The politics of reproduction in the golden cages

During the 16th and 17th centuries imperial harems of the Ottoman emperors greatly contributed to the spread of politics and religion. However, these were, at the same time, completely misunderstood and misrepresented by the West (Peirce, 1993:viii).

Throughout history, from Arabia to Turkey to the Mogul India, influential and financially capable men kept concubines that helped in increasing the population. Slavery was an integral part of Ottoman society and as late as 1908 women slaves were still sold in the Empire (Source). The last Mogul emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar had “four wives and numerous concubines”. He died in 1862 so till that time concubinage was openly practiced in India. It is recorded that Mogul kings slept with as many as 300 concubines in their lifetime. Similarly, till 1960s in Saudi Arabia concubinage was an ‘open secret’. King Ibn Saud had between 80 and 100 offspring from the many views and concubines.

In the Mogul and Ottoman empires, the royal harems contained as many as 12,000 women (wives, daughters, concubines, slaves, and sisters) and their quarters were guarded by strong women and the royal eunuchs:

“Eunuchs at the Ottoman court were preferably taken from Africa, especially Sudan. Since lighter skin was considered more aesthetic than dark skin, the sultans felt the chances of an affair developing between their, mostly Eastern European, concubines and their dark-skinned eunuch caretakers extremely low” (Source).

Peirce (1993:20) observes that while political maturity for males began with the “onset of fathering children”, the maturity for concubines was marked by the “cessation of childbearing” which Peirce calls the “postsexual status”. Each concubine was allowed to bear only one son. After the birth of the son the emperor would stop sleeping with her and she would live the rest of her life training her son to become the royal throne’s successor. The sons would learn literature, art, archery, fencing, politics and all subjects that make a man out of a man. In the second half of the 16th century princes were caged in the royal harem in the Ottoman Empire – “The Ottoman harem was often called “the golden cage”. Male princely heirs lived in a part of the palace that was called kafes, which translates as “cage” from Ottoman Turkish. Here the princes had to live in seclusion until they were either executed so as not be a threat to the crown prince, or be released once they become sultans” (Source).

Klein (2007: 63-83, in Campbell et al.) notices that the Ottoman emperors hardly ever required more than one wife with the abundant supply of beautiful European concubines and during the 15th and 16th centuries marriage of emperors in the Ottoman Empire had become obsolete. This happened in early Abbasid period as well when “after the death of the Abbasid Harun-al-Rashid, the caliphs apparently only rarely married relying instead on their concubines to produce children” (Kennedy, 2006). The harem system lured non-Muslims towards Arabization – in Spain during the reign of Abd-al-Rahman II “the lure of the language, literature, religion and institutions of the conquerors – including the harem system – had become so strong that a large number of urban Christians had become Arabized” (Hitti, 1970).

Thus, concubinage was very much a part of elite male life throughout history. With the modern view and desire for  mutual respect, equality of genders, and equitable sexual morality there is dislike for sex outside ‘legal’ marriage and hence we like to perceive concubinage as a deviation from the standard (which is only a recent phenomenon) and even like to pretend that it never existed. Yet, harems and concubinage had a lot more to do than just sex. The Golden Cages produced strong women and great leaders who were former concubines and sons of those concubines. More than sex there was the politics of reproduction at play.


Campbell. G, Miers. M, and Miller, J.C. (Eds).(2007). Women and Slavery, Volume One – Africa, the Indian Ocean World, and the Medieval North Atlantic. Athens: Ohio University Press.

Hitti, P. K. (1958). History of the Arabs: From the Earliest Times to the Present. London: McMillan.

Kennedy, H. (2006). When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise and Fall of Islam’s Greatest Dynasty. Da Capo Press.

Peirce, L.P. (1993). The Imperial Harem – Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire. New York: Oxford University Press

Islam belongs to the feminists too

This post has seen many procrastinated mornings and evenings. I’m still not sure if I’d be able to articulate what I want to say. But no harm in trying.

