The part of a house set apart for the women of the family in Muslim countries.
The term designating 'forbidden' and 'sacred'.
The harem in the Topkapi palace, Istanbul.
Late 19th century harem.
The Arabic word 'harem' can be translated as 'forbidden' or 'secluded'. In only rare cases, is it correct to render 'harem' as a group of wives, which is the standard Western understanding of the word. This use of the word only applied to very rich households. In such a situation, the harem denoted the collection of women who were at free disposal of the male owner. The women of the harem were not wives, but their position was not comparable to that of a prostitute's.
Another meaning of harem rarely used in Western languages, but important in Arabic was to denote an area where uninvited or unworthy had no access. Hence, Mecca and the surrounding area is a harem a religious harem. Into this harem, only Muslims are allowed to enter.
While the harem was firmly established as an institution in the society and in individual families, it spread with Islam to areas beyond the Middle East and into North Africa.
The traditional harem, a place where between 1 and 4 wives lived, sometimes with other female relatives, was a place where even visitors might not enter. The only males who could enter, were husband, sons, brothers and fathers.
The royal harem, from which the popular image of the harem is formed, has its origin in pre-Islamic times. In this harem, both wives and concubines lived, together with female attendants and eunuch guards. While the harem was secluded from the normal society, it still was of great political importance. Rulers often added wives to their harems, as part of forging political alliances with foreign political leaders. Inside the harem, mothers of possible future leaders fought over who should become heir to the throne.
Harems still exist, but are today mainly limited to very conservative Muslim societies. Harems, and they are generally small, exist in societies as different as Saudi Arabia and Morocco. Until late into the 20th centuries, harems were rather common in practically all Muslim societies.