1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Harem
HAREM, less frequently Haram or Harim (Arab harīm—commonly but wrongly pronounced hārĕm—“that which is illegal or prohibited”), the name generally applied to that part of a house in Oriental countries which is set apart for the women; it is also used collectively for the women themselves. Strictly the women’s quarters are the haremlik (lik, belonging to), as opposed to selamlik the men’s quarters, from which they are in large houses separated by the mabein, the private apartments of the householder. The word harem is strictly applicable to Mahommedan households only, but the system is common in greater or less degree to all Oriental communities, especially where polygamy is permitted. Other names for the women’s quarters are Seraglio (Ital. serraglio, literally an enclosure, from Lat. sera, a bar; wrongly narrowed down to the sense of harem through confusion with Turkish serāi or sarāi, palace or large building, cf. caravanserai); Zenana (strictly zanana, from Persian zan, woman, allied with Gr. γυνή), used specifically of Hindu harems; Andarūn (or Anderoon), the Persian word for the “inner part” (sc. of a house). The Indian harem system is also commonly known as pardah or purdah, literally the name of the thick curtains or blinds which are used instead of doors to separate the women’s quarters from the rest of the house. A male doctor attending a zenana lady would put his hand between the purdah to feel her pulse.
The seclusion of women in the household is fundamental to the Oriental conception of the sex relation, and its origin must, therefore, be sought far earlier than the precepts of Islam as set forth in the Koran, which merely regulate a practically universal Eastern custom. It is inferred from the remains of many ancient Oriental palaces (Babylonian, Persian, &c.) that kings and wealthy nobles devoted a special part of the palace to their womankind. Though in comparatively early times there were not wanting men who regarded polygamy as wrong (e.g. the prophets of Israel), nevertheless in the East generally there has never been any real movement against the conception of woman as a chattel of her male relatives. A man may have as many wives and concubines as he can support, but each of these women must be his exclusive property. The object of this insistence upon female chastity is partly the maintenance of the purity of the family with special reference to property, and partly to protect women from marauders, as was the case with the people of India when the Mahommedans invaded the country and sought for women to fill their harems. In Mahommedan countries theoretically a woman must veil her face to all men except her father, her brother and her husband; any violation of this rule is still regarded by strict Mahommedans as the gravest possible offence, though among certain Moslem communities (e.g. in parts of Albania) women of the poorer classes may appear in public unveiled. If any other man make his way into a harem he may lose his life; the attempted escape of a harem woman is a capital offence, the husband having absolute power of life and death, to such an extent that, especially in the less civilized parts of the Moslem world, no one would think of questioning a man’s right to mutilate or kill a disobedient wife or concubine.
Turkish Harems.—A good deal of misapprehension, due to ignorance combined with strong prejudice against the whole system, exists in regard to the system in Turkey. It is often assumed, for example, that the sultan’s seraglio is typical, though on a uniquely large scale, of all Turkish households, and as a consequence that every Turk is a polygamist. This is far from being the case, for though the Koran permits four wives, and etiquette allows the sultan seven, the man of average possessions is perforce content with one, and a small number of female servants. It is, therefore, necessary to take the imperial seraglio separately.
Though the sultan’s household in modern times is by no means as numerous as it used to be, it is said that the harem of Abdul Hamid contained about 1000 women, all of whom were of slave origin. This body of women form an elaborately organized community with a complete system of officers, disciplinary and administrative, and strict distinctions of status. The real ruler of this society is the sultan’s mother, the Sultana Validé, who exercises her authority through a female superintendent, the Kyahya Khatun. She has also a large retinue of subordinate officials (Kalfas) ranging downwards from the Hasnadar ousta (“Lady of the Treasury”) to the “Mistress of the Sherbets” and the “Chief Coffee Server.” Each of these officials has under her a number of pupil-slaves (alaiks), whom she trains to succeed her if need be, and from whom the service is recruited. After the sultana validé (who frequently enjoys considerable political power and is a mistress of intrigue) ranks the mother of the heir-apparent; she is called the Bash Kadin Effendi (“Her excellency the Chief Lady”), and also hasseki or kasseky, and is distinguished from the other three chief wives who only bear the title Kadin Effendi. Next come the ladies who have borne the younger children of the sultan, the Hanum Effendis, and after them the so-called Odalisks or Odalisques (a perversion of odalik, from odah, chamber). These are subdivided, according to the degree of favour in which they stand with the sultan or padishah, into Ikbals (“Favourites”) and Geuzdés (literally the “Eyed” ones), those whom the sultan has favourably noticed in the course of his visits to the apartments of his wives or his mother. All the women are at the disposal of the sultan, though it is contrary to etiquette for him actually to select recruits for his harem. The numbers are kept up by his female relatives and state officials, the latter of whom present girls annually on the evening before the 15th of Ramadan.
