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Age, gender and slavery in and out

of the Persian harem: a different


Haleh Afshar

Despite the ever-growing literature on slavery and that of oppression of
women in the harem and the expanding material on memories and auto-
biographies, it is difŽcult to Žnd room to valorize experiences of those
women who do not use writing as a medium of communication. Recollected
memories of life histories of women are still hard to contextualize within
mainstream feminist epistemology. It is the contention of this article that
academic universal categories, formulated by Anglophone Western theor-
ists, do not help to explain the lived experiences of most women the world
over. Drawing on subjective experiences of one woman and autobiographi-
cal memories of the author, this article will argue that well-known categories
such as “black” and “slave girl” fail to explain the remembered life of one
“black” “harem slave girl”, who felt empowered by her harem years.

Keywords: Empowerment; feminist biographies; harem; life stories; memories;


This article ventures into a difŽcult arena, using a moment in the life
story, it seeks to expand existing boundaries between formal and infor-
mal methodologies. It attempts to Žnd a space between the feminist
approaches to biographies and autobiographies and the literature on
slavery and harem life to allow the voice of an illiterate slave woman to
be heard. The hope is that this small example will not only contest the
validity of many terminologies but will also offer the reader a ‘human
meaning’ to place in the context of the wider formal categories and deŽ-
nitions (Evans 1993).
Methodologically, the task of humanizing categories through this story
is made very difŽcult since in terms of conventional sociological deŽ-
nitions the author can be assumed to have been in a position of power
over the subject; not only because she is the one who is able to write the
story, but also because, by formal deŽnition, the story teller was a ‘nanny’
and the author was nannied by her. Yet in terms of our relationship and

Ethnic and Racial Studies Volume 23 Number 5 September 2000 pp. 905–916
© 2000 Routledge Journals, Taylor & Francis Ltd
ISSN 0141-9870 print/ISSN 1466-4356 online
906 Haleh Afshar
in the context of our lives it was never I who felt powerful or able to exer-
cise any form of authority over her.
It is, of course, difŽcult, after a forty-year span, to reconstruct the
memories that belong to a different place and different era. Particularly
since the woman I would like to talk about was illiterate, she left no
textual records, no diaries, no notes. What I recall is what she recalled
about her childhood; talking about her past memories when she was in
her mid-Žfties; recollections that were told in Persian to a child in Iran
and now recalled by that child in her mid-life living in England and
writing in English. It may be that what I recall of the life that I am writing
about is no more than a ‘bio-mythography’ (Lorde 1984). Yet we both
believed at the time that this was the reality of her life, her past and her
experiences. Though not an absolutely accurate historical account this
‘constructed’ and ‘negotiated’ lived reality has its own validity (Glücks-
mann 1994, p. 159). But, despite the great leaps that feminists have made
in recognizing subjectivity and reconstructed verities, it is hard, if not
impossible, to use current terminologies and prevalent theories to coun-
terpoise a remembered version of a life into the mainstream feminist ana-
lytical framework. Nevertheless, as Western feminism steps into the new
millennium, it is well worth seeking to present a different view on some
of the main assumptions that have been made over the years.
It is, of course, ambitious to take a life and use it to contend long-
standing grand narratives; nevertheless, it is worth using this story as an
excuse to question some of the assumptions made about oppression of
women in the Middle East. This is not to deny the reality of the grand
narratives, but rather to offer an exception which may allow us to move
towards reconsidering some of the generalizations that arise from them.
The grand narratives of women’s oppression in the harem are well
known. But all too often the writing has been by Orientalists who have
ascribed characteristics and meanings to lives that they described without
ever observing and explained without ever understanding (Said 1987).

Orientalism could be interpreted at one level as the history of Euro-

pean male desire, but the stress should fall on the formative power of
the sexual theme, combined with a colonial setting, had on the iden-
tity of Arabo-Muslim females who are consequently framed, deŽned
and understood through male projections, inhibitions and fantasies,
within a perennial myth of the harem and an enduring imaginative tra-
dition working on the indelible trail of the “Arabian Nights” (Mehdid
1993, p. 46).

