The Harem

The Harem: Contrasting Orientalist and Feminist Views

By Latifa

Envision a large, opulent room shielded with mashrabiyya in which beautiful, exotic women lounge, waiting for the Sultan’s call. Or envision a society, within a household, which has a clear hierarchy of authority, with the mother of the current Sultan as the most powerful figure, wielding considerable power over not only other women, but also the younger males of the household.1 This paper will examine the Orientalist view of the harem and the feminist view of the same organization, as well as the assumptions, experiences and research that led to the opposing views.

The West has long had a fascination with the “exotic East”, and much of this fascination has centered on an Orientalist view of the harem. Fatima Mernissi describes the abiding appeal of the harem in this way: “The harem is one of most enduring power-hallucinations in the history of mankind… The harem resists time and defies modernity because it allows civilized men and women to identify and deal with their archaic fears of rejection and loneliness.”2 The harem has been depicted by westerners in literature, painting, and photography3 in different ways. What these depictions share is the Orientalist view: the writers and artists are viewing an inferior Other, as will be discussed later.

“Le Bain Turk” (1832) by Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres

Let us first consider depictions in Orientalist art. Probably the most recognizable Orientalist painting is “Le Bain Turk” (1832) by Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres. 4 This is a round picture, as if the scene is witnessed by a voyeur through a keyhole. The nude women are lounging in close quarters around a poll in a bathhouse (which the Orientalists often viewed as an extension of the harem). The woman in the foreground is curvy and supple, in a relaxed serpentine pose that makes her appear almost boneless, and certainly forms a contrast with the stays and corsets worn by European women of the time. She’s lost in reverie. Next to her, two women cuddle together, one caressing the breast of the other, providing a hint of the lesbianism that many Orientalists thought would invariably take place in a closed society of women. There is little detail provided of the setting5 , just a few cushions at the edge of the picture, part of a bathing pool to the left, and a small coffee set in the foreground. The background is in shadow. The overall effect is that of an overwhelming amount of bare flesh6 — a voyeur’s delight. Another striking thing about the picture is the inactivity of the women; this is common in harem scenes, where the women are almost invariably pictured as idle and waiting (for the Sultan, of course). Ingres was inspired by Lady Montagu’s descriptions of her visits to Turkish baths7 but has chosen to change the overall feeling of the setting. Lady Montagu was charmed by the friendliness and civility of the Turkish women, to herself and to each other. 8 In the scene painted by Ingres, the women relate to each other only in mistress-servant or sexual ways. Otherwise, they are self-absorbed.

Another well-known painter of harem scenes was John Frederick Lewis. His painting “Intercepted Correspondence” (also called “The Harem”, 1869)9 shows a Sultan surrounded by many wives or concubines in a lavish, beautiful setting. The painting shows three sides of a harem room. Light filters through mashrabiyyah on all three sides; Lewis is known for his creative use of light in painting. This is a view of the Other that is largely appreciative; the seductive elements in this painting are the beautiful textiles and objets d’art and the masterful use of color. The women are all fully (and opulently) dressed, in combinations that are strikingly colorful without being garish. The woman reclining in the foreground, for example, wears a combination of yellow, turquoise and coral. The two women in the center of the painting wear equally distinctive combinations, while the women on the sides of the painting are dressed in more pastel shades. The floor is carpeted in luxurious color and pattern. But the women, although fully dressed are stereotypically seductive, idle and powerless.

There is an anecdote involving Lewis that is a perfect illustration of the assumptions of Orientalism, particularly male Orientalism. Lewis had rented a house in Cairo and was visited there by William Makepeace Thackeray, who feared, finding his friend garbed in voluminous trousers, that the painter might have “turned Turk”. Looking around for confirmation of his suspicion, Thackeray noted that “there were wooden lattices to those arched windows, through the diamonds of which I saw two of the most beautiful, enormous, ogling black eyes in the world, looking down upon the interesting stranger.” What Thackeray has seen are the eyes of Lewis’s “very plain” cook.10 But note his assumptions that she is exotic, sexually alluring, and interested in him, the superior observer.

