Harem and Hijab: Writing about Women in Islam from the 17th Century to the Present

Module code: EN3162

The word harem, derived from the Arabic word haram meaning forbidden or sacrosanct, came to the Western world in the 17th century by means of the Ottoman Empire. Generally used in English-language discussions to refer to women’s living quarters in a polygynous household, the harem was a frequent topic of travel narratives by colonial women who travelled to Egypt and Turkey. These varied writings are now considered by scholars to have countered popular Western notions of the harem as a form of brothel filled with oiled bodies and governed by despotic rulers. Women's writing about the harem encompasses a wide range of observations including envy at Muslim women’s right to own property and expressions of disgust at the ‘guilded cage’ of the harem.  

This module will critically examine such debates surrounding the word harem and consider how the veil, or hijab, has been viewed by travel writers and social commentators. Hijab is a word often used in the English language to denote the veil worn by Muslim women, but it refers more broadly to the principle of modesty in Islam. This module will introduce you to a wide range of perspectives on Islamic dress and the position of women in Islam.  While the module spans two centuries of Orientalist writing by travellers and journalists, considerable emphasis is also placed upon writing by Muslim novelists and Islamic theologians. We will try to understand the shifting historical parameters of Islamic and non-Islamic views on women’s position in Islam.


  • 15 hours of seminars
  • 135 hours of guided independent study


  • Essay, 2,000 words (100%)