The difŽculty has always been that the authors were not able to
observe what they were writing about. Also they were using terminolo-
gies which are not transferable across cultures, continents and different
discourses. Nor for that matter is the experience uniform across the age
In and out of the Persian harem 907
and class ranges, where Muslim women themselves have intervened to
tell their own harem stories. Unfortunately, the recorded experiences are
often those of the élite women and their subjugation (Nategh 1979, 1983;
Shaarawi 1986). There are few, if any, stories told by the poor, illiterate
slave girls of the harem. Little has been said about the possibility of the
harem providing some positive experiences for some of its members.
In writing this story I feel hampered by the terminology as well as by
the narratives. In English language sociological discourse slavery, when
not focused on the fabricated sexuality of ‘black’ women (Stott 1992), has
been largely deŽned in terms of the harrowing lives of ‘black’ American
slave women and their subjugation (Stetson 1982). The general assump-
tions made by the terminology have allowed no room for such women
claiming status and power in that context. When Arab women have
delved into their own history they have sometimes come to a different
conclusion. Mernissi, for example, states that a surprising number rose
to positions of power.

In Muslim history the number of caliphs whose mothers were slaves is

more than impressive. The phenomenon deserves an in depth study,
for from it we can learn, beyond the love stories, about the extremely
important aspects of the struggle between classes and cultures during
the Muslim Golden Age (Mernissi 1993, p. 57).

