What is a Harem?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The harem is one of the most misunderstood concepts in Islamic culture, thanks to the lively imaginations of early European adventures. Simply put, a harem is a space set aside in a home or complex specifically for the use of women and young children. Men are not allowed to enter the harem, as it is considered a private or forbidden area. Harems vary widely in size and composition, as one might imagine, from the palatial complexes of the Ottoman sultans to a simple private room for women.

The term "harem" can be applied to Mecca, as Muslims see it as a place restricted to Muslims.
The term "harem" can be applied to Mecca, as Muslims see it as a place restricted to Muslims.

The root word for “harem” is haram, which means “forbidden” in Arabic. Muslims also consider the city of Mecca to be a form of harem, except that instead of being for women only, it is restricted to Muslims only, due to the large number of holy sites in the area.

Muslims have traditionally separated women from men in a variety of ways, because they believe that this separation is ordered by the Qu'ran and other religious authorities. Muslimas have traditionally worn veils and loose garments to separate themselves while in public, and contact between men and women is very restricted in conservative Muslim societies. At one point, many homes had a harem; modern Muslims do not generally have separate women's quarters in their homes unless they are of a conservative bent.

In the harem, women can relax their guard, because they know that no men will enter the area. As a result, the harem was often a lively and fun place in the era when women isolated themselves at home. Women could dress more casually, sing and tell stories, and meet with other women from the area. Friends and neighbors traditionally socialized with each other in the harem, bringing young children and eating snacks and tea. In homes with servants, the servants would attend the women in the harem, and in large households, servants might play music and offer other entertainments.

The most famous harem in history was probably the Grand Seraglio of the Ottoman sultans, and this harem inspired a great deal of the mythology about harems which lives on this day. The sultans typically had many wives, along with an assortment of female servants and attendants, and all of them were housed in the seraglio, along with eunuchs. European visitors were undoubtedly captivated by the concept of the harem, which would have been unfamiliar to them, and they brought back fantastic tales with them.

As a result, the term “harem” is sometimes incorrectly used to describe a collection of wives or female followers. This is not only wrong, but also very limited; the harem is a complex place with a large population, although it might seem a bit mysterious to men, since they are not allowed in.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


What a bunch of baloney. This article is clearly an attempt to portray harems as simple matrimonial spaces. Yet another attempt to exonerate Muslims and their proclivities.

Harems existed for wives as well as concubines and slaves kept for nothing more than pure sexual pleasure. They exist to this day. I have personally seen a few in Saudi Arabia and they are extremely common amongst the rich middle eastern and especially oil rich sheikdoms of the gulf.

They are staffed by a combination of paid call girls and women kidnapped into the slave trade. White, particularly blonde, blue-eyed women are still to this day prized above all others for their rarity, but all races can be found, depending on the tastes of the Harem owner.

Not only this, but the Chinese also have a long history of keeping harems filled with women and staffed by eunuchs.



It is sad that many countries have learned to make good money off of catering to these Western presuppositions. Entering a Muslim nation with these ideas about a Harem, however, can be particularly dangerous.


I remember there is a line from It's a Wonderful Life where young George Bailey boasts to his future wife about someday traveling the world and acquiring a couple harems. This shows the cultural fascination the West has with harems, a fascination which, like most Western fascinations, is misplaced and unrealistic.


Often it was only rich men who could support more than one wife. This was considered more of a societal obligation and a privilege for the wife than as some kind of exciting polygamy. Western males sometimes suffer from an atavistic nostalgia for polygamy, when in fact, a marriage of this kind is much more difficult than we can imagine.

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