Every odalisk who has been promoted to the royal couch receives a daïra, consisting of an allowance of money, a suite of apartments, and a retinue, in proportion to her status. It should be noted that, since all the harem women are slaves, the sultans, with practically no exceptions, have never entered into legal marriage contracts. Any slave, in however menial a position, may be promoted to the position of a kadin effendi. Hence all the slaves who have any pretension to beauty are carefully trained, from the time they enter the harem, in deportment, dancing, music and the arts of the toilette: they are instructed in the Moslem religion and learn the daily prayers (namaz); a certain number are specially trained in reading and writing for secretarial work. Discipline is strict, and continued disobedience leads to corporal punishment by the eunuchs. All the women of the harem are absolutely under the control of the sultana validé (who alone of the harem of her dead husband is not sent away to an older palace when her son succeeds), and owe her the most profound respect, even to the point of having to obtain permission to leave their own apartments. Her financial secretary, the Haznadar Ousta, succeeds to her power if she dies. The sultan’s foster-mother also is a person of importance, and is known as the Taia Kadin.
The security of the harem is in the hands of a body of eunuchs both black and white. The white eunuchs have charge of the outer gates of the seraglio, but they are not allowed to approach the women’s apartments, and obtain no posts of distinction. Their chief, however, the kapu aghasi (“master of the gates”) has part control over the ecclesiastical possessions, and even the vizier cannot enter the royal apartments without his permission. The black eunuchs have the right of entering the gardens and chambers of the harem. Their chief, usually called the kislar aghasi (“master of the maidens”), though his true title is darus skadet aga (“chief of the abode of felicity”), is an official of high importance. His appointment is for life. If he is deprived of his post he receives his freedom; and if he resigns of his own accord he is generally sent to Egypt with a pension of 100 francs a day. His secretary keeps count of the revenues of the mosques built by the sultans. He is usually succeeded by the second eunuch, who bears the title of treasurer, and has charge of the jewels, &c., of the women. The number of eunuchs is always a large one. The sultana validé and the sultana hasseki have each fifty at their service, and others are assigned to the kadins and the favourite odalisks.
The ordinary middle-class household is naturally on a very different scale. The selamlik is on the ground floor with a separate entrance, and there the master of the house receives his male guests; the rest of the ground floor is occupied by the kitchen and perhaps the stables. The haremlik is generally (in towns at least) on the upper floor fronting on and slightly overhanging the street; it has a separate entrance, courtyard and garden. The windows are guarded by lattices pierced with circular holes through which the women may watch without being seen. Communication with the haremlik is effected by a locked door, of which the Effendi keeps the key and also by a sort of revolving cupboard (dutap) for the conveyance of meals. The furniture, of the old-fashioned harems at least, is confined to divans, rugs, carpets and mirrors. For heating purposes the old brass tray of charcoal and wood ash is giving way to American stoves, and there is a tendency to import French furniture and decoration without regard to their suitability.
The presence of a second wife is the exception, and is generally attributable to the absence of children by the first wife. The expense of marrying a free woman leads many Turks to prefer a slave woman who is much more likely to be an amenable partner. If a slave woman bears a child she is often set free and then the marriage ceremony is gone through.
The harem system is, of course, wholly inconsistent with any high ideal of womanhood. Certain misapprehensions, however, should be noticed. The depravity of the system and the vapid idleness of harem life are much exaggerated by observers whose sympathies are wholly against the system. In point of fact much depends on the individuals. In many households there exists a very high degree of mutual consideration and the standard of conduct is by no means degraded. Though a woman may not be seen in the streets without the yashmak which covers her face except for her eyes, and does not leave her house except by her husband’s permission, none the less in ordinary households the harem ladies frequently drive into the country and visit the shops and public baths. Their seclusion has very considerable compensations, and legally they stand on a far better basis in relation to their husbands than do the women of monogamous Christian communities. From the moment when a woman, free or slave, enters into any kind of wifely relation with a man, she has a legally enforceable right against him both for her own and for her children’s maintenance. She has absolute control over her personal property whether in money, slaves or goods; and, if divorce is far easier in Islam than in Christendom, still the marriage settlement must be of such amount as will provide suitable maintenance in that event.
