Part Two: Odalisques

The myths surrounding the harem and its female slaves

focusing on Odalisques

Part Two. The creation of the harem and female slaves’ myths

It has been argued by Omar and Hardman that the West has been preoccupied with Islam and Muslims since the rise of the Umayyads and the spread of Islam to the Erstwhile Christian lands, in the 7th-century. With the expansion of overseas exploration and a growing obsession with clarification in the 17th and 18th-century, an abundance of travel literature led to the establishment of stereotypes about the Orient. These stereotypes included considering the Orient as strange, and assumptions on race and gender were developed. The primary assumption on gender was that Muslim women were sexually promiscuous and immodest yet oppressed and needed to be saved. The Oriental culture came to be associated with adjectives such as coward, lazy, untrustworthy, violent and lustful. Hulme argues that large parts of the non-European world, including the East, were produced for Europe through a discourse that generated questions and assumptions, based on imaginative literature as well as personal memoirs, amongst other literary works. This part will reflect on how the myths of the harem and its female slaves were created through historical accounts, travel literature and the first depiction of an Odalisque.

A. Historical accounts

1. What is known of the harems and their running?

Historical accounts of the harem allow for a non-biased understanding of the dynamics of the space. Historical accounts include information about the inner workings of the harems. In women’s quarters, the Sultan’s mother was the ruler. Most of the slaves in Islamic lands were domestic slaves, which includes maids, cooks and body servants. Depending on their rank within the harem society, these female slaves accessed different positions. The female cabinet in charge of the management of the harem included but was not limited to a controller, a stewardess, an administrator and a treasurer. These positions involved responsibility as well as trust, and each of these women had their court with students to train. It can be argued that knowledge of the existence of a social and political society within the harem creates a hole in the Western narrative regarding the Orient and its treatment of women.

2. How can the disparities between the facts of the harems and the beliefs of Westerners be explained?

Looking into Western attitudes towards the Orient helps understand the disparities between the accounts and the wide-spread beliefs. Omar and Hardman report that during medieval times, there were no concerns with the status of women in Islamic societies. It is worth noting however that in the 12th-century, European scholars are reported to have understood Islam’s main features yet to have distorted them to encourage Christian conversion, which was supported by widely believed myths at the time: Islam promoted homosexuality, prostitution and adultery. During the Renaissance, women came to be represented, not as sexual beings but as mothers, wives and merchants. In the late 17th-century, and furthermore after Antoine Galland’s translation of One Thousand and One Nights (1704-1717), Western audiences grew familiar with the idea of the exotic harem. The book depicted exotic adventures part of Arab mythology. Oriental women thus turned into objects of longing and became instrumental through their supposed oppression. The book was from then on used as a reference text and a source of ethnographic data, even though it was fiction. Orientalism did exist prior to One Thousand and One Nights, but it was not a professional and systematic discourse, although the ideology of the West being superior was present. The iconographic tradition started in the 18th-century, notably with engravings and descriptions of the baths in Montesquieu’s Lettres Persanes (1721). The rise of Orientalism in the 18th-century can be seen as having to do with the decline of the power of the Ottoman Empire and the collapse of the Safavid dynasty. Indeed, Europe ceased to see the Orient as a contender, an equal power that could potentially overtake the West, and developed an empiricist desire to explore it as a result. This timeline allows to understand why the historical accounts, known to Europeans through merchants, crusaders and missionaries, long before the first travel logs in early 17th-century, went ignored and myths still rose. Westerns can be argued to have shown no desire to obtain factual knowledge on the harems, seeing as it was convenient to represent Islam as a threatening, under-developed and women-abusing religion belonging to the Orient, in order to further encourage Christian conversion.

B. Travel literature

When it comes to travel literature, first-hand accounts of observations made while travelling, it is essential to question the objectivity and motives of the writer. Indeed, these individual testimonies are subjective, and it is cautious to assume their point of view is partial and imbued with colonial interests. The multitude of possible institutionalised beliefs also needs to be taken into account. The travel literature mentioned here will, therefore, be subjected to critical analysis. Men having never been allowed to enter the harems, the writers are going to be differentiated by gender, starting with men, who have had restricted direct knowledge but a more significant impact in creating and solidifying stereotypes about the Orient.

1. What can be found in male travel literature?

Travel logs written by men constitute the first accounts of the harem. It can be argued that a clear divide exists after the beginning of the instrumentalisation of women’s oppression. The first-ever account is Hierosolimitano’s Relatione Della Gran Cittá di Constatinopoli (1611) which results from his first-hand knowledge as one of the seven physicians at the court of Murad III between 1574 and 1595. He reports that:

‘on the side where the women are in attendance, there are forty-four separate courts with conveniences of baths and fountains in each so that one does not look into the other.’

