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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #101c Habib 2007 - Female Homosexuality in the Middle East: Histories and Representations (Part II Ch 3)

Full citation: 

Habib, Samar. 2007. Female Homosexuality in the Middle East: Histories and Representations. Routledge, New York. ISBN 78-0-415-80603-9

Publication summary: 

This work provides a historic context to the study and discussion of female homosexuality in the Middle East, including contemporary socio-political concerns.

Part II - Chapter 3: An overview of Medieval literature concerning female homosexuality

It looks like I'm going to have a rather complete Habib-fest in this blog. Amazon came through with my copy of her historic novel, so after I move on to covering her edition of the medieval texts discussed in this current work, I hope to have the novel read so I can finish up with a review of it.

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Part II: The history and representation of female homosexuality in the Middle Ages

Chapter 3: An overview of Medieval literature concerning female homosexuality

Medieval Arabic literature covering sexuality takes note of the diversity of sexual behavior in nature and tends to set up categories as a way of accounting for different varieties of human behavior. The medieval scholar al-Jaĥeṯẖ quotes another author named Muțhana Bin Zuhair who notes “I have never seen [any sexual behavior] in man and woman that I haven’t seen in the male and female pigeons” continuing with a description of various combinations of gender and behavior, including contrasts of exclusive and inclusive sexual preference, and preferences for an “active” or “passive” role, or no preference.

In pre-13th century Arabic literature, religious prohibitions on same-sex activity are noted but not taken particularly seriously. For example, the early 12th century al-Raghib al-Asfahani wrote an encyclopedic work drawing on the adab and mujun genres, Muĥadarat al-Udaba which pays a perfunctory attention to religious prohibitions on homosexuality but presents anecdotal examples of “forbidden” behaviors using relatively neutral language. Al-Asfahani also wrote religious treatises so this was not a case of an unusually secular attitude. When discussing male homosexuality, he specifically notes that relationships are not organized by hierarchies, as with the Greeks, but inspired by “appetites and desires”.

His examples cover both male and female same-sex relations and describe conjunctions of behavior+desire that often align with modern sexual-behavioral categories without sharing the same social context and construction of identity. [That is, Habib observes “bundles” of characteristics related to homosexuality that could not possibly be derived purely from a particular cultural context, and considers this support for the “nuanced continuism” that she proposes.]

Al-Asfahani’s cataloging of male homosexual “types” focuses on sexual desire, sex roles, and gender presentation, whereas the discussion of love and intimacy as a motivation is only present when discussing women. While most sections of his work (not only the ones covering sexual behavior) are prefaced by citations of the religious prohibitions on the activities he’s describing, the section on women’s same-sex relations lacks any such citation. His apparent source text includes such prohibitions in this section, but the ĥadițh in question is dubious and may have been added in later versions of that text. That is, it is possible that al-Asfahani omitted any similar prohibition on women’s activities because he was unaware of any.

Abu Nasr al-Samaw’uli, a mid-12th century writer, discusses female homosexuality with a clinical/medical approach and does not discuss the religious aspects as that falls outside the interests of his text. He provides an encyclopedic catalog of reasons why women might prefer sex with women, such as a different speed of arousal, pain on penetration, an esthetic preference for a smooth face when kissing, having a dominant/masculine personality. Generally, he takes the position that if a particular man can overcome or avoid the specific trigger for a woman’s homosexual preference (e.g., a young beardless man could overcome the preference for smooth cheeks), then the woman will find heterosexual relations acceptable.

One significant difference between the literature on female homosexuality in medieval Europe and medieval Arabia is that the former derives primarily from institutional sources that were highly disapproving and sufficiently removed from their topic to allow doubt about its actual existence. In contrast, medieval Arabic writers covered female homosexuality plentifully and in detail, and were not universally hostile, even in theory.

Ibn Ĥazm (11th century) discussed various conflicting legal positions on lesbian sex, noting that some felt it was permitted as a means of sexual relief that was not counted as fornication. A collections of songs and anecdotes from the 9th century includes an incident involving the famous courtesan Bathal singing a song in which she indicated a preference for “grinding” (i.e., lesbian sex).

But beginning around the 13th century, this relatively open and almost even-handed treatment shifts to one of more formulaic condemnation. The 14th century writer al-Nuwayri gives an account of the “origin” of lesbian sex as being taught to women by the devil, and this theme appears repeatedly thereafter (often in combination with the motivation of male ill-treatment). The uncertainty as to whether Islam prohibited homosexual activity fades and discussions of the topic are focused on compiling the case that it is forbidden. In particular, lesbian activity is reclassified as “fornication”. Ĥadițhs also begin being quoted that condemn cross-dressing (in both directions) in the context of forbidden gender presentations: effeminate men and mannish women.

The chapter continues with a detailed analysis of the chronology and relationships of various writers discussing the status and reliability of several relevant ĥadițhs, and the increasing severity of recommended punishments for transgression. [In this section, I feel that Habib falls into the approach that some accused Brooten of falling into: accepting the premise that religious attitudes toward sexuality have objective validity, but arguing that the traditional interpretation and understanding of those attitudes is flawed.]

Time period: 

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