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What Was The Purpose Of Harem Explained

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The term ‘harem’ comes from the Arabic language and means ‘forbidden place’. In a nutshell, harem stands for the sphere of women, different age and background, in a polygamous household and refers to their confined quarters being forbidden to men.

The Term Harem

The word ‘harem’ appeared first in the Middle East where harems were composed of sultans, wives, sisters, children, mother, and concubines. Zenana was the South Asian equivalent of the harem.

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Basically, the harem was the place where no man could ever enter. In Islam, female seclusion was emphasized and any breaking into privacy was regarded as ‘haram’ meaning ‘forbidden’. In general, term harem was used for Muslim households only. Also, harem can refer to ancient Oriental communities in which polygamy was practiced and allowed.

The common belief is that the practice of secluding female relatives and wives is Muslim tradition, but the truth is that this practice goes way back to the ancient Assyrians.

The Purpose Of Harem

To understand the purpose of harem you need to remember that all of these cultures (in the Middle East and South Asia) were very patriarchal, in a way that’s not close to the modern way of living. Therefore, women were seen as the property of their husbands. Furthermore, women were also status symbols.

At that time the idea that a woman shouldn’t be seen in public was common in these societies. However, that didn’t stop them from working. Since the majority of women had to work, they had to leave the house. For rulers, having a harem had two major purposes:

  • It prevented women from behaving unashamedly, which would have badly affected her husband’s reputation.
  • It proved that the ruler is rich enough that he could afford to keep his wife in the house.

Truth is that harem had many functions and women living there often ended up wielding significant power in their own right.

Interestingly, some women in the Ottoman harem had very important political roles in the history of the empire as well. The perfect example for this is Hurrem Sultan, the wife of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. It’s aid that her influence was so big, that the entire Ottoman empire was ruled from the harem.

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Inside Harem

Harem wasn’t only place for the women. Children were also born and grew up inside the harem. Furthermore, harem had markets, baths, kitchens, playgrounds, bazaars, and school. In a way, the harem was a city within the city. Harems also had their hierarchies. They were always led by the female relatives or wives of the sultan. Concubines were always below them.

Interestingly, but even women who were slaves could become major players in the politics of the Empire. Also, the Sultan often gave women from his harem in marriage to nobles.

Although women in the harem were mostly protected and respected, there were examples of Sultans who did not respect them. One of those Sultans was Sultan Ibrahim the Mad ruler, who was known for drowning over 280 of the concubines from his harem in the Bosporus. Women in harem literally walked with tightrope between servitude and power their entire lives.

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