To sum up this genre of painting, we see a recurring theme of the idle, sensuous harem woman, powerless except for her sexuality, having no occupation other than waiting to sexually serve her Sultan. We’ve also seen hints of lesbianism. Another prevalent theme that cannot be discussed here because of space limitations is that of the harem as impenetrable. Orientalist painters were fond of portraying splendid Nubian eunuchs guarding the door or gate to the harem, which is sometimes left tantalizingly ajar.

I will now briefly touch upon Orientalist literature portraying women in general and the harem in particular. Edward Said, in describing the reaction of European travelers to the Middle East, writes, “In most cases, the Orient seemed to have offended sexual propriety; everything about the Orient… exuded dangerous sex, threatened hygiene and domestic seemliness with an excessive ‘freedom of intercourse’”. 11 We have already seen some typical assumptions in the amusing Thackeray anecdote. Many of the writers who visited the Middle East had done their homework. They had already read other travelers’ accounts and knew what to expect — or at least thought they did, based on the perceptions of those who had preceded them. E. W. Lane, for example, saw Arab women as licentious, remarking,

The libidinous character of the generality of the women of Egypt, and the licentious conduct of a great number of them, may be attributed to many causes — partly to the climate, and partly to their want of proper instruction and of innocent pastimes and employments; but it is more to be attributed to the conduct of the husbands themselves, and to conduct far more disgraceful to them than the utmost severity that any of them is known to exercise in the regulations of his hareem. The generality of husbands in Egypt endeavour to increase the libidinous feelings of their wives by every means in their power, though at the same time they assiduously study to prevent their indulging these feelings unlawfully. The women are permitted to listen, screened behind their windows of wooden lattice-work, to immoral songs and tales sung or related in the streets by men whom they pay for this entertainment, and to view the voluptuous dances of the ghawazee and of the effeminate khawals.12

In one selection, Lane perpetrates several Orientalist myths: the universality of the harem-type environment for women; the lasciviousness of Arab men and women; and the harem as site for sexually-oriented entertainment, to the exclusion of other activities.

Female travelers were able to actually visit the harems in some cases, and their narratives prove quite interesting. From what I would consider the high point of such writing, that of Lady Mary Montagu, we have a balanced account of gracious women generously entertaining a visitor. Lady Mary held a poor opinion of other Western accounts of the Harem, and stresses several times in her letters that she was trying to observe and record her observations objectively. When she dined with the Grand Vizier’s Lady, for example, and in describing the visit mentioned that she sometimes wearied of Turkish-style food and longed for more familiar dishes, she does not assume that one type of food is “Right” and the other “Wrong”; she realizes it’s a matter of taste.13 From reading the accounts of Lady Mary and those of other female travelers, one has to wonder if the attitude of the visitor doesn’t have a great deal to do with both parties’ enjoyment of the visit. Lady Mary is invariably gracious and seems to recognize the common humanity of all the women in the room, whether telling of a visit to the harem or to the baths. Other travelers seem to make these visits prepared to find faults, since they are, after all, superior beings. As Marbro describes it, speaking in general of Western women’s visit to the harem,

[an] increasing number of tourists … were taken on an organized trip to the harem in the second half of the 19th century. What followed was often a very short visit, marked by mutual incomprehension and a stilted conversation through an interpreter. The travellers rarely thought in any depth about the effect of their presence on the proceedings, which had by definition meant that they were not observing normal daily life — they had become a part of what was happening. Some writers ridiculed the reactions of the women they were visiting to show how childish and ignorant they were. Many felt qualified to make confidential judgments. If the women were not as beautiful and depraved as they had believed, then they were certainly uneducated, bad mothers, and to be pitied for the tedious lives they led. Some women were so well-informed in advance that they refused to make a visit on principle. 14

