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Harem wall painting fragments, c. Held by the British Museum. Sex slavery is sanctioned in the Quran. Mohammed had three concubines and made sure his male followers had their share as well. However, the Quran also says that rape is forbidden, so presumably everyone had to consent. Like all religions that privilege males, some things that are allowed are not necessarily encouraged. These painting fragments are thought to be slave girls from the harem of Caliph al-Muasim in Samarra.
If you think of old wall paintings or murals as ancient television, it would come as no surprise to see images of sex and violence. Scenes of drunken parties, animal hunts, or of dancing slave girls make perfect sense in this context. The Caliph wanted to celebrate both his achievements and his indulgences.
Women and girls at the palace of Samarra would have had many roles, not just as wives and concubines, but also as musicians and poets. Training in dance, singing, and literature was often required of harem girls. The idea that a girl kidnapped or sold by her parents into this life is highly romanticized as a positive career choice. And while Islamic texts legislate the correct treatment of slaves no matter their role, it can be safely assumed that not everyone obeyed these rules.
Harems continue to exist today. While the nostalgic shine of slavery is mostly gone, harems are just as distressing and debauched situations as they always were. Many stories of girls being abducted from their homes to serve as sex slaves to important men, as well as ISIL fighters, are still being told.
Stereotypically, the happy harem girl helped define the Medieval Middle East to the ignorant West. This is the kind of representation that undermines the true history of these girls, much of which is lost to time. This post is part of our 52 Objects in the History of Girlhood exhibition. Stay tuned to discover the incredible history of girls, and be sure to visit the complete exhibition to discover the integral role girls have played since the dawn of time. Harem Girls Apr 4, Subscribe to our e-newsletter.