerians, when, in fact, they reveal more about the French colonial perspective than about Algerian life in the early 1900s. This is an example of how Arab women have been exoticized and eroticized for the pleasure of the European male voyeur, as these photographs make visible French colonial fantasies of penetrating the harem and gaining access to Arab women’s private spaces."
Quoting an excerpt from the works of Nadine Sultana d'Osman Han (Kadjar) - 'Ottoman Harem':
Source / Website:
"Contrary to prevailing opinion, the harem at the time of the Ottomans was not a place of unbridled desire nor a prison for helpless women guarded by fierce eunuchs for the pleasure of lascivious sultans. As with many institutions that are foreign to the experience of the West and different from its own traditions, the harem in Islamic culture has posed a twin problem of simultaneous fascination and attraction and criticism and derision for the Western mind. These positions stem largely from a misunderstanding of the reality of the harem on the one hand, and the very real impossibility of a closer scrutiny on the other, both because of the nature of the institution itself and because of the religious, cultural and political context to which the harem belonged.
The harem of an Imperial Princess means her own private home. Here, even her husband (in this case Damat Mahmut Bey Pasha) had to ask the Princess for permission to enter. But as has been pointed out, the Harem of an Imperial Princess did not house concubines. Adultery (or multiple wives and favorites) was not permitted to the husband of an Imperial Princess. …."
An excerpt from Encyclopedia of Islam:
"New historical studies of Ottoman, Mughal, and Persian harems of the 16th and 17th centuries have yielded valuable insights about what harem life was actually like and helped dispel myths that have captured the Western imagination. This research has shown that royal harems were highly organized complex communities that assumed different characteristics at different moments in history, depending on local circumstances, personalities, and configurations of power. They often included non-Muslims as well as Muslims. Upper-class women and children were educated and trained in arts and crafts there. Harem women exercised considerable political influence in dynastic affairs and were not always secluded from the wider society. A ruler's mother, wives, concubines, daughters, and servants were involved in raising his sons and participated in the politics of arranging royal marriages and the succession. Indeed, some harem mothers and wives, such as Hurrem (also known as Roxelana, d. 1558) in Ottoman Istanbul, Pari-Khan Khanum (d. 1578) in Safavid Isfahan, and Nur Jahan (d. 1645) in Mughal Delhi, played central roles in affairs of state."
Informative excerpt from Phillip Emeritz’s “Feminine power in the Ottoman harem.”
"The harem was not a prison for women. It was simply another stage for political power.
The term harem comes from the Islamic root h-r-m which denotes a sacred area with no gender specifications. It is only through rumor and misinterpretation that the Western world has assigned such a confined, erotic image of this social structure. It cannot be questioned that women were unequal with men in society, but women commanded a surprising amount of influence and presence despite their limitations.
The harem has been described by historians as a political arena for women as early as between the 4th and 11th century.
Another Western misconception about the harem is that it was gender specific, when it actually referred to male as well as female spaces. The imperial harem, harem-i humayun , was the name given to the third and innermost courtyard of Topkapi palace, which was reserved specifically for males. The women’s quarters also received the title of imperial harem, but the name was because of the sultan’s presence rather than that of the women. The palatial space was divided into the haremlik, the area allocated for women, and the selamlik, the area prescribed to men. Gendered quarters were separated in the palace, but women were secluded from men almost as much as men from women. In fact, the seclusion of women to their own space resulted in the development of a private society. Women established their own community in the harem ….."
Finally, a very upfront extract from Wordpress blog: Medieval Misconceptions - Harem Harlots:
"There’s always been a cult-like myth about the idea of a harem. These myths come from the Western world – showcased in Western art and in the Hollywood ‘Orientalizing‘ of characters from the ‘Middle East.’ Such images are invariably of half-naked women wearing “I Dream of Jeanie” silk and gossamer fabrics through which curvaceous bodies can be seen. These fantasy Harem girls dance like nymphs in seductive motions bordering on vulgarity. Their large bedroom eyes with sooty, foot-long lashes generally end up wooing some White Western hero who has gallantly rescued her from a tyrannical Arab Sheik. Make no mistake about it, peops – this over-sexualization of harem women exists only in Western minds and movies.
This perverted myth of harem women originated in the minds and works of early Orientalist scholars. One of the most famous is the early 1700’s French translation of the “One Thousand and One Nights,” followed by many different English versions which titillated Western minds and became hugely popular. ..... Orientalist scholars also depicted harem women as helpless captives, or ravenous harlots feeding on their master Sultan. As documented in renown author and lecturer Asli Sancar’s book Ottoman Women: Myth & Reality: “Foreign men were never permitted to enter an Ottoman harem, so there were no eye-witness reports to contradict the myth.” It wasn’t until the wife of a British ambassador, , was invited inside a harem that the myth was finally challenged."