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 decline in the modern era, the spatial seclusion of female family members from male visitors to the house is still practiced in many parts of the Muslim world. In the West, Orientalist imaginary conceptions of the harem, as a personal brothel where numerous women lounged in suggestive poses, have influenced culture and to certain extent relationship with Islamic societies through many paintings, music, 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).
The word is a cognate of Hebrew ḥerem, rendered in Greek as anathema when it applies to excommunication pronounced by the Jewish Sanhedrin court. All these words mean that an object is "sacred" or "accursed".
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.
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.
In the Ottoman period before Atatürk's Reforms, "harem", more properly (Turk.) haremlik, meant simply the private or family area of a typical upper-class household, as opposed to the public or reception rooms known as the selamlik.
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.
Outside Islamic culture
Ancient Egyptian pharaohs are said to have made a "constant demand" on provincial governors for more beautiful servant girls.
King Kashyapa of Sigiriya in Sri Lanka had as many as 500 women of the harem (Orodha). They are depicted in the Sigiriya Frescoes and referred to in graffiti on the Mirror Wall there. The harem consisted of concubines and female members of the royal court. It was considered an honour to be a "lady of the king's harem".
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.
A similar institution existed among the Ōoku during the Edo period in Japan.
Some African royal and noble lineages also have long traditions of polygyny. During the colonization of Africa, the junior wives and concubines of the native chieftains were often collectively referred to as their harems by colonial officials. Although the ritually superior great wives in these cases – consorts in the traditionally Western sense who were often the earliest of them to have been married – were usually vested with powers that made them distinct when compared to their fellow spouses, they were often considered by the colonialists to be members of the harems. In modern African polygynous cases, as in that of the royal family of the King of Swaziland, the word is generally avoided due to socio-linguistic political correctness, although it is technically correct to refer to a group of women married to a single tribal chief in this manner.
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.