Harim or Hareem

Posted on 04/03/2012 by __socrates

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A word used especially in Turkey, Egypt, and Syria, for the female apartments of a Muslim household. In Persia, Afghanistan, and India, the terms haramgah, mahallsaria, and zananuh are used for the same place.
The seclusion of women being enjoined in the Qur’an (Surah xxxiii. 55), in all Muslim countries it is the rule for respectable women to remain secluded at home, and not to travel abroad unveiled, nor to associate with men other than their husbands of such male relatives as are forbidden in marriage by reason of consanguinity. In consequence of these injunctions, which have all the force of a divine enactment, the female portion of a Muslim family always resides in apartments which are in an inclosed courtyard and excluded from public view. This inclosure is called the harim, and sometimes haram, or in Persian zananah, from ran, (a “woman”). Mr. Lane in his Modern Egyptians, has given a full account of the Egyptian harim. We are indebted to Mrs. Meer Ali for the following very graphic and interesting description of a Muslim zananah or harim in Lucknow.
Mrs. Meer Ali was an English lady who married a Muslim gentleman, and resided amongst the people of Lucknow for twelve years. Upon the death of her husband, she returned to England, and published her Observations of the Musalmans of India, which was dedicated, with permission, to Queen Adelaide.
“The habitable buildings to a native Muslim home are raised a few steps from the court; a line of pillars forms the front of the building, which has no upper rooms; the roof is flat, and the sides and back without windows, or any aperture through which air can be received. The sides and back are merely high wall, forming an enclosure, and the only air is admitted from the fronts of the dwelling place facing the court-yard. The apartments are divided into long halls, the extreme corners having small rooms or dark closets having small rooms or dark closets purposely built for the repository of valuables or stores, doors are fixed to these closets, which are the only places I have seen with them in a zananah or mahall (house or palace occupied by females); the floor is either of beaten earth, bricks, or stones; boarded floors are not yet introduced. As they have neither doors nor windows to the halls, warmth or privacy is secured by means of thick wadded curtains, made to fit each opening between the pillars. Some zananahs have two rows of pillars in the halls with wadded curtains to each, thus forming two distinct halls, as occasion may serve, or greater warmth be required; this is a convenient arrangement where the establishment of servants, slaves, &c is extensive.”
“The wadded curtains are called pariahs; these are sometimes made of woolen cloth, but more generally of coarse calico, of two colors, in patchwork style, striped, vandyked, or in some other ingeniously contrived and ornamented way, according to their individual taste.”
“Besides the pariahs, the openings between the pillars have blinds nearly made of fine bamboo strips, woven together with colored cords; these are called chicks. Many of them are painted green, others are more gaudy, both in color and variety of patterns. These blinds constitute a real comfort to everyone in India, as they admit air when let down, and at the same time shut out flies and other annoying insects; besides which, the extreme glare is shaded by them – a desirable object to foreigners in particular.”
“The floors of the halls are first matted with the coarse date-leaf matting of the country, over which are spread shatranjis (thick cotton carpets, peculiarly the manufacture of the Upper Provinces of India, woven in stripes of blue and white, or shades of blue); a white calico carpet covers the shatranji on which the females take their seat.”
“The bedsteads of the family are placed, during the day, in lines at the back of the halls, to be moved at pleasure to any chosen spot for the night’s repose; often into the open court-yard, for the benefit of the pure air. They are all formed on one principle, differing only in size and quality; they stand about half a yard from the floor, the legs round and broad at bottom, narrowing as they rise towards the frame, which is laced over with a thick cotton tape, made for the purpose, and plaited in checquers, and thus rendered soft, or rather elastic, and very pleasant to recline upon. The legs of these bedsteads are in some instances gold and silver gilt, or pure silver; others have enamel paintings on fine wood; the inferior grades have them merely of wood and painted plain and varnished. The servants’ bedsteads are of the common mango-wood without ornament, the lacing of these for the sacking being of elastic string manufactured from the fibre of the cocoa-nut.”
“Such are the bedsteads of every class of people. They seldom have mattresses: a white quilt is spread on the lacing, over which a calico sheet, tied at each corner of the bedstead with cords and tassels; several thin flat pillows of beaten cotton for the head; a muslin sheet for warm weather, and a well wadded razai (coverlid) for winter is all these children of nature deem essential to their comfort in the way of sleeping. They have no idea of night-dresses; the same suit that adorns a lady, is retained both night and day, until a change be needed. The single article exchanged at night is the dupatta (a small shawl for the head), and that only when it happens to be of silver tissue or embroidery, for which a muslin or calico sheet is substituted.”
