The Evolution of the Harem


By: Alexandra Kinias —–

During the golden age of the Abbasid Dynasty (750 AD – 1258AD), with its capital in Baghdad, the Islamic conquests reached their peak. The lands of the Islamic Empire extended from the Chinese boarders in Asia to Andalusia in Europe. The Arabs controlled the lands from Mount Sinai to the shores of the Mediterranean in North Africa and all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.

The knights who fought under the banner of Islam conquered these lands for dominance, land expansion and spread Islam. These worriers were rewarded by receiving their shares from the spoils of war. Slaves were among these spoils. And the streets of Baghdad were flooded with slaves who were captured from every corner of the Islamic territories; Caucasia, Georgia, Circassia, Europe and Africa. Men were sold to be used as laborers, farmers or soldiers and women were used for domestic help or for sexual pleasures.

Slavery and concubinage were known and practiced since ancient times, thousands of years before the rise of Islam. Laws and rules were drafted to regulate and control their lives. However, with the rise of the Islam and with the vast Islamic expansion, slavery and concubinage underwent a dramatic evolution that dictated and shaped the lives of millions of women for centuries later. Their residues are still felt as the blue prints of this system are still used as guidelines to control and abuse women in modern times.

In the lands of the Islamic Empire, and even after the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258, slaves were a commodity traded in the markets throughout the Islamic territories. Slave trading became a lucrative business and slaves were auctioned to the highest bidders. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that while men cost few hundred Dinars, women and girls were worth tens of thousands of Dinars. [1]

And like any business, merchants competed to market their merchandises. A new art was developed to polish these women to generate attractive prices. The value of the slaves increased if they acquired artistic talents. To increase the value of the slaves, merchants bought young girls, from markets or from slave captures. There young girls were brought up in special homes, similar to the Geisha Houses in Japan. Under the supervision of older and experienced slaves, these young girls were groomed and polished. In these homes the girls were taught to sing, dance, and play musical instruments. They were also taught to read, write, languages, grammar, science, painting, embroidery, and to recite poetry to their lovers,. Their knowledge didn’t stop at that, but they were also taught to discuss politics, science and arts. Female slaves didn’t depend simply on their beauty to attract their clients, but similar to today’s Call Girls, they were also judged by their intellect, knowledge and culture.

After receiving their training, these girls were either sold to wealthy clients or worked in Singing Houses, similar to today’s brothels. These houses were built by the merchants to entertain the wealthy customers and as a place to display their merchandises. There was fierce competition between these Singing Houses, which were built throughout the lands of the empire, to attract the customers. Caliphs, Emirs and wealthy businessmen were regular customers in these Singing Houses, to enjoy the performances or to buy more slaves.

Slaves became more intellectual than free women and moved in the inner circle of the policy decision makers and eventually became very powerful in the palaces of the Caliphs. With their soaring popularity and their influence, they became role models for the free women who looked up to them and some men demanded from their wives to follow the way these slaves talked and dressed. [2]

Amidst this moral corruption that invaded the society, the situation was reversed. And while men enjoyed their extreme sexual freedoms with their slaves, who also lived without any societal restrictions, the free women were secluded, kept in confinement in their homes and were forced to wear the veil on the rare occasions when they went out. They were segregated from all strange men and were forbidden from playing any role in the society.

It is quite staggering to see that in many societies today, history has not progressed since then. The stagnant medieval mentalities that exist in these societies are still controlling the lives and fates of women. And while men are enjoying their sexual freedoms, they are still treating their women as commodities, and are insisting to imagine that protecting their honor is achieved by veiling their women, holding them captives in their homes and depriving them from education and life.

1.Encyclopedia History of the Arabs page 220
2.Modern Vision of veil – Ikbal Baraka page 64

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