A harem is, on a basic level, a place where women are kept to prevent them from interacting with the wider world. The idea has existed across a wide variety of times and cultures, from the Ancient Persians to the Byzantines. However, the figure most closely associated with the harem in the popular imagination has to be the Ottoman Sultan, who often kept hundreds of wives and concubines secluded within the palace walls. But when we focus on the Sultan, we forget about the women themselves. To understand what life in a harem was like, we need to look at the history of the idea. The practice of secluding wives and female relatives away from the public gaze goes back much farther and has been a feature of many cultures, all the way back to the ancient Assyrians.
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A harem may house a man's wife or wives, their pre-pubescent male children, unmarried daughters, female domestic workers, and other unmarried female relatives. In royal harems of the past, concubines of the prince were also housed in the harem. 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. Although the institution has experienced a sharp decline in the modern era due to a rise in education and economic opportunities for women, as well as Western influences , seclusion of women is still practiced in some parts of the world, such as rural Afghanistan and conservative states of the Persian Gulf region. In the West, Orientalist imaginary conceptions of the harem as a hidden world of sexual subjugation where numerous women lounged in suggestive poses have influenced many paintings, stage productions, films and literary works.
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But as slaves or subjects? During the 8th and 9th centuries, Turkish nomads were pushed from their homes, eventually converting to Islam when the Mongols arrived on the scene. By CE, the Ottoman Empire was established, bringing a lot of changes to the region, including taxation, social shifts, and a great deal of religious indoctrination.
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 non-Islamic contexts. This private space has been traditionally understood as serving the purposes of maintaining the modesty, privilege, and protection of women. In former times, some harems were guarded by eunuchs castrated men who were allowed inside.