Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


Gilded Slavery or Life in a Turkish Harem

By Marilyn GardnerMarilyn Gardner writes a weekly column on social issues for the Monitor. / July 28, 1989



HAREM: THE WORLD BEHIND THE VEIL, by Alev Lytle Croutier. New York: Abbeville Press. 224 pp. $35. BECAUSE it is so self-evidently an unjust and archaic social institution, the harem has been frivolously and indulgently served up as an entertainment product, even to this day.

Skip to next paragraph

As a setting for ``The Arabian Nights'' and romantic movies out of the ``Kismet'' mold, the harem still represents to the popular imagination an exotic fantasy, a private world filled with music, dance, festivities, and happily subservient concubines - the Scheherazade motif of prettily costumed ballets.

In fact, the harem belongs to the history of slavery - specifically, women's form of slavery - flourishing from the Middle Ages to the early part of this century.

Alev Lytle Croutier documents the harem as it was, whenever possible using the testimony of its inmates. The words of one unknown Turkish woman - speaking out of her humiliation with touching dignity - can be read as a summation, and indictment, of the harem:

``I am a harem woman, an Ottoman slave. I was conceived in an act of contemptuous rape and born in a sumptuous palace.... I am richly dressed and poorly regarded.... I am anonymous, I am infamous.... My home is this place where gods are buried and devils breed, the land of holiness, the backyard of hell.''

Drawing not only on historical research but also on her own family history - her grandmother grew up in a harem - Croutier focuses primarily on the Seraglio at the famed Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. She also looks briefly at the ordinary harems of wealthy merchants and the more modest classes.

Slavery is always one manifestation or another of institutionalized prejudice. The harem, a world of isolated and subjugated females, grew out of Islam's teachings that women ``could not be trusted and had to be kept away from men (other than close relatives), whom they could not help but seduce.'' Secluded dwellings became necessary ``not to protect their bodies and honor, but to preserve the morals of men.'' Women were considered ``intellectually dull, spiritually vapid, valuable only to satisfy the passions of their masters and provide them male heirs.''

Those who were not born into the harem were bought at slave markets. Beautiful young girls - all non-Moslems - were kidnapped or sold by impoverished parents, who comforted themselves with the belief that their daughters would enjoy lives of luxury and ease.

But harem life offered few pleasures for the women Croutier sympathetically describes as ``inmates'' and ``slaves.'' Fine jewels and elegant clothes (sultans never saw women in the same dress twice) could hardly compensate for the vacuity of life in these ``luxurious prisons'' and ``convents.''

Boredom, rigorous discipline, rivalry, even possible murder by poisoning or drowning - all characterized life under the rule of capricious sultans and pashas.

To break the monotony - and dull the horror - of their days, women played what Croutier calls ``extremely unsophisticated and simple-minded'' games - a fact perhaps explained by their lack of education and their youth: The average age in a harem was 17. During summer months, they frolicked in marble pools. Occasional picnics and carriage trips to local bazaars provided additional entertainment, always under the heavy guard of eunuchs - men whose own thwarted passions and failed ambitions added to palace intrigue, power struggles, and betrayals.

Meals, another diversion, became elaborate rituals, along with two other pleasures, drinking coffee and smoking opium. But the favorite activity, the ``all-consuming passion'' and the ``most luxurious pastime,'' remained the communal Turkish bath, a time for grooming as well as gossip.

Although the Koran allows men to have four wives, sultans and princes also took odalisques (female slaves) as concubines and unofficial wives. Most sultans spent nights with their favorite women in carefully scheduled rotation, with the chief treasurer recording each ``couching'' in a diary to establish the birth and legitimacy of children.

In 1909, a group of Young Turks overthrew the sultan and established a constitutional government. Harems were declared illegal. Polygamy was outlawed, and veils were lifted.

Yet this lengthy chapter in the global history of women-as-chattel remains far from closed. As Croutier explains, polygamy continues in the Middle East, India, and Africa.

In the United States, she notes the Mormon practice of ``plural marriage,'' which, although illegal, is still practiced underground by some devout Mormon fundamentalists.

Yet she stretches a point when she cites James Bond's attentive circle of beautiful women and Hugh Hefner's Playboy mansion filled with live-in ``bunnies'' as other examples of modern-day harems. These are voluntary arrangements, after all, and the exits are not blocked, as they were for Turkish women.

Croutier's text, a blend of careful scholarship and gossipy family anecdotes, is richly embellished with documentary photographs and colorful ``Orientalist'' artwork, depicting harem life. Ultimately, the visual sumptuousness only mocks these disenchanting tales of gilded slavery.