Given these diversities of historical meanings, it may be possible to

argue that terminologies such as slavery and harem life can best be
understood if expressed in terms of speciŽc cultural and historical con-
texts. Otherwise they might not be helpful in conveying meanings across
geographical and historical divides. It may be useful to highlight differ-
ences and note that many grand narratives and universal theories fail to
explain the lived realities that they seek to analyse. This is particularly so
where the subject’s life has been on the margins of history and has left
no recorded evidence behind. When it has been told across time, looking
back and reconstructing memories and re-deŽning meanings and when,
as in this case, these have been told and recorded in two different lan-
guages by two different women in two different countries.
This article does not claim to be objective; it is based on the life of one
‘black’ ‘slave’ child in the harem of the last Qajar Shahs in Iran who grew
up to become a central Žgure in the life of the author. It carries within it
the complexities of recalled memories of the past and the difŽculties that
a young girl would have had in understanding and seeing beyond the
appearances of conŽdence and authority of an older woman who cared
for her. This article does not present historical analysis of harem life in
general. I do not write as an impartial observer, but rather as an outsider
who has never seen a harem, but also as an insider who has known the
woman who experienced the impact of the harem ‘education’. She talked
908 Haleh Afshar
about it long afterwards without offering any analysis and with no inten-
tion of producing a ‘history’. Nevertheless, at the end of the twentieth
century of the West it may be appropriate to translate memories which
offer a different understanding of the lived experience of the royal harem
in the fourteenth Islamic century in Iran.
Thus, it is with much hesitation that I approach what is a celebration
of the life of a ‘black’ slave girl. The pitfalls of acquiring her life and
romanticizing it for the reader are all too well known (Stetson 1982). It
is not my intention to weave yet another myth. It would be misleading to
assume that the terminology would necessarily be illuminating of itself.
But it may help to explain the different meaning that slavery had had for
her. The intention is to contextualize the remembered experiences of one
woman in a country and at a time when slavery was very much on the
Sonbol Baji, who was at the centre of my childhood, taught me much
of what she had learnt in her harem years. Unlike other ‘slaves’ (Davis
1971, 1981), she looked back to her captive days with pleasure and con-
sidered them to be the best days of her life. Her view was very different
from the many constructed visions of slavery and colour in the West or
in the Orientalist descriptions of the harem (Marbo 1991). Of course, this
single interpretation and story in no way negates all that has been written
on the subject, it merely offers a different perspective from a different
angle. In retrospect, Sonbol Baji did not see her harem life as oppressive
or wasted. In her eyes things were and were not what they seemed (Abu-
Lughod 1993, p. 19). She remembered a more complex picture of the
king’s interior, undaroon, than the usual visions of undulating women
and interminable intrigues, boredom or erotic moments. She reminisced
about her years in the palace as a vibrant, joyous and instructive time.
For her it had been possible to strategize and to beneŽt from the experi-
ence (Bourdieu 1977; Abu-Lughod 1993).
By the end of the nineteenth century AD, and the thirteenth Islamic
century, in Iran, with the rare exception of the royalty and the extremely
wealthy, slavery was virtually non-existent. Where it existed, as in the
harem, the slaves were not so much labourers as ‘exotic’ additions to the
court, denoting wealth rather than need. Here the term exotic does not
carry the connotations of ‘unruly, irrational, uncivilized’ (Smith 1993, p.
9); rather, it conveys the notion of beauty and charm. Sonbol Baji was
unusual not only because she had been bought and was thus one of the
last ‘slaves’ in the royal harem, but also in that she was ‘black’. Iranians,
as a nation, include a wide variety of ‘race’, cultures, ethnicities and lan-
guages ranging from the green-eyed blond Cossacks in the north to the
darker featured Arabs and Qashgahy tribes in the south. But there has
been little trade and cultural exchange with the Sub-Saharan regions of
Africa. So Sonbol Baji’s colour was exceptional. If being ‘black’ had been
a handicap for her she never allowed us to see it. It may be argued that
In and out of the Persian harem 909
even though Iranians are not less ethnocentric than others, perhaps the
colour ‘black’ does not have the speciŽcally denigrating class or historical
connotations that it has elsewhere (cf. Kiernan 1982). She was a rarity,
an ‘exotic’ and beautiful person. For Sonbol Baji her colour had been one
of her major attractions. The king had wished for a beautiful ‘black’ girl
in his entourage and had acquired Sonbol when she was a small child.
There were no dates in Sonbol Baji’s past, only events. Reconstruct-
ing her life story I think that she must have been brought to the harem
in the early years of the twentieth century at the end of the reign of Muza-
faredin shah. She stayed through the tumultuous civil war and the last
years of the Qajar dynasty. As Ahmad Shah realized that despotism was
no longer tenable, he disbanded the harem. Some time between 1918 and
1922 Sonbol Baji was taken in by my grandfather, Khabirsaltaneh, who
had been a minister at the royal court.

Different perceptions of the harem

All too often the harems of the Qajar kings have been described as
secluded female arenas where women were kept out of sight and out of
reach (Mirza 1977; Nategh 1979; Gurney 1983). The focus of the activi-
ties has all too often been on the single man, the shah, surrounded by
delightful ladies dedicated to granting his every wish. A typical example
is the description of the wives of Fath Ali Shah (1794–1834):

Those women who were on night duty, two slept in the bed so that
which-ever side His Majesty rested on, the one who was behind him
would hold his head and shoulders and the other would wait for His
Majesty in case he wished to turn over and rest his head and shoulder
in her arms. Two others took it in turn to rub the Shah’s feet (quoted
in Ravandi 1977, p. 717).

