Category Archives: History of Veil

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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Return of the Harem

By: Alexandra Kinias

Walking down the hallways of the opulent Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul was an intriguing experience. The lavish interior of the Ottoman Sultan’s residence was immensely admired by the visitors who listened to the tour guide’s explanation about the lack of historical references to prove the claims about the Sultan’s Harem. According to him they were legends woven by the fertile imagination of writers and poets. He went on with his defense as far as redefining concubines as women of services to the court rather than the Sultan’s mistresses, as the world came to believe. As a believer that history can be distorted but never rewritten, embellishing the reputation of their ancestors, regarding this sensitive issue, had a haunting poignancy. Needles to say that any historian will refute and discredit this claim within moments.  It is well known that the royal palaces were filled with hundreds of women who were hand picked and selected with scrutiny from all the lands of the empire. Their qualifications were beauty, charm and seductiveness because in the Sultan’s bedchambers nothing else mattered.

Growing up in Egypt, it was common to watch historical movies that depicted this era. However, it was a daunting experience to actually walk down the dark hallways and corridors of the Topkapi Palace, which became to be known to historians as The Golden Cage, where for centuries hundreds of perfumed and pampered women were kept in perpetual captivity. Their sole purpose was to entertain and satisfy the pleasures of the Sultan who possessed the wealth and power to own as many women as he desired. For that, hundreds of women were kept at his disposal. They competed for his love, affection and bliss, for which they were generously rewarded with jewelry, money and a comfortable life.

The existence of slave concubines was deeply embedded in the fabric of the Ottoman culture and history. The purpose of having them was to produce male heirs to the Sultanate. Slave concubines, unlike wives, had no recognized lineage and thus were not feared that their loyalties would be to their families rather than to their husbands.

The confinement of the women inside the Harem weaved an aura of mystery and glamor that engulfed the legends born out of their seclusion. Their only encounter with the world outside the gates of the palaces was through the eunuchs, or watching from the terraces the view of the Bosporus, which had also witnessed the sacking and drowning of a number of them.

Over centuries, young girls and women were kidnapped from the various lands of the empire, bought from slave markets, or sold by their parents with a promise of a luxury and glamorous life. Beautiful girls who had the chance to be presented to the Sultan were taught music, poetry, singing, dancing, and erotic arts of seduction. Living in captivity among conspiracies, competition, rumors and gossip, without a chance of leaving alive, and viewed as nothing more than sex objects and reproduction machines, their survival instincts taught them submission and servitude; a classic case of human trafficking.

From a young age, women of the empire were brainwashed that beauty, and not intellect, was the key that opened the door to a better life, and that submission and slavery should be every woman’s ultimate goal. As a result, living in secluded extravaganza became a dream of many women. These abhorrent misconceptions chiseled women’s status for many centuries. The years after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire saw an emergence of women rights groups that exerted tremendous efforts — paralleled with obscure resistance, by decision makers — to emancipate the women. Their efforts resulted in substantial improvements in women’s status.

A century later, the Egyptian society is witnessing a reversal of attitude by young women whose interests are no longer to have a career, but rather to secure a husband who can support them while they play the classic role of housewives. The lost desire to achieve progress in the workforce by young women has not reached an alarming level. Yet, with the encouragement of the voices that are calling for the return of women back to their homes, one can not disregard that the snowball has started rolling.

It is saddening to see that while women  have been physically set free from the golden cages, they are still mentally jailed. Both the women and the voices of those who are calling for their return to the confinement of their homes should not be surprised to see their societies regress.  Unfortunately when that happens, women will be the first to suffer.

The subjects of the Ottoman Empire woke up after its collapse to the realization that they belonged at the tail of the world. Its fragile and rotten state proved again that no society ever prospered when half of its population was idle. They didn’t have to look too far to see the difference. The status of the women in the neighboring states said it all.


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History of the Veil: Part 3: Early Days of Islam

By Alexandra Kinias

After the rise of Islam, Prophet Mohamed in an effort to unite the tribes under its banner set new laws to govern the people and regulate the relationship between them. As a result, the status of women improved. Female infanticide ceased and for the first time women from certain tribes had the right to divorce, own property, choose a husband and inherit from their deceased relatives. Marriage was also organized, but neither polygamy nor slavery was abolished. On the contrary, the Islamic conquests brought more slaves into the Muslim lands, which later contributed to the dramatic changes that happened to the women of the Islamic Empire, as will be addressed in future articles.

During the life of Mohamed, women’s freedom was neither restricted nor was the veil enforced upon them. Women joined men in the mosques, fought by their side in the battles and worked. Asmaa, the Prophet’s sister in law, told this story,

“I ran into the prophet and his companions on my way back from the field with a load of straw on my head. He offered me a ride behind him [on his horse or camel]. I was embarrassed and told him that my husband would be jealous if I did. When I later told my husband what happened, he responded that it was more painful for him to see me walk with the straw on my head than to ride with the men.

