Harem and Hijab: Writing about Women in Islam, 1716-Present Day

Module code: EN3162

Module co-ordinator: Dr Corinne Fowler

The lives of Muslim women have long been subject to intense speculation in the West, arousing curiosity, censure, and erotic desire. This fascination is nothing new. The word 'harem', derived from the Arabic word 'haram' meaning forbidden or sacrosanct, came to the Western world in the seventeenth century via 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 visited Egypt and Turkey.

This varied body of writings, often referred to as 'haremlik' literature, is now considered by scholars to have countered popular Western notions of the harem as a form of brothel filled with oiled bodies and sensual delight. Haremlik literature encompasses a wide range of observations, including envy of the Muslim woman's right to own property and expressions of disgust at the 'gilded cage' of the harem.

No less central to Western travel writing and social commentary has been the 'hijab', a word often used in English to denote the veil worn by Muslim women but more broadly referring to the principle of modesty in Islam. The hijab is a frequent object of popular disdain and Muslim commentators have repeatedly called for a more nuanced and critical understanding of its diverse purposes and associations.


While the module spans two centuries of Orientalist writing by travellers, journalists, and social commentators, considerable emphasis is also placed on writing by Muslim novelists, postcolonial theorists, and Islamic theologians. The goal of the module is to enable you to understand the shifting historical parameters of Islamic and non-Islamic views on the position of women in Islam.

The first three seminars focus on Orientalist writing about the harem from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Four other seminars will examine representations of harem and hijab in the work of women novelists from Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Pakistan, and the UK. Two creative writing workshops will develop your imaginative and critical responses to the reading material and prepare them for the creative writing assignment.

Throughout the module, students will be invited to engage critically with recent news reports and feature articles about women's rights in Islam.

Students will read the following primary texts:

  • Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Turkish Embassy Letters (1716; 1994)
  • Emeline Lott, The English Governess in Egypt (1885; 2008)
  • Selected readings from Shirley Foster and Sara Mills, eds., An Anthology of Women‘s Travel Writing (2002)
  • Fatima Mernissi, Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood (1995)
  • Qaisra Sharaz, The Holy Woman (2000)
  • Leila Aboulela, Minaret (2005)
  • Assia Djebar, Children of the New World: A Novel of the Algerian War (2006)

You will also be introduced to a wide range of postcolonial and theological discussions about the position of women in Islam and learn about contemporary theoretical debates on the relationship between gender and colonialism.


This module involves weekly two-hour seminars or creative writing workshops. Students are required to read the set primary and secondary material in advance of the sessions. The creative writing workshops require students to bring short pieces of writing for supportive feedback and discussion.

By the end of the module, you will be able to...

  • Demonstrate an awareness of the variety and scope of haremlik literature by colonial women travellers
  • Provide an informed account of the historical and intellectual trajectory of discussions about women's position in Islam with reference to literary and theoretical engagements with harem and hijab
  • Demonstrate the ability to work critically with theological, historical, and journalistic sources
  • Produce and closely edit a short story or piece of creative nonfiction in response to the primary reading material
  • Provide constructive critical and technical feedback to the creative writing of your peers
  • Demonstrate the ability to respond to the reading material in a way that reflects critical engagement with the issues discussed in the module


    • An essay of between 2,000-2,500 words
    • A piece of creative nonfiction or a short story accompanied by a reflective commentary, 2,000 words total

    Your mark will be calculated as either Essay 30% Creative Writing 70% or Essay 70% Creative Writing 30%, whichever yields the higher mark.