How anyone managed to sleep is not clear. Alternatively, authors have

highlighted the activities of the prominent Qajar princesses, noting their
remarkable impact on the politics of the day (Curzon 1966, p. 408;
Bamdad 1977, pp. 15–17; Paidar 1995, pp. 38–39). These studies demon-
strate that the relatively at hierarchy has frequently enabled lowly
slaves and concubines to inuence history or even take over the reign of
power (Ravandi 1977; Mernissi 1993; Paidar 1995). But there is a dearth
of information about the lives of those women who were not there to
meet the king’s pleasures or to run his life, or that of the nation. The
experiences of myriads of women who befriended the royal women or
served the wives and daughters of the household remain untold.
Since she joined the king’s harem when she was about two years old
Sonbol Baji had no recollection of her pre-harem days. But her harem
was not the one that we read about in the Thousand and One Night
910 Haleh Afshar
stories. It was palatial both physically and emotionally, but though gilded
it was not a cage. No doubt the recollections of her past at an old age also
threw a golden light on the past. Nevertheless, her memories of the
harem days were those of a dreamy leisured life, without too many
demands or too many perceived constraints. The harem that she lived in
was a female domain where: ‘the female relatives of a man – wives,
sisters, mother, aunt, daughters shar[ed] much of their time and their
living space, and . . . ha[d] frequent and easy access to other women in
their community, vertically, across lines, as well as horizontally’ (Ahmed
Within the harem she was part of a group with a connected identity
(Bulbeck 1998) with a strong sense of collectivity and an established ethic
of caring and fellowship (Collins 1989). Furthermore, not being a privi-
leged woman, she felt considerably less restriction and so had a different
experience from that of the élite women. Whereas the royal princesses
were lamenting their lot in life and claiming that death was preferable to
their constrained existence (Adamiat and Nategh 1978, p. 157), Sonbol
Baji had not yearned to leave the harem nor had she had any wish to die.
For her, the end of the harem was the end of an idyll and the beginning
of a hard life. In the harem she was special, she was a companion and a
solace to the lives of the ladies of the interior undarouni; they had shared
their secrets and their joys with her and taught her their skills and crafts.
Almost as soon as she had arrived in the harem the Qajars became
enmeshed in the constitutional revolution, and throughout her time there
the royalty was Žghting off demands for democracy; there was a revol-
ution and a civil war. The harem was highly politicized and two of
Nasseredin Shah’s daughters, Malekeh Iran and Tajol Saltaneh were
deeply committed to the cause of democracy and the liberation of women
(Ghaemmaghami 1967; Bamdad 1977; Nategh 1983). By the time Sonbol
Baji was old enough to grapple with politics, the destiny of the royal
family had radically altered. In retrospect, Sonbol Baji seemed to have
been blissfully unaware of many of the tensions. These were not the
memories that she was prepared to recollect or talk about.

Life skills
Sonbol Baji’s experience is very distinct and different from those of
‘black’ American slave women working on plantations or in households
(Hull et al. 1982). Hers was an urban, urbane and leisured life. She was
neither a sex object nor a domestic worker; she had the allure of the
exotic, a beautiful child who had been a playmate of the royal children,
and she had learnt not to get involved in any of the cabalas in the harem.
Her charm and sunny nature enabled her to thread her way through the
intrigues as she grew up without being subdued or subjugated. She
imbibed the savoir faire and the skills that royal ladies had to have, she
In and out of the Persian harem 911
learnt how to give a good party, how to present a good table, how to sew
and embroider, what to wear and when to wear it and the details of good
conversation. In the harem she was a friend and conŽdent of the
princesses. Looking back she recalled gaiety, laughter, singing and a
joyful life where the leisurely pursuit of amusement, health and beauty
were the main concerns.
Sonbol Baji’s training had happened slowly over the years. There were
no classes, no formal teaching for the slave girls. The shah’s daughters
had tutors who taught them philosophy, languages, political discourses
and even music (Khaleghi 1974; Adamiat and Nategh 1978; Ettehadiyeh
et al. 1982), but for the less important members learning was by osmosis.
The community of women ran along the lines of small Žefedoms, each
favoured wife would have her own entourage as well as her spies in the
camp of other wives. Special recipes were jealously guarded and oc-
casionally vaunted, special herbal treatments tried, tested and occasion-
ally offered. Better methods of fending off evil were discussed and
general concerns for health and beauty were developed. Daily life had a
regular rhythm around food, ebullition, entertainment and repose. Much
of Sonbol Baji’s time was spent preparing the right combination of sweet-
meats, the correct morsel to eat or the right ower with which to adorn
the hair, or the best nosegay for scenting the room:

Always pick the jasmine early in the morning and be sure to pick every
ower so that the plant owers again the next day. Make sure that you
put the owers in a China saucer piled high to get the most intense
scent from them.