Two years ago, Muslim feminism was just a project for me. Today I have fallen in love with Muslim feminists. A good part of my day is spent thinking about you, the Muslim feminists, and about Muslim feminism.

I was born into a Hanafi/Shafi family and a few years ago when I was at the peak of my religious fervor for madhab (Sunni school of thought, either: Hanafi, Shafi, Maliki or Hanabli)I wrote that Islam doesn’t need Muslim feminism (yes, horror!). I couldn’t have been more wrong.

While we chant the mantra often that “Islam is not monolithic” or that “there is extreme diversity in the Muslim community”, it is often because of our intolerance that we refuse to respect co-religionists who are different in their practice of the religion from us. Many Muslim feminists *choose* how they want to practice Islam and  let’s face it – we don’t like it! Dr. Amina Wadud leading the Friday prayer made many Muslims, men and women, uncomfortable. It was the first time I realised that Muslim women and feminists are constantly harassed – not only by non-Muslims but also by Muslims.

Each one of us believes that we are practicing the religion absolutely correctly – “as it was meant to be.” A very quick look into the history of Islam and Muslim nations would put our views straight. None of us can truly say what was the Islam of the first Muslims. Very soon after after the Prophet’s death Islam began to imbibe elements of religious practices of Sasanian and Byzantine nations that Muslims conquered: quick wealth meant veiling, which was exclusively for the elite, became widespread; men began denying inheritance to their womenfolk; Caliph Umar banned women from going to mosques and instated stoning as punishment for adultery – apparently even claiming that stoning was mentioned in the Quran and the verse was eaten by a goat!; Aisha’s failed leadership was used to warn against women taking up political roles; homosexuality became punishable as a crime and a sin and people began recalling hadith instructing the murder of homosexuals; the Umayyads created large harems and secluded their women. Not only this but according to early qiyas all Madhabs fixed minimum mahr (by analogizing the loss of virginity with theft) as the highest value of stolen goods before punishment of hand amputation was valid! (Oh yes, jurists also recalled 200 years later that the Prophet used to punish thieves by cutting off their hands). While Hanafis allowed an adult (note: not a minor) woman to contract her own marriage, other three require a male guardian or wali. Fathers and male guardians could marry their minor daughters without their consent recalling that Abu Bakr never consulted Aisha.

This is the Islam handed down to us, packaged in madhabs, fiqh and shariah. Can we ever successfully sift Sasanian and Byzantine influences from the “pure Islam” that we claim to know?

I don’t blame Muslim feminists who oppose all or part of the laws (not Islam!) I mentioned above. Most Muslim feminists use the Quran to argue that veiling was strictly for the Prophet’s wives. They want due inheritance as promised in the Quran. Feminists argue that it is their religious right to be allowed to pray in mosques just like men. All Muslim feminists are against stoning of adulterers and killing of homosexuals. Muslim feminists use examples of other great women to argue that Islam doesn’t forbid them from entering politics. These men and women are generally against child marriages, polygamy and concubinage and demand that dowry be seen as a gift, not price for sexual access. Is that too much to ask?

Post 9/11 we (Muslims) have become a paranoid nation and rightly so, but sadly paranoia also comes with rejection of anything that seems foreign. But have we ever stopped to think that what we may think as “foreign” is actually the native religion and what we have been accepting as Islam is filled with “foreign” influences?

The only self-proclaimed Muslim feminist that I don’t like much is Asra Nomani but I listen even to her. No one makes absolute nonsense and there is always something to be learned from others even if it is a painful lesson from an enemy. Why is it that we like to first (mis)judge feminists who are Muslim before we even listen to them?! These men and women are NOT against Islam. They just want their rights and want to live in the 21st Century not in the dark shadows of the Abbasids and Umayyads.

A few weeks ago I tried to understand the views of a friend and tried to make him understand the views of Muslim feminists. But you know what? If the traditionalists don’t want to listen to Muslim feminists, I don’t think Muslim feminists want to talk to them either. Islam belongs to the feminists too.