How can one account for the Western view of the Arabs in these works? I would argue that it is motivated by imperialism. When one encounters the Other (especially an Other as different from the Europeans as the Arabs seemed to be) there are certain natural assumptions. The superiority of the observer is taken for granted; he or she is dealing from a position of strength. The Other is the lesser being. So one logical way to view the Other is as a child. Another way is for the Other to be a lesser human — that is, more like an animal — than the observer. This tendency is usually less extreme in peaceful situations15 , so the Other is viewed as stupid or cunning (with mental processes inferior to the observer), dirty and/or disorderly (less civilized) and, often, lascivious (lacking the civilized or gentlemanly control of the observer). The Other often is portrayed as having little or no respect for life as well, or at least as being cruel (again, lacking the civilized refinement of the observer). Racism is almost always involved, since the observer and Other are from two different societies. In the case of a male observer and a female Other, the element of the exotic and the erotic are intertwined. This, however, is not a purely Western Orientalist trait; it is true of the Arabs themselves, too. Let me cite two examples, centuries apart. During the pre-Islamic period in Arabia (late 6th-early seventh century AD), poets reciting oral poetry almost invariably included an erotic prelude called a nasib. While it would be inappropriate to present this at length, it is interesting to note that the objects of the poets’ lust were invariably women from other tribes, not their own relatives and certainly not a wife. The exotic or unfamiliar was erotic, then as now. And in the modern-day Middle East, Arab men make many assumptions about Western and especially American women from viewing Western soap operas such as “Falcon Crest” and “Dallas” and others, assuming that the behavior depicted in these shows and in Hollywood cinema accurately reflects the morals of American women in general. As with Orientalist assumptions about the harem, it is assumed that the qualities and behavior displayed or alleged to be displayed by a very small subset of women, or by women in fiction, applies to all females in that society.

If one approaches the harem as a study in gender, a very different picture is created. As we have seen, the Orientalist vision was formed in a decidedly unacademic way. Assumptions were made; personal filters were used to interpret data; objectivity was scarce, and sometimes romantic visions were preferred over objective data. This section of the paper will examine feminist approaches to the study of the harem.

Most scholars approaching a subject matter will first search for objective documentation contemporary to the area being studied. This is a problem for scholars wanting to study the harem of the Ottoman Empire because of the lack of Ottoman sources. Lacking indigenous resources, Leslie Peirce turned to the accounts of European observers 16 and developed criteria for judging the validity of these accounts. She then used empirical data — Ottoman archival material, particularly privy purse registers — to “understand the structure of the harem institution, to chart its tremendous growth in this period, and to reconstruct the careers of individual women of the dynasty.” 17 The information gained from the Ottoman documents was then used to confirm or repudiate the European material. Peirce and other feminist scholars were dealing with several Orientalist assumptions about the harem: that it was about lascivious sex, either with the Sultan or among the women themselves; that the women were passive and powerless; and that this was a universal situation that applied in some way to all Middle Eastern women. From examining waqf and other documents, Peirce concludes that the harem had a well-defined hierarchy of authority, with the matriarchal elders, who had superior status, ruling “not only over other women but also over younger males in the family, for the harem was also the setting for the private life of men.” 18 Moreover, in Peirce’s view, important women within the dynastic household, particularly the Sultan’s mother (valide sultan), would assume legitimate roles of authority outside the royal household.19 In addition, women were not powerless; they had some economic independence and were often property owners. They also used the waqf system to their own ends, with a significant portion of their money going to charitable endeavors that helped women. “Through their practice of the charity incumbent upon Muslims of means, women asserted the prerogative of claiming and organizing a sector of public life for their own welfare.” 20

Male-female interactions in the harem were far from merely carnal and included one activity the Orientalists never dreamed of: the exchange of information. Women were able to provide to their male relatives information they had gained through formal visits to other women21 and probably could also exert subtle pressure for the men if it were warranted. (It would not be surprising if these same women’s contacts were used by outsiders to pass information to the Sultan or to request favors, considering the close access the women of the harem had to him.) As Peirce says, “The more intimate one’s service to the Sultan in the inner world, the greater was one’s standing in the outer world.”22