The weekly baths, taken in groups, were regular occasions for getting
together, soaking the gossip in as well as food and beauty treatments.
Forty years later Sonbol Baji was one of the most reliable sources of
beauty treatment and had a sound understanding of herbs and their
medical use to treat the many ailments that occurred. Every type of pain
had its own remedy. Sonbol Baji had the exact food, fruit or herb for
every ailment: yogurt and dry rice for diarrhoea; Žgs and almond oil for
constipation; steamed olive leaves for blood pressure; and the powdered
dried fruit of mountain ash, senjed, for inammation. The various herbal
drinks had to be stewed for so long and not a moment more; the seeds
that were pounded had to be ground but not powdered, the compresses
had to be warm but never hot.
If all else failed, then Sonbol Baji would resort to magic. She would
take an egg and mark the names of all friends and foes on it. She would
hold it above the head of the patient and recite each name and press the
egg. When the person with the evil eye, chesmeh shur, was named, the
egg would crack and the shadow cast over the patient would drift off.
Sonbol Baji would catch the yolk and the white in a cloth and burn them.
912 Haleh Afshar
To prevent such misfortunes Sonbol Baji would periodically burn dried
wild rue, esfand. Whenever anyone in the family had a success, or even
if one of us looked ‘too lovely’, she would light the charcoal tray and fetch
the rue. She would circle it over the heads and shoulders of each member
of the family saying a little prayer and then cast it over burning charcoal.
We all had to inhale the delicious fumes to gain long-term protection
against the evil eye.

As a harem trained young lady Sonbol Baji was welcomed to my grand-
father’s household with a great cache. Her position was, however,
uncertain. By comparison to the harem, my grandfather’s large house-
hold was relatively small and the hierarchy of servants less complex.
Sonbol Baji was too young to become the housekeeper and too ele-
vated to take on lower rank jobs. So she married the coachman and
became a wife and mother. Her marriage was short lived, Ali Aqa died
suddenly from a heart attack and she was widowed with a young baby.
As soon as my mother was born Sonbol Baji took charge. Her son Pasha
grew up in the household and became a civil servant. When my mother
married, Sonbol Baji moved with her. As my mother energetically
pursued her goals for women’s liberation, Sonbol Baji provided the
back up. She managed the household and made sure that we were all
well cared for at all times.
It is difŽcult to translate her ‘job’ across time and cultures. Sonbol Baji
was what might have been called the housekeeper in an equivalent
Western household. Alternatively, she could be described as a nanny. But
neither term deŽnes her role: she was in charge; there was nothing servile
about her position in our family. On the whole we did what she said and
did our best to live up to her expectations. We did so because we loved
her and owed it to her, not because of any sense of fear of her extensive
power and authority. What we respected was very much the moral auth-
ority of her central status in the family.
The harem years had given her the conŽdence and the ability to take
charge. She did so without ever appearing to take over. Sonbol Baji
brought with her the harem’s ideas of shared caring, shared motherhood
and shared affection. She ran my mother’s life and our lives. For all of us
she was always the mainstay; a beautiful wise lady who could tell us what
we had to do, when and how. She had the insight, knowledge and conŽ-
dence to deal with us and our lives. She was a diplomat and a carer par
excellence. My mother was able to pursue her passionate campaign for
equality without ever being any less of a mother to us. Having lived in
the harem Sonbol Baji had learnt about multiple needs and multiple
strategies in the domestic sphere. She knew how to meet the several
needs of the family at one and the same time, without causing any
In and out of the Persian harem 913
conicts. She had acquired the delicate art of negotiation and knew, when
the need arose, how to protect each of us from the wrath of the others.
The children often hid behind her copious skirt while she did her best to
mend a broken toy or explain its disappearance to an irate parent.

