A harem is where those chicks hang out and give sweet, sweet loving to the menfolk, right?
The inaccurate Eastern stereotype of women many years ago in the Middle East is that they were members of harems or served no important role in daily life or the power structure of society. The European view of the harem was presented as "Orgiastic sex as a metaphor for power corrupted." This viewpoint is quite misleading; it just so happens that the harem was more of a political entity. The word "harem" can be used to describe the group of women, but it is also used to describe the place where they stayed. Its main reason for existing was to make sure that the dynasty "reproduced in an orderly manner" and also made sure that the women (as well as many males who had not reached puberty) were honored and kept safe. The women of the royal family would stay there as well until they were married and would move out.
The best example of the use of harems was by the Ottomans during the 16th century. For instance, Ottoman women were kept separate from the rest of the royal household mostly due to honor rather than seclusion. Ottoman women essentially directed the ascension to the throne. Since there was no primogeniture (automatic ascension of the first born son after the death of the ruler), it became up to the woman to control who came into power next. Contrary to popular belief, few men were allowed into the harems other than the Sultan, few others invited by the head female of the harem, the eunuchs who guarded the harem, and the pre-pubescent boys lived and were being taught there. Even the Sultan couldn’t just waltz in there and choose a woman, the selection process was very ritualized, and for a reason.
Nookie for Great Justice: The Rules of the Game
There were hierarchies which served to regulate power and the sexual reproduction of the dynasty. One of the major structures was based on the older generation controlling the younger one. The older generation prepared the younger generation for power and controlled its sex life. “Sexual maturity and political maturity were inextricable, and political control involved control of sexuality.” Controlling sex means controlling reproduction. Political maturity also equaled sexual maturity, and a man wasn't seen as being mature until he fathered children. A woman's political maturity wasn't secured until she had passed childbearing age. Many men were purposely kept from reproducing so that they wouldn't achieve political maturity and take over. Heirs were especially suspected by the rulers and many of them would get killed "mysteriously", most notably in the House of Osman. Sons and brothers of the Sultans would feel threatened by their rival kin and/or the janissary troops attending to them.
When bearing children, the women of the royal household could gain political legitimacy by bearing sons. Bearing sons meant that they were creating a "viable household within the family structure". In the 1700s, for instance, the role of the valide sultan (the Sultan's mother) became very important within the household. Consequently, the role of women in the political structure became more important in general. The valide sultan was the head of the harem, and controlled who the Sultan would reproduce with. She would raise the children sired by the Sultan. She was the "eyes and the ears as to the development of the princes" and made sure that the birth mothers of the children were trustworthy. The actual birth mothers of the children would be the primary advocators in the deadly battle for the sultanate. This was all regulated by the valide sultan and if one was not successful, infanticide or fratricide could result, as well as exile for the mother.
There are basically three categories that describe the structure of the harem. The most powerful people were the elite led by the valide sultan and including the Sultan's favorite wife or concubine, the princes and princesses, the sultan's nurse, and the harem stewardess. The second most powerful group was made up of the training staff and the women of the royal family that had special status. The third most powerful group was by far the largest and was made up of the rank and file service corps. Outside of the royal family, the third group was the one that was most served by the harem because it was a training ground for women who would become servants or wives of the royal family or the military or administrative class in the Empire.
Well OK, they were important. What did they spend their time doing besides playing poker?
The women of the harem would spend their lives there, and were also political bargaining chips. If someone liked a governor of a province, they might give them 10 women from their harem. It should be stressed that only the very wealthy had harems, there were very few other than the Sultan's. The women would only leave if they were married off, otherwise they were trained and highly educated in various fields. Many of them were scholars of the Q'uran, others learned needlework, became musicians, dancers, singers, and some of higher rank waited upon the valide sultan and other members of the royal family.
The Sultan himself rarely if ever left his palace, sultans in general lived a life of extreme seclusion. The women and royal women became the public relations people, basically. They became the symbol of “stock qualities of wisdom, experience, munificence, and piety which earlier Muslim writers had ascribed to ideal Muslim women," and some of the higher up women from the Ottoman harems would make public appearances and give talks in Istanbul. The harems were officially ended by crushing opposition from Europe in the early 1900s. The women formerly from the harems were basically tossed out into the street and then forced to be paraded around like an act in a circus. They would be brought to capitals in Europe and they would be gawked at as the "mysterious women behind the veil".
Lecture by Dr. Nancy Stockdale at the University of Central Florida