In Muslim society, that part of a house set apart for the women of the family or the part from which males not of the family are excluded. Through extension it has come to refer generally to the mandatory seclusion of women from the outside world. Institutions similar to the harem existed in the pre-Islamic civilizations of the Middle East; in the courts of pre-Islamic Assyria, Persia, and Egypt, they were often the loci of political intrigues involving rival court factions. Large harems for wives (and often for concubines) were common in wealthy Middle Eastern households until the 20th century. From the 15th to the 20th century, the great harem, termed the seraglio, of the sultans of the Ottoman Empire housed several hundred women. In Iran—and in parts of Central and South Asia influenced by Persian culture—the institution of seclusion has traditionally been known as purdah. In the present-day Islamic world, seclusion of women is practiced only within conservative communities; concubinage has been generally outlawed. Similar systems have existed in other parts of Asia.
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