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LHMP #240 Amer 2009 Medieval Arab Lesbians and 'Lesbian-Like'

Full citation: 

Amer, S. 2009. “Medieval Arab Lesbians and 'Lesbian-Like'” in Journal of the History of Sexuality, 18(2), 215-236.

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Amer begins by tackling the Whorfian-tinged assertion that the lack of a specific terminology for lesbianism in medieval Europe contributed to a lack of modern scholarship about same-sex desire between women in that era, by noting that the existence of a diverse and specific vocabulary for the topic in medieval Arabic (sahq, sihaqa, musahaqat, al-nisa’, sahiqa) hasn’t resulted in a vibrant field of study. This is particularly disappointing given the significant surviving literature on the topic. Further, Amer notes, if you broaden the field of inquiry to include “lesbian-like” women (following Judith Bennett’s definition), the literature is even richer. The structure of cultural and social life in some medieval Arabic courts may contain unstudied spaces in which same-sex activity occurred that--if not “lesbian” by a strict definition--certain fall into the category of “lesbian-like.”

Medieval Arab Lesbians

The medieval Arabic vocabulary for “lesbianism” (sahq, sihaq, sihaqa) and “lesbian” (sahiqa, sahhaqa, musahiqa) arise from describing a behavior rather than an identity or orientation, coming from the root s-h-q meaning “to pound” (as with spices) or “to rub”, and thus being semantically connected to Greek tribas and Latin fricatrix.

Medieval Arabic medical theories included the idea that lesbianism was caused by an itch of the labia that could be soothed only by rubbing against another woman’s genitals. (These medical writings included versions of the 2nd century Greek writer Galen, and included a tradition that Galen’s daughter was a lesbian and had provided him with data on the topic.) This theory included humoral concepts of heat and cold to explain why sex with a man couldn’t scratch the itch in the same way. (al-Kindi, 9th c)

The scientific view of lesbianism in Arabic literature was as a medical category, with theories about the underlying cause that included maternal consumption of specific plants. (Yuhanna ibn Masawayh, 9th c) In this context, it was seen as innate, lifelong, and as morally neutral.

But although the etymology of sahq indicates an activity, the cultural context of the range of terms in medieval Arabic literature associates sahiqat with love and devotion, and in some contexts with an exclusive and supportive subculture of women who loved women. Legendary tales identify the “first lesbians” as an interfaith couple (Christian and pre-Islamic Arabic) in what is now Iraq. The earliest surviving Arabic erotic treatise (10th c) includes this tale of Hind Bint al-Nu`man and Hind Bint al-Khuss al-Iyadiyyah and places them in the 7th century. They were held up as an icon of love and loyalty.

The historicity of this story is less important than how it was presented in the Arabic literary tradition as a symbol of the greater love and devotion women have for each other than men have for women. Arabic literature embraced stories of female couples, twelve of which are named in the literary catalog Al Fihrist (al-Nadim, 10th c) although nothing except their names and the fact of their relationships is preserved. Amer provides a list of the titles of the twelve books (which are the names of the characters) with translations of what the names mean, if relevant. I’ll reproduce it here because I’ve never seen it spelled out before.

  • The Book of Rihana and Qoronfel (“Basil” and “Clove”)
  • The Book of Ruqayya and Khadija
  • The Book of Mo’ees and Zakiyya
  • The Book of Sakina and al-Rabab (“Calm” and “the Mistress of the Household”)
  • The Book of al-Ghatrifa and al-Dulafa’
  • The Book of Hind and Bint al-Nu`man (“India” and “the daughter of al-Nu`man”, the “first lesbian couple” mentioned above)
  • The Book of `Abda al-`Aqila and `Abda al-Ghaddara (“the Wise Slave Girl” and “the Treacherous Slave Girl”)
  • The Book of Lu’lu’a and Shatira
  • The Book of Najda and Zu’um
  • The Book of Salma and Su`ad
  • The Book of Sawab and Surur (“Justice” and “Happiness”)
  • The Book of al-Dahma’ and Ni`ma (“the Dark One” and “the Gift from God”)

Amer notes parallels with the Kama-sutra (from which some elements may have been borrowed) where lesbians formed groups, held meetings, and led schools of pleasure for other women. The 13th c Tunisian writer al-Tifashi offers descriptions of such a community and the teachings of its leader Rose [note: I assume this is a translation of her name]. Organized communities are also implied in the (otherwise negative) writings of Leo Africanus (15th c, from Granada but writing about Morocco) about a community of female diviners in Fez for which he uses the name suhaqiyat.

Al-Tifashi describes teachings about sexual practices, such as the a woman should “snort heartily while wiggling lasciviously” during sex and that lovemaking should be accompanied verbally by “wheezing, panting, purring, murmurs, and heartbreaking sighs.” He also includes a detailed, step-by-step description of a sexual technique called “the saffron massage.” [Note: I’ve included a translation of the full passage in this entry for Amer 2001.]

The presence of this material in medieval Arabic literature does not negate the predominance of a male focus in that literature, or the phallocentric point of view from which much of the lesbian material is written. But what is notable is that lesbianism is not presented as a sin or crime, and that it is included as a topic worthy of intellectual discussion. It is included under the generally positive attitude toward eroticism, including the view that sexuality is essential to religious piety. This contrasts with Christian ascetic attitudes toward sexuality which influenced Western attitudes in general.