As Islam gained momentum, the new believers sought the Prophet for advice, and his house became their meeting point. In the process, Mohamed’s wives, who became known as the Believers’ Mothers, lost their privacy.

Two incidents quoted in the Koran enforced the segregation of the Believers’ Mothers from men, and ordered men to talk to them from behind a screen or a hijab, that served as a barrier.

The first incident happened on the night of Mohamed’s marriage to Zeinab Bint Jahsh and was described by Anas Ibn Malek, his personal servant:

“After the marriage ceremony, guests were gathered in Zeinab’s house for dinner. After dinner, most of the guests left, but as happens in such events, a group of men stayed longer than they should have. The Prophet was embarrassed to ask them to leave, so he himself left the house to give them a message that the party is over, and I followed him out of the house. Few minutes later we returned back to the house and we found that the crowd was still there. We then left again and when we returned the second time, the crowd was still there. This insensitivity of the guests upset the Prophet very much.

Subsequently, the verse 33:53 was instituted.

“Oh believers, don’t enter the houses of Prophet Mohamed for a meal without permission. If you are invited, you may enter, but be punctual (so that you won’t be waiting inside the house while the food is being prepared). When you have finished eating, leave his house. Don’t sit around chatting among yourselves. This will annoy the Prophet, but he will be embarrassed to tell you. God doesn’t feel embarrassed to tell you the truth. When you want to ask something from the Prophet’s wives, ask them from behind the hijab (veil). This would be more proper for you and for them.”

The hijab in Arabic means a barrier that separates people; a wall, a screen or a curtain. And although it’s translated as so, it’s now used to describe the women’s head cover.

On another occasion, Aisha, Mohamed’s youngest wife went missing in the desert after she was accidentally left behind in a battlefield. She was rescued by Safwan Ibn Mu’attal al Sulami who carried her back home to Medina on his camel back. This incident triggered controversy over Moslem women’s behavior  as people spread indecent rumors about Aisha’s.  

After this incident, the verses 24:30-31 were instituted.

“Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and guard their chastity; that is purer for them. And tell the believing women to lower their gaze, guard their chastity, and not to show their beauty or adornments except what is apparent. Let them cover their breasts/ bosoms with their Khimar.”

Women were asked to cover their chests with a Khimar (cover) which could have been a scarf, shawl or whatever garments they used.  The verse doesn’t order women to cover their heads. Even if we accept the translation of the word Khimar as a head cover, women were ordered to cover their chests with it and not their heads. This verse is the reference for Moslem scholars that covering women’s hair is compulsory in Islam.

The Believers’ Mothers were special women. Their veil and segregation during Mohamed’s life and living in widowhood after his death were exclusive orders for them.

When Mohamed died, his slave Kattila, returned to her tribe and got married. This angered the Caliph Abu Bakr, but later acknowledged her marriage when the Prophet’s companions clarified that she never married Mohamed because she went unveiled during his life. This incident further shows that the Prophet’s companions didn’t care or expect other women to follow in the footsteps of the Believers’ Mothers.


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History of Veil – Part 2: Veil In Pre-Islamic Arabia

By: Alexandra Kinias

Surrounded by the hostile terrains of the Arabian Desert and under its blazing sun, Arabs dwelled in diverse nomadic tribal communities. Each had its own laws, language and lifestyles. As the traditions, customs, and culture varied from one tribe to the other, so did their women’s status. And unlike river banks that attracted settlers and allowed civilizations to flourish, the nomads who roamed the harsh deserts left behind no monuments for archeologists to peek at their evolution.  However, Arabs were talented poets and their poetry passed on from one generation to the other. It became a rich source that gave scholars an insight into the everyday life of their societies as the long verses described their traditions, culture, costumes, battles, leaders, women, trade, religion, love life, festivals and weather.

Because these poems were documented centuries later, the accuracy of information revealed was questionable. Scholars found it challenging to agree on certain facts, but none the less, through the poetry, a general assessment about pre-Islamic society was made.

The poems indicated that women in certain tribes held high positions where they freely chose their husbands and had the right to divorce.  Khadija, Prophet Mohamed’s first wife was an influential affluent businesswoman. As a widow, she hired the Prophet to supervise her trading convoys before he started his mission of spreading Islam.

But alongside the stories of influential women, there were those who lived in inferior state. And women who were captured in war were sold into marriage and lived in oppressive conditions.

Female infanticide was common. Families with meager resources viewed girls as a burden, and they killed them to survive. This habit ceased once they discovered that girls were profitable when sold into marriages. The poetry also shed some light on the cohabitation agreements where woman had secret lovers who often belonged to hostile tribes. Poets referred to these relations as forbidden love affairs even though they were neither secretive nor they caused shame or punishment for women; the secrecy was simply for political etiquette.

Polygamy and concubinage were widely practiced too, but polygamy was costly and concubines were more economical. Wife lending was also common where husbands allowed their wives to live with “men of distinction” to produce noble offspring. In some tribes, women were allowed to live with men with no commitments or marriage obligations.

