When we think of a harem, we tend to associate it with the domination of women by men, and on the whole, we are right to do so. It comes across to Europeans as rather a mysterious place, a prison where women were subservient to the sexual desires of the Sultan, a place maintained for the sole purpose of allowing an old reprobate to indulge his fantasies as conveniently as dropping into Starbucks and ordering a caramel latte. Because it does not form part of our collective history, we have no direct record or experience of it. All we have are the exotic tales of the Arabian Nights, the rumps from Carry On Up the Khyber and so on. So, a blossoming garden of feminist ambition it is not. Or so we think.
While I was researching my next book (more on that soon in later posts), a more complex picture of the Ottoman harems of the fifteenth century emerged. The word harem in fact means forbidden place. As for seraglio, which was commonly used instead of harem — that meant a cage for wild animals in Renaissance times. But was it all true?
Perhaps in part, it was. Women can be jealous; they can also be resourceful. And men are men. But there is more to it all than a den of orgiastic rivalry. There are certain realities to consider, and one of them is the nature of women.
Women have changed over the years depending on where they live and the social status to which they are bound. Take a woman from a seriously male-dominated country such as Saudi-Arabia, and you will find in many, an almost genetic acceptance of their lack of freedom. Compare her to a Swede, a German or a Brit and the expectations and boundaries of individual liberty will be the difference between ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ and ‘Little House on the Prairie’. Or at least that is what we think. But are we guilty of stereotyping, of allowing worn-out ideas to shape our impressions?
It is worth remembering that there are fundamental principles that most women share, just as there are commonalities of male thought. What are they? The first that spring to mind as far as men are concerned would probably be sport, a certain ambition for the recumbent position, and playing deaf when they are asked to change the TV channel. But that would make us guilty of stereotyping again, wouldn’t it?
The same is true for women. We are neither Madonna nor Mother Theresa, veiled or unveiled. We are individuals trying to make the best of what has been forced upon us, both as a result of our own passive acceptance, and because the male-dominated society that still makes the rules in almost every country on this planet has decided what goes and what doesn’t. Now, back to the harem.
Who actually lived there? Many of the women brought into the harem as slaves were not Muslim. They were the daughters of conquered peoples, who had been either sold or offered as gifts to the Sultan in return, essentially, for peace. One can imagine the state of mind of these women, torn away from their families and homes and plunged into a world entirely alien to them. Add to that the fact that they would then have been groomed and prepared for the big event of the night, which does not require further explanation — the word rape will probably do the job. It would have taken huge strength of character to live with this on a daily basis, and I doubt that many did. Some of them must have just resigned themselves to it, easier than fighting. Others may have rebelled and paid the price for their nerve. We do know that not every girl who entered the seraglio stayed the course. When the last Ottoman Sultan’s court fell, the seraglio was disbanded. The foreign women who were then released ‘fell into the arms of their fathers, whom they had not seen for years’. But ‘more than one of the men did not find the face he sought. Some of the girls had died; some had been put to death’ (from ‘The Harem: Inside the Grand Seraglio of the Turkish Sultans’ by N. M Penzer).
Then there is this. If you put women together, and particularly women of different cultures, which was the nature of the seraglio, they would surely have had an influence on each other. There may have been back-biting, jealousy and even hatred. But I believe that there would also have been a good deal of solidarity. Perhaps it would have taken time to grow, but once it took hold, the foundations of the harem would have started to shake. And they did. As Penzer notes, ‘The harem must not be connected with the Ottoman power at its height, but should be looked upon as the beginning of its decline and fall’. The women of the seraglio began to flex their muscles. They didn’t become out and out feminists, but they did take the first steps to female liberation the only way they could.
Just as the harem was its own world, it had its rulers and its hierarchy, and the power gained by the prestige of getting to the top brought with it the micro-Madonna effect. The wives and favourites began to exert their influence on the Sultan. They became important; they took whatever control they could and used it to improve their situation. So much so in fact, that the chief wife even grew to be known as the Valide Sultan until things started going sour in the Ottoman dynasty in the 17th century and the ruling Sultans decided that enough was enough and female power had to be curtailed. All of which goes to show that sex there certainly was, but as every woman knows, where there is sex there is power. And despite the contradictions that it brings, perhaps it was all they had.
Source: ‘The Harem: Inside the Grand Seraglio of the Turkish Sultans’ by N. M Penzer