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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. 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. 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, and the word has become particularly associated with polygyny and large royal harems.
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". 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).
Seclusion of women in Islam
The practice of confining women to the company of other women is based on both religious tradition and social custom. These practices were well established in pre-Christian and Christian communities of the Mediterranean, Mesopotamia, and Persia before the advent of Islam.. 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.[unreliable source?]. It was first practiced by the Hindus, and was later adopted by the Muslims. The Islamic Mughal Empire adopted the rules of purdah that required women to live in a separate harem area. In Persia as well, the Abbasid Caliphate adopted the pre-existing local customs of harem
Along with a number Quranic verses discussing modesty, the passages which enjoined seclusion on Muhammad's wives (33:32-33, 33:53) were later held up by Quranic commentators as a model of decorum for all Muslim women and religious rationale for their spatial separation from men. 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. For example, historical record shows that the women of 14th century Cairo freely visited public events alongside men, to the chagrin of religious authorities. The practice of gender segregation was influenced by a shifting interplay of religion, culture and politics.
Female seclusion has historically also signaled social and economic prestige, since working-class women often held jobs that required interaction with men. 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. 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.
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.
Slavery and the Harem System in Islam
In the medieval Ottoman Empire, Jews were one of the few groups who could move and trade between the Christian and Islamic worlds. Although slave merchants were officially supposed to be Muslims, "unofficial" Jewish traders also participated.
There is a great deal of historical data that demonstrates that Jews played a significant role in the slave trade, beginning in the ancient world. Some scholars have emphasized that Jews played a minor role in the overall slave trade., which others have argued that the number of Jews involved in the slave trade was sizeable. Róbert Dán has written that Jews were the "main suppliers" of eunuchs.
Chattel slavery in the Ottoman Empire included both black Africans and people of other ethnicities such as Latin American and South Asian, many of whom circulated through the Arab slave trade. Nineteenth-century travelers accounts tell of being served by black eunuch slaves. The trade was suppressed in the Ottoman Empire beginning in the mid-19th century, and slavery was legally abolished in 1887 or 1888. Late 19th-century slaves in Palestine included enslaved Africans and the sold daughters of poor Palestinian peasants. Both Arabs and Jews owned slaves. British mandate officials reported no chattel slavery in mandate Palestine as of 1924.
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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, 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.
Sultan Ibrahim the Mad, Ottoman ruler from 1640 to 1648, is said to have drowned 280 concubines of his harem in the Bosphorus. 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. 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.
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.
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. 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. 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. In Muscovite Russia the area of aristocratic houses where women were secluded was known as terem.
Use of the term in non-Islamic contexts
Harem is also the usual English translation of the Chinese language term hougong (hou-kung; Chinese: 後宮; literally: "the palace behind"). 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. 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.
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. 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.
Many Western artists have depicted their imaginary conceptions of the harem.
Scene from the Harem, Jean-Baptiste van Mour (1st half of the 18th century)
Scene in a Harem, by Guardi
The Harem as imagined by European artist, The Dormitory of the Concubines, by Ignace Melling, 1811.
Gustave Boulanger: The Harem
Harem scene by Dominique Ingres
The Reception, John Frederick Lewis, 1805-1875, English
Scene from the Harem by Fernand Cormon, c. 1877
Harem dance by Giulio Rosati
Harem Scene, Quintana Olleras, 1851-1919, Spanish
The Harem Fountain, Frederick Arthur Bridgman, 1847-1928, American
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