Myths and Misconceptions About the Harem

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:  http://www.nadinevalidesultan.or...

"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, Lady Mary Wortley Montague, was invited inside a harem that the myth was finally challenged."