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The Harem - part 1
(By Ariadne La Noire as appeared in the July/August 1999 Bolt)

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By Lady Ariadne La Noire


    This paper was written first for my course in Islamic History at Grand Valley State University. I hope to give it a more narrowed focus on times we are familiar with in the SCA. I hope it gives you a better understanding of harem lifestyle in the Middle East and shows you that the status of women was not always one of subservience. This paper will focus mostly on women of the royal harems or upper class. Lower or middle class women may be included as I find new information. I will provide you with a book list as well on sources used. I will be dividing the paper into different time periods, from the Abbasid Caliphate through the Ottoman Empire, which will be covered in subsequent issues of the Rimsholt Bolt. I will begin this article with an Introduction to Islam and Women's Roles in the religion. I hope you enjoy.

        --Lady Ariadne la Noire


    Imagine the world of Islam in the Middle Ages: a land of exotic, mysterious, romantic and haunting tales. Westerners have been intrigued by this vision of the Middle East for centuries, yet sometimes their views are founded only on a few fragmentary stories that somehow slipped into their lives as childhood fairy tales. Too often Arabian Nights determine the entire Western view on Islamic and Middle Eastern life and history. Perhaps one of the most fabled yet least accurate stories is that of the harem. To Westerners, this was a place of great wealth where a man controls women as slaves, a view both alarming and erotic at the same time. However, this Western view is not grounded in Islamic or Middle Eastern history; in fact, harem (harim) is a term referring to "the forbidden" in Islam, or more specifically a private quarter in the Muslim home for women (in some cases this can be a private quarters for an entire family, but I will discuss this later). In reality, the harem may have been a private and forbidden place, yet it was hardly the prison that some Westernized tales make it out to be. By looking at historical records and histories I hope to show that this semi-fictitious account prominent in the West did not always ring true.

    Sadly, the Muslim religion often receives a bad reputation based on its treatment of women. Though there is certainly reason to critique and question gender roles in Islam (and any other religion for that matter), the stories of harem have definitely made Islamic criticism in the West even more harsh. I want to challenge the myth that Islam is the villain of gender inequality by showing that the "harem" is not the product of Islam, although Islam, through its beliefs, was able to perpetuate its existence.

    First of all, "harem" does not refer explicitly to concubinage or polygamy. The practice of taking more than one wife was in practice in many places in the world long before the founding of Islam. One needs only to read the Bible to see that King Solomon, who lived centuries before Muhammed, had already brought into practice the keeping of concubines. Certainly, polygamy was not just a practice in the Middle East either, as some European tribes, during the time of the Roman Empire, sanctioned the taking of multiple wives. The word "harim" only describes the Muslim term for the place where such practices manifested themselves.

    What Islam is responsible for is the creation of an environment that was conducive to the practices of polygamy and concubinage. According to the Holy Qu'ran, a man is allowed to take up to four wives on condition that he treat each of them equally. He is also permitted to take as many concubines as he chooses, but a woman is not given the right to multiple partners. Although women are definitely accorded rights within Islam and are viewed as spiritually equal to men, the common view is that women are not socially equal to males (Tucker, 5). To understand why women were naturally subjugated thus, we need to look to their status in pre-Islamic Arabia and the Middle East.

Under ancient Mesopotamian laws, women were not allowed to divorce husbands or deny them sexual intercourse. They were killed if they committed or were even suspected of adultery. Men were granted more leniency. These gender views held over until the times of the Prophet in areas such as Persia and Anatolia and were able to influence the religion of Islam as it spread into these areas (Tucker, 8). During the Age of Ignorance (al-Jahiliyyah), Arabia was made up of nomadic tribes in which women had more prestige due to work. However, because life in the region was becoming more sedentary, men became the primary family support due to labor, farming or trade. This left the women with lower status because they may have no longer contributed directly to the welfare of the community through work. Sons slowly became more favored over daughters and female infanticide came into practice. Muhammad's advocation of multiple wives and concubines may have been in response to this appalling behavior (Tucker, 8 & Croutier 20). Nevertheless, because of these cultural practices that pre-dated Islam, polygamy became a tenant of the religion. As the religion was spread from region to region, its gender practices came with it or were adopted from the practices of present population (such as the Persian influences on Iran), and therefore the harem was perpetuated.

    As previously mentioned, the Western world does not see the entire picture of the harem. They are, for the most part, ignorant of Middle Eastern culture and history. It is not just the relaying of myths that fed the Western viewpoint however, but the documentation of Muslim historians and scholars that show only limited pictures of the lives of harem women, and often idealized ones at that. It also must be taken into account that Western works on women come from a Western perspective, potentially tainting the real truth. For instance, during the nineteenth century Europeans showed a distinct interest in Eastern lifestyles, but it was looked at in an increasingly condescending and ethnocentric way, and much of the period writings and artwork depict a less than accurate picture. Edward Said's work entitled Orientalism sought to explain the ethnocentrism used to describe the "Orient" in the nineteenth century. Said states that Orientalism was "a way of coming to terms with the Orient that is based on the Orient's special place in European Western Experience." And that instead of seeing the Eastern cultures for what they were, Europe was only able to see the East as "its cultural contestant" and "its contrasting image, idea, personality, [and] experience." Thus, Europe was only able to gain an appreciation for what it saw as exotic or profane in the Muslim culture, further leading to the West's stereotypes of Islam (Said, 1-3, 5). Also hurtful to studying woman in Islam is the fact that increasingly more feminist accounts have been written by Western writers who take gender inequality to an extreme that may not be either accurate or fair to Muslim culture (Tucker, 2).

    What was life really like in the harem? So far is has been established that a "harem" is a private quarters in a Muslim household for women. However, family members, wives, slaves (both male and female), eunuchs, concubines, and children of both sexes also made up the harems of the Middle East (Peirce, 5-6). This harem truly was a place of refuge where a royal or elite family was separated from their subjects inside the royal palace, and the caliph or sultan was situated in his own inner court or harem, separated from everyone but his closest slaves. Thus, a harem is not necessarily delineated for women (Peirce, 10-11). Each harem also had a rigid hierarchy of officials, servants, and even family members. Certain concubines and wives were held in higher esteem than others, as were children or slaves. The hierarchy varied over time and place, but it was still the major force behind the happenings in the harem. I will take a look at several time periods and places in order to give the different accounts of each.


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