The American Cyclopædia (1879)/Harem

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HAREM (Arabic, el-harim, the sanctuary), a term applied to the holy cities, Mecca and Medina, which are jointly called “the harems,” and to the temple of Mecca, which is termed mesjid el-harim, the sacred mosque; but which in its more general use signifies throughout the Mohammedan world the females of a family, and more particularly that part of a dwelling house which is appropriated to their use. It is also commonly used by the Greeks, Armenians, and Jews of the Turkish empire, though the seclusion of their women is not so strict as that of the Mohammedans, and is founded on customs of remote antiquity in the East. Its prevalence among the Mohammedans has been established by the following passage of the Koran: “And speak unto the believing women, that they restrain their eyes, and preserve their modesty, and discover not their ornaments, except what necessarily appeareth thereof; and let them throw their veils over their bosoms, and not show their ornaments, unless to their husbands, or their fathers, or their husbands' fathers, or their sons, or their husbands' sons, or their brothers, or their brothers' sons, or their sisters' sons, or their women, or unto such men as attend them and have no need of women [eunuchs], or unto children.” The apartments of the women are generally in the upper stories, and so contrived as to secure the utmost privacy. They have commonly a separate entrance, and care is taken to place the windows so that they shall not be seen from the windows of any other house or from the street. In a harem containing several wives, it is usual to assign to them separate suites of apartments. In some places the harem is often superbly furnished and decorated, while the more public part of the dwelling exhibits every sign of poverty. The inmates of the harem consist of a wife or wives and of any number of female slaves, some of whom are kept merely as servants to cook, to clean the rooms, and to wait upon the wives and concubines. It is estimated, however, by the best informed travellers, that only one man in 20 has more than one wife. It is only the very rich that maintain populous harems, and many of these are content with one wife. In frequent instances the wife who will not tolerate a second spouse in the harem will permit the husband to keep concubines for the sake of having them to wait upon her. It is said that Mohammedan women do not dislike the seclusion in which they are kept, but take a pride in it as an evidence of their value. If the husband permits them to be freely seen by other men, they regard his liberality as indicative of indifference. — The Christian travellers most familiar with oriental life have passed very opposite judgments on the nature and effect of the harem system. Lady Mary Montagu, who visited the harems of the great officers of the Turkish empire, has left gorgeous pictures of what she saw. She describes the harems as glittering with splendor and inhabited by lovely girls magnificently attired, leading a gay and happy life. Harriet Martineau, who visited some harems of the higher class in Cairo and Damascus in 1847, gives a very different picture. In a harem at Cairo she found 20 women, some slaves, nearly all young, some good-looking, but none handsome. Some were black, Nubians or Abyssinians, and the rest Circassians with very light complexions. She saw no trace of intellect in these women, except in a homely old one. Their ignorance she describes as fearful, and their grossness as revolting. At Damascus she saw the seven wives of three men in one harem, with a crowd of attendants. Of the seven, two had been the wives of the head of the household, who was dead; three were the wives of his eldest son, aged 22; and the remaining two were the wives of his second son, aged 15. Of the five younger, three were sisters, children of different mothers in the same harem. They smoked, drank coffee and sherbet, sang to the accompaniment of a tambourine, danced in an indecent manner, and all the while romping, kissing, and screaming went on among old and young. She pronounces them the most studiously depressed and corrupted women she ever saw. Lady Shiel, wife of the British minister to Persia in 1849, who lived four years in that country, says that Persian women of the upper class lead a life of idleness and luxury, and enjoy more liberty than the women of Christendom. They consume their time by going to the bath and by a constant round of visits, and frequently acquire a knowledge of reading and writing, and of the choice poetical works in their native language. Cooking, or at least its superintendence, is a favorite pastime. In populous harems the mortality among children is very great, owing to the neglect, laziness, and ignorance of the mothers and nurses. An American lady, Mrs. Caroline Paine, who travelled in the Turkish empire, says in her “Tent and Harem” (New York, 1859) that she made the acquaintance of Turkish women who were “wonderful instances of native elegance, refinement, and aptness in the courtesies, ordinary civilities, and prattle of