Within the larger picture of Islamic sexual morality, the most vehemently condemned sin is adultery (zina) which is defined specifically as a man having heterosexual vaginal sex with a woman he does not have legal rights to (i.e., she isn’t his wife or concubine). Zina is universally condemned while homosexuality (liwat, which refers to male relations) is treated more ambiguously even when viewed negatively. The social focus on the cult of female virginity and preserving the “sexual honor” of women, meant that lesbianism was at times encouraged (as in ibn Falita, 14th c) as helping to preserve women’s sexual honor, because only heterosexual activity could damage that honor.

Legal attitudes began to shift in the later medieval period. In contexts where homosexual behavior did come under scrutiny, attitudes varied widely, as the Qur’an did not mention specific penalties for it. Local custom might treat it harshly, or distinguish between married and unmarried, active and passive, when assigning penalties. But note that this discussion applies specifically to liwat which was defined specifically as anal penetration by a man. Activities such as kissing and caressing or intercrural intercourse did not fall under the same penalties even if discouraged.

Within this context, sahq was generally classified as less serious than liwat and the least serious form of zina (if classified as zina at all) and penalties--if they existed--were much less severe. In many legal compendia, sahq is not addressed at all.

Sexual Categorization

All of this being said, it’s important not to equate medieval Arabic concepts of female same-sex sexuality with modern Western concepts of lesbianism and sexual identity. Despite the proliferation of terms for various sexual practices and identities (ones relating to women that were not previously mentioned include mutazarrifat “elegant courtly lady-lovers”, nisa’ mudhakkarat “masculinized women”) there are no medieval Arabic terms for the unmarked state of bisexuality or for heterosexuality. (That is, a specific orientation toward homosexuality was considered a marked state in terms of vocabulary.) The contemporary Arabic word used generically for “sexuality” didn’t acquire this meaning until the early 20th century, when it was used for Arabic translations of Western sexological texts. The adoption of Western medical/psychological theories of sexuality has led to the replacement of traditional Arabic terms for sexual variety with terms that offer literal translations of concepts like “homosexual”, “heterosexual”, and “queer”.

Medieval Arab Lesbian-Like Women

When we expand the scope of interest to “lesbian-like” women in medieval Arabic literature, we encounter entire genres of cross-dressed heroines, female warriors, Amazons, slave girls dressed up as boys, sufi rituals, and women’s courtly traditions, all of which may have provided space for homoerotic expression. Many of these contexts have been recognized in medieval European writings as related to homosexual expression (“second-degree homosexuality” as labeled by one scholar) but have not been viewed similarly in the study of medieval Arabic writings.

One could argue that, given the direct and explicit treatment of homosexuality in Arabic literature, the need to search for it in more tangential forms is unnecessary. But such writings provide a richer and more complex understanding of same-sex sexuality.

Such examples include the 9th c tradition in the caliphate court of Baghdad for ghulamiyyat, slave girls who dressed as boys. The superficial purpose was to hijack male same-sex desire and bend it toward de facto heterosexual practice. While the fashion did not directly include women’s desire for ghulamiyyat, it could have offered a context for stepping outside gender expectations (and was imitated by some upper-class women of Baghdad).

Female cross-dressing is relatively common in medieval Arabic literature, not only poetry addressed to ghulamiyyat but also folk romances (in the same genre as the Thousand and One Nights) dating from the 11th century on, which include many examples of cross-dressing women warriors and Amazons. These include characters in the story of Qamar al-Zaman and the Princess Boudour, or stories of the island of Waq, inhabited exclusively by women. (A list of story titles covering similar themes is given.) The presence of cross-dressed heroines typically gives rise to ambiguous situations of desire or identity, and sometimes include women who express disinterest in marriage alongside erotic interest in women. “I do neither long for marriage nor for men, but my heart has an inclination for the ladies,” says the character Alûf in one tale. (These characters often end up marrying men anyway, given the nature of the genre, but the tales offer same-sex love as an alternative, if only in theory.)

One of the most significant and interesting cultural practices in this context is that of zarf, a tradition translated as “courtliness” or “refinement” that had its origins in Medina in the pre- and early Islamic era and spread to major urban centers. The tradition (practiced by both sexes) focused on sophistication in clothing, food, language and home decoration, as well as valuing intellectual debate around topics of love, expressed through poetry, song, dance, and stories.

Women were important in the development of zarf culture, holding literary salons in which the elite of different classes mingled. While these women did not necessarily have homoerotic interests, they enjoyed an independence from male control that created possibilities. And in some contexts, the term mutazarrifat (reined/courtly ladies) was clearly used as a synonym for (or at least an allusion to) “lesbians”. The 11th c Andalusian Wallada, daughter of the caliph of Cordoba, was an archetype of the upper class praticioner of zarf and an example of the degree of women’s sexual freedom that was possible in that era. She is known to have had at least one named female lover as well as male lovers.

More common among the known practitioners of zarf were qaynas (“singing slave girls") who, because of their social status, were more free to express themselves as part of public culture and who achieved fame via intellectual skills and beauty. Their connection to lesbian-like categories comes from being described as mutazarrifat, the same terms applied to cultured upper-class women with lesbian-like interests. [Note: Amer doesn’t give specific examples, but if you follow the tag “zarîfa/tharifa” more specific textual examples can be found.]

Modern Implications

Amer concludes with a discussion of the difficulty of researching homoerotic topics in historic Arabic literature--and especially the difficulty for female scholars--due to censorship, suppression, misogyny, and the historic dominance of male scholars in the field of translation and publication. Works that touch on lesbianism have been made unavailable, have had those sections removed during publication, either due to modern prejudice against homosexual topics in general, or because the material was being translated and published by men who were narrowly interested in male homosexual topics. All this means that there’s an untapped wealth of medieval Arabic material about women’s same-sex eroticism waiting to be shared.

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