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Full citation: 

Babayan, Kathryn and Afsaneh Najmabadi (eds.). 2008. Islamicate Sexualities: Translations Across Temporal Geographies of Desire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-03204-0

Publication summary: 


This collection of papers came out of a workshop that brought together a cross-section of scholars from various disciplines to explore aspects of same-sex practice and desire in the Islamicate world. “Islamicate” is a relatively new term coined (in parallel with “Italianate”) to describe people, cultures, and practices in regions dominated or strongly infuenced by Islam, without the implication that specific individuals are necessarily Muslim or that the cultures and practices are being considered in a religious context or that they represent “Islamic culture” in a definitional sense. The papers in this collection primarily focus on literary representation. There is no implication intended that any one study represents the Islamicate world as a whole, and the variety of representations and practices is emphasized. As is usual with a collection of this type, I have covered only those papers pertaining to women.

Contents summary: 

Traub provides the theoretical groundwork for this collection, reviewing this historic problem of Orientalism and discussing some of the cultural and theoretical baggage brought to the topic by Western scholars. She also identifies the difficulties of studying same-sex practices from an internal point of view within Islamicate cultures, given the (inaccurate) modern perception that same-sex practices represent an intrusion of Western culture.

The collection is positioned as an attempt to create a new field of Islamicate sexuality studies, developed out of dialogues and collaborations that arise from studying social and historic particularities..

The political climate of this field is acknowledged in a discussion of how Western assumptions about the universality of sexual identities and categories, and therefore Western positions regarding the rights that should accrue to those categories, can become a colonialist position that demands alignment with a specifically Western framing of sexual identities. Though at the same time Traub critiques particular expressions of this position as misrepresenting some of the dynamics they critique. In particular, she notes that much recent Western sexuality scholarship emphasizes the cultural construction of identities and the polymorphous nature of desire--elements that align with the anti-colonial study of Islamicate sexuality.

Nonetheless, there is a stongly valid critique that Western sexuality studies assume a teleological and evolutionary progress that culminates in the “enlightened” modern concept of sexual identity (and that distinguishes concepts of sexual desire and gender identity). This assumption necessarily positions non-Western conceptions of sexuality as pre-modern and unenlighted.

Traub discusses in detail previous studies and collections on the topic, as well as the parallel concerns of historiographic colonialism in other fields and around other topics. There is a discussion and review of the texts that fall within the scope of this volume’s research. And as is usual in this sort of introductory chapter, Traub provides a brief summary and context for the papers to come. The discussions are fascinating but hard to summarize here.


Contents summary: 

This article is a condensed version of Amer’s book-length study Crossing Borders: Love Between Women in Medieval French and Arabic Literatures, identifying likely Arabic sources for several medieval French romances that involve same-sex relationships (of various sorts) between women, including a cross-dressing-driven marriage between women. Although her book covers several French works, the present article focuses specifically on the several variants of the story of Yde and Olive (woman disgused as male knight marries the emperor’s daughter), comparing it with the tale of Qamar al-Zaman and Boudour (or Budur) in which a woman disguises herself as her own missing husband to go in search of him and ends up married to a princess.

Themes that are covered include the characters’ attitudes towards these marriages, how the potential (and actuality) for erotic activity between women is handled in the text, and how the disruptive relationship between the two women is resolved according to the different requirements and allowances of the two cultural/literary traditions.

Contents summary: 

Epps considers themes in stories from The Thousand and One Nights that compare and contrast gender, particularly in terms of evaluating gendered ideas of beauty, and cultural framings of gendered responses to another’s beauty. The initial discusion covers a debate between two jinn (one male, one female) regarding whether boys or girls are more beautiful. On test that is suggested is which gender is least able to control themselves sexually on seeing the other. I.e., that greater beauty will more easily overcome self-control in the other.

The jinns test this theory by bringing together Qamar al-Zaman, the son of a sultan, and Princess Budur, with the consequence that the two fall in love (and Budur’s loss of control gives victory to the male side of the argument). Having settled their debate, the jinns return Budur to her home and her pining sets in motion the gender-bending part of the tale that Sahar Amer has covered previously. Budur’s gender disguise to go in search of Qamar (taking on his name and identity to do so) finds herself manoevered into marriage to another princess before the real Qamar appears and marries both of them.

Epps, while noting that this later episode involves a fair amount of explicit physical affection between the two, reviews other researchers’ arguments against Amer’s framing of it as a “lesbian interlude”. Specifically, viewing cross-dressing as purely a literary trope with no implications for sexuality, and arguments on both sides that treat homosexuality as an objective category in medieval Arabic society. From there, Epps moves to the problems of vocabulary versus category in both Arabic and Western history, particularly as employed by modern historians.

