Harems: Navigating physical and intangible borders

11. November 2022
Figure 1 The view from the balcony of my house – clothes drying, my cousins house on the right, the courtyard and the trees below. Source: Author’s photograph

Harem. A word that conjures up lavish, exotic imagery of the Orient, beautiful women lounging on plush cushions, palaces of pleasure. Most take the word harem to describe various female sexual partners of a powerful man, a notion that has already cemented the harem as its own genre within erotic literature.

But the harem is a physical space. It refers to the private interior of a home, where the women of the family dwelled. The only men allowed to enter were blood relatives, or servants. It’s a place laden with boundaries, or hudud[1], both physical and psychological. Visually, these took the form of large exterior walls, impermeable to outsiders. Once inside, however, a light filled courtyard creates a sense of openness. Of course, whether the harem is freeing or restricting depends on who you speak to.

Growing up, yearly extended trips to our family house in Pakistan allowed me to experience the “harem” (not necessarily by that name). Our house follows similar hudud, some clearly defined and others less so. This has impacted my view of harems, considering them outside the binary of imprisonment/freedom imposed by the colonial gaze on these unique gendered spaces.

The harem challenges the position of power in western binaries of gender and notions of freedom. As western travelers began to document the harem, they couldn’t help but view it in relation to these fixed values, unwilling to consider the harem within its own context. By reading the observations of these travelers, who present the harem negatively as a place with strict demarcations, in relation to those who have experienced a harem and its hudud, we can explore how gendered spatial knowledge is produced. By viewing these unique gendered spaces solely through the lens of the colonial project, of western feminism, and through a gender binary, we risk impeding our understanding of the complex role the harem plays within the societies it is practiced.

Figure 2 Birds eye view of my house in Pakistan. Source: Author

The first travelers to the harems

The harem was first documented by early travelers to overseas colonies, often with the purpose of documenting the social habits of natives, as is the case with John Morell documenting French Algeria. These were wealthy white men who would not be permitted to enter the harem. This did little to stop them from ascertaining the “truth” about the “Moorish”[2] social state through the harem’s architecture.

“The great contrast of Moorish and European houses is a type of their national antagonism. The latter are impelled (…) to live together in vase agglomerations of humanity, where the individual and the family become fractions of the social body. A Moorish house shows at one glance its great distance from this. (…) Whilst our European houses give free admission to the light of heaven, the Moor gropes about in perpetual twilight, his walls presenting the appearance of a prison.”[3]

Were Morell permitted to enter, his assumptions would be immediately disproven. Instead, he projects his understanding of public and private onto the outer walls, which function as a blank canvas for his imagination. He understands “public” as a space where one abides by societal rules and thus, living in “vast agglomerations of humanity” is something praiseworthy. Private space is a place where one can act free of societal constraint, and this informs the suspicion that Morrel and his contemporaries have of those who live in fortress-like harems, as they seem shrouded in secrecy. There is the assumption that privacy is so important to the inhabitants because they have something to hide. We cannot ignore the role of the colonial relationship here, as Morell had a vested interest in portraying native Algerians as people in need of French assistance and modernization.

It can be easy to view Morell as a product of his time, but these associations of public and private have also had a clear bearing on ongoing debates surrounding female autonomy. Take the act of wearing Islamic religious dress such as the hijab in public spaces in France today. People from both the right and left of the political spectrum argue against it. Western feminists claim concern for women’s ability to exercise freedom with the assumption that concealing one’s form is isolating. For more right-wing objectors, women who are veiled are seen as suspicious because, what are they hiding under their veils? What rules, what traditions, what foreign tongue do they have, ready to brandish from their shroud? The fact that this targets Muslim women, while the societies where the harem exists are also predominantly Muslim, is no coincidence. This is not only to do with the relationship between colonizer and colonized, but also between Christianity, an accepted and “standard” faith, and Islam, an otherized threat to it.

Thus, the harem and the wearing of the hijab become representative of the Islamic faith. Etymologically, the word harem is related to haraam, meaning “sacred”. The sanctity of the space is seen as a greater reason to be suspicious of it, as is the case for wearing the hijab. In both cases, the right of women to remain concealed is overpowered by the right of others to view them.[4]

“It (the harem) is all shut in, silent and reserved, like a Persian woman with her veil drawn close around her”[5]

Figure 3 Façade of my home from across the courtyard. Source: Author’s Photograph

Western female visitors to the harem

As more European women travelled across the Middle East, they also described the harem, but unlike their predecessors, they were invited inside. One such writer is Harriet Martineau, who reiterates Morrel’s image of the harem being prison-like. The only physical description she provides is in the form of spatial references, with the harem being worse than “Deaf and dumb schools, lunatic asylums or prisons”[6]. Martineau’s motivations for this description differ from Morrel, in that she was a prominent member of the anti-slavery movement and the early feminist movement in the UK. Her description of the harem had a clear political motive – by presenting the harem as a place of perversion and poverty, she created an example of the suffering “Oriental” women, which she then used to reinforce the need for better provision for women in Britain.

Martineau used the harem to showcase what might happen should British society not seek to better itself. She did acknowledge that the women of the harem pitied British women in return, considering the travelers “strangely neglected” as they walked around without the veil. But Martineau does not reflect on this, rather this is simply another point of shame to her. British society was failing women when the women of the harem, ostensibly the most imprisoned of women, would pity the British lady.

While Morell spoke about “Moors” more generally, Martineau begins to engender the space of the harem, led by her political agenda. It becomes a space for women to be imprisoned. The harem, its accompanying alternative family structure[7] and the importance placed on privacy threatened the agency of women in European domestic spaces and, thus, needed to be discredited as a way of life. She appears to ask her audience: Are you not grateful for the traditional monogamous Christian society you inhabit, when harem women live like this?

