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HAREM. The Arabic term harem means a forbidden and sacred space that describes inviolable sanctuaries like the holy cities of Mecca and Medina (haremeyn-i sharifeyn) and the Muslim household, which were off limits to outsiders who were non-Muslims in the former case and unrelated men in the latter. In the ordinary meaning of the word harem usually refers to the extended household and may or may not refer to a polygamous household. Ruling-class harems, however, were usually polygamous and contained several servants and slaves in addition to close relatives.

The institution of the imperial harem can be traced back to the ancient Near East. It became firmly established under the Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad (7501258) and became associated in the West with the Ottoman (13001923), Mamluk (12501517), Safavid (15011732), and Mughal (15261739) imperial and ruling-class households during the early modern period.

The notions of Muslim sexuality and harem life were exaggerated if not completely inaccurate in western artistic and literary representations. European artists like Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (La grande odalisque and The Turkish Bath), John Fredrick Lewis (Life in the Harem), Jean-Leon Gérôme (The Bath), and Anton Ignaz Melling (Interior of the Palace of Hatice Sultana and The Royal Harem) depicted the harem life in numerous paintings in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Ottoman images of harem life by indigenous artists like Levnî, Buharî, and Enderunî Fazil Bey, on the other hand, were more realistic and less obsessed with nudity and overt sexuality than the European artists. Sexuality and reproduction were only one aspect of harem life in the Muslim East. Some Ottoman sultans displayed an insatiable appetite for women, but even they had to follow the rigid rules of conduct associated with the imperial harem. The valide-sultan ('queen mother') set these rules and wielded great power as the head of the harem hierarchy. She chose the sexual partners for her sons and was in charge of training all the women. The chief black eunuch (kizlar ağasi) guarded the harem and worked closely with the valide-sultan. He was also in charge of all imperial religious and charitable foundations and became an important personality in harem politics. He represented the link between the imperial harem and the outside world. However, not all palace women remained completely confined to the harem. Some women graduated from their palace training and were manumitted and married to high dignitaries in the empire. They maintained their ties with the palace and played an important role in Ottoman politics. In the eighteenth century Ottoman princesses were able to move out of the Topkapi Palace harem and set up private mansions along the Bosphorus. Although not really independent of the sultan, they had large retinues and held enormous wealth as tax farmers and landowners.

Slavery and polygamy were the backbone of this institution, which received sanction in Islamic practice. The Koran allowed Muslim men to marry four legal wives and have an unlimited number of concubines. The prophet Mohammed himself had eleven legal wives and several concubines. Despite this Koranic injunction, only 2 to 3 percent of Muslim men practiced polygamy in the Ottoman Empire. However, concubinage was probably more widespread, at least in the cities, due to the ready availability of female slaves. Many households in Istanbul contained at least one female slave who performed household duties. Slaves had limited legal rights but could move to better positions once they converted to Islam and bore children. The Koran encouraged Muslim men to marry their slaves (Sura 24:30). Muslim men were permitted to marry non-Muslim women, including their concubines, while Muslim women could not marry anyone but free Muslim men. Moreover, Muslim women were forbidden from having more than one husband at the same time. The Koran considered the children of concubines legitimate and equal in rights to children born to free women. It also banned the prostitution of female slaves by their master and promoted their fair treatment and manumission. However, these proscriptions could not always be enforced.

The institution of the imperial harem as it developed in the Ottoman Empire was an abrogation of Islamic principles although it received religious sanction from the Hanafi 'ulema ('scholars'). The Koran encouraged the manumission of slaves and discouraged concubinage. The Ottoman sultans fully adopted this institution when the empire became centralized in the fifteenth century. The flow of male and female slaves increased with military victories in the Balkans. The sultan claimed one-fifth of the war booty, which included male and female slaves. The palace also purchased slaves from the slave market. A good proportion of the population of Istanbul was of servile background during the early modern period. The Ottomans incorporated many male slaves into the military system, while female slaves ended up in domestic households, with the youngest and most beautiful entering the royal household. These women received training in various skills and a salary depending on their rank within the harem.

Some of the women attracted the attention of the sultan and became his haseki, or favorite concubine (see Peirce). If a haseki bore the sultan a son, she moved up in the hierarchy and ultimately could become the valide-sultan if her son inherited the Ottoman throne. The Ottoman sultans adopted a "one concubine, one son" policy to avoid the concentration of power in the hands of one concubine and to prevent succession crises, which had become endemic to the empire. Supposedly the sultan stopped sleeping with a concubine once she bore him a son.

The haseki played an important role in ensuring succession for her son. Some favorites like Hürrem, Nurbanu, and Kösem, who became valide-sultans, wielded enormous power and prestige in the harem and even shaped the direction of Ottoman politics. They formed networks of power with their sons, daughters, and sons-in-law within and outside the palace. Sometimes, this led to intense rivalry and political tensions that could end up in the murder of the valide-sultan if her faction lost out. The valide-sultan s received the highest salary in the harem and amassed great fortunes. They set up numerous charitable foundations all over the empire that carried their name and imperial legacy. Because of the valide-sultan s' influence over the sultans and their active role in politics, they received bad reputations in Ottoman chronicles.