The analysis then moves on to a cross-dressing episode in Don Quixote and additional discussion of the problems that arise from historians’ personal agendas influencing their interpretations. Overall, this is an article far more concerned with historiography than history, and the theoretical discussions get quite dense.

Contents summary: 

Babayan examines the poetic narrative of a late 17th century Iranian widow’s pilgrimage to Mecca. While this would not appear to be a fertile ground for themes of same-sex desire, the social context of gender segretation and the structures of women’s friendships and relationships brings to light a number of relevant motifs. The article is relatively long and I will be skimming it for these most relevant aspects. Therefore my summary is likely to present a rather skewed understanding of the entirety of Babayan’s analysis. 

The most salient topics are Isfahani pratices involving sworn friendships established through a ritual of sisterhood or companionsip (khwahar khwandagi) which framed female love and friendship in religious or mystic language. The text reminisces on the love the widow had for a female companion (yar) from her past. Women’s first-person records of their experiences in the pre-modern Islamicate world are rare and largely preserved as artistic expressions, such as this poem.

The widow of Mirza Khalil [no personal name is given for her, but in Arabic naming practices it isn’t uncommon for both women and men to be identified through their relationships] was obviously educated, and was from an elite family serving the last Safavi king. This status was what enabled her to fulfil a pilgrimage to Mecca, which was an expensive and dangerous undertaking at the time. Her impetus to undertake the pilgrimage is expressed as sorrow and loneliness after her husband’s death, but in keeping with Sufi poetics, the longing to unite with an absent beloved is conflated with the longing to unite with God.

As the widow describes her feeling of loss, she raises another, earlier and secret loss and forced separation: from a female companion. Babayan interprets this as having been an illicit relationship and therefore contributing to a sense of guilt that contributed to her quest and that there is a poetic/mystical tradition implying one purpose of the pilgrimage is to “cure” her of this love for an absent woman. And though there are three strands of loss and longing (God, husband, and female friend), once she sets out on the pilgrimage, references to her husband disappear.

A great deal of the text is travellogue and encounters with other pilgrims and with those providing hospitality along the way. The liminal space of the pilgrimage frees the widow from the usual strictures on cross-gender socializing.

And then, while on the road to Damascus, she makes a detour to her birthplace Urdubad where her female beloved now lives. She writes, “Together in Isfahan, we had been companions. In spirit we ate each other’s sorrow. She was a relative better than any sister, kinder than any of my other relatives.” But then, for unspecified reasons, they were separated and her beloved returned to Urdubad. The separation seemed like a century, but now, “Until at last, the end of the night of torturous separation turned into the morning of spiritual union. After a century, I saw the face of that friend and I ghrew the baggage into her house. The remedy for the incurable pain of separation, o dear one, was patience and endurance.”

To understand possible reasons for that separation, Babayan turns to literature discussing and critiquing the custom of siqahyi khwahar khwandagi, a vow of sisterhood exchanged between two women. This critique occurred in the context of a conservative turn in the interpretation of religious attitudes towards virtue and modesty, addressing issues such as the consumption of wine, modesty of both men’s and women’s clothing, and the mingling of the sexes at social events such as weddings. Sufi social institutions, coffee houses, and taverns were forcibly closed. In this context, a satirical polemic written by Aqa Jamal focused on Isfahani urban women’s culture and on five elite women in particular. The satire concludes with an examination of passionate female friendships, even touching on sexual desire between women. References to sworn bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood exist outside this polemical literature, and examples of the vows that were used are recorded. The language invokes siqqah--elsewhere used to designate a temporary marriage--creating a partnership both in this world and the next, but situated within a religious framework. A woman would swear, “I take you as a sister before God” pledging devotion to God and invoking God, the angels, and the prophets as witnesses.

Another side of the social context are explicit legal prohbitions on homosexual practices, with sex between women identified with the word musahiqa

Aqa Jamal’s satire describes some of the details of rituals of sworn sisterhood. A woman would propose by sending a trusted intermediary with a small wax doll designated as a “little bride” (aruschak) and either acceptance or rejection would be indicated by how the doll was decorated when it was returned. If accepted, vows would be declared at a shrine and celebrations might include dancing and sherbet drinking. Although these descriptions occur in the context of condemnation, there is no reason to think they do not represent actual customs.

Returning to our widow, her language--both in speaking of her spiritual experiences and her relationship with her female companion--fit within the context of Sufi mysticism and Isfahani social structures, at a time when those practices