Mabro deconstructs the Orientalist view of women and the harem in her excellent book, “Veiled Half-Truths”, which provide quotes from an extensive array of European travel writing. She believes that the symbols of the veil and the harem “prevented the observer from seeing and communicating with women and produced feelings of frustration and aggressive behavior… by concentrating on the harem and the veil, Western travellers often failed to understand aspects of the life of Middle Eastern women.”23 Mabro goes on to point out that the harem, as the West understood it, “was extremely rare and would have appeared just as ‘exotic’ to the majority of the Middle Eastern women who lived in rural areas, were poor, and did a large proportion of the agricultural labour.” 24 She also believes that the travellers’ assumption that Middle Eastern women were veiled or confined to harems blinded them to the realization that European women of the time were oppressed as well. As for being confined, this was limited, not general. Apart from the large harems, Muslim women could freely leave their houses. They also exercised considerable authority in the home. 25 I was somewhat taken aback to see evidence in Mabro’s book indicating how widespread these misconceptions were, as reflected in a general reference work like Roget’s Thesaurus. The 1852 edition has the word “harem” entered under “impurity”, as being synonymous with “brothel”. It was not until the 1962 edition that this was changed, but then “harem” was equated with “love-nest”. Recent editions are more accurate, placing “harem” under “womankind” and” seclusion”.

Writing about a later harem in 20th century Morocco, Fatima Mernissi voices a similar view: “a harem has nothing to do with eroticism or pleasure. A harem is, above all, a power structure, a system in which oppression and violence work together in the lives of women to turn their daily life into a prison universe.” 26 Mernissi obtained some of her information on harem life from interviews with women who had lived in harems. Although her description of harem life is a harsh one, the women being interviewed portray a cooperative atmosphere with regular parties that does not seem entirely negative. 27 Mernissi later detailed her own upbringing in a harem in Fez, 28 demystifying the harem and describing the close relationships of its inhabitants, with the co-wives generally cooperating and supporting each other. But they are still virtual prisoners within the harem walls, as the book title — Dreams of Trespass — indicates. The women dream of leaving the harem and seeing the outside world.

What has all this discussion of the harem shown us? Leila Ahmed succinctly describes the two points of view,

The harem can be defined as a system that permits males sexual access to more than one female. It can also be defined, and with as much accuracy, as a system whereby the female relatives of a man — wives, mother, aunts, daughters — share much of their time and their living space, and further, which enables women to have frequent and easy access to women in their community, vertically, across lines, as well as horizontally. 29

I believe that there are assumptions being made on both sides of the argument. We’ve discussed the assumptions made by the Orientalists; I will not repeat them here. But what are the assumptions of the feminist writers approaching the topic from the gender studies viewpoint? I believe that most feminist researchers approach a topic of this type with an assumption that is, ironically, sexist: as women themselves, 30 they just know that women can’t be as bad as men portray them, in this case as passive but lascivious creatures. This goes against what women know about women. But this sexist assumption is then redeemed by their research, which has in some cases (such as feminist studies of waqf documents) provided new insights into the past that are useful to other disciplines of the social sciences as well.

We have seen two very different approaches to the study of the harem. Orientalists approach the subject with preconceived romantic images that are strong enough to withstand objective evidence to the contrary. Feminists, probably in most cases in reaction to the Orientalist portrayals, approach the same subject objectively. In the first case, the conclusions are made without studying any evidence (other than other travelers’ writings). In the second case, empirical data is collected and analyzed before conclusions are made. One cannot deny the entertainment value of the Orientalists writings. In their time, they titillated and amazed readers; present-day readers find the descriptions charmingly quaint and more revelatory of the writers than the subject matter. And we must be grateful to the Orientalists for helping to inspire the feminist study of the harem, which has advanced the general field of knowledge.


1 Leslie Peirce, The Imperial Harem (Oxford: University Press, 1993), 7.

2 Fatima Mernissi, Vanishing Orient: Papa’s Harem is Shifting to Mama’s Civil Society (Catalog for a 1997 exhibit with text by Fatima Mernissi and photographs by Ruth Ward, Munich), 39-40.

3 For an interesting review of French postcards of Algerian women, see Malek Alloula’s The Colonial Harem (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986).

