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Myths and Misconceptions About the ""Harem"" | Western fantasy of orientalism


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Author Topic: Myths and Misconceptions About the ""Harem"" | Western fantasy of orientalism  (Read 1069 times)
Zeynab
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« on: September 20, 2014, 08:12:52 pm »

There are various wrong depictions of the medieval Muslim culture in historical paintings by French and also American artists.  Most glaring  misrepresentation is the Western artists' concept of the ""Harem"" portrayed as a virtual whorehouse within a rich household peppered by half naked women.  Unfortunately this myth is taken as 'factual history' by many Westerners for which the ignorance or cunning of medieval artists is entirely responsible.  All such paintings are pathetic nonsense. 

Other hugely discrepant depictions include Arab Muslim medieval children with shaven heads wearing Turkish caps, Arab men / women sitting with shoes on carpets or beds, books placed on carpets or floors below the rehal (رِحال ), Muslim women wearing ankle jewellery, plunging necklines, veiled Muslim women wearing see-through clothing beneath the veil etc.etc.  These practices never existed nor do they exist at present in the culture oriented circles within the Muslim society. 

Most of those medieval artists, despite their talent in art, didn't have the best of education nor sufficient knowledge of authentic history.  They often mixed up vastly different eastern cultures (from Morocco to China) in their works.  Some also indulged in cultural propaganda through their paintings. 

Let us look into a stack of interesting information busting the bizarre tales and fantasies surrounding the "Harem" embedded in Western minds.  It needs to be defined as part of the Western traditional folklore that originated from the stories of Western travelers visiting the Arab/Muslim world centuries ago.  Unfortunately the myth still persists, providing fodder to writers and movie makers producing exotic fictions for box-office hits and in the process grossly misinterpreting the medieval Muslim society.

Please take the time to read the following set of passages from well-read writers (along with hypertext links) on how this practice of tale-telling began and the depth of its inaccuracy.  Ironically many of these passages confirming the Western concept of "harem" are from Western authors and observers themselves.

(1)
Quoting "Shohreh Gholsorkhi from Pari Khan Khanum: A masterful Safavid Princess"

"The royal harem is perhaps the most misunderstood institution of the Islamic social order.  Myths surrounded harems originated primarily in the west fomented by European travelers over a period of several centuries.  As is well known, Islamic empires at their zenith attracted numerous European merchants and traders as well as adventurers, emissaries and missionaries.  Many of them took up residence in Muslim countries, some for a short time and some for many years.  They toured cities and saw the countryside and got acquainted with the local people.  In several instances, some made their way into the royal courts.  Many of these travelers kept extensive notes about their journeys and left careful sketches of various aspects of the society with which they came in contact.  Often, upon their return home, many made their narratives available at courts and sometimes to the public.  There are numerous references to royal harems that some of the European visitors encountered.  While these visitors (most of them men) could observe city women on the streets (in their covers and costumes or even in the case of village women without headcover) , they were prohibited from making contact with women of the royal household.  This prohibition with its mystery and hint of forbidden pleasures merely served to intrigue the traveler.  The typical traveler’s portrayal of the harem was based largely on hearsay, gossips and embroidered stories from the natives in addition to the accounts of other travelers, or in some cases, even their own wild imagination.  Gradually the image grew.  To the western traveler, the harem became a pleasure palace kept solely for the king with beautiful women scantily clad and heavily perfumed languished as they awaited the call of their master.  This image remained intact for centuries partly because it conformed to earlier notions, the main one being that women in Islamic societies were relegated to a subservient status vis-ŕ-vis men.  Although modern scholarly research in on the role of women in Islamic societies remains slim, recent scholarship has modified many earlier tenets.


(2)
Quoting from Dismantling Arab Stereotype: What is Oreintalism?

"Orientalism” is a way of seeing that imagines, emphasizes, exaggerates and distorts differences of Arab peoples and cultures as compared to that of Europe and the U.S.  It often involves seeing Arab culture as exotic, backward, uncivilized, and at times dangerous.

According to Edward E. Said, Orientalism dates from the period of European Enlightenment and colonization of the Arab World. Orientalism provided a rationalization for European colonialism based on a self-serving history in which “the West” constructed “the East” as extremely different and inferior, and therefore in need of Western intervention or “rescue”.

