Reclaiming The Hareem, a safe space for women

Debunking the myths.

Aminah Jayne O’Rourke

If I asked you to explain to me what you thought you knew about The hareem’s of the past,  the hareems of the traditional Muslim world, what would you tell me?

My guess is that most would think that they were places for scantily clad sex slaves and exotic belly dancers, and their like, unfortunate, depraved women that were forced to live in a secluded, heavily guarded part of a Sultans place, wealthy mans mansion, or stately home; whose whole existence for being, centred around what night they would be chosen to be the lustful object of over privileged male desire. I guess this is exactly what popular orientalist writers of days gone by, and the annals of history written with a broad euro-centric quill would have you believe. 

Such loaded depictions, and politically charged notions of oppressed women in a male dominated Muslim society, often penned by non Muslim men (that never set foot in a hareem), often illustrated a culturally biased and skewed perception of Muslim life, and Islam in general, based on assumption, misunderstanding and at times, outright anti Muslim propaganda. 

So, what if you discovered what you thought you knew about the historical hareem was wholly inaccurate and mere reflections of Hollywood creative licence? The reality is, whilst the hareem was indeed the space where women resided; it was actually a place of safety and sanctuary, not a place of depravity and shame. The hareem was a place of honour, modesty, healing and education; a physical hijab that upheld female modesty; basically, a ladies only private cloister away from male intrusion and the gaze of non mehram men.  The matriarch of the household and senior family members would reside there, raise and teach their children there and engage in their own personal development etc. It was the place where women were free to just be, a cathartic space of therapy and repose, a place of anxiety reduction, a place for women to thrive.  The hareem was the ultimate female safe space where women empowered other women, and hearts / minds were bonded; the kind of environment that many modern day women would feel privileged to experience.  So, what if there was a fresh drive from forward thinking Muslim women in modern times to revive the reality of the hareem and make its past reality relevant and accessible to the modern woman, would you be intrigued? 

Shifa Healing Co. Aims to ‘Reclaim the Hareem’ and champion the empowering nature of the female only safe space once again.  Aminah Jayne and her collective of forward thinking female pioneers aim to recalibrate the female spirit and plant a new marker in the sand as they confidently march forward nurturing, healing and fortifying Muslim womankind from the vantage point of the 21st century hareem. For more information about the Hareem membership and what it aims to offer click here.

Below is an excerpt from an article shared in recent years from a female historian based in Germany. She interestingly highlights many long established misconceptions surrounding the Hareem and its purpose.

The harem is not what you think it is

It was simply the private part of any household big enough to distinguish between private and public quarters.

“[Our] past can inform … [our] future … Orientalists have produced inappropriate impressions in people’s minds … [of] women drawn to worldly pleasures and power. However, the harem was more of a school for its members. It was the hearth of education, where women prepared for life and organised charitable events … with sultans’ mothers at the helm … [whom we know] largely because of the architectural works they left behind.”

Like any household, royal or not, harems were educational spaces, and women of varying social status learned basic household tasks as well as reading, in order to study the Quran. Elite women also participated in a culturally sophisticated social milieu that included recitation of poetry and administration of inheritance and property.

Needless to say that The Hare(e)m was the home of women’s development throughout history, emotionally, intellectually, physically, & spiritually. This where the children were born and raised. This where the women convalesced, rested, recovered, education and developed themselves.

It’s with this insight I warmly welcome you to un-condition our conditioned minds about what we think we know, and take a brave through the Hareem door and see how beautifully we can safely share frustrations and celebrations growing under the shade of one another in a variety of ways”.

From this we learn that the Hareem was the centre point for many of the rites of passage of a women life. It is where women learned to emotionally regulate, where they studied the islamic sciences, where they underwent pre marriage education, where they were educated about sexual intimacy & fulfilment, and emotional empowerment.  It was where they gave birth, it’s where they learned the art of homemaking. The list could go on and on! So, wouldn’t you say Muslim women  need a contemporary version of the Hareem in their lives? I invite you to consider such a proposition and embrace your inner Hareem membership and all of its potentialities.

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