Women, Harem, Realities

Adventures to the East in the Middle Ages almost always included descriptions of women with almond eyes and ebony hair resting on swaying hips. Women living in the East were always intriguing to the Western man who fantasized about harems where he would play with his imagination to the smell of intoxicating incense burning while he burns with desire to experience what an Eastern woman could give him but no one had to travel far to know a type of woman who also existed in Andalus that fascinated academics and historians more than archaeological digging- it was the Qiyan woman.

The Abbasids were the ruling dynasty in Baghdad while the Umayyads were trying to establish their power in Andalus. Their connection is vital to understand how some Andalus women evolved and became part of the Umayyad system of harem, still somewhat questionable and alien concept to us, Westerners, nevertheless exotic. As the Abbasids expanded their territories, they brought many slaves from all the land they set foot on. The slave trade became more established and a large amount of wealth enabled bureaucrats to become patrons (Kaatibs) who owned not only properties but women of their choice. The Abbasids were also connected to the Persian style of living and they emulated many of the things they saw practised at the Persian palaces. The Abbasids were some way from the morally more restrained Umayyads but over time the concept of slave women in harems became a norm in Andalus, too. The status of women was not simple- partially done by Islam and partially by the laws of the land they lived on.

The word qiyan refers to performing slave girls who were trained for poetry and even shadow puppetry as well as they were highly skilled in calligraphy and dancing. The word qayna used to refer to anyone doing manual labour as essentially, they were slaves, so the term was used intermittently. As time passed, qayna referred to a particular group of women who were trained and sophisticated to entertain their patrons who were also entitled for sexual favours. Women were trained in Basra or Baghdad, at times sent over to Madina to learn adab (etiquette) and poetry. In the West we look at the qiyan women as someone lacking morality, inhibition or polite expressions and we associate them with erotic, elegiac poetry. But as always, there is more to these women that meets the eye.

Literally salons are not a new invention; they were used at the time of the Abbasids. Women ran those salons and they had some characteristics that made them stand out from the norms of society. A qayna was educated as fine as an aristocratic female but she did not cover herself in public. She appeared to be the leader of fashion and flattery clothing always ready to sit and converse with influential men. She was articulate, independent in the way she thought and was free to exercise her mind. They were regarded as knowledgeable, humorous and insightful.

She evoked admiration of men for her impulsiveness and lack of deep contemplation, a virtue that was taught in more traditional, conservative establishments. A qayna was able to impress her audience, evoke admiration but not always the spirit as her playfulness and ease with her body lured men. Al Jahiz describes her in the following way: “ By nature she sets her nets and traps to those who come near her; she would reciprocate with a glance , flirt or smile and woo him with a vanity of songs, flattering his opinions. She would always be quick to join him for a drink and make him believe that she is more in love with him than he is in love with her; while away she would write to him about her pangs of loving him”.

The Abbasids had direct and indirect influence on the way the Umayyads built up the land od Andalus, be it political, architectural or intellectual capacity. The qiyan women were introduced to Andalus after being trained in Baghdad and by the laws of Islam their status was defined. In the harem if they gave birth to the emir they became umm walad and her child was free gaining all the right as a free man. Their training was done in a methodical way, sending them off to faraway lands or later on being trained in Cordoba. An ancient account described their training this way: “The best way would be to send them to Madina for 3 years at the age of 9, then to Makkah. By the age of 15 she would arrive in Iraq where she would acquire the sophistication of Iraqi women after having been gifted with the good looks of Madinan women and tenderness of the Makkans”.

While slavery is very complex and contentious issue in Islam, so is the question of qiyan women. But this does not mean that we should turn a blind eye to what was turning out to be not only a business but a way of dealing with gender equality in the Middle Ages. There are many sides to this story. Some women were genuinely talented and without the support of their patron would not have had the chance to flourish in their artistic talents. Others were forced into it to make ends meet and we can only assume they had no other power. Yet, some others chose to influence society this way, often being powerful over their ruler and influencing decisions in the political arena. The reality was that these were women of Arab, Berber or Iberian origin and any of them could have been Muslim, too.