Conversation With the Feminist Writer Who Demystified Harems

ALEV LYTLE CROUTIER grew up in Turkey surrounded by images of harems. Her family lived in a house that had been home to a harem; in the attic she played dress-up with silk scarves and slippers left behind by the odalisques. In a telephone interview, she explained some of the background of her book. Yours is the first book to cover harems so extensively. Why have no other books done this?

The word harem means forbidden and sacrosanct, closed, and in some cases even blasphemous ... and so men were not allowed to talk or write about their wives or even their daughters in Islamic cultures.

Women themselves were illiterate. They couldn't write or read until the late 19th century. The belongings of those few who were educated and could write were destroyed when they died, so the documents didn't survive.

And a foreigner or person from the outside could never enter, so what we have is second- or third-hand information about harems. [I had] access to some letters and journals and other first-hand documents that women put out themselves, because I can still speak Turkish and I was able to read some of the texts and translate them myself without going through another source.

What was it like to grow up in Turkey just after harems were outlawed?

If you and I lived in the Islamic culture until about 1909 we would have been born in a harem. That was the norm. I'm using the word harem here as part of the household where women and children and servants were kept separately without access to the outside world, except on very rare and special occasions.

That was the situation my grandmother and her sisters were born into. My grandmother was promised to a man she'd never seen, during childhood, and when she married him, my grandfather, she was 14 and he was 40 years old.

The most powerful person in the harem was the mother. Even in my family that was so. My grandmother lived with us and she had more power in the house in terms of making decisions, really, than my mother. So that was a custom that continued.

In your introduction you say that you brought a ``feminist rhetoric'' to your research. In what way does your book contribute to feminist literature?

What I came to a lot when I was working on the book was it was not just an institution that existed in Turkey and China, India, Iran, and still continues in ... parts of Africa and Saudi Arabia.

But it's a place that in our collective unconscious that men and women have created together, which is rooted in submission and slavery.

And then we have the whole myth of the harems.... I feel that what I've done with the book is demystify ... what we've come to believe through Western art and history and films and advertising art, television, ballet, music, opera.

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