This is in accordance with historical accounts of different distinct courts and the existence of a hierarchy specific to the harem. With Tavernier’s Nouvelle Relation du Sérail du Grand Seigneur (1675) begins what Behdad describes as false objectivity, which then flourished. It is important to note that Tavernier seeked financial gain with his account. The report does not come from any first-hand experience but from two European travellers he met and who shared their experience as former seraglio slaves in Isfahan. The testimonies of the men were filtered through his notes then through the putting together of the tale by Chappuzeau, who had been requested to do so by Tavernier. The latter indicates two reasons why the reports are to be trusted. The first one, as he declares, is that ‘the memoirs they have furnished to me turned out to be very much in agreement with each other’. The second one is that the provenance of the former slaves, one from Paris, the other from Sicily, was enough to vouch for their honesty, demonstrating beliefs of Western superiority. Indeed, Tavernier can be said to assert the superiority of Europeans, implying that they cannot lie, and can always be trusted, in contrast with the Orientals he discusses. According to Behdad, these claims to absolute truthfulness are a discursive strategy by which ordinary and personal observation gain the status of science. Foucault describes this as the threshold of scientificity, and it can be, for example, further found in Savary’s Lettres sur l’Égypte (1785), ‘a traveller must rise above partiality and opinion’. It can be argued that it is the threshold of scientificity that has allowed travel logs by men who had no direct experience or knowledge of the harem to speculate while obtaining ethnographical credit. Tavernier and Savary both describe the harems in terms of its stereotypes, and reference idle women whose days are dedicated to waiting for the Sultan. The writer-travellers who went to the Orient carried with them the imperialist beliefs as well as the societal constructs of the West. Female interest and influence in politics was something Europeans wanted to avoid in their women, preferring the ideal of the Christian married woman at home. As a result, it can be said that even if they ever heard of Oriental female power, they avoided mentioning it. For example, Cornelis de Bruijn, a Dutch traveller of the 18th-century, described the harem as ‘a multiplicity of women, allegedly all destined for the pleasure of the Sultan and without distinction in rank’. De Bruijn had no direct experience of the harem and solely replicated existing stereotypes in order to validate his work as accurate. It thus appears based on the example of Hierosolimitano, that before the objectification of the harem, writers-travellers found little interest in trying to depict it, expect if they had first-hand experience, which was exceedingly rare for a Westerner. After the exoticisation of the harem and its women, it can be said that male writers-travellers found a financial interest in depicting the harem, and, having no lived experience, resorted to inspiration from rising stereotypes.

2. What are the differences with female travel literature?

Western women who travelled to the Orient had direct experience of the harem, if they desired to visit it and if their social status allowed for an invitation. Montagu emphasises the difference in knowledge by pointing out that male travellers ‘never fail giving you an account of the women, which ‘tis certain they never saw’. Having travelled through Europe and the Ottoman Empire from August 1716 to November 1718, her letters were published posthumously in 1763. Montagu seems to employ false objectivity, vouching her words are ‘a real representation of the manners here’ and that ‘there is nothing more true’. However, her refusal to publish the letters when she was alive can be argued to signify her lack of interest in financial gain and desire to influence Western opinions. Therefore, and adding the fact that she visited harems in person, her logs can be said to hold more credit than her male counterparts. In her Embassy Letters (1763) she rejects sexual promiscuity amongst the women, stating that:

‘all were in the state of nature, all were nude, however, among them there were neither indecent gestures nor lascivious postures.’

This quotation is in direct disagreement with Western fantasies of lesbian encounters in the harem, medieval beliefs that Islam encouraged homosexuality and Withers’ The Grand Signior’s Seraglio (1650), in which he suggests women had sex with other in the baths. Poole’s The English Woman in Egypt (1846), written during a residency there, specifies that women in the harem of the Effendi were well informed on international affairs and discussed politics avidly. These travel logs seem to reveal a different side of the harems than the ones based on stereotypes and fantasies and are similar to historical accounts. Poole also declares that ‘the ideas entertained by many in Europe of the immorality of the harem are, I believe, erroneous’. Even though, as part three will discuss, Westerners, including painters, were aware of female travel literature, the imperialist and colonialist agenda maintained the standardised opinions in place. The 19th-century historian Ampère stated that ‘the Orient is for me, today, like a masked woman who has revealed only her face’. The assimilation between the Orient and its women can be said to have become so that the desire to fantasise and sexualise the harem and the women who lived in them outran ethnographic research. It can be argued that the patriarchal and voyeuristic aspect of Western society, between the 17th and 19th-century, did not allow for stereotypes about the Orient to be challenged.

3. Where does L’Odalisque Brune by Boucher fit in the Orientalist timeline?

In order to further our understanding of what led to the creation of the myths surrounding harem’s female slaves, Boucher’s L’Odalisque brune (c.1745) (Fig.1) is going to be discussed.

Part Two: Odalisques

Figure 1. L’Odalisque brune, François Boucher, c. 1745, Musée du Louvre

The painting is the first depiction of an Odalisque in Western art. The artist had previously engraved Eastern figures, notably the ambassador Mehmet Reza Bey in 1715 and thus had shown an interest in depicting the Orient. L’Odalisque Brune, however, stands alone in his oeuvre. It has been argued by Hedley that the pose derives from mythical nymphs and goddesses. It is the first time Boucher depicts an almost nude without mythological accoutrements, but as future parts will explore, this is not surprising, seeing as it can be said that the female nude motif is only socially acceptable in 18th- and 19th-century Western art when displaced, either in time or geographical sense. This theory is supported by Hedley’s belief that there is a fine line in the 18th-century between acceptable and obscene, a line that Boucher does not cross by titling and thus making of his work an Odalisque and thus displacing the female nude. The painting appears to be a hastily put together vision of the seraglio. It can be hypothesized that Boucher was both interested in Orientalism and attracted to the idea of depicting the female nudes without transgressing societal rules. Therefore, the first depiction of an Odalisque appears to be for convenience rather than an attempt at accurately depicting a female slave of the harem. 

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