The paintings, created by European artists of the 19th and early 20th centuries, depict the Arab World as an exotic and mysterious place of sand, "harems" and belly dancers, reflecting a long history of Orientalist fantasies ….

France colonized Algeria from 1830 to 1962. From roughly 1900 to 1930, French entrepreneurs produced postcards of Algerian women that were circulated in France. While Algerian women are portrayed in these photographs as if the camera is capturing a real moment in their everyday lives, the women are actually set up in the photographer’s studio. ...... these photographs were circulated as evidence of the exotic, backwards and strange customs of Algerians, when, in fact, they reveal more about the French colonial perspective than about Algerian life in the early 1900s. This is an example of how Arab women have been exoticized and eroticized for the pleasure of the European male voyeur, as these photographs make visible French colonial fantasies of penetrating the harem and gaining access to Arab women’s private spaces."


(3)
Quoting an excerpt from the works of Nadine Sultana d'Osman Han (Kadjar) - 'Ottoman Harem:

"Contrary to prevailing opinion, the harem at the time of the Ottomans was not a place of unbridled desire nor a prison for helpless women guarded by fierce eunuchs for the pleasure of lascivious sultans. As with many institutions that are foreign to the experience of the West and different from its own traditions, the harem in Islamic culture has posed a twin problem of simultaneous fascination and attraction and criticism and derision for the Western mind. These positions stem largely from a MISUNDERSTANDING of the reality of the harem on the one hand, and the very real impossibility of a closer scrutiny on the other ....

The harem of an Imperial Princess means her own private home. Here, even her husband (in this case Damat Mahmut Bey Pasha) had to ask the Princess for permission to enter. But as has been pointed out, the Harem of an Imperial Princess did not house concubines. Adultery (or multiple wives and favorites) was not permitted to the husband of an Imperial Princess. …."


(4)
An excerpt from Encyclopedia of Islam:

"New historical studies of Ottoman, Mughal, and Persian harems of the 16th and 17th centuries have yielded valuable insights about what harem life was actually like and helped dispel myths that have captured the Western imagination. This research has shown that royal harems were highly organized complex communities that assumed different characteristics at different moments in history, depending on local circumstances, personalities, and configurations of power. They often included non-Muslims as well as Muslims. Upper-class women and children were educated and trained in arts and crafts there. Harem women exercised considerable political influence in dynastic affairs and were not always secluded from the wider society. A ruler's mother, wives, daughters, and servants were involved in raising his sons and participated in the politics of arranging royal marriages and the succession. Indeed, some harem mothers and wives, such as Hurrem (also known as Roxelana, d. 1558) in Ottoman Istanbul, Pari-Khan Khanum (d. 1578) in Safavid Isfahan, and Nur Jahan (d. 1645) in Mughal Delhi, played central roles in affairs of state."


(5)  Most relevant read!

Informative excerpt from Phillip Emeritz’s “Feminine power in the Ottoman harem.“


"The harem was not a prison for women.  It was simply another stage for political power. 

The term "harem" comes from the Islamic root h-r-m which denotes a sacred area with no gender specifications. It is only through rumor and misinterpretation that the Western world has assigned such a confined, erotic image of this social structure. It cannot be questioned that women were unequal with men in society, but women commanded a surprising amount of influence and presence despite their limitations.

The harem has been described by historians as a political arena for women as early as between the 4th and 11th century.

Another Western misconception about the harem is that it was gender specific, when it actually referred to male as well as female spaces.  The imperial harem, "hrm-i humayun" was the name given to the third and innermost courtyard of Topkapi palace, which was reserved specifically for males. The women’s quarters also received the title of imperial harem, but the name was because of the sultan’s presence rather than that of the women. The palatial space was divided into the harmlik, the area allocated for women, and the selamlik, the area prescribed to men.  Gendered quarters were separated in the palace, but women were secluded from men almost as much as men from women. In fact, the seclusion of women to their own space resulted in the development of a private society.  Women established their own community in the harm ….."

Therefore, please note.  The word is "hrm" (حرم), NOT "harem" which is the European/English distortion of the Arabic word "hrm."  Hrm in Arabic simply means room or quarters or a cubical.  Thus, even the Holy Kaa'ba is known as Harm Shareef (حرم شريف), meaning a room for the worship of Allah Almighty. 
 

