Two fragments showing harem girls

Harem wall painting fragments, c. 800 CE. Held by the British Museum.

Sex slavery is sanctioned in the Quran. Mohammed had three concubines and made sure his male followers had their share as well. However, the Quran also says that rape is forbidden, so presumably everyone had to consent. Like all religions that privilege males, some things that are allowed are not necessarily encouraged. Or to be even more ambiguous, it is a “do as I say not as I do” situation.

These painting fragments are thought to be slave girls from the harem of Caliph al-Muasim in Samarra. If you think of old wall paintings or murals as ancient television, it would come as no surprise to see images of sex and violence. Scenes of drunken parties, animal hunts, or of dancing slave girls make perfect sense in this context. The Caliph wanted to celebrate both his achievements and his indulgences.

Women and girls at the palace of Samarra would have had many roles, not just as wives and concubines, but also as musicians and poets. Training in dance, singing, and literature was often required of harem girls.

The idea that a girl kidnapped or sold by her parents into this life is highly romanticized as a positive career choice. A life of luxury and comfort may have been seen as preferable to one of poverty, regardless of one’s personal rights, but it also meant status as a sex slave first, and perhaps something else later. And while Islamic texts legislate the correct treatment of slaves no matter their role, it can be safely assumed that not everyone obeyed these rules.

Harems continue to exist today. While the nostalgic shine of slavery is mostly gone, harems are just as distressing and debauched situations as they always were. Many stories of girls being abducted from their homes to serve as sex slaves to important men, as well as ISIL fighters, are still being told. Even Disney included sassy harem girls in several dance numbers for their animated Aladdin film.

Stereotypically, the happy harem girl helped define the Medieval Middle East to the ignorant West. This is the kind of representation that undermines the true history of these girls, much of which is lost to time.

-Ashley E. Remer
Head Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

This post is part of our 52 Objects in the History of Girlhood exhibition. Each week during 2017, we explore a historical object and its relation to girls’ history. Stay tuned to discover the incredible history of girls, and be sure to visit the complete exhibition to discover the integral role girls have played since the dawn of time.

For more on the Harem Girls painting, check out its narrative in the BBC’s A History of the World in 100 Objects series.

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