The harem is probably the most misunderstood institution in the Ottoman Empire and other Near Eastern states. "The Sultan’s Favorites" by the late 19th century Orientalist painter Georges Clairin. Harem scenes were very popular in Orientalist paintings, and they’ve influenced our understanding of what a harem is.
The biggest misconception we need to get out of the way is that harems were not about sex. They were not brothels, nor were they where women lounged around waiting for the Sultan to sleep with them.
Ironically, the word "harem" implied a place that was sacred. The inside of a mosque could be called a harem. Your home, where you feel safe, could be called a harem. Think of it less as a brothel and more of a sanctuary. That the word acquired explicitly sexual connotations in English is unfortunate (unless I guess, you find sanctuary in brothels).
"Prayer in the Mosque", an 1871 work by the French painter Jean-Leon Gerome. The inside of a mosque could be called a harem since it was considered sacred.
Where the term applies to women, a harem was the section of the household in which the women lived. That could include the Sultan’s concubines, but it also included his unmarried female relatives, his mother, and the palace’s female servants. Concubines made up a small proportion of the Ottoman harem; the vast majority of harem women would never even know the Sultan personally, let alone sleep with him.
A 19th-century painting of an Ottoman concubine. Contrary to popular opinion, the Sultan’s concubines and wives made up a small proportion of the Ottoman harem.
Harems also weren’t exclusive to Islamic societies. The Byzantine Romans had a similar concept called gynaeconitis, which they adopted from the Ancient Greeks. Palace women would stay in one section of the palace and conduct much of their business from there.
It actually predates Islam. The Achaemenids and Assyrians had harems long before Islam was a thing. A mosaic from the Basilica of San Vitale with Empress Theodora flanked by eunuchs and female attendants. In Byzantine Constantinople, imperial women lived in the gynaeconitis, which was similar to the Ottoman harem.
Ultimately, harems were not about religion, anyway; they were about status. Being able to remain mostly inside your home and have servants carry out most of your business for you was a luxury that most couldn’t afford. That you and your female family members could afford to was a status symbol.
And yes, the Sultan engaged in this type of seclusion, too, albeit to a much lesser extent. During the reign of Mehmed II (r. 1444–1446, 1451–1481), the Sultan started becoming less of a public figure. According to one story, when a peasant interrupted a Divan (Imperial Council) meeting to petition for something, he had to ask which man was the Sultan.
Although probably apocryphal, the story still illustrates how insular the House of Osman became. For the most part, the Sultan didn’t go out and meet the people; the people came to him (or, more realistically, his officials).
They might see him out in the open during a procession at Friday prayers, massive festivals celebrating the circumcision of his sons, or the wedding of one of his daughters, or on a march into a military campaign, but other than that, Sultans were fairly secluded.
Harem seclusion was an exaggerated version of this. The Ottomans had a concept called a mudder, meaning a "women of virtue", with "virtue" here implying status. It was the Ottoman equivalent of what the English would call "a lady."
A mudder didn’t go out in the open and do her own shopping, get her own food or, if she was a businesswoman, sell her own products in person. She had servants and workers for that. If all this sounds overly pompous, that’s the point. Seclusion was about status, not religion.
All of this explains why the Sultan’s wives, sisters, and concubines—the women at the upper echelon of the harem wouldn’t be seen out in the open. They were of too high status for all that. In other words, they were mudder.
An imaginative portrait of Hurrem Sultan, wife of Suleiman the Magnificent, from Titian’s workshop. Hurrem is a prime example of a mudder: while she owned and funded charities, she did not run them in person.
This was a social concept, not a religious one. The Islamic scholar Ebusuud Effendi, when asked repeatedly what qualified a woman as a mudder, clarified that being one had nothing to do with Islam. Wealthy Jewish women, for example, could be considered muhaddere. The Ottomans also considered Queen Elizabeth I a muhaddere for her elegance and class, and she was definitely not a Muslim.
Queen Elizabeth I of England. The Ottomans considered her a woman of elegance and class, and it didn’t matter that she was a Christian. It’s a lost cause at this point to correct the harem’s connotations in English. When most people mention harems, they’re likely talking about a group of women who share one guy.
That’s understandable, and I’ve even caught myself still using the word that way, too. It’s just important to realize that that’s not what the term meant historically. When we’re studying the Ottomans, Mughals, Safavids, and other Islamic societies, we should realize that harems weren’t about sex or Islam. They were about politics, status, and snobbery.
A Mughal miniature painting from 1700 depicting aristocratic Hindu women attended to by her servants and one musician to the far right. This is more in line with what a harem was.