The harem is one of the most misunderstood concepts in Islamic culture, thanks to the lively imaginations of early European adventures. Simply put, a harem is a space set aside in a home or complex specifically for the use of women and young children. Men are not allowed to enter the harem, as it is considered a private or forbidden area. Harems vary widely in size and composition, as one might imagine, from the palatial complexes of the Ottoman sultans to a simple private room for women.
The root word for “harem” is haram, which means “forbidden” in Arabic. Muslims also consider the city of Mecca to be a form of harem, except that instead of being for women only, it is restricted to Muslims only, due to the large number of holy sites in the area.
Muslims have traditionally separated women from men in a variety of ways, because they believe that this separation is ordered by the Qu'ran and other religious authorities. Muslimas have traditionally worn veils and loose garments to separate themselves while in public, and contact between men and women is very restricted in conservative Muslim societies. At one point, many homes had a harem; modern Muslims do not generally have separate women's quarters in their homes unless they are of a conservative bent.
In the harem, women can relax their guard, because they know that no men will enter the area. As a result, the harem was often a lively and fun place in the era when women isolated themselves at home. Women could dress more casually, sing and tell stories, and meet with other women from the area. Friends and neighbors traditionally socialized with each other in the harem, bringing young children and eating snacks and tea. In homes with servants, the servants would attend the women in the harem, and in large households, servants might play music and offer other entertainments.
The most famous harem in history was probably the Grand Seraglio of the Ottoman sultans, and this harem inspired a great deal of the mythology about harems which lives on this day. The sultans typically had many wives, along with an assortment of female servants and attendants, and all of them were housed in the seraglio, along with eunuchs. European visitors were undoubtedly captivated by the concept of the harem, which would have been unfamiliar to them, and they brought back fantastic tales with them.
As a result, the term “harem” is sometimes incorrectly used to describe a collection of wives or female followers. This is not only wrong, but also very limited; the harem is a complex place with a large population, although it might seem a bit mysterious to men, since they are not allowed in.