This weekend I finished reading a book I’ve been meaning to read for awhile: “Harem: The World Behind the Veil” by Alev Lytle Croutier.
One of my majors in university was Women’s Studies, so I am attracted to topics about women in history. The discourse surrounding the “veil” was also a very popular topic when I was studying and I am generally fascinated by the complexity of the intersections between feminism, religion, orientalism, and oppression in the debates.
As one would expect, the “harem” was a much more complicated place and concept than just being a physical location were women lived. The image most of us have in our minds of the “harem” are an orientalist fantasy that was produced by western travellers. Growing up in a feminist home, I am just as guilty as I immediately think of oppression.
These are very narrow views. The fact is there was much diversity in how harems worked and were run. Some times this varied by Sultan or Sulatana. Some Sultanas had a lot of sway in politics.
Education too greatly varied. In many ways, harems were places for women’s education. Sometimes this was limited to learning ‘female’ tasks or the arts like dancing and being appealing for the female gaze. Other times, this would include language. Not just writing and reading, but also learning foreign languages. The residents of harems after all were often a mix of different cultures.
To much controversy, the first lady of Turkey recently commented that harems were a place of education:
While I would not go to the extreme to state that these were mini women universities, there were definitely points in history where women enjoyed higher levels of education in harems. But there is no doubt that oppression also existed.
This really reflects the core of human attraction to learning and self-directed learning. Even in an oppressive institution like the harem, women found ways to learn new things.