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Setting The Record Straight With The Book The Sheikh's Harem By Elizabeth Fernea

1764 words - 8 pages

Harems were prevalent in Islamic tradition since the beginnings of Islam and the different dynasties that were being creating. The most famous harem of all was the Harem of the Ottoman Sultan which led to harems branching out to various other localities and dynasties. Western thought has mistaken harems for typically only having importance for sexual relations and have mistaken them for being brothels. Scholars of the western world saw the Ottoman Empire as something that was in decay during the 16th and 17th centuries, which is why they formulated the idea of harems only being about sexuality. The harems of Islamic tradition were fundamentally about family politics. The sexuality that would occur in the harems was primarily encompassed around sexual reproduction that was controlled for the succession to the throne. Women that were taken as concubines in the harem were not Muslim, because it is against Islamic law to enslave another Muslim. The concubines often used the harems as a way to advance in society. They used the harem as opportunities to influence events outside of the harem.
The particular harem in “The Sheikh’s Harem,” by Elizabeth Fernea is about the harem of Sheikh Haji Hamid. Sheikh Haji Hamid was sheikh of the El Eshadda tribe of the El Nehara village of Iraq, which was a Shia sect. Elizabeth Fernea accompanied her husband to the village of El Nehara and stayed there for two years during the 1950’s. Fernea’s husband was an anthropologist and together they studied Middle Eastern and African cultures. In the specific chapter, Fernea first enters the harem and is astonished by what she sees. Her husband was invited to lunch with the Sheikh, so she would have to spend the day in the harem.
As the excerpt begins, Fernea is questioning her husband as to what she should wear in the harem that would be appropriate. Her husband tells her that she should wear something attractive, natural and should remember to write everything down because no other man besides the Sheikh is allowed to enter the harem, and he is incredibly curious to know what it must be like. “I’ve been here for two months and the sheikh’s family, which is the word they use to refer to the womenfolk, hasn’t even been mentioned in my presence. So I can’t help but wonder about them.” While Elizabeth is in Iraq, she is required and she did so out of respect to follow all the customs and traditions, which also includes wearing the abayah (traditional cloak women use to cover themselves in Iraq). As Fernea is getting closer to the harem, she gets more nervous. This is a completely new and different world for her, where she is a complete outsider. The outsiders are peering at her every gesture as she is walking to the harem with Ali (servant), and she notices that every woman along the path cover their faces as they appear. Ali explains to her that they do so because, “The women always seem to cover their faces quickly when caught unawares by strange men.” As Elizabeth...

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