On the other hand, of course, the system is open to the gravest abuse, and in countries like Persia, Morocco and India, the life of Moslem women and slaves is often far different from that of middle class women of European Turkey, where law is strict and culture advanced. The early age at which girls are secluded, the dulness of their surroundings, and the low moral standard which the system produces react unfavourably not only upon their moral and intellectual growth but also upon their capacity for motherhood and their general physique. A harem woman is soon passée, and the lot of a woman past her youth, if she is divorced or a widow, is monotonous and empty. This is true especially of child-widows.
Since the middle of the 19th century familiarity with European customs and the direct influence of European administrators has brought about a certain change in the attitude of Orientals to the harem system. This movement is, however, only in its infancy, and the impression is still strong that the time is not ripe for reform. The Oriental women are in general so accustomed to their condition that few have any inclination to change it, while men as a rule are emphatically opposed to any alteration of the system. The Young Turkish party, the upper classes in Egypt, as also the Babists in Persia, have to some extent progressed beyond the orthodox conception of the status of women, but no radical reform has been set on foot.
In India various attempts have been made by societies, missionary and other, as well as by private individuals, to improve the lot of the zenana women. Zenana schools and hospitals have been founded, and a few women have been trained as doctors and lawyers for the special purposes of protecting the women against their own ignorance and inertia. Thus in 1905 a Parsee Christian lady, Cornelia Sorabjee, was appointed by the Bengal government as legal adviser to the court of wards, so that she might give advice to the widowed mothers of minors within the harem walls. Similarly trained medical women are introduced into zenanas and harems by the Lady Dufferin Association for medical aid to Indian women. Gradually native Christian churches are making provision for the attendance of women at their services, though the sexes are rigorously kept apart. In India, as in Turkey, the introduction of Western dress and education has begun to create new ideas and ambitions, and not a few Eastern women have induced English women to enter the harems as companions, nurses and governesses. But training and environment are extremely powerful, and in some parts of the Mahommedan world, the supply of Asiatic, European and even American girls is so steady, that reform has touched only the fringe of the system.
Among the principal societies which have been formed to better the condition of Indian and Chinese women in general with special reference to the zenana system are the Church of England Zenana Missionary Society and the Zenana Bible and Medical Mission. Much information as to the medical, industrial and educational work done by these societies will be found in their annual reports and other publications. Among these are J. K. H. Denny’s Toward the Uprising; Irene H. Barnes, Behind the Pardah (1897), an account of the former society’s work; the general condition of Indian women is described in Mrs Marcus B. Fuller’s Wrongs of Indian Womanhood (1900), and Maud Dover’s The Englishwoman in India (1909); see also article Missions.
Authorities.—The literature of the subject is very large, though a great deal of it is naturally based on insufficient evidence, and coloured by Western prepossessions. Among useful works are A. van Sommer and Zwerner, Our Moslem Sisters (1907), a collection of essays by authors acquainted with various parts of the Mahommedan world and strongly opposed to the whole harem system; Mrs W. M. Ramsay, Everyday Life in Turkey (1897), cc. iv. and v., containing an account of a day in a harem near Afium-Kara-Hissar; cf. e.g. art. “Harem” in Hughes, Dictionary of Islam; Mrs S. Harvey’s Turkish Harems and Circassian Homes (1871); for Mahomet’s regulations, see R. Bosworth Smith’s Mohammed and Mohammedanism (1889); for Egypt, Lane, Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (1837); and E. Lott, Harem Life in Egypt and Constantinople (1869); for the sultan’s household in the 18th century, Lady Wortley Montagu’s Letters, with which may be compared S. Lane-Poole, Turkey (ed. 1909); G. Dorys, La Femme turque (1902); especially Lucy M. J. Garnett (with J. S. Stuart-Glennie), The Women of Turkey (London, 1901), and The Turkish People (London, 1909). For the attempts which have been made to modify and improve the Indian zenana system, see e.g. the reports of the Dufferin Association and other official publications. Other information will be found in Hoffman’s article in Ersch and Gruber’s Encyclopädie; Flandin in Revue des deux mondes (1852) on the harem of the Persian prince Malik Kasim Mirza; the count de Beauvoir, in Voyage round the World (1870), on Javanese and Siamese harems; Häntzsche in Zeitschrift für allgemeine Erdkunde (Berlin, 1864). (J. M. M.)
- In Africa also, among the non-Mahommedan negroes of the west coast and the Bahima of the Victoria Nyanza, the seclusion of women of the upper classes has been practised in states (e.g. Ashanti and Buganda) possessing a considerable degree of civilization.