Harem (Arabic: حريم ḥarīm, "a sacred inviolable place; harem; female members of the family"), also known as zenana in South Asia, properly refers to domestic spaces that are reserved for the women of the house in a Muslim family and are inaccessible to adult males except for close relations. Similar institutions have been common in other Mediterranean and Middle Eastern civilizations, especially among royal and upper-class families and the term is sometimes used in non-Islamic contexts. The structure of the harem and the extent of monogamy or polygamy has varied depending on the family's personalities, socio-economic status, and local customs. This private space has been traditionally understood as serving the purposes of maintaining the modesty, privilege, and protection of women. A harem may house a man's wife—or wives and concubines, as in royal harems of the past—their pre-pubescent male children, unmarried daughters, female domestic workers, and other unmarried female relatives. In former times, some harems were guarded by eunuchs (castrated men) who were allowed inside. Although the institution has experienced a sharp decline in the modern era, seclusion of women is still practiced in some parts of the world, such as rural Afghanistan and conservative states of the Gulf region. In the West, Orientalist imaginary conceptions of the harem as a fantasy world of forbidden sexuality where numerous women lounged in suggestive poses have influenced many paintings, stage productions, films and literary works. Several European Renaissance paintings dating to the 16th century defy Orientalist tropes and portray the women of the Ottoman harem as individuals of status and political significance. In many periods of Islamic history women in the harem exercised various degrees of political power.
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