One notable difference between Asian custom and the custom of the West is this: In Asia, cloistered women are, within their obvious limits and obviously under patriarchal control, nevertheless perceived as integrated into of the legitimate social fabric. In the West, there are two primary cloister modalities, the brothel and the religious convent. The former engages both men and women, but there is no conventional social sanction for it, and indeed brothel women, indeed all prostitutes, are meant to be socially ostracized. The latter isolates women in a way that gives them both social sanction and a good deal of control of their household arrangements; however, the convent as an institution can hardly be said to be mainstream, if what is meant by mainstream is full participation in the social and political culture.
The harem evolved to its highest form of organization in Islamic countries of the Ottoman Empire, with the Grand Harem or Grand Seraglio in Istanbul the first and most elaborate of the type. It appears to have begun as an outgrowth of monarchical custom long in place in Byzantium, conquered by the Ottomans in the fifteenth century. The Ottomans fused the Byzantine royal customs of sequestration of royalty from commoners and the maintenance of household slaves with the Ottoman/Islam custom of polygamy. What appears to have begun as a household-management project at the Topkapi Palace on the part of the mother, or valide sultana, of Sultan Mehmed II (Muhammad II)--segregating the women's apartments, called the gynaecea or gynaeconitis, in a private corner of the grounds. This process began decisively after 1453, the year that the Byzantium and Byzantine Empire fell for the last time to Islam.
Over the next century, as the Ottoman Empire extended its feudal conquests into Serbia, Greece, Albania, Rhodes, the southern tip of Italy, Persia, Syria, Egypt, Algeria, and Arabia, the grandeur of the royal house, which had been t...
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