The Ottoman princesses, blood relatives of the dynasts, fared better and became repositories of Ottoman legitimacy and prestige. Many married grand viziers and high officials and set up their own households outside the Topkapi palace. Their husbands were required to give up their polygamous households before the marriage to an Ottoman princess could take place. They also had to provide a rich bride price and support the opulent lifestyle of their princess-wives. The Ottoman princesses lived in elaborate mansions and had their own female retinue made up of slaves. Lady Mary Montagu, the wife of the English ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, visited the young Fatma Sultan, the daughter of Ahmed III (17031730) in Edirne and was impressed by her charming hostess in 1717. She became a regular visitor to the harem of great ladies and tried to correct the distorted view of her compatriots in her letters to her friends and relatives in London. She commented about the status of Muslim women and the great prestige and freedom enjoyed by upper class Ottoman women. The western image of oppressed and confined Muslim women, however, gained more currency in the writings of Enlightenment philosophers and European travelers.

See also Ottoman Dynasty ; Ottoman Empire ; Sultan ; Topkapi Palace .


Alderson, A. D. The Structure of the Ottoman Dynasty. Oxford, 1956.

Arberry, A. J. The Koran Interpreted. New York, 1973.

Montagu, Lady Mary. Letters from the Levant during the Embassy to Constantinople, 171618. New York, 1971.

Peirce, Leslie P. The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire. Oxford and New York, 1993.

Penzer, N. M. The Harem. London. 1936.

Stevens, Mary Anne, ed. The Orientalists: Delacroix to Matisse. New York, 1984.

Uluçay, Çağatay. Harem II. Ankara, 1992.

Zarinebaf-Shahr, Fariba. "The Wealth of Ottoman Princesses during the Tulip Period." In The Great Ottoman-Turkish Civilization. Vol 2, edited by Kemal Çiçek. Ankara, 2000.

Fariba Zarinebaf

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The practice of the harem (Ar., harim), or the seclusion of women, dates back to the pre-Islamic period. The root h-r-m also refers to al-haram al-sharif, the sanctuary of Mecca as the reserved space for Muslims. The form harem connotes a sacred and inviolable space, which is forbidden to any men, other than the members of the immediate family. Its institution and derivate forms have been common in the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultures as an integral part of royal and upper-class families.

Culturally, the Mesopotamian, Greek antiquity, and Persian societies shared in common the practice of the harem. While women were confined to their quarters, men enjoyed the privilege of engaging in the public sphere. This segregation also marked a labor division based on sexual difference; females were responsible for the management of the household, whereas males served as head of the family and were responsible for public affairs. As the women's role was limited to managing the house, their presence in the public sphere was also regulated through a manner of dress that rendered them invisible from public gaze. Historically, followers of Judaism and Christianity also secluded women. For example, in the early Jewish family, where gender relations varied, women were nonetheless confined to a private sphere in which they performed household duties for the family as well as religious rites. In the early Christian era, women were often secluded within their own residence, guarded by eunuchs, and required to be veiled when they left the home. These practices found their way into the caliphate as the Abbasids conquered the lands inhabited by the dominant Christian and Jewish cultures, and so the elite female members of the Abbasid caliphate were secluded within their own quarters called "harem." The institution of harem flourished in Muslim societies during the successive invasions and conquests of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern regions, Africa, and India. The conquest of Persia during the Sassanian times led to the assimilation of Persian culture, especially in the garrison towns. This conquest and the subsequent expansion of the Muslim territory provided Muslim dynasties with the opportunity to own, inherit, and capture prisoners of wars, including eunuchs, slaves, and minors, as well as the wives of royal families. For example, the Abbasid nobles and leaders adopted the Persian custom of the ownership of hundreds and thousands of concubines and slaves. Muslim dynasties and the notables maintained a harem as a part of their palaces.

The inclusion of the harem fit well with the societal structure adopted from the Irano-Semitic culture in its Islamic form, called the a˓yan-amir system. In this form of administration, the "notables" (a˓yan) of the towns and villages and the umara˒ (leaders or commanders) of local or regional garrison courts shared power and authority. Within this web of social relationships, individual social status depended on the male's ability to settle formal quarrels among the tribes or factions and to invite sexual jealousy. The patterns of feuding and sex relations with numerous concubines marked masculine honor and worthiness in society. These masculine traits belonged exclusively to the notables (the a˓yan) and the commanders/leaders (the umara). As the masculine honor within the a˓yan system depended heavily on the honor of wives, concubines, and female slaves, the total control and the subservience of these females became necessary. For this reason, it was in the best interest of the masters to institute a severe seclusion and rigid privacy for the females.