4 Lynne Thornton, La Femme Dans La Peinture Orientaliste (Paris: ACR Edition Internationale, 1993), 67.

5 This is unusual for such paintings. Often the women are set off by realistically detailed and colorful textiles and household items. The riot of color and textile makes the usually pale nude bodies of the women even more striking or shocking. For a more typical portrayal, see, by the same artist, “La Grande Odalisque” (1814), in which expanses of pale, nude skin are contrasted with the texture and color of her surroundings: patterned silk draperies, an elaborate head wrap, scattered jewelry and an ornate ostrich-feather fan.

6 Kabbani believes that in this painting eroticism becomes a parody of itself. “For the compilation of bodies in such numerous mass disturbs without arousing. It is a surplus which satiates.” Rana Kabbani, Europe’s Myths of Orient (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 85.

7 Lady Mary Worley Montagu, Complete Letters, Vol I (Oxford, University Press, 1965), 312-315 and 406-407.

8 Ibid, 314-315.

9 Thornton, 130-131.

10 Kabbani, 83.

11 Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1978), 167.

12 E. W. Lane, Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (London: East-West Publications, 1978), 298-299.

13 Montagu, 348.

14 Mabro, 7.

15 Recall, for example, the common depiction of Vietnamese natives as “gooks” or worse during the Vietnam War.

16 Peirce, 114.

17 Ibid, 118.

18 Peirce, 7.

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid, 8.

21 Ibid, 7.

22 Ibid, 12.

23 Judy Mabro, Veiled Half-Truths: Western Travellers’ Perceptions of Middle Eastern Women (London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 1991), 2-3.

24 Ibid.

25 Marbro, 7.

26 Fatima Mernissi, Doing Daily Battle (New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 1989), 21.

27 Batul Binjalluna, for example, states, “Growing up was a happy time for me. We were always playing and laughing.” Ibid, 23.

28 Other scholars represent this book as a sociological field report that is not autobiographical. In my own conversations with Mernissi, she has described the work as autobiographical.

29 Quoted by Marbro, 8.

30 My exposure to gender studies has been limited, so perhaps this is a naive observation, but it does seem to be a field that is predominantly or exclusively female.



Alloula, Malek. The Colonial Harem. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

Croutier, Alev Lytle. Harem: The World Behind the Veil. New York: Abbeville Press, 1989.

Gocek, Fatme Muge and Shiva Balaghi, ed. Reconstructing Gender in the Middle East. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994. Introduction.

Kabbani, Rana. Europe’s Myths of Orient. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

Lane, E. W. Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians. London: East-West Publications, 1978.

Mabro, Judy. Veiled Half-Truths: Western Travellers’ Perceptions of Middle Eastern Women. London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 1991.

MacKenzie, John. Orientalism: History, Theory, and the Arts. Manchester: University Press, 1995.

Mernissi, Fatima. Doing Daily Battle. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1989.

________, Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood. Reading: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1994.

________, Vanishing Orient: Papa’s Harem is Shifting to Mama’s Civil Society. Catalog for a 1997 exhibit with text by Fatima Mernissi and photographs by Ruth Ward, Munich.

Montagu, Lady Mary Worley. Complete Letters, Vol I. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965.

Peirce, Leslie P. The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire. Oxford: University Press, 1993.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1978.

Thornton, Lynne. La Femme Dans La Peinture Orientaliste. Paris: ACR Edition Internationale, 1993.


Latifa (Linda Wilkinson, M.A.), a longtime student of the late Ibrahim Farrah, is a performer and instructor in the Baltimore-Washington area. She is past President of the Washington Area Mid-East Dance Association (WAMEDA) and a founding member of the Middle Eastern Dance Guild, an organization dedicated to promoting Middle Eastern dance in a positive and culturally accurate manner. Latifa recently received a Master’s degree in Arab Studies from Georgetown University, and has just returned from Cairo where she studied Arabic on a fellowship funded by the Fullbright Foundation. email:;

Copyright © Habibi Publications 1992-2002, Shareen El Safy, Publisher.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.