society.” She says: “Turkish women are by no means confined to a life of solitude or imprisonment, and they would be scarcely tempted to exchange the perfect freedom and exemption from the austere duties of life, which is their acme of happiness, for all the advantages that might be gained from intellectual pursuits or a different form of society.” Capt. Burton, who travelled extensively in Mohammedan countries in the disguise of a native, and who in the character of a physician saw something of the interior of the harem, says that the oriental is “the only state of society in which jealousy and quarrels about the sex are the exception and not the rule of life.” Since Abdul-Aziz succeeded to the throne of Turkey (1861), in some of the harems of Constantinople and other cities European ideas and manners have been engrafted upon Asiatic splendor, and the women, under attendance, now go into the streets and bazaars, covering the lower parts of their faces with a single white veil, so thin that it does not conceal the features, while the eyes and eyebrows are entirely exposed. The majority of the harems, however, in the cities and in the interior, still rigidly and religiously retain all the ancient rules and customs. The two ladies of W. H. Seward's party, in his tour around the world, in May, 1871, visited the harem in the palace of the khedive's mother (the princess valideh) at Cairo. After traversing a succession of saloons superbly furnished with velvet carpets, lace and damask curtains, satin-covered sofas and divans, large French mirrors, and crystal chandeliers, they were presented to the princess, who was surrounded by the ladies of the harem and Circassian slave girls. The princess wife of the khedive wore a green silk dress with lace, hat, gloves, boots, and fan, all from London or Paris, and her light brown hair was dressed in the latest Parisian style. The ladies of the harem, many of them displaying diamond solitaires of immense size, confessed their partiality for European modes, all of them had ordered outfits from London, with the request that they might be counterparts of the trousseau of the princess Louise. The princess mother said that “since the ladies the harem were allowed to see the European opera and ballet at the theatre in Alexandria, they have become quite disgusted with the native performances of their own country.” She explained the condition of the slave women; they were brought from their native land when quite young, were provided with husbands and dowries, and were “very lucky.” But the system as a domestic institution is summed up by Mr. Seward as follows: “The Mohammedan provision for woman is a prison in which her sufferings from jealousy are consoled by the indulgence of her vanity. She is allowed the society of her own sex with far less restraint than is ordinarily supposed, and she displays before her visiting friends with pride the wealth and ornaments which lighten her chains.” She goes abroad only in a carriage, and under strict surveillance; “she never reads, and, so far as possible, is required never to think.” — The harem, under various regulations, is found in all eastern countries where polygamy and concubinage are permitted or practised. While the Japanese generally have but one wife, the princes and nobles keep as many concubines as they please, securing them in harems, but much less rigorously than is done in Mohammedan countries. At Hiogo, in October, 1870, Mr. Seward saw a gay Japanese yacht on board of which was a daimio surrounded by numerous retainers and bevy of highly painted and elegantly dressed young women. The daimio was “giving his harem a picnic.” In Siam the law allows but le wife, except to the king; concubinage, however, is limited only by the means of the man. Within the capital, Bangkok, stands enclosed in a double wall the city of the Nang Harm, or veiled women, which is fully described by Mrs. Leonowens in “The Romance of the Harem” (Boston, 1873): “In this city live none but women and children. Here the houses of the royal princesses, the wives, concubines, and relatives of the king, with their numerous slaves and personal attendants, form regular streets and avenues, with small parks, artificial lakes, and groups of fine trees scattered over miniature lawns and beautiful flower gardens. In the southern part of this strange city the mechanical slaves of the wives, concubines, and princesses live, and ply their trades for the profit of their mistresses.” This woman's city has its own laws, and its female judges, guards, police, prison keepers, executioners, merchants, brokers, teachers, and mechanics in every trade. No man can enter the city except the king and the priests, who may be admitted every morning under amazon guard. The slave women can go out to see their husbands, or on business for their mistresses; the mistresses can never leave it, except by the covered passages to the palaces, temples, and gardens, until age and position have given them a certain degree of freedom. No fewer than 9,000 women, it is asserted, are thus secluded, and the Nang Harm presents the most extensive and rigorous instance of the harem system.