A similar fear to that of Martineau’s surfaces today when it comes to gendered spaces. An importance is placed on “women’s agency” in spaces that are traditionally coded “male”, as produced by gender norms. For example, the office or the streets at night. At the same time, there is a fear that this agency could be undermined by including “other” women – black women, brown women, transwomen or poor women. These spaces should be accessible to women, but at the same time, these groups can be easily excluded from having agency in those spaces. Yet when such segmentation exists in a foreign (read: non-European) context, such as the existence of the harem, it is considered highly restrictive. Our perception of liberation or empowerment is heavily informed by the societies we are raised in.  

Figure 4 Ground floor view of the courtyard and my cousins house in the rain, from the veranda. Source: Author’s Photograph

Women of the harem

How did the women who grew up in and around them feel about the harem? Fatima Mernissi (1940-2015) was a prominent Morroccan feminist writer and sociologist. Among her works is the novel Dreams of Trespass (1994), a pseudo-memoir about life in a Moroccan harem. Dreams of Trespass is a fictional account and not a direct observation. By setting the novel in the first person in the manner of a memoir, she allows the reader to occupy the perspective of a child who is learning to navigate the hudud, the barriers of the harem, both the physical and the psychological.

Within the novel, Mernissi presents the hudud in different, sometimes contradicting ways. In her family’s harem, it is a “definite hudud[8], protecting the women’s harem from the male strangers and foreigners”[9]. This refers to the physical wall surrounding the harem, defining the harem as an enclosed, protective space. Yet her grandmother’s harem openly defies this definition, as there, there are no physical walls to differentiate spaces. The young Mernissi discovers that rather than physical boundaries, what defined a harem are the invisible frontiers, the boundaries created by ingrained behavior. Anti-slavery activists like Martineau called this the “slavery of the mind” – yet this was not something restricted only to harems, but is true of all spaces, particularly explicitly gendered spaces. Neither Martineau nor Morell are free from this “mental harem”.

There is not always a “definite hudud” in a harem. Rather they shift in relation to one’s gender, age, cultural background and values. Our house in Pakistan is full of physical boundaries – high towering walls so that those outside see nothing, a bright, large central courtyard surrounded by our house and that of my cousins, a separate room and entrance to entertain those who did not fit the category of relative allowed to enter the inner space (and whenever someone was in there, we had to whisper or dash past the room lest our presence be known).

Yet as a child, it felt to me the freest place in the world! Since I was always surrounded by my family, I could explore any part of it I wanted, climb over balconies, hide behind doors. As I became older, like Mernissi, I became aware of the invisible boundaries that guided my behavior, the importance of my placement within family hierarchy and my gender meaning I had to act or dress a certain way in certain spaces (or around certain people). As a teenager who was just getting exposed to western feminist thought, I felt restricted and resented these hudud. They represented limits, and much like Martineau, I could only compare it to the UK and think of freedom in only a single sense. I couldn’t discern the freedom these spaces can give to women within their cultural context or how they created sisterhood. As an example, Shahrnush Parsipur’s novel Women without Men creates a female space not dissimilar to the harem to meet this need of community, and the joy of sisterhood is something Mernissi reiterates multiple times in Dreams of Trespass.

I may not ever understand this completely, but at 23 I can understand the purpose of the hudud a little more. They are not defined by physical walls; rather, these boundaries are constantly in flux. The frontiers of a gendered space, both physical and psychological, are flexible and develop with an individual and within their context. Mernissi creates a memoir of the psychological boundaries that exist alongside that of the physical, documenting the process with which we learn and ingrain these invisible boundaries into our behavior – that is, she documents how spaces become engendered.

In exploring this as a process, we might also learn how to deconstruct the invisible boundaries we respect, which exist regardless of background. The current demarcations of gendered spaces are still heavily reliant on the existence of a gender binary, as well as deep rooted associations of the public/private dichotomy. In order to develop spaces that don’t rely on a singular notion of “freedom”, we must begin reflecting on and challenging these hudud.

Figure 5 Approaching the house from the gate – note the lack of windows on the outer facing wall. Source: Author’s Photograph


Sanaa Asim is a student studying MA Global Collaborative Design Practice at University of the Arts, London. Her interests include gendered spaces (especially in the MENA and Subcontinent regions), the built environment and co-design for urban environments. She would love to talk more about this! Her email:


[1] Meaning “Borders, boundaries, limits”

[2] An antiquated term referring to North Africans

[3] Morell, J.r. (1884) Algeria, qtd. in Mabro, J. (1991) Veiled half-truths: Western travellers’ perceptions of Middle Eastern women, p. 41. London, I.B. Tauris

[4] As seen in recent protests in Iran, symbolized with the removal of the state enforced hijab, this is by no means universal. Forced exclusion through the harem and the hijab is a real issue and should be discussed. Here I emphasize the right of women to choose and acknowledge that many women do choose to veil and were empowered by harems. Both realities can exist at the same time.

[5] Bradley-Birt, F. B., (1909) Through Persia, qtd. in Mabro, J., (1991) Veiled half-truths: Western travellers’ perceptions of Middle Eastern women, p. 46. London, I.B. Tauris

[6] Foster. S. & Mills. S. (2002),Excerpts from travel literature by Elwood, Martineau, Hornby, Stark. In An Anthology of Women’s Travel Writing, Manchester: Manchester University Press(pp. 34-35)

[7] Harems often contained a large extended family, housing cousins, multiple wives and their children.

[8] Mernissi, F. (1994) Dreams of Trespass, New York : Perseus Books(p. 21-22)