I first encountered the image of the harem in the 1992 Disney film Aladdin. Now before I say anything else, you must know that I have a lot of Millennial nostalgia attached to the movie. Like all other Disney movies, it shaped my understanding of love and life. Jasmine’s feelings of confinement in her home and her longing to explore a whole new world and Aladdin’s adventurous spirit resonated with most impressionable 90s minds. 

But with some awareness and some hindsight, I have to acknowledge that the movie was a perpetuation of Orientalist stereotypes. So, what is Orientalism you might ask? Orientalism is a complex and even contradictory discourse of Western ideas and representations of the region including the Middle East and South Asia. This discourse emerged during the time of French and British Imperial power and continues to form the foundation of Western perceptions of the “East.” 

So what I considered a Disney masterpiece growing up was actually a series of racialized caricatures and stock images. The “Arab culture” which the movie invokes is as fictional as the city of Agrabah, where Aladdin and Jasmine live. The portrait of the city includes all stereotypes one can possibly summon; the entire region is nothing but deserts and harems. It is a world of turbans and tigers, henna, and harem pants.

The real diversity and richness of the Middle East are subsumed by this whitewashed monolith of what Americans think it is. This representation is dangerous. Yet it is the first exposure to Arab culture many white children might have. Hell, it was the first exposure to Arab culture I had! And I am brown! And that is really telling. So for the longest time, I thought the Middle East was all desert and decadence. I know that is a paradox. But that is exactly what the Orientalist appropriation of the harem was; paradoxical and conflicting. 

In the fictional movie, Jasmine lives inside the harem. The harem, in Arab and Ottoman history, was basically the inner domestic space of the court or palace reserved for women. This is where the king’s family and concubines lived. So Orientalists, with their lack of access to the private courts of Muslim women, conjured this hyper fantasy of the harem as a place of desire, where the king would interact with his women.

Many Orientalist paintings of women lounging around in suggestive poses bearing cleavages and midriffs are not historically accurate. In fact, considering that the Ottoman Empire was relatively conservative because of its Islamic values, it is highly unlikely that any foreign travelers ever even glimpsed the inside the harem. 

So the idea of Arab men with untamed libidos, multiple wives, and a culture of indulgence was propagated. This in turn added to the exotic appeal of the Middle East for Western audiences. 

But while Arab men were written off as being insatiable, women, as it appears, could only be one of the two: veiled, meek, and submissive (from the King’s family) or sexually promiscuous (slave-girls). In the case of the former, they were considered as oppressed and caged, unable to leave the harem. This Orientalist perception, of course, was not formed through any proper ethnography or interviews, but just an assumption of what Arab women felt when they were veiled in public. 

In much of American and European pop culture today, the harem remains inherently sexualized. Remember how Jafar (the villain in Aladdin) tried to capture Jasmine? That is what many Orientalists thought it meant to be an Arab woman, to be treated like a commodity or a property which was transferred from man to man, from harem to harem.

But a fact overlooked by history is that many women in court exercised political power. As was the case for the Sultanate of Women in the Ottoman empire which was a century when women reigned supreme in the court. This era produced figures such as sultans Kosem and Hurrem who have been celebrated by Turkish pop culture and chronicled on TV.

The actual historical harem was not the same as the harem fantasy which occupied the mind of the Orientalist for centuries. Even the etymology of the word harem stems from the Arab world.  Haram simply means prohibited. Somehow another culture claimed the word that does not belong to them and transformed its meaning with plain ignorance. 

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  • Safa Shoaib

    Safa Shoaib is an educator and counselor turned entrepreneur, writer, and editor. She has a B.A. Honors in English Literature from the Lahore University of Management Sciences and has written for local publications such as the Express Tribune. She is a history buff who is equally passionate about literature. In 2021, she co-founded Deja New Pakistan, the first of its kind marketplace of pre-owned fashion in Pakistan, pursuing the vision of sustainable fashion.