Because of such variable conditions and laws, the status and rights of women ranged widely. And even though scholars did not quite agree on the social construction of such societies, they concluded though that they neither secluded the women nor enforced the veil on them.

Costumes always reflected the environmental needs. In the harsh deserts of Arabia, the Arab nomads lived in tents or huts with no doors and with roofs made out of palm trees. They were exposed to all kinds of severe weather conditions: from the burning sun in the summers, to sand storms, cold, and often rain in the winters. Before proper houses were built, people sought the shelter of their own clothes to protect them.  Due to that, both men and women often covered their heads and wore long garments. Covering the heads was neither a religious nor social obligation.

Because of such severe weather conditions, it doesn’t come as a surprise that even today, men of the nomadic Tuareg tribes in North African Sahara, and not the women, are veiled. It is a firmly established tradition that men begin wearing the veil that covers the entire head and face with the exception of the eyes, at the age of twenty-five. And once they reach this age, the veil is never removed even in front of their family members.

The nature of their nomadic life in Arabia made segregation impractical and women’s seclusion impossible. Contrary to their rivals in the neighboring civilizations, and even though a large number of them lived in oppressive and deplorable conditions, women in Arabia were widely active in their tribe’s public life. And because there were no social restrictions on their dress or mobility, women in pre-Islamic Arabia worked side by side with men and were productive in their communities. They traded in the markets, tended cattle and weaved baskets from palm trees, they received male guests and socialized with them and even participated in the tribal battles as nurses and often as warriors.

Considering the severe living conditions that existed in pre-Islamic Arabia, women had more freedom of mobility and less attire restrictions than women have in most Islamic countries today.

Stay tuned for Part 3:  Early years of Islam.


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History of the Veil. Part One: Veil in the Ancient World

By: Alexandra Kinias

Painting of Nineveh Women by: Paul Batou

With the passionate cries for wearing the veil,  the controversy it is causing in the West and since it only shrouds the bodies, heads and faces of Muslim women, it left no shred of doubt that it is an Islamic dress code. And how can one dare argue that when clerics, based on their interpretations of the holy scripts, left everything else behind and are condensing their efforts to preach, direct and scare Muslim women to comply with it after reaching puberty. However, researchers who have tracked the history of veil proved that it was not introduced by Islam.   But as  it became today the symbol of the most zealous fanatical regimes, Islam is wrongly blamed for that. The status of the women in Afghanistan also confirms that Islam practiced segregation and seclusion of women,   even though these practices were common in several ancient civilizations that existed in lands far away from Arabia, thousands of years prior to the rise of Islam: The Sumerian, Assyria, Babylonian and Persian.

Excavations at the site of the ancient city of Nineveh uncovered the glories of the Assyrian civilization that flourished in the lands of Mesopotamia several millenniums BC.  Among the treasures  found  were the famous tablets of Nineveh that enabled  archeologists to unravel the mysteries of this civilization. These tablets that are currently exhibited in the London museum  described in details the lives of the people, the history, culture, sciences, literature, and religion of this civilization.

In Assyria, the status of women was deplorable.  Assyrian men were harsh, violent, and cruel people to their enemies and their women. With the conquests of the neighboring lands, Assyria was flooded with enormous numbers of slaves. The males were used for labor work, while the females were used as concubines and domestic slaves.

To be able to distinguish between their free honorable women from the slaves or concubines,  laws were issued. Respectable women were forced to wear the veil while those who were considered unrespectable were forced to go with their heads uncovered. Thus veil became an exclusive symbol of respect; a privilege that slaves, prostitutes and concubines were denied off.

And with their homes flooded with slaves to run their errands, free women had no reason to roam the streets and mingle with concubines, slaves and prostitutes. And hence, women seclusion was born.

The law for veiling the women was documented on one of the tablets that also stated the punishment for those who broke the veil code:

“If the wives of a man, or the daughters of a man go out into the street, their heads are to be veiled. The prostitute is not to be veiled. Maidservants are not to veil themselves. Veiled harlots and maidservants shall have their garments seized and 50 blows inflicted on them and bitumen poured on their heads.”

Modern Iranian women, especially the ones  opposing the Islamic revolution and the enforcement of the veil, are pointing fingers at the Arabs and  blaming them for introducing the veil and seclusion into the Persian society, even though historical evidence proves that it is the other way around.

In 539 BC, the Persians conquered Mesopotamia and it became part of the Persian state. The veil and the seclusion of women were among the social habits that the Persians adopted from the Assyrians and maintained over the years. In ancient Persia, women of noble families became also secluded and had to be covered when they went out in public.

And with the Persian conquests, the veil  spread to  neighboring Kingdoms and nations . It was introduced to the Levant region – currently known as Syria and Lebanon – and north of Arabia.

Arabs who were separated from these surrounding civilizations by sand dunes and vast uninhabited deserts were not introduced to the veil until the seventh century AD when they conquered the Persian lands.

To be continued … Part Two: Life in  Pre-Islamic Arabia


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