In the modern day, much like the archaic harems, there is no better way to show off a wealthy and important man than to show him surrounded by subservient women: observe James Bond or 50 Cent.
Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem GirlhoodPublisher: Addison Wesley
Author: Fatima Mernissi
US publication date: 1995
Harem: The World Behind the VeilPublisher: Abbeville
Author: Alev Lytle Croutier
US publication date: 1998
In Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood, Fatima Mernissi writes of a female servant who lived in her house, Mina, whom she often questioned about the differences between men and women. Mina tells her: “A cosmic frontier splits the planet in two halves. The frontier indicates the line of power because wherever there is a frontier, there are two kinds of creatures walking Allah’s earth, the powerful on one side and the powerless on the other.” When young Fatima asks how to tell which side you are on, Mina answers: “If you can’t get out, you are on the powerless side.”
Boundaries, sacred (hudud) or otherwise, are created by the powerful. As Mernissi’s boyish cousin Samir points out, all you need to create a frontier is to force others to believe in it. Nothing forces this belief better than the harem – the boundaries are both obvious through the walled terraces and gardens, and hidden in the minds of all participants. Just as kismet, or one’s life duty, is “written in the forehead”, according to the Koran, so are the frontiers of life indelibly imprinted. It is not only necessary to escape the physical boundaries, but the mental ones, in order to achieve power.
In order to escape these boundaries, breaking the walls down between public and private space is necessary. The harem is, by nature, completely private – no men may enter another’s harem (either his living space, or the section of it reserved specifically for women, or the women themselves). It is forbidden, haram. Furthermore, the mental frontiers that create a harem are often equally secluded – we only determine that there is a boundary that should not be crossed when we have crossed it and are punished, either overtly or covertly. The two autobiographies, Mernissi's Dreams of Trespass and Alev Croutier's Harem: The World Behind the Veil, are an effort to change the boundary between public and private. By making the world of the harem more public, they seize power for themselves; by changing the hudud, they escape the harem.
While Croutier did not live in a harem herself (harems were abolished in Turkey in 1909 but currently exist in modified form throughout the greater Islamic world), she lived in a large extended family, similar to what Mernissi describes in her book. Her desire to explore harems stemmed from her education in the West, where the Orientalist view of harems was all that existed: considered a sensuous and titillating world, nobody knew any real details about the women who had been effectively hidden away from prying eyes. The physical and spiritual isolation of women had succeeded. There was almost no documentation on harem life, and what there was, was fragmented: romanticized descriptions from Western travelers and diplomats, smuggled letters and poems written by the women, and “tedious studies by historians whose primary interest was royal life and palace politics, not the uncounted, unnamed women of the harem.” (Croutier)
When women gather, Croutier notes, they develop a sense of primitive ritual and archetypal connection – their menstrual cycles synchronize and they pull together as a group, although there are still upsets and divisions. Men can never enter this world, so they create a harem: a re-creation of a nostalgic return to childhood, mothers, and the womb, and a way to own what they cannot be a part of. They can jealously control their women, keeping “mother” all for themselves – Freud would have loved the harem.
This egocentrism based on a singular male controlling large groups of women clearly creates an imbalance of power. As Mernissi says, “The more masters one had, the more freedom and the more fun.” (Mernissi) The more “masters” or heads of the household, the less control over the women. Women could get permission for something from one man when another denied it. It is no wonder that men guarded their harems so zealously – in order to maintain control, no other master could be allowed any access. The power of the powerful over the powerless (in this case, women) was dependent on exclusivity – a house divided against itself can not stand, and a harem divided between more than one owner would collapse as the men’s power weakened and dissolved.
The Muslim image of paradise is very much like a harem. Men find themselves in a house filled with houris, virginal and willing women who tend to his every desire for all eternity. As each man has his own houseful, none are required to share. Their wife or wives are not present, so there are no demands made on them; paradise is a return to selfish and carefree childhood. Real women, of course, do not figure in to this – they are either ignored completely or consigned to hell.
Harems really added to men’s power amongst other men. Men’s prestige has long been biologically based on his provider abilities – the more women he can competently support, the more powerful a man he is. It is no surprise, then, that the Grand Harem belonging to the Sultan of Turkey sometimes consisted of hundreds of women; aside from proving the wealth and power of their owner, the women could also be bestowed as important gifts to courtiers or businessman.
