Amid the dominating discussions about Muslim women's visibilities and the veil, combined with the emergent political scene after September 11, developing a theoretical framework that does not over-focus on Muslim women's attire seems to be challenging yet simultaneously refreshing. These studies inevitably overlook the ways in which women assume homosocial and mixed space as engendered beings in Islamicate contexts. Marilyn Booth, the editor of Harem Histories: Envisioning Places and Living Spaces, has compiled an intricate collection of articles that successfully work against these illusive fixations.
The book is composed of thirteen articles organized in three conceptual parts in chronological order. Each part begins with a two-page Introduction, which nicely guides the reader. The first part, "Normative Images and Shifting Spaces," focuses on normative representations of domestic and public spaces in Islamic text and context. Asma Afsaruddin uses biographical representations of early Muslim women to demonstrate how conceptions of moral excellence and normative behavioral codes for women changed over time; she describes an increasing tendency to downplay public the roles of early Muslim women. Although, according to Yaseen Noorani, "classical Arabic adab literature... tells us very little about actual social practices" (49), he overcomes this limitation quite eloquently. In order to do this, Noorani analyzes Arabic literary texts and argues that relational space was not defined and organized through gender segregation but by status and hierarchy during the early [End Page 148] Islamic period. Irvin Cemil Schick analyzes the diverse meanings of the harem in relation to gender construction, resistance, power, sex segregation, and spatial restructuring, explaining how the harem can be considered as a site of female empowerment while simultaneously questioning the content of such power.
The second part, "Rooms and Thresholds: Harems as Spaces, Socialities, and Law," focuses on how the harem is represented as a space and as an institution in legal texts, arts, architecture, and literature. This section starts with Nadia Maria El Cheikh's sketch of harems as political institutions and power structures where women are active in social, public, and economic life; she contrasts the complexity of the caliphal harem as a polygamous space and extended family with the household harem as a monogamous space. Leslie Peirce analyzes the evolution of the concept of respectable women (muhaddere) in the Ottoman legal code (Kanunname) and in relevant fatwas from the reign of Mehmet II to Suleyman I, describing how imperial socio-sexual laws have become stricter over time. In the same section, Jateen Lad examines the architectural space and hierarchical structures of the Topkapi Palace through the panoptical bodies of black eunuchs exercising disciplinary power, controlling the harem's seclusion, acting as guardian slaves, and participating in courtly politics. An interesting twist to the idea of the harem comes from Julia Clancy-Smith, who discusses how European and Tunisian elite families shared intimate spaces and socialized with each other, not in the domestic sphere, but in sea-bathing scenes, seaside villas, recreational sites, and luxury hotels in precolonial Tunisia. Heghnar Zeitlian Watenpaugh uses biographies of Mariyana Marrash, an early female intellectual and salon hostess in Aleppo, to reconstruct her courtyard house as a nostalgic place of distinct roles and hierarchical order between men and women.
The third part, "Harems Envisioned," focuses on contemporary representations of the harem by European Orientalists and by Ottoman writers. Nancy Micklewright juxtaposes imagined harem photographs where European tourists pose in a romanticized depiction of an exotic Prient with real harem photos where Ottoman photographers depict women in Western dresses and modern consumption patterns. Joan DelPlato analyzes nineteenth-century erotic depictions of the harem by European artists in terms of aesthetic justification, sexual fetishisation, and colonial dominance. Orit Bashkin demonstrates how the Orientalist [End Page 149] notion of the harem was used in the popular novels of Jurji Zaydan as a mechanism to criticize gender tyranny and seclusion. Employing a different perspective, A. Holly Shissler illustrates how the harem has been depicted as a house of solidarity, morality, and virtue and as the basis of the moral well-ordered classed...