For other uses, see Harem (disambiguation).
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"),[1][2] 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.[3][4][5] Similar institutions have been common in other Mediterranean and Middle Eastern civilizations, especially among royal and upper-class families,[4] and the term is sometimes used in non-Islamic contexts.[6] 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.[3] This private space has been traditionally understood as serving the purposes of maintaining the modesty, privilege, and protection of women.[3] 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.[3] In former times, some harems were guarded by eunuchs who were allowed inside.[3] Although the institution has experienced a sharp decline in the modern era, spatial seclusion of women is still practiced in some parts of the world, such as rural Afghanistan and conservative states of the Gulf region.[7][3] In the West, Orientalist imaginary conceptions of the harem as a personal brothel where numerous women lounged in suggestive poses have influenced many paintings, stage productions, films and literary works,[3][4] and the word has become particularly associated with polygyny and large royal harems.



New entrant to a prince's harem. Jaipur, late 18 century, National Museum New Delhi

The word has been recorded in the English language since early 17th century.[2] It comes from the Arabic ḥarīm, which can mean "a sacred inviolable place", "harem" or "female members of the family".[1][2] 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).[1][4]

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.[8]

Seclusion of women in IslamEdit

The practice of confining women to the company of other women is based on both religious tradition and social custom.[7] These practices were well established in pre-Christian and Christian communities of the Mediterranean, Mesopotamia, and Persia before the advent of Islam.[7]. The domestic space reserved for women in a South Asian household is known as zenana. The practice of purdah, which denotes the cultural institution of female seclusion in South Asia, is shared there among different religious communities.[9][unreliable source?]. It was first practiced by the Hindus, and was later adopted by the Muslims.[citation needed] The Islamic Mughal Empire adopted the rules of purdah that required women to live in a separate harem area.[citation needed] In Persia as well, the Abbasid Caliphate adopted the pre-existing local customs of harem[citation needed]

The harem system, under which the women of the household dwelt in seclusion from the outside world has been described as the "ultimate expression" of this ideal. The ideal of seclusion was not fully realized as social reality.[10][9] For example, historical record shows that the women of 14th century Cairo freely visited public events alongside men, to the chagrin of religious authorities.[9] The practice of gender segregation was influenced by a shifting interplay of religion, culture and politics.[9]

Female seclusion has historically also signaled social and economic prestige, since working-class women often held jobs that required interaction with men.[9] 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.[7][9] 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.[7]

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.[7]

Slavery and the Harem System in IslamEdit

The Slave Market by Otto Pliny, 1910

Jewish slave merchants supplied the harem system.[undue weight? ][11][not in citation given]By the turn of the 6th to the 7th century, Jews had become the chief slave traders in Italy, and were active in Gaelic territories. Pope Gregory the Great issued a ban on Jews possessing Christian slaves, lest the slaves convert to Judaism.[11] [12] By the 9th and 10th centuries, Jewish merchants, sometimes called Radhanites, were a major force in the slave trade continent-wide.[13] [14] [15]

Jews were one of the few groups who could move and trade between the Christian and Islamic worlds.[15] Ibn Khordadbeh observed and recorded routes of Jewish merchants in his Book of Roads and Kingdoms from the South of France to Spain, carrying (amongst other things) female slaves, eunuch slaves, and young slave boys. He also notes Jews purchasing Slavic slaves in Prague.[13] [11] [16] Letters of Agobard, archbishop of Lyons (816-840), [17] [18] [19] [20] acts of the emperor Louis the Pious,[21] [22] and the seventy-fifth canon of the Council of Meaux of 845 confirms the existence of a route used by Jewish traders with Slavic slaves through the Alps to Lyon, to Southern France, to Spain.[13]. Toll records from Walenstadt in 842–843 indicate another trade route, through Switzerland, the Septimer and Splügen passes, to Venice, and from there to North Africa.[13]. Many would be castrated and sold as eunuchs as well.[13][23]


Maharaja Bijay Singh with his family members listening to a musical performance in his harem, c. 1770

The word harem is strictly applicable to Muslim households only, but the system was common, more or less, to most ancient Oriental communities, especially where polygamy was permitted.[24]

The harem system first became fully institutionalized in the Islamic world under the Abbasid caliphate.[7]