John Frederick Lewis' "Reception"
Even in ordinary harems, Muslim law allowed men up to four wives (as long as he provided for each equally), as well as any number of female servants (odalisques) with whom he could have sexual relationships without penalty. The wives’ rightful place was "beneath the soles of her husband’s feet.” (Croutier) Older wives and divorced women who lived in the harem had to maintain their status in their husband’s house at any cost, or they would be summarily turned out. Sometimes this meant finding younger wives for a husband, or submitting to the will of more important women in the harem. Certainly, it meant never dissenting with the views of the master. The situation was made more precarious because the rules within the harem were often subject to change without notice from the man; women had to be on their best behavior, or their whole world could be taken away from them. In a recent news story, Saudi businessman Saleh al-Saiairi, who has been married to 58 women (but not more than four at one time), announced he would soon take two more brides and was preparing to randomly select the two current wives he would have to divorce. ( Chuck Shepherd’s News of the Weird, 18 April 2004)
Furthermore, in ordinary harems, contrary to the Grand Harem, learning or intellectual study were often discouraged. Children might go to Koran school, but rarely public school; a sharp contrast to the well-educated and talented women of the Sultan’s harem, who often spoke numerous languages and could usually read, write, and play musical instruments. However, the education of these women was for nothing, because they were even more closely guarded than their more ordinary sisters. While women in commonplace harems could occasionally escape the walls (sometimes through literal escape by climbing through a window or over a roof, and sometimes a more sanctioned escape like going to the movies, to the hamam, or to the ritual dances, women in the Sultan’s Seraglio remained either behind doors or scrupulously observed outside them.
Jean Loon Gerome's "Harem Pool" (1889)
In the modern world, where harems are ostensibly taboo, they belong in “the realm of dark secrets and fears we prefer not to remember.” (Croutier) A document produced by the United Nations in 2001 on the role of women in India, where even non-Muslims can be restricted by the segregation practice of purdah, states that, “according to the National Family Health Survey-2, 1998-1999, only 52 percent of women in India are even consulted on decisions about their own health care.” ("Women in India: How Free? How Equal?" United Nations– India. 2001) In Singapore, where the Muslim practice of polygyny is supported, “both men and women have the right to initiate divorce proceedings; however, in practice, women faced significant difficulties that often prevented them from pursuing proceedings, especially the lack of financial resources to obtain legal counsel.” (Singapore, US State Department, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices – 2004, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. February 28, 2005.)
Harems, says Croutier, are about forgetfulness. Islamic women’s voices in the outside world have been conspicuously absent; in Morocco, polygamy remains in the family law code to point out to women their powerlessness. Refusing a man’s right to multiple wives would indicate that women had a say in law and the outside world; that “society is not run by and for men’s whims alone." (Mernissi). The 1993 study by Tasneem Chowdury on the roles of women in Islamic families in Bangladesh is poignant and telling; of the village she studied, she says: “Women are almost totally missing from the street life. Their appearance there is conditional to necessity and to modest behavior. Sometimes women are visible in the entrances to their homesteads, looking out at the road. Their role in the street-life is as discreet spectators, never as participants.” ("Segregation of Women in Islamic Societies of South Asia and its Reflection in Rural Housing - Case Study in Bangladesh", MCHG McGill University. 1996)
Croutier and Mernissi’s complete disclosure of what women really want, what they really do behind their closed doors, forces the private into the public eye. By so doing, they force a change in the boundaries that exist in the world. Through seclusion, men in the Islamic world have gained control over women for hundreds of years. By bringing what was tucked away out into the open, women are beginning to gain power for themselves.
The year 2006 welcomed the first meeting of the Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equity, a group of 25 women from different countries who are legal jurists, or muftias and are allowed to issue fatwas: opinions based on the religious reasoning of a learned individual. In the United States, the forthcoming English translation of the Koran by a woman finds an alternate meaning in a verse widely interpreted to give husbands authority to beat their wives as a last resort. (“A bid to bring the female voice to Islamic law.”, by Ben Arnoldy, Christian Science Monitor, Nov. 21, 2006.) In Afghanistan, women are helping to rebuild the country; in 2003, “Laila” took English and computer classes. “Although she had put together $4,000 from her savings and pension from UNICEF…some of her in-laws insisted that a woman should stay at home.” (“Aiding Afghanistan with style”, by Stacy Perman Business Week, June 7, 2005.) In 2005, she ran a jewelry shop in Kabul. That power offers the opportunity to create new frontiers – truly, to boldly go where no man has gone before.