Religious rituals
Though an expert on cures and almost magical treatments, Sonbol Baji
had not acquired much religious trapping during her harem years. Her
main concession to the faith was always to wear a beautiful white scarf,
worn very much in the style of the harem women, showing a little part of
her hair and pinned tightly under her chin. All her life she dyed her hair
with henna and a variety of herbs and essences to make it beautiful. As
a result she looked charming and the scarf added to her elegance.
Since my grandfather was a convinced atheist she had not found any
religious teaching there. As a result by the time I knew her, when she was
in her mid Žfties, Sonbol Baji was unhampered by the daily practices of
the faith. I never saw her say a prayer and she never observed the daily
fasts during the month of Ramadan. Yet, like all of us, she had faith in
the God of Islam and respected those who said their daily prayers. In fact,
one of her important criteria when selecting a new servant for the house-
hold was that he or she should be devout. As for herself, Sonbol Baji did
not pray, nor did she have any of the devotional commitments. She never
visited a shrine and never made a religious vow, nazre.
It was later in my life that I learnt about making vows. But once I had
discovered that it was possible to ask a saint to mediate on one’s behalf
before God I was ‘hooked’. Before every exam I prayed, made vows and
after each one I paid up, convinced that it was the nazre that had got me
through. But Sonbol Baji regarded this sort of dealing with God as totally
inappropriate, something in which she personally would not indulge.
Nevertheless, she was willing to help me organize the sofreh, feast, that
I held in gratitude after each nazre to thank the relevant Saint for helping
me out. Though she disapproved of this kind of religious superstition and
even considered it to be somewhat irreverent kofarat, she was willing to
humour me. In particular once there were guests invited to the house,
then they had to be looked after in a proper fashion.

Story telling
Even though she never learnt to read or write, Sonbol Baji was a legendry
story teller. There was a passion for stories in the harem. The Qajar kings
usually had several story tellers in attendance:

Another [woman] would recount tales and entertain His Majesty and
another was there to fetch and carry according to the Shah’s wishes . . .
914 Haleh Afshar
There were three story tellers . . . in attendance in the royal bed
chamber (quoted in Ravandi 1977, p. 717).

It was not unusual for ladies of the harem to be within the earshot of
the royal bed chamber to listen to the tales. Besides, many favoured
wives had their own retinue of story tellers. As the evenings drew in and
the ladies began preparing to rest, the story tellers began their tales.
Decades later, as children, we were addicted to Sonbol Baji’s stories. In
our extended family it was usual in the summer for many of us cousins
to move from household to household for long or short stays. But our
house was very much the favourite. We lived by the mountains where the
air was cool and healthy and we had Sonbol Baji’s stories. As the summer
nights fell the children would be packed off to the children’s terrace. The
bedding was spread right across the balcony and we were all crammed
in. Then Sonbol Baji would stretch out, lean on her elbow, light a ciga-
rette and begin her stories. They were the stories of prince and princess,
almost always of a youngest brother’s brave and ardent search for the
wonderful princess and the hurdles that he had to overcome to Žnd her.
The stories were told in instalments, Sonbol Baji would take it to a criti-
cal point and then, like all good story tellers, would break off till the next
night. It was not until I came to Europe and discovered Western epic tales
that I realized that what Sonbol Baji had been telling us, all those years
ago, were Persian versions of the Illiad with appropriate touches of
morality thrown in at the end to ensure that we understood the import-
ance of being good.

If feminism is to respect the deep cultural and historical differences that
have existed in the lived and remembered lives of women the world over,
then it must free itself of the constraints of culturally speciŽc terminolo-
gies. As Sonbol Baji’s memories indicate, her harem life had not enslaved
her even though she had joined the harem as a slave. It may be that many
others would have told similar stories had they had the opportunity to
have their memories retold in English.

I would like to thank Mary Maynard for her extensive help and gener-
ous support. This article would have been much the poorer without her.
Any mistakes and misunderstandings, are, however, entirely mine.
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HALEH AFSHAR is Professor of Politics at the University of York.

ADDRESS: Department of Politics, University of York, Heslington,
York YO10 5DD, UK