The Imperial Harem of the Ottoman sultan, which was also called seraglio in the West, typically housed several dozen women, including wives. It also housed the sultan's mother, daughters and other female relatives, as well as eunuchs and slave servant girls to serve the aforementioned women. During the later periods, the sons of the sultan lived in the Harem until they were 12 years old,[25] when it was considered appropriate for them to appear in the public and administrative areas of the palace. The Topkapı Harem was, in some senses, merely the private living quarters of the sultan and his family, within the palace complex. 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.[26]

Sultan Ibrahim the Mad, Ottoman ruler from 1640 to 1648, is said to have drowned 280 concubines of his harem in the Bosphorus.[27] At least one of his concubines, Turhan Hatice, a Ukrainian who was captured during one of the raids by Tatars and sold into slavery, survived his reign.

The harem was not just a place where women lived. Babies were born and children grew up there. 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.[28] There was mother, step-mothers, aunts, grandmothers, step-sisters, sisters, daughters and other female relatives that lived in the harem. There were also ladies-in-waiting, servants, maids, cooks, women official and guards.[29]

In Istanbul, the separation of men's and women's quarters were never practiced among the poor, and by 1920s and 1930s it had become a thing of the past in middle- and upper-class homes.[30]

Similar institutionsEdit

The harem, or institutions similar to it, had been part of Near Eastern cultural practice for thousands of years prior to the advent of Islam.[9] Female seclusion and a special part of the house reserved for women were common among the elites of ancient Greece (where it was known as the gynaeceum) and Persia.[31][32] These traditions were taken up in the Byzantine empire, though the rigid norms of seclusion expressed in Byzantine literature did not necessarily reflect actual practice.[31][10] In Muscovite Russia the area of aristocratic houses where women were secluded was known as terem.[31]

Use of the term in non-Islamic contextsEdit

In English the term harem can mean "the wives (or concubines) of a polygamous man".[33] Some scholars use the term to refer to polygynous royal households throughout history.[34]

Harem is also the usual English translation of the Chinese language term hougong (hou-kung; Chinese: 後宮; literally: "the palace behind").[citation needed] Hougong refers to the part of the palace reserved for the Chinese emperor's consorts, concubines, female attendants and eunuchs. Chinese palaces were divided into a working part in which the Emperor would meet ministers, govern and carry out religious rites. Behind this public part were the private apartments of the Emperor and his consorts. The women who lived in an emperor's hougong sometimes numbered in the thousands. In 1421, the Yongle Emperor ordered 2,800 concubines, servant girls and eunuchs who guarded them to a slow slicing death as the Emperor tried to suppress a sex scandal which threatened to humiliate him.[35] Taking multiple concubines was a means to display wealth and power; and outside of the nobility harems were maintained by high-ranking officials and rich merchants. The government official Heshen had 600 women in his harem.[36]

Western representationsEdit

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. Many Westerners falsely imagined a harem as a personal brothel consisting of many sensual young women lying around pools with oiled bodies, with the sole purpose of pleasing the powerful man to whom they had given themselves. Much of this fantasy is recorded in Western art from that period, usually portraying groups of attractive women lounging nude by spas and pools.

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.[37] 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.[38][39][40][41]

