Edward Said and the Problem of the Harem

In 1978, a professor of English literature at Columbia University in New York published a book that has had an enormous impact on the field of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies, as well as on many other fields besides. Edward Said's Orientalism has become the new orthodoxy among academics, though scholars like Bernard Lewis and Robert Irwin have since challenged his premises.

Said's central argument was that Western scholars of Islam, 'Orientalists', were guilty of 'essentializing' the Orient (in clearer language, negatively stereotyping the Middle East) in order to control it. These scholars, according to Said, approached their subject with reprehensible arrogance, and were active agents in the European colonialist enterprise headed up by Britain and France in the Levant during the first half of the twentieth century.

There is much to say about this, but in this blog, I want to limit my reflections to one of Said's more provocative claims: that one way Westerners wrongly stereotyped the Middle East was through their writings on and depictions of women there. Said charged scholars and travelers alike with the sin of presenting Arab women as little more than sensual, sexual objects about which to fantasize. He examines, for example, the writings of the French novelist Gustave Flaubert (d. 1880), who encountered and wrote about Kuchuk Hanem, a famous Egyptian dancer. Said concludes that for Flaubert, Kuchuk became a "disturbing symbol of fecundity, peculiarly Oriental in her luxuriant and seemingly unbounded sexuality." (187) He goes on to write: "Woven through all of Flaubert's Oriental experiences, exciting or disappointing, is an almost uniform association between the Orient and sex. ... Why the Orient seems still to suggest not only fecundity but sexual promise (and threat), untiring sensuality, unlimited desire, deep generative energies, is something on which one could speculate... (188)"--a task that Said proceeds to do at some length.

Said has a point, for even today Westerners portray the Orient in sensual ways. I remember as a graduate student in Oxford regularly passing by a high-end shop with the name of "Sahara" that had an Arab-looking mannequin with silky clothing in a seductive pose (I never went in, but I think the store must have sold lingerie). Movies play a part in perpetuating this stereotype of Middle Eastern women as well. Take, for example, the character Sibylla in Sir Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven (2005), a Crusader queen who has 'indigenized' and is presented to viewers as exotic and erotic. Discerning persons will know such images are not representative of women in the Middle East, but stereotypes like these do nonetheless have a way of seeping into and coloring our perceptions of the region. Said's criticism of such ideas continues to be germane.

I want to argue here, however, that there is a problem with simply leaving things as such. Thanks largely to Said's influence, the temptation we now face is to disregard as baseless any criticisms 'Orientalists' may have had of the Middle East. Yet Westerners writing on Arab women sometimes described (in however distorted ways) and disapproved of what was indeed a problematic institution, i.e. the harems, the households of polygamous Muslim men. In his second volume of The Venture of Islam, the eminent scholar of Islam, Marshall Hodgson, has a fascinating section where he discusses the harem in some detail. He writes that "wealthy men not only had three or four wives by marriage, whom they kept secluded from masculine company; they had a whole household of female dependants, servants and also, among them, slave concubines..." (see pages 140-146 for more on this).

To be frank, the harem is a very big topic, and it is not possible to do it justice in a short blog such as this. But it is important to note that in the Qur'an, chapter 4:3 gives Muslim men permission to marry up to four wives, and it also allows men those women "that your right hand possesses." Islamic law across the four school of Sunni Islam have generally interpreted this verse to not only endorse polygamy but to allow Muslim men slave concubines as well. Shi'i law, in addition, permits "temporary marriage," a topic far too complicated to explore here.

Hodgson points out that secluding women from public view, as Muslim men did, was not something exclusive to Islam. Christian Byzantium approved of this practice, though it did not allow polygamy. This, however, does not lessen the distinctive nature of the harem. In Hodgson's words, those in the harem lived in "a world of their own in which women ruled over women, with the lone adult male as an often rather remote arbiter." Hodgson describes harems as hives of political activity where wives and concubines vied for their husband's attentions and lobbied for their childrens' futures over those of other wives' children. It would appear that Muslim men who had harems must have had a hard time heeding the Qur'anic admonition to "deal justly" with multiple wives.

The Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible, as understood by Jews) likewise describes in vivid detail the problems that come with polygamy and concubinage. Consider in Genesis 16 Abraham's failure to treat his wife (Sarah) and his concubine (Hagar) equally, leading eventually to Hagar's exile into the desert. Or think of the intense rivalry between Leah and Rachel for their husband Jacob's affections (Genesis 29-30), and the hostility Leah's sons felt toward Joseph, son of Rachel (Genesis 37). Ida Glaser, a former tutor of mine now teaching at the University of Oxford, has written on this subject in detail in her book Partners or Prisoners. There she argues that "the culture of Genesis is much closer to most Muslim cultures than it is to the West" (200), though she is quick to point out that Westerners can fall into patterns of domination, dependency, and blame as well.

I began this blog with some reflections on Edward Said. While I think he has some good things to say about the dangers of stereotyping, we should not allow that to stop us from critically examining difficult issues. The harem is an institution that we need to know about and take seriously. Moreover, given that polygamy is today permitted and practiced in many Muslim nations, the harem is still a relevant subject. Let's not allow the writings of Flaubert to obscure what is in fact an important discussion that needs to take place about polygamy in Muslim contexts today.