ETA: I wrote this about a week ago, and then cleverly never remembered to actually publish it. I’m brilliant! It’s obviously a bit dated now, but hopefully still interesting to some people.
I recognize that I’m the millionth person to comment on this, but for people who haven’t heard, ABC Family commissioned, and then cancelled, amidst general disgust and outrage, a pilot entitled “Alice in Arabia,” about an American Muslim teenager who gets kidnapped by her Saudi grandfather and held against her will in Saudi Arabia. Prior to the show’s cancellation, Buzzfeed obtained an early copy of the script, which they described as “[lending] itself to particularly easy comparison with Not Without My Daughter, a 1991 film based on a nonfiction book by the same name.” The initial announcement of the show led to #AliceinArabia trending on twitter, with the script’s author Brooke Eikmeier eventually speaking in her own defense, explaining that the show was “meant to give Arabs and Muslims a voice on American TV,” albeit a voice provided by a white, non-Muslim former military employee.
Like anyone else who has been paying attention to how Muslims are portrayed on American TV, I was delighted to hear the show was cancelled (although my favorite of the #AliceinArabia tweets is still from Anna Lekas Miller (@agoodcuppa) – “Not going to lie, a little bit disappointed that #AliceInArabia is cancelled. Was looking forward to Orientalism drinking games.”). But the framing of the story itself made the history nerd in me a little amazed, as I think it demonstrates quite clearly that we, as Americans and Westerners, are still a little bit obsessed with ‘the harem.’
Haram is an Arabic term meaning ‘forbidden’ or ‘prohibited,’ and is one of the legal standards used in Islamic law to distinguish correct and incorrect practices. Harim was a special designation for sacred spaces in the pre-Islamic era, in which local tribes agreed to adhere to special laws and principles, especially with regard to murder, theft, and violations of tribal autonomy. This allowed locals to visit these holy places in peace, without needing to worry about attacks or retaliation for past events. The Ka’aba in Mecca was one such harim. The use of the term continued in the Islamic period, with the Qur’an expanding the rules regarding correct practices within the harim, including restricting the kinds of clothing worn, the use of perfume or wearing of jewelry, thus creating an atmosphere of equality among pilgrims.
The European concept of the harem arose out of this idea of a sacred and confined space, but focused on one specific kind of confined space, the private space within Muslim homes, specifically those areas where women did not wear veils, which generally means areas intended for family and close friends. The concept of “women’s quarters” was common throughout the Mediterranean and Near East, but Islam’s allowance of both polygamy and divorce fueled a belief in, essentially, Muslim sex dungeons – private areas of the home full of half-naked wives and concubines leisurely awaiting their master’s return.
That’s not to say that such a thing never happened – it certainly did. Indeed, in the 16th and 17th centuries, several Ottoman sultans prided themselves on it. But many scholars of the Middle East, myself included, would argue that this European belief in the harem as a commonplace feature of Muslim life reveals more about European ideas of sexuality and family space than it does about anything to do with Islam. Indeed, the harem was one of the central aspects of Edward Said’s Orientalism – he noted that, along with the suq, the public market (which, particularly in European art, was also often portrayed with a great deal of nudity), the harem is one of the few clearly recognizably Middle Eastern images in European literary and artistic traditions.
It is certainly the case that humans in general seem to assume that any time modesty and privacy meet, the result is awesome sexy times. It’s this same assumption that fueled the European genre of nunsploitation – the literary genre of erotica about nuns (and monks and priests), which has existed for about as long as there have been nuns and monks. Since monks and nuns were modest in public, it seemed obvious that they were kinky in private. I’d argue this same assumption is behind the modern concept of the sexy librarian.
The image of the harem also parallels nunsploitation in its underlying (and very European Christian) assumption that overt sexuality is a sign of moral weakness. Stories of nunsploitation were increasingly popular during the Protestant revolutions and among the humanists, as they were used to illustrate the essential weakness of traditional Catholicism. The logic was pretty obviously tautological – we all know that nuns are secretly kinky because they’re so modest in public, and because they’re kinky, they must be failing in their religion. The same goes for the European imagination of the harem – the imagination of the harem is an extreme one, fraught with ‘sexual deviance’ (a horrible term, which in this case generally meant ‘being queer’ or ‘women enjoying sex’), but also with oppression, violence, manipulation, and often substance abuse.
The idea of the harem has been used to serve a lot of purposes in European (and later, Western) works, but it’s hard to get away with the explicit sexuality of the image. Indeed, a quick google search (definitely NSFW!) reveals that art is still being created which depicts the harem as a public bath (which is a Roman innovation made popular in the Near East by the Byzantines) full of half-naked women (many of whom, in modern works, appear to be modeled on Japanese anime). I’m not terribly surprised by this – it hits a lot of high points in terms of sexual fantasies. The Alice in Arabia story hints of this, as well, particularly in its apparent continued stressing of American (ie. normal) versus Arabian (ie. repressed, but possibly also hyper-sexual) lifestyle.
These stagnant ideas about the Middle East are exactly why portrayals like “Alice in Arabia” are problematic, however. Not only do they not contribute to a broader conception of what Muslim/Arab (a distinction too many of these works blur) life is like, they also reaffirm images that are, at best, outdated and, at worst, mythological. Muslim and Arab homes are no more filled with crazy sex dungeons than American homes are filled with McDonald’s, guns and TVs constantly blaring Fox News – I’m pretty sure that American home does exist, but that’s nowhere closer to being the only or even most common iteration.
 I would like to point out that Wikipedia wrongly associates the term nunsploitation to a genre of pornographic movies – the genre definitely predates film, as examples exist from the Middle Ages. Check out the book Virgins of Venice (one of the few history of religion monographs that should probably come with a NSFW label) on the Medieval and early modern history of the genre.