The word harem conjures up an image in western minds of scantily-clad beauties lounging around fountains, waiting to act out the sexual fantasies of a sultan or emperor. In the eighteenth and nineteenth-century European imagination, this institution was basically an in-house bordello for the convenience of a Muslim ruler.
Orientalist fantasies aside, however, a harem is simply the area of a home where Muslim women could relax and remove their head-scarves without fear of being seen by outsiders. The word “harem” comes from the same Arabic root as haram, meaning “forbidden.” Thus, it was the section of the home that was off-limits to men who were not members of the family. In middle-class homes, when the family was wealthy enough that the women did not have to work, the harem often was just the inner courtyard of the house. There, female members of the household were safe from prying eyes.
The most famous harem, and likely source of many misconceptions about harems in general, was that of the Ottoman Empire’s sultans. Ottoman rulers maintained huge and complex harems, which included the households of the sultan’s mother and sisters, as well as his wives and concubines. Large numbers of female servants attended to the women, and the harem was overseen by a corps of eunuchs, numbering from 300 to 900.
In order to work in the imperial harem, a eunuch had to have all external genitalia removed, not just the testicles. This ensured that any children born to the sultan’s wives and concubines would be legitimate. The harem guards played such a valuable role in Ottoman political life that the Chief Eunuch was the third highest-ranking member of the government, after only the Sultan and the Grand Vizier.
Harem life seems very restrictive, but in fact the harem was a center of power in the empire. Women vied to promote their own sons as the next sultan, and poisonings or stranglings were not uncommon. Often times favored eunuchs would do the dirty work for a particular court woman. The mother whose child survived and became sultan would become a high official in her own right, called a Valide Sultan. Sultan Murad III (ruled 1574-1595) was so dominated by his mother that the army gently removed the Valide Sultan to a palace far from the capital; she still peppered her son with letters and messages, however.
Even for those women who worked as servants in the harem, it could be a desirable life, especially compared with laboring in the fields or living in an impoverished village on the fringes of the empire. A family might sell their daughter into servitude in the sultan's court in order to give her the opportunity to live in comfort and luxury. Particularly beautiful girls might even become concubines, and if they were especially talented or fortunate, they could be noticed by the sultan himself.
At its height, the Ottoman Empire encompassed the coast of North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, parts of what is now Iran, Turkey and the Caucasuses, and much of southeastern Europe. The harem system prevailed throughout the Muslim sections of the empire. However, rulers in non-Muslim areas of Asia also had households arranged in a similar fashion. Some upper-caste Hindu women in India lived in separate quarters just like their Muslim counterparts; this system was called purdah. As far back as pre-Islamic times, Persian women also lived in seclusion, a practice noted by the Roman historian Plutarch. Chinese emperors' wives and concubines lived in separate quarters called hougong, although this practice was not extended to commoners. In Korean tradition, however, men and women of all classes lived almost entirely separate lives, in different sides of the house, coming together only to reproduce.
Some non-Ottoman rulers had enormous collections of wives and concubines. The Mongol founder of Yuan China, Kublai Khan, had four wives and approximately 7,000 concubines. Mongol women were not confined to their quarters, however; paintings show Kublai Khan's favorite wife, Chabi, hunting on horseback with her husband.
Asian harems were not necessarily either as sensual and opulent, or as stifling and repressive, as western observers believe. For most of the women and children who lived in middle- or upper-class harems, it was simply their section of the home. In imperial harems, life could be much more dangerous as mothers vied for power through their sons - but that has been true in many monarchies around the world, regardless of the housing arrangements.