The women of the East, have in general, always exhibited the same appearance. Their manners, customs, and fashions, unalterable like their rocks, have stood the test of many revolving ages. Though the kingdoms of their country have often changed masters, though they have submitted to the arms of almost every invader, yet the laws by which their sex are governed and enslaved, have never been revised nor amended.
Had the manners and customs of the Asiatic women been subject to the same changes as they are in Europe, we might have expected the same changes in the sentiments and writings of their men. But, as this is not the case, we have reason to presume that the sentiments entertained by Solomon, by the apocryphal writers, and by the ancient Bramins, are the sentiments of this day.
Though the confinement of women be an unlawful exertion of superior power, yet it affords a proof that the inhabitants of the East are advanced some degrees farther in civilization than mere savages, who have hardly any love and consequently as little jealousy.
This confinement is not very rigid in the empire of the Mogul. It is, perhaps, less so in China, and in Japan hardly exists.
Though women are confined in the Turkish empire, they experience every other indulgence. They are allowed, at stated times, to go to the public baths; their apartments are richly, if not elegantly furnished; they have a train of female slaves to serve and amuse them; and their persons are adorned with every costly ornament which their fathers or husbands can afford.
Notwithstanding the strictness of confinement in Persia, their women are treated with several indulgences. They are allowed a variety of precious liquors, costly perfumes, and beautiful slaves: their apartments are furnished with the most elegant hangings and carpets; their persons ornamented with the finest silks, and even loaded with the sparkling jewels of the East. But all these trappings, however elegant, or however gilded, are only like the golden chains sometimes made use of to bind a royal prisoner.
Solomon had a great number of queens and concubines; but a petty Hindoo chief has been known to have two thousand women confined within the walls of his harem, and appropriated entirely to his pleasure. Nothing less than unlimited power in the husband is able to restrain women so confined, from the utmost disorder and confusion. They may repine in secret, but they must clothe their features with cheerfulness when their lord appears. Contumacy draws down on them immediate punishment: they are degraded, chastised, divorced, shut up in dark dungeons, and sometimes put to death.
Their persons, however, are so sacred, that they must not in the least be violated, nor even be looked at, by any one but their husbands. This female privilege has given an opportunity of executing many conspiracies. Warriors, in such vehicles as are usually employed to carry women, have been often conveyed, without examination, into the apartments of the great; from whence, instead of issuing forth in the smiles of beauty, they have rushed out in the terror of arms, and laid the tyrants at their feet.
No stranger is ever allowed to see the women of Hindostan, nor can even brothers visit their sisters in private. To be conscious of the existence of a man’s wives seems a crime; and he looks surly and offended if their health is inquired after. In every country, honor consists in something upon which the possessor sets the highest value. This, with the Hindoo, is the chastity of his wives; a point without which he must not live.
In the midst of slaughter and devastation, throughout all the East, the harem is a sanctuary. Ruffians, covered with the blood of a husband, shrink back with veneration from the secret apartment of his wives.
At Constantinople, when the sultan sends an order to strangle a state-criminal, and seize on his effects, the officers who execute it enter not into the harem, nor touch any thing belonging to the women.
Every Turkish seraglio and harem, has a garden adjoining to it, and in the middle of this garden a large room, more or less decorated according to the wealth of the proprietor. Here the ladies spend most of their time, with their attendant nymphs around them employed at their music, embroidery, or loom.
It has long been a custom among the grandees of Asia, to entertain story-tellers of both sexes, who like the bards of ancient Europe, divert them with tales, and little histories, mostly on the subject of bravery and love. These often amuse the women, and beguile the cheerless hours of the harem, by calling up images to their minds which their eyes are forever debarred from seeing.
All their other amusements, as well as this, are indolently voluptuous. They spend a great part of their time in lolling on silken sofas; while a train of female slaves, scarcely less voluptuous, attend to sing to them, to fan them, and to rub their bodies; an exercise which the Easterns enjoy, with a sort of placid ecstasy, as it promotes the circulation of their languid blood.
They bathe themselves in rose water and other baths, prepared with the precious odors of the East. They perfume themselves with costly essences, and adorn their persons, that they may please the tyrant with whom they are obliged to live.