For outsiders, the "imagined harem" came to represent the abased and subjugated treatment of women in Islamic civilization. This harem discourse emerged in the seventeenth century after the Europeans discovered harems filled with women. The explicit connection between the "imagined harem" and the status of women in Muslim society and Islam was generally produced and reproduced by the European Orientalists in the two centuries following the colonization of the Muslim lands. This harem element shifted the medieval discourse on Muslim women, which previously portrayed them as victimized, yet powerful in charm and deceit.

Stimulated by the translation from the Arabic of the folk story The Thousand and One Nights, the "imagined harem" produced narratives of Muslim women whose sexual desire was strong, yet subordinated, oppressed, veiled, and secluded. These harem narratives circulated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, functioning not only to feed the Orientalist imaginary of the harem, but also to serve the superiority of imperialist power over the Muslim world.

The harem as a social institution for women in the Muslim world, especially in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia, finally came to an end in the early twentieth century. It ended not because Muslims discovered that it was incompatible with Islam, but because they lost control over their land and politics.

See alsoGender ; Marriage ; Purdah .


Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992.

Mernissi, Fatima. Dreams of Trespass: Tales of A Harem Girlhood. New York: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1994.

Etin Anwar

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The women's section of a home.

In Arabic, the word haram refers to that which is forbidden, and harim, or harem, means the women's section of a home, which is forbidden to males who are not unrelated to the household. This prohibition is maintained in order to protect female kin and family honor. Veiling and the seclusion of women are part of an ancient Middle Eastern social pattern that predates Islam and originated in antiquity with the rise of classes, cities, and states. The wives of the prophet Muhammad were secluded, yet played important public roles during and after his life. In Muslim societies where sexual segregation is practiced, women may form their closest bonds in the harem. Women who are relatives, friends, or neighbors visit in the secluded section of each other's homes. The streets in the traditional Arab-Muslim city are generally the province of men.

It is within the social setting of the harem where important family-related decisions are made informally. For example, marriages may be arranged first among women before they are negotiated by male kin. Within the harem, it would be determined whether a young woman is interested in and consents to a suggested marriage before any public announcement would occur.

See also clothing; gender: gender and law; gender: gender and politics; hijab.


Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.

Fluehr-Lobban, Carolyn. Islamic Society in Practice. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1994.

carolyn fluehr-lobban

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harem The arabic word harem derives its original spelling and meaning from the Egyptian word harim, meaning ‘women’. Originally, it was in the women's part of a Mohammedan dwelling-house that its inhabitants and the place were seen as sacred.

The harem can also be referred to as a seraglio (meaning, ‘the walled palace’), wherein the sultan's wives, children, divorced wives, concubines, slaves, and eunuchs might live. As Alain Grosrichard states in Structure du serail (1979):
The order of the seraglio is set with the despot in view and according to his needs, and most of all for sexual pleasure which begins with the privilege of sight.Though an isolated domain, harems in the nineteenth century became known to tradesmen and merchants who would wait outside the main gates for an invitation to show their wares to the women indoors.

The harem and the odalisque (a reclining female nude or semi-nude) have increasingly become North Africa's cultural icons, dominating visual perceptions in the European mind. Particularly influential in visually capturing such images in the nineteenth century were a group of French and British painters known as The Orientalists. Artists included Eugene Delacroix, Jean–Dominique Ingres, J– L. Gerome, and Frederick Leighton.

Anne Abichou


Alloula, M. (1987). The colonial harem, (trans. M. Godzich and and W. Godzich ). Manchester University Press, Manchester.
Badran, M. (1987). Harem years: the memoirs of an Egyptian feminist, (trans. Badran). Feminist Press, New York.

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har·em / ˈhe(ə)rəm; ˈhar-/ • n. 1. the separate part of a Muslim household reserved for wives, concubines, and female servants. 2. the wives (or concubines) of a polygamous man. ∎  a group of female animals sharing a single mate.

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harem the separate part of a Muslim household reserved for wives, concubines, and female servants; the women living there. In extended usage, the word also denotes the wives (or concubines) of a polygamous man, and thus a group of female animals sharing a single mate.

The word comes (in the mid 17th century) from Arabic ḥaram, ḥarīm, literally ‘prohibited, prohibited place’, and from this ‘sanctuary, women's quarters, women’.

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harem Women's quarters in a Muslim household. It contained a man's wives, concubines, and female servants. The most famous harems were those of the Turkish sultans in Istanbul, which often had several hundred women guarded by eunuchs.

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a family of wives or concubines, female relatives, and servants, 1781; the occupants of a harem collectively.

Examples: harem of dear friendships, 1855; a literary harem [library], 1872.

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harem XVII. — Arab. ḥaram and ḥarīm (that which is) prohibited, (hence) sacred place, sanctuary, women's apartments, wives, women, f. ḥarama prohibit, make unlawful.