The harem (or harim) has exercised a powerful fascination over the Western imagination for centuries. Rarely (if ever) visited by European men, the secluded female quarters in urban elite households were, however, imagined and depicted by Western male writers and painters as places of deviance and oppression in terms of male-female relations, sexualities, and even governmental institutions. Thus, the harem has been the subject to much fantasizing; yet it was presented to the European public as representative of all Muslim societies over time, of entire cultures and civilizations. Indeed, the French colonial regime in Algeria after 1830 manipulated the fiction of the harem and polygamy as a political device to deny Muslim Algerians basic civil rights.

Against imagined views of the harem from “outside” should be juxtaposed the view from the “inside.” For North African or Middle Eastern people of ordinary station, the harem was as exotic a notion as it was for Europeans. Few women, aside from a handful from the upper ranks of urban elites, ever lived in harems. Among many families of whatever social class in “traditional” North African society, monogamy appears to have been more prevalent than polygamy. What did the harem constitute culturally and socially for those relatively few women who lived within its confines? Simply stated, the harem was a private social space within a large household where elite women from an extended family lived, worked, and interacted with their children and servants on a daily basis. While off limits to men from outside the immediate kinship circle, the female quarters were more or less accessible to male family members as well as to women visitors, whether North African or from Europe.

The following account was provided by an young English woman, Miss Smith, who resided in the 1840s with the family the British counsel general, Sir Thomas Reade, stationed in Tunis as a diplomat. Miss Smith accompanied Mrs. Reade and some other English ladies to the harem or household of the family of Prince Muhammad, brother of the ruler of Tunisia, Ahmad Bey (reigned 1837-1855).

Source: “On the Tunisian Harem.” Based upon three different eyewitness accounts by European women furnished to James Richardson, an English traveler in Tunisia. In his “An Account of the Present State of Tunis.” London Public Record Office, Foreign Office records, Tunisia, 102/29, 1845.


A year having nearly elapsed (c. 1844) since I [Miss Smith] accompanied Lady Reade [wife of the British consul in Tunis] and her daughters to visit the Lillah [the prince’s principal wife] I am afraid my account will not be very interesting, many little incidents, which give so much zest to relations of this sort, having by this time escaped my memory. The ladies of the harem generally reside at the Bardo [palace in Tunis], except two or three months in the summer when Prince Mohammed takes his family to his country-house, situated near the sea at Marsa, from whence they have beautiful views of the sea, the coast, Cape Bon, the isle of Zembra, etc., for although the ladies’ widows or jalousies are so constructed, that it is impossible for them to be seen by people outside, yet they can themselves see from within very tolerably all that passes. And this “privilege” I think forms their chief employment and pleasure. It was at this marine villa that we saw the Lillah. We entered by a great arched door . . . into a square courtyard, in which we were pleased with the sight of peacocks, turkeys, Barbary doves and other birds. . . . [W]e entered a marble patio, or upper court open to both the serene face of the dark court blue heavens, in which played refreshingly two or three marble fountains, the noise of the falling water gracefully enchanting the ear, and the scattered spray diffusing a delightful coolness through the place. The arcades and corridors supported by marble pillars, rendered this part of the building highly ornamental. When the heat is very great this place is covered with an awning of silk and other stuff. I felt glad as I crossed the patio to find these poor captives were not quite deprived of one of God’s greatest blessings — Heaven’s pure air! I observed at a window, on one side of the patio, several women apparently embroidering and making clothes for the family. As they looked up from their windows with curious gaze at us, a whimsical thought passed my mind of the animals in the zoological gardens whose cages very much resembled their grated windows. From an apartment opposite to this window, at the door of which hung a curtain, the Lillah met us, and, kissing us on each cheek, ushered us into the room, where we found several ladies, relatives and visitors sitting in the Oriental fashion, on a couch or divan, placed around the room, and its only furniture. This seat we found very uncomfortable, being higher than our sofas and chairs, and having no place to rest our feet upon, which hung a short distance from the ground. The apartment was paved with the common Dutch glazed tiles, as were also all the stairs, this pavement being common throughout Barbary. All the Lillahs behaved in a quiet lady-like manner, a sister of Prince Mohammed particularly so, although of course they were very inquisitive, examining our dresses and asking us a thousand questions — more particularly on the article of marriage.