Image galleryEdit

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

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c Hans Wehr, J. Milton Cowan (1976). A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic (3rd ed.). Spoken Language Services. pp. 171–172. 
  2. ^ a b c Harem at
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Cartwright-Jones, Catherine (2013). "Harem". The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Women. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (subscription required (help)). 
  4. ^ a b c d Anwar, Etin (2004). "Harem". In Richard C. Martin. Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World. MacMillan Reference USA. 
  5. ^ Harem in Merriam-Webster Dictionary
  6. ^ Elfriede Haslauer (2005). "Harem". The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (subscription required (help)). 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g Eleanor Abdella Doumato (2009). "Seclusion". In John L. Esposito. The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (subscription required (help)). 
  8. ^ Donald Quataert (2005). The Ottoman Empire, 1700-1922. Cambridge University Press. p. 152. 
  9. ^ a b c d e f g Youshaa Patel (2013). "Seclusion". The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Women. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (subscription required (help)). 
  10. ^ a b Ahmed, Leila (1992). Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven: Yale University Press. pp. 26–28. 
  11. ^ a b c Singer, Isidore (1906). "Slave Trade". Jewish Encyclopedia. Retrieved 24 March 2017. With the rise of Islam large opportunities were afforded to the Jews to supply Moslem slaves to the Christian world, and Christian slaves to that of Islam; and Ibn Khordadhbeh in the ninth century describes two routes by which Jewish slave-dealers carried such slaves from West to East and from East to West 
  12. ^ Epistles of Saint Gregory the Great, Book IX 109-110, Book IV 21, Book IX 36 [1]
  13. ^ a b c d e Cite error: The named reference dictslave was invoked but never defined (see the help page).
  14. ^ Slave Trade. Jewish Encyclopedia
  15. ^ a b Olivia Remie Constable (1996). Trade and Traders in Muslim Spain: The Commercial Realignment of the Iberian Peninsula, 900–1500. Cambridge University Press. pp. 203–204. ISBN 0521565030
  16. ^ تأليف : ابن خرداذبه المسالك والممالك
  18. ^ Radl, Karl. An English Translation of Agobard of Lyon 'De Baptismo Judaicorum Mancipiorum' 24 March 2013 [3]
  19. ^ North, W.L. Medieval Sourcebook: Agobard of Lyon: On the Insolence of the Jews To Louis the Pious (826/827) [4]
  20. ^ North, W.L. Medieval Sourcebook: Agobard of Lyon: On the Baptism of Slaves Belonging to Jews (to Adalard, Wala, and Helisachar) [5]
  21. ^ Thegan of Trier, Gesta Hludowici imperatoris, tr. Ernst Tremp [6]
  22. ^ Vita Hludovici [7]
  23. ^ Cite error: The named reference valante was invoked but never defined (see the help page).
  24. ^   Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Harem". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 
  25. ^ Ansary, Tamim (2009). Destiny disrupted: a history of the world through Islamic eyes. New York: PublicAffairs. p. 228. ISBN 9781586486068. 
  26. ^ Goodwin, Godfrey (1997). The private world of Ottoman women. London: Saqi Books. p. 127. ISBN 9780863567513. 
  27. ^ Dash, Mike (22 March 2012). "The Ottoman Empire's Life-or-Death Race". 
  28. ^ Sharma, Anjali (28 November 2013). "Inside the harem of the mughals". The New Indian Express. 
  29. ^ Mukherjee, Soma (2001). Royal Mughal ladies and their contributions. New Delhi: Gyan Publishing House. ISBN 9788121207607. 
  30. ^ Alan Duben, Cem Behar (2002). Istanbul Households: Marriage, Family and Fertility, 1880-1940. Cambridge University Press. p. 223. 
  31. ^ a b c Mary Ann Fay (2012). Unveiling the Harem: Elite Women and the Paradox of Seclusion in Eighteenth-Century Cairo. Syracuse University Press. pp. 38–39. 
  32. ^ Edmund Burke, Nejde Yaghoubian (2006). Struggle and Survival in the Modern Middle East. University of California Press. p. 48. 
  33. ^ Haremin Oxford Dictionaries
  34. ^ Betzig, Laura (March 1994). "Sex in History". Michigan Today. University of Michigan. Archived from the original on 11 September 2013. 
  35. ^ "Revenge of the evil emperor: Mass slaughter in Beijing's Forbidden City". Mail Online. 3 May 2008. 
  36. ^ Wang, William (15 April 2014). "Visitors Flock to House of China's Most Corrupt Official". CRI English. 
  37. ^ "The Sheik". University of Pennsylvania Press website. Accessed Oct. 20, 2015.
  38. ^ "Sheiks & Terrorists - Reclaiming Identity: Dismantling Arab Stereotypes". Retrieved 8 September 2016. 
  39. ^ J., Dajani, Najat Z. (1 January 2000). "Arabs in Hollywood : Orientalism in film". doi:10.14288/1.0099552. Retrieved 8 September 2016. 
  40. ^ Hsu-Ming Teo. ""Historicizing The Sheik: Comparisons of the British Novel and the American Film"". Retrieved 8 September 2016. 
  41. ^ Hsu-Ming Teo. "Desert Passions: Orientalism and Romance Novels". 

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit