women's quarters in the traditional house of a Muslim family

Harem (Arabic: حريم‎ ḥarīm, "a sacred inviolable place; harem; female members of the family"), also known as zenana in the Indian subcontinent, properly refers to domestic spaces that are reserved for the women of the house in a Muslim family. This private space has been traditionally understood as serving the purposes of maintaining the modesty, privilege, and protection of women. A harem may house a man's wife — or wives and concubines, as in royal harems of the past — their pre-pubescent male children, unmarried daughters, female domestic workers, and other unmarried female relatives. In former times some harems were guarded by eunuchs who were allowed inside. The structure of the harem and the extent of monogamy or polygamy has varied depending on the family's personalities, socio-economic status, and local customs. Similar institutions have been common in other Mediterranean and Middle Eastern civilizations, especially among royal and upper-class families, and the term is sometimes used in other contexts.

New entrant to a prince's harem. Jaipur, late 18 century, National Museum, New Delhi

Quotes edit

  • In 1635 AD, Shah Jahan’s soldiers captured some ladies of the royal Bundela family after Jujhar Singh and his sons failed to kill them in the time-honoured Rajput tradition. In the words of Jadunath Sarkar, “Mothers and daughters of kings, they were robbed of their religion and forced to lead the infamous life of the Mughal harem.”
    • Jadunath Sarkar, quoted by Sita Ram Goel in S.R. Goel: The Story of Islamic Imperialism in India.
  • All the above names are Hindu, and ordinarily these …are Hindus by race, who had been carried off in infancy from various villages or the houses of different rebel Hindu princes. In spite of their Hindu names, they are however, Mahomedans.
    • Manucci describing the women and eunuchs in the Mughal harems. Manucci, II, 336-38. Quoted from Lal, K. S. (1994). Muslim slave system in medieval India. New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan. Chapter 12
  • The term Mughal Harem conjures up a vision of a sequestered place ensconcing beautiful female forms in mysterious magnificence. It was indeed made so by the great Mughal emperor Akbar during his long reign of half a century (C.E. 1556-1605). He brought in a large number of inmates to adorn it. He provided them all kinds of luxuries and made elaborate arrangements for their seclusion and security. During the times of his successors—Jahangir (1606-1627), Shahjahan (1628-1658) and Aurangzeb (1658-1707)—the Mughal harem attained the peak of excellence.
    • K.S. Lal, The Mughal Harem (1988), 19
  • The avenues through which women passed into the harem were many. Each Mughal victory brought in female captives. So common and yet so cruel was the method of capturing women for officers and men in war and during peace that Akbar issued an order in 1563 prohibiting capture and enslavement of women by victorious troops.
    • K.S. Lal, The Mughal Harem (1988), 165
  • Two or three eunuchs, or more, who are merely purchased Bengali slaves, but are usually faithful to their master, are appointed for each wife, to ensure that she is seen by no man except her husband; and, if a eunuch fails in this duty, he, with everyone else to blame for the stranger’s presence, is in danger of losing his life. They are thus held in high esteem by their master, but the women pay them still greater regard, for the whole management of the mahal is in their hands, and they can give or refuse whatever is wanted. Thus they can get whatever they desire – fine horses to ride, servants to attend them outside, and female slaves inside the house, clothes as fine and smart as those of their master himself. The wives feel themselves bound to do all this, in order that what happens in the house may be concealed from their husband’s knowledge; for many, or perhaps most of them, so far forget themselves, that, when their husband has gone away, either to Court, or to some place where he takes only his favourite wife, and leaves the rest at home, they allow the eunuch to enjoy them according to his ability, and thus gratify their burning passions when they have no opportunity of going out; but otherwise they spare no craft or trouble to enable them to enjoy themselves outside. These wretched women wear, indeed, the most expensive clothes, eat the daintiest food, and enjoy all worldly pleasures except one, and for that one they grieve, saying they would willingly give everything in exchange for a beggar’s poverty.
    • Pelsaert, Francisco, Jahangir’s India, The Remonstrantie of Francisco Pelsaert, Translated from the Dutch by W.H. Moreland and P. Geyl, Low Price Publications, 2001, First Published 1925.quoted from Jain, M. (editor) (2011). The India they saw: Foreign accounts. New Delhi: Ocean Books. Volume III Chapter 15
  • The king in Bijapur has 1,400 women in his seraglio. This must not astonish you, because as in Europe the magnificence of our Christian princes is shown by a splendid stable of the finest horses from all over the world, so these Eastern princes show their power and grandeur by their seraglios, where they have women brought from every foreign kingdom... I say, then, that these women, shut up in the seraglio, can be justly called the king’s flock, for the king alone can enter into this human fold. There are a quantity of eunuchs, who serve as sheep-dogs, as they prevent human wolves from coming near this delicate and precious treasure, which serves only for the king’s use and pleasure. It is the first heritage that a new king finds in the royal palace when he takes over possession, as no one, whatever his position, is allowed to enter into this fold, nor to take away a single one of the sheep, on the death of a king. It frequently happens, however, that when a king wishes to gratify a favourite or some person of quality, he gives him one of these human sheep as a present, just as we see in Europe that a prince or nobleman will sometimes reward a friend, or one of his gentlemen, with a present of a fine horse from his stable. The woman on whom the lot falls is delighted at the change of owner. They prefer to browse in new fields, more pleasant than the king’s pastures, which often do not produce enough to feed his flock; it is so numerous that most of them have a meagre fare and suffer from hunger and a continual fast. And on carefully considering their lot, I cannot find any more grievous than theirs, which is a slavery of the most cruel kind one can imagine for a woman…
    …They have no grilles, nor parlours, nor confidants to bring them news and letters, nor relations and friends to visit them. If a new one comes into this flock, she is so abashed that she cannot give any news of her country, relations, or circumstances to the others, nor even say what sort of animal a man is. No! no!! do not be astonished at what I tell you; they are not merely things I have heard, but what I have seen myself. They occur in every oriental country, where kings and nobles have brokers who are sent to Georgia (the home of the most beautiful women in Asia), Persia, Basra, the Red Sea, Arabia, and other eastern places. There they buy girls who, being destined for sale, have seen hardly anything of the outside world so that, when these dealers in human flesh deliver them to their masters, they are amazed and bewildered at being placed among so many women, who gently tame them, dress them in sumptuous clothes, and teach them what they have to do. The eunuchs, when shown to them at first, terrify these girls, who take them for monsters, and they are not far from wrong, as they have nothing manlike about them and have a frightful appearance, which can inspire only horror. I have noticed a strange thing about these monstrosities. The more hideous they are, the more they are sought after by these people, the reason being that they offer no temptation to the women whom they guard. They are mostly big scoundrels, whose very glance is capable of terrifying the bravest. Their colour is dreadful, and their faces ape-like, with thick lips. It is not, therefore, surprising that these monsters – I can call them nothing else – are respected and feared by the people of the country…
    • Carre, Abbe, The Travels of The Abbe Carre In India And The Near East 1672 to 1674, In 3 Volumes Ed., Charles Fawcett, Asian Educational Services, 1990. quoted from Jain, M. (editor) (2011). The India they saw: Foreign accounts. New Delhi: Ocean Books. Volume III Chapter 15
  • As I have just said, these eunuchs are shown to the young novice, who is told that these are men and that all others are like them. This is to make the women loathe the sight of men; so that afterwards, when the king, prince, or other person for whom they are destined, arrives, and they find that he is more pleasant to look at, they conceive deeper love and affection for him. They imagine he is the only man in the world with that face, and that every other man is like the eunuchs, as they are never allowed to see anyone else.
    • Carre, Abbe, The Travels of The Abbe Carre In India And The Near East 1672 to 1674, In 3 Volumes Ed., Charles Fawcett, Asian Educational Services, 1990. quoted from Jain, M. (editor) (2011). The India they saw: Foreign accounts. New Delhi: Ocean Books. Volume III Chapter 15
  • The condition, then, of these poor ladies is indeed most miserable – no liberty, no hope of getting out or hearing anything sweet or agreeable except from a single man, or from these unnatural monsters in charge. You can thus judge of the condition of these oriental women, and see how unhappy they are, and how they have no pleasure or contentment but that of showing their beauty only to one man! It would be a real punishment to our French belles, if they were compelled to display their charms and attractions only to him to whom they are bound.
    • Carre, Abbe, The Travels of The Abbe Carre In India And The Near East 1672 to 1674, In 3 Volumes Ed., Charles Fawcett, Asian Educational Services, 1990. quoted from Jain, M. (editor) (2011). The India they saw: Foreign accounts. New Delhi: Ocean Books. Volume III Chapter 15

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