(6)
Finally a very upfront extract from Wordpress blog: Medieval Misconceptions - Harem Harlots:

"There’s always been a cult-like myth about the idea of a harem.  These myths come from the Western world – showcased in Western art and in the Hollywood ‘Orientalizing‘ of characters from the ‘Middle East.’  Such images are invariably of half-naked women wearing “I Dream of Jeanie” silk and gossamer fabrics through which curvaceous bodies can be seen.  These fantasy Harem girls dance like nymphs in seductive motions bordering on vulgarity. Their large bedroom eyes with sooty, foot-long lashes generally end up wooing some White Western hero who has gallantly rescued her from a tyrannical Arab Sheik.  Make no mistake about it, peops – this over-sexualization of harem women exists only in Western minds and movies.

This perverted myth of harem women originated in the minds and works of early Orientalist scholars. One of the most famous is the early 1700’s French translation of the “One Thousand and One Nights,” followed by many different English versions which titillated Western minds and became hugely popular. ..... Orientalist scholars also depicted harem women as helpless captives, or ravenous harlots feeding on their master Sultan.   As documented in renown author and lecturer Asli Sancar’s book Ottoman Women: Myth & Reality: “Foreign men were never permitted to enter an Ottoman harem, so there were no eye-witness reports to contradict the myth.”   It wasn’t until the wife of a British ambassador, Lady Mary Wortley Montague, was invited inside a harem that the myth was finally challenged."


Finally
Some realistic and down-to-earth paintings of the hrm, which is basically the women's (or the zanana) section of the household, very different from the symbolic fictional fantasy connecting "harem" and semi-nude women.

Source of following paintings with names of artisits: rceliamendonca wordpress/pintura-orientalista























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Heba E. Husseyn
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« Reply #1 on: September 21, 2014, 12:04:38 pm »

Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful!  Great info and lovely paintings with true representations of the women's private apartments or the zananna.  Actually the kind of harems which the Western authors and movie makers have in mind existed not only in their minds but also in their countries in the medieval years .. and also in modern times.  If by 'harems' those goats mean a place for sexual activities, there used to be plenty harems in Western and non Muslim worlds .... in the Roman society and among the Greeks.  This also reminds me about Japan. The way the West has misinterpreted the harem in the Muslim world, they have also misinterpreted geishas in the Japanese society.  The Japanese people insist that a geisha is not a sexual partner of a man but a hostess during occasions like formal parties and official get-togethers.  These hostesses are supposed to be like entertainers who are skilled at arts such as classical singing, playing musical instruments, games requiring intelligence like bridge etc.  However, in Western movies geishas are always shown more like mistresses of the men they're supposed to serve as hostesses.

Btw, another misguided Western idiotic view is that the flute being played in the harem is a romantic or sexual symbol.  Total nonsense!  Back in those days they didn't have televisions, no internet, not even radios or record players nor CDs etc.  So they passed time listening to live music played by whoever was skilled enough in the art.
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« Reply #2 on: September 21, 2014, 12:15:15 pm »

Extremely interesting post.  Particularly that part was very well explained. The pronunciation and spelling "harem" is itself an error by the West.  In Arabic there is no such word as "harem."  The word indeed has its root in the Arabic term "hrm" or "هرم" .   The word "harem" entered the English language as a distortion of "hrm."  It simply refers to a private space set aside for use either by men or women or both and thus hrm has no gender specification.  So correct, the term "Hrm"  (Hrm Sharif) is also applied to the Kaaba in Mecca denoting it as a special sacred place designated only for the worship of One Allah. 

In the medieval era several extended families residing together was very common.  Private homes even of middle-class families used to be quite huge and the ethical values were different.  Therefore, obviously, separate spaces had to be provided to the male and female members of various extended families living under one roof.  In a single household, there could be over a dozen young female cousins and more than 20 male cousins. They would meet in family get-togethers every day, like meal times and other daily or weekly occasions.  But during informal leisure hours, they had separate spaces for privacy and were usually attended upon by different set to servants of the household.  The purpose of hrm for both men and women was primarily to provide privacy to both genders separately.

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« Reply #3 on: September 21, 2014, 12:21:32 pm »

So true brother TS .. very accurately perceived.  The actual word is 'hrm.'  Another problem with Westerners is that they love to distort foreign words and then make that distortion a part of their language.  So the mispronunciation and misspelling, "harem," has become a place for sexual pleasure according to their idiocy.  Bums!

Furthermore, brothels that exist all over the world today (more in non Muslim lands where they are operating legally) are the same as the distortion of a harem in the twisted Western minds. Many of these "harem"-brothels treat their prostitutes like slaves with no respect.  Many of the females in these brothels are kidnapped and brought through human traffickers.  How come the West misses out this issue in their 'fantasy' for harems?
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« Reply #4 on: September 21, 2014, 12:29:16 pm »

Exactly .. lol.  And what about that lewd Italian male tramp, Silvio Burlesconi?  He began recruiting a den of call girls, throwing parties inviting these prostitutes to serve & sleep with the men to come as guests.  His lowly character also led to his wife divorcing him.  But Europe won't call it Berlusconi's harem. 

Here is the link about that degraded womanizer Burlesconi and his cheap filthy women.
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2038055/Silvio-Berlusconi-recruited-harem-models-actresses-bunga-bunga-parties.html
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« Reply #5 on: September 21, 2014, 12:31:43 pm »


Here is the link about that degraded womanizer Burlesconi and his cheap filthy women.
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2038055/Silvio-Berlusconi-recruited-harem-models-actresses-bunga-bunga-parties.html

What a sick bugger !!   This is a true harem which the West has in mind. 
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« Reply #6 on: October 01, 2014, 01:23:55 pm »

Pleasure reading all of your views.  Burlesconi is the real "harem" man.   

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« Reply #7 on: September 19, 2016, 01:56:33 am »

Super good stuff.  Don't know how I missed this for so long.  I was directed to it after enjoying the MV's Pinterest board Paintings Medieval Islamic Era.  I'm so sick of some of those artists, mainly the French, humiliating Muslim women with utterly false portrayals of naked belly-dancer-sort of frivolous whory women.  Several of their works show women in the so-called harems totally nude even in front of the menservants coming to serve tea or coffee.  How viciously ridiculously, distorted and fictitious!!  No different from the Hadith mentality. 

You folks are absolutely right.  Hrm plainly refers to the zanana (female) space of the household where the womenfolk of a large family (that is, female members of several extended families) could relax and loll informally without the presence of non-mehram male members of their families. This doesn't mean they used to be naked.  It meant they would keep aside their veils, hejabs, or the loose outer garment.  Even if the lower garment got stretched a bit above the ankles it wouldn't matter.  When they came out of the zanana harm and went to the larger, common living room, they made sure their appearance was in better order.  That's all.  Westerners, particularly at present, cannot understand this aspect because even during (their kind of) conservative times, there was no gender segregation anywhere in society.  And of course, about the present, the lesser said the better. They don't mind walking half naked (some wouldn't mind full naked) even before strangers.  In the Muslim culture women and girls who reach puberty are supposed to take care of their modesty before all non-mehram males including those of extended families.  As brother TS alluded,  back in those days the joint family residences were common among wealthy Muslim households.  So everyone needed their privacy, also the men.  They too had their separate residential section for informal get-togethers of male family members.  It was also a hrm, hrm  for men, where the guys could chill out smoking water pipes or simply enjoy a brief afternoon siesta amidst their chatting.
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« Reply #8 on: September 19, 2016, 02:33:07 am »

Exactly Sister Ruhi.  That's why we have to take special care selecting the historical images for our MV Pinterest board on Islamic paintings.  The ones by Turkish and northern Arab artists are okay.  It's the Western artists into "orientalism" who unexpectedly display strange blunderous mischief in their works.  I wouldn't say all of them, but several.  And like I said, their fallacious portrayals aren't only regarding the "harem," but also of other social issues.  One really needs to study every painting by an European or American orientalist artist prudently and attentively to determine its cultural authenticity before selecting it for an Islamic board. Otherwise the misrepresentations through art will only add to the misunderstandings of Islam.
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« Reply #9 on: September 19, 2016, 02:35:07 am »

Spot on Sister.  Couldn't agree more. 
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« Reply #10 on: October 27, 2017, 05:00:16 pm »

Yesterday in our monthly discussion session, our agenda was the so-called harem, how many thought it was true and how many knew the hoax behind it.  I printed this post and took it with me. It was greatly helpful and was liked immensely by all. 

Btw, the Italian artist Fabio Fabbi has probably created the largest number of fake harem paintings that are absolutely bizarre and unauthentic.
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