Gulistan Harem Histories: Gender in the Qajar Archives


Leila Pourtavaf


March 14, 2024


This presentation offers some reflections on the archival traces of the Gulistan harem and its residents during Nasir al-Din Shah’s reign (1848-1896). The Gulistan harem was a woman-dominated homosocial space, housed in a unique domestic institution wherein tradition, modernity, piety, cosmopolitanism, gender, class and racial differences were negotiated by a host of local and transnational residents and visitors. The harem was located at the heart of a modernizing dynasty and was a core part of its governing body. My forthcoming manuscript, “The Cosmopolis Harem,” examines the complex social and physical structure of this institution and the everyday life of its residents—at various points estimated to be between 700 and 2000 wives and female relatives, as well as different classes of employees­—from physicians and translators, to servants, maids, enslaved laborers and eunuchs. An abundance of historical traces and archival documents left behind by these constituents mark the late-Qajar harem as fertile ground for exploring the historical, cultural, spatial, and gendered entanglements which I argue defined the Iranian modernization project in the second half of the 19th century.



Leila Pourtavaf is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at York University. Her research and teaching stand at the intersection of gender, modernity, and Middle Eastern history. Her writing has appeared in both academic and cultural publications including the Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, Iran Namag, INCITE Journal of Experimental Media and ArteEast. She is the editor of Féminismes Électriques (2013), a bilingual collection of essays which reflect on the history of feminist art and cultural production. Her forthcoming manuscript, “The Cosmopolis Harem,” looks at the social, cultural and spatial dimensions of the women’s quarter of Nasir al-Din Shah’s court in the second half of the 19th century. Dr. Pourtavaf is also a board member and faculty affiliate at the Tavakoli Archives in Toronto and the recipient of the Elahé Omidyar Mir-Djalali Scholar Award for 2023-2024.