“The very highest circles have the same habits in common with the meanest, but those who can afford shawls of Cashmere, prefer them for sleeping in, when the cold weather renders them bearable. Blankets are never used except by the poorest peasantry, who wear them in lieu of better garments night and day in the winter season; they are always black, the natural color of the wool. The quilts of the higher orders are generally made of silk of the brightest hues, well wadded, and lined with dyed muslin of assimilating color; they are usually bound with broad silver ribands, and sometimes bordered with gold brocaded trimmings. They middling classes, have fine chintz quilts, and the servants and slaves coarse ones of the same material; but al are on the same plan, whether for a queen or the meanest of her slaves, differing only in the quality of the material. The mistress of the house is easily distinguished by her seat of honor in the hall of a zananh, a masnad not being allowed to any other person but the lady of the mansion. The maenad carpet is spread on the floor, if possible near to a pillar about the centre of the hall, and is made of many varieties of fabric – gold cloth, quilted silk, brocaded silk, velvet, fine chintz, or whatever may suit the lady’s tastes, circumstances, or convenience. It is about two yards square, and generally boadered or fringed, on which is placed the all-important maenad. This article may be understood by those who have seen a lace-maker’s pillow in England, excepting only that the maenad is about twenty times the size of that useful little article in the hands of our industrious villages. The masnad is covered with gold cloth, silk, velvet, or calico with square pillows to correspond, for the elbows, the knees, &c. This is the seat of honor, to be invited to share which, with the lady-owner, is a mark of favor to an equal or inferior; when a superior pays a visit of honor, the prided seat is usually surrendered to her, and the lady of the house takes her place most humbly on the very edge of her own carpet. Looking-glasses or ornamental furniture are very rarely to be seen in the zananah, even of the very richest females. Chairs and sofa re produced when English visitors are expected; but the ladies of Hindustan prefer the usual mode of sitting and lounging on the carpet; and as for tables, I suppose not one gentlewoman of the whole country has ever been seated at one; and very few, perhaps, have any idea of their useful purposes, all their meals served on the floor, where dastarkhwans (table cloths we should call them) are spread, but neither knives, forks, spoons, glasses, nor napkins, so essential to the comfortable enjoyment of a meal amongst Europeans. But those who never knew such comforts have no desire for the indulgence, nor taste to appreciate them.”
“On the several occasions, amongst native society, of assembling in large parties, as at births and marriages, the halls, although extensive, would be inadequate to accommodate the whole party. They then have awnings of white calico, neatly flounced with muslin, supported on poles fixed in the court-yard, and connecting the open space with the great hall, by wooden platforms which are brought to a line with the building, and covered with shatranji, and white carpets to correspond with the floor-furniture of the hall; and here the ladies sit by day and sleep by night very comfortably, without feeling any great inconvenience from the absence of their bedsteads, which could never be arranged for the accommodation of so large an assemblage – nor is it ever expected.”
“The unusually barren look of these almost unfurnished halls, is on such occasions quite changed, when the ladies are assembled in their various dresses; the brilliant display of jewels, the glittering drapery of their dress, the various expressions of countenance, and different figures, the multitude of female attendants and slaves, the children of all ages and sizes in their variously ornamental dresses, are subjects to attract both the eye and the mind of an observing visitor; and the hall, which when empty appeared desolate and comfortless, thus filled, leaves nothing wanting to render the scene attractive.”
“The buzz of human voices, the happy playfulness of the children, the chaste singing of the domnis fill up the animated picture. I have sometimes passed an hour or two in witnessing their innocent amusements, without any feeling of regret for the brief sacrifice of time I had made. I am free to confess, however, that I have returned to my tranquil home with increased delight after having witnessed the bustle of a zananah assembly. At first I pitied the apparent monotony of their lives but this feeling has worn away by intimacy with the people, who are thus precluded from the mixing generally with the world. They are happy in their confinement; and never having felt the sweets of liberty, would not know how to use the boon if it were to be granted them. As the bird from the nest immured in a cage is both cheerful and contented, so are these females. They have not, it is true, many intellectual resources, but they have naturally good understandings, and having learned their duty they strive to fulfill it. So far as I have had any opportunity of making personal observation on their general character, they appear to me obedient wives, dutiful daughters, affectionate mothers, kind mistresses, sincere friends, and liberal benefactresses to the distressed poor. These are their moral qualification, and in their religious duties, they are zealous in performing the several ordinances which they have been instructed by their parents or husbands to observe. If there be any merit in obeying the injunctions of their law-giver, those whom I have known most intimately, deserve praise since ‘they are faithful in that they profess.”
“To ladies accustomed from infancy to confinement, this kind of life is by no means irksome; they have their employments and their amusements, and though these are not exactly to our taste, nor suited to our mode of education, they are not the less relished by those for whom they were invented. They perhaps wonder equally at some of our mode of dissipating times, and fancy we might spend it more profitably. Be that as it may, the Muslim ladies, with whom I have been long intimate, appear to me always happy, contented, and satisfies with the seclusion to which they were born; they desire no other, and I have ceased to regret they cannot be made partakers of that freedom of intercourse with the world we deem so essential to our happiness, since their health suffers nothing from that confinement, by which they are preserved from a variety of snares and temptations; besides which, they would deem it disgraceful in the highest degree to mix indiscriminately with men who are not relations. They are educated from infancy for retirement, and they can have no wish that the custom should be changed, which keeps them apart from the society of men who are not very nearly related to them. Female society is unlimited, and that they enjoy without restraint.”
“Those females who rank above peasants or inferior servants, are disposed from principle to keep themselves strictly from observation; all who have any regard for the character or the honor of their house, seclude themselves from the eye of strangers, carefully instructing their young daughters to a rigid observance of their own prudent example. Little girls, when four years old, are kept strictly behind the pardah, (lit. “curtain”), and when they move abroad it is always in covered conveyances, and under the guardianship of a faithful female domestic, who is equally tenacious as the mother to preserve the young lady’s reputation unblemished by concealing her from the gaze of men.”
“The ladies of zananah life are not restricted from the society of their own sex; they are, as I have remarked, extravagantly fond of company, and equally as hospitable when entertained. To be alone is a trial to which they are seldom exposed, every lady having companions amongst her dependants; and according to her means the number in her establishment is regulated. Some ladies of rank have from two to then companions, independent of slaves and domestics; and there are some of the royal family at Lucknow who entertain in their service two or three hundred female dependents, of all classes. A well-filled zananah is a mark of gentility; and even the poorest lady in the country will retain a number of slaves and domestics, if she cannot afford companions; besides which they are miserable without society, the habit of associating with numbers having grown up with infancy to maturity; to be alone, is considered, with women thus situated, a real calamity.”
“On occasions of assembling in large parties, each lady takes with her a companion besides two or three slaves to attend upon her, no one expecting to be served by the servants of the house at which they are visiting. This swells the numbers to be provided for; and as the visit is always for three days and three nights (except on ‘Ids, when the visit is confined to one day), some fore-though must be exercised by the lady of the house, that all may be accommodated in such a manner as may secure to her the reputation of hospitality.”
“The kitchen and offices to the zananah, I have remarked, occupy one side of the quadrangle; they face the great or centre hall appropriated to the assembly. Those kitchens, however, are sufficiently distant to prevent any great annoyance from the smoke – I say smoke, because chimneys have not yet been introduced into the kitchens of the natives.”
“The fire-places are all on the ground, something resembling stoves, each admitting one saucepan, the Asiatic style of cooking requiring no other contrivance. Roast or boiled joints are never seen at the dinner of a native; a leg of mutton or sirloin of beef would place the hostess under all sorts of difficulties, where knives and forks are not understood to be amongst the useful appendages of a meal. The varieties of their dishes are countless, but stews and curries are the chief; al the others are mere varieties. The only thing in the shape of roast meats are small lean cutlets bruised, seasoned and cemented with pounded poppy seed. Several bing fastened together on skewers, they are grilled or roasted over a charcoal fire spread on the ground, and then called kabab, which word implies roast meat.”
“The kitchen of a zananah would be inadequate to the business of cooking for a large assembly; the most choice dishes only (for the highly favored guests), are cooked by the servants of the establishment. The needed abundance required in entertaining a large party is provided by a regular bazar cook, several of whom establish themselves in native cities, or wherever there is a Muslim population. Orders being previously given, the morning and evening dinners are punctually forwarded at the appointed hours in covered trays, each try having portions of the several goo things ordered, so that there is no confusion in serving out the feast on its arrival at the mansion. The food thus prepared by the bazar cook (nanbia, he is called); is plain boiled rice, sweet rice, khir (rice-milk), mutanjan (rice sweetened with the addition of fruits, raisins, &c., colored with saffron), salans (curries) of may varieties, some cooked with vegetables, others with unripe fruits with or without meat; pulaos of many sorts, kababs, preserves, pickles, chatnis, and many other thing too tedious to admit of detail.”
“The bread in general use amongst the natives is chiefly unleaded: nothing in the likeness of English bread is to be seen at their meals; and many object to its being fermented with the intoxicating toddy (extracted from a tree). Most of the native bread is baked on iron plates over a charcoal fire. They have many varieties, both plain and rich, and some of the latter resembles our pastry, both in quality and flavor.”
“The dinners, I have said, are brought into the zananah, ready dished in the native earthenware, or trays; and as they neither use spoons nor forks, there is no great delay in setting out the meal where nothing is required for display or effect, beyond the excellent quality of the food and its being well cooked. In a large assembly all cannot dine at the dastarkhwan of the lady hostess, even if privileged by their rank; they are, therefore, accommodated in groups of ten, fifteen, or more, as may be convenient; each lady having her companion at the meal, and her slaves to brush off the intruding flies with a cauri, to hand water, or to fetch or carry any article of delicacy from or to a neighboring group. The slaves and servant dine in parties after their ladies have finished. In any retired corner of the court-yard – always avoiding as much as possible the presence of their superiors.”
“Before anyone touches the meal, water is carried round for each lady to wash the hand and rinse the mouth. It is deemed unclean to eat without this form of ablution, and the person neglecting it would be held unholy. This done, the lady turns to her meal saying, “Bismillah!” (In the name or to the praise of God!), and with the right hand conveys the food to her mouth (the left hand is never used at meals); and although they partake of every variety of food placed before them with no other aid than their fingers, yet the technical habit is so perfect, that they neither drop a grain of rice, soil the dress, nor retain any of the food on their fingers. The custom must always be offensive to a foreign eye, and the habit none would with to copy; yet everyone who witnesses must admire the neat way in which eating is accomplished by these really ‘Children of Nature.””
“The repast concluded, the lota (vessel with water), and the luggan (to receive the water in after rinsing the hands and the mouth), are passed round. To every person who, having announced by the Ash-Shukru li’llah! (All thanks to God!) That she has finished, the attendants present first the powdered peas, called besan, which answers the purpose of soap in removing grease, &c from the fingers – and then the water in due course. Soap has not even yet been brought into fashion by the natives, except by the washermen; I have often been surprised that they have not found the use of soap a necessary article in the nursery, where the only substitute I have seen is the powdered pea.”
“Lotas and laggans are articles in use with all classes of people; they must be poor indeed who do not boast of one, at least, in their family. They are always of metal, either brass, or copper lacquered over, or zinc; in some cases as with the nobility, sliver and even gold are converted into these useful articles of native comfort.”
“China or glass is comparatively but little used; water is their only beverage, and this is preferred in the absence of metal basins out of the common red earthen katora (cup shaped like a vase).”
“China dishes, bowls, and basins, are used for serving many of the savory articles of food in; but it is as common in the privacy of the palace, as well as in the huts on the peasantry, to see many choice things introduced at meals served up in the rude red earthen platter; many of the delicacies of Asiatic cookery being esteemed more palatable from the earthen flavor of the new vessel in which it is served.”
“China tea-sets are very rarely found in the zananah, tea being used by the natives more as a medicine than a refreshment, except by such gentlemen as have frequent intercourse with the “Sahib Log” (English gentry), among whom they acquire a taste for this delightful beverage. The ladies, however, must have a severe cold to induce them to partake of the beverage even as a remedy, but by no means as a luxury. I imagined that the inhabitants of a zananah were sadly deficient in actual comforts, when I found, upon my first arrival in India, that there were no preparations for breakfast going forward; everyone seemed engaged in pan-eating, and smoking the huqqah but no breakfast after the morning namaz. I was, however, soon satisfied that they felt no sort of privation, as the early meal so common in Europe has never been introduced in Eastern circles. Their first meal is a good substantial dinner, at ten, eleven, or twelve o clock, after which follows pan and the huqqah; to this succeeds a sleep of two or three hours, providing it does not impede the duty of prayer – the pious. I ought to remark, would give up every indulgence which would prevent the discharge of this duty. The second meal follows in twelve hours from the first, and consists of the same substantial fare; after which they usually sleep until the dawn of day is near at hand.”
The huqqah (pipe) is almost in general use with females. It is a common practice with the lady of the house to present the huqqah she is smoking to her favorite guest. This mark of attention is always to be duly appreciated; but such is the deference paid to parents, that a son can rarely be persuaded by an indulgent father or mother to smoke a huqqah in their revered presence; this praise-worthy feeling originates not in fear, but fear genuine respect. The parents entertain for their son the most tender regard; and the father makes him both his companion and his friend; yet the most familiar endearments do not lessen the feeling of reverence a good son entertains for his father. This is one among the many samples of patriarchal life, and which I can never witness in real life, without feeling respect for the persons who follow up the patterns I have been taught to venerate in our Holy Scripture.”
“The huqqah (pipe) as an indulgence or a privilege, is a great definer of etiquette. In the presence of the king or reigning nawab, no subject, however high he may rank in blood or royal favor, can presume to smoke. In native courts, on state occasions, huqqahs are presented only to the Governor-General, the Commander-in-Chief, or the Resident at his court, who are considered equal in rank, and therefore entitled to the privilege of smoking with him; and they cannot consistently resist the intended honor. Should they dislike smoking, a hint is readily understood by the huqqah bardar to bring the huqqah, charged with the materials, without the addition of fire. Applications of the munhnal (mouth-piece) to the mouth, indicates a sense of the honor conferred.” (Observations on the Musalmans of India, vol i. p. 304.)

Based on Hughes, Dictionary of Islam

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