Life in the Khan's harem largely remains a mystery. Local scribes and foreign travellers were invariably male and not allowed so much as a glimpse into the Khan's pleasure courts. However in many ways the Khan's harem was no different from that of a wealthy merchant or land-owner. In fact most houses contained a series of rooms with an enclosed garden which was the exclusive domain of the female occupants. The women were usually allowed free reign throughout the whole house although they had to scurry into their own quarters upon the arrival of a male guest. The favoured women of the Khan, however, were confined to their harem permanently, leaving only to visit male relatives at the main gate of the palace or when the entire royal entourage decamped to a summer residence.
There was a strict hierarchy in the Khan's harem with his four official wives (the number prescribed by the prophet Mohammed) well and truly in charge. The wives each occupied a separate aywan while concubines and servants were housed in smaller rooms but consigned to the balconies if they fell into disfavour with one of the wives, or worst still, the Khan himself. He had his own aywan where his chosen woman (or boy) for the night would be brought although he would never sleep in the same place twice for fear of assassination. The concubines would usually number around forty and include those whose beauty had been brought to the attention of the Khan or those who were daughters of debtors and criminals. With the large number of children sired by a Khan it was no wonder that fratricidal squabbles over the throne were a common occurrence.
Women were not the only members of the harem. The Khan's sons were allowed to remain there until the age of ten or eleven, after which point the only contact with their heavily-veiled mothers was at the main gate. Eunuchs also served in the harem as well as in the court and a trusted eunuch could become a powerful ear to the Khan. Hand-picked from the best available slaves, they were made up of various nationalities and in Feruz Khan's time included those of negro descent. They all wore a distinctive feather in their turban which marked them out as eunuchs, the base of which was used to aid the process of urination. They had male lovers and servants who were also housed in the palace but excluded from the harem. Each Khan, like most wealthy Central Asians, also included a smattering of catamites who would be kept until puberty in order to satisfy the KhanÍs homosexual preferences and fulfil the role of dancing boys. Islam prohibited female dancers, but this did not stop the Khan from selecting the prettiest boys of Khiva who would be dressed in long hair and girl's clothes to dance for the Khan and his guests. The last Emir of Bukhara was far fonder of his dancing boys than his wives, who were left stranded in Bukhara upon his flight to Persia.
Life in the harem was dull at the best of times and little would relieve the day-to-day boredom and back-biting of such a secluded life. As a diversion the women would spend long hours sewing and embroidering, with some of the concubines secretly selling their wares through servants in order to buy a few extra necessities. Such isolation was not much different from the lives of most other women who seldom left their houses and did so only under cover of the 'paranja' (horse-hair veil). However the backbreaking grind of domestic chores was a sufferance the royal harem did not have to experience. With the communist revolution, the cosseted wives and concubines suddenly found themselves liberated and expected to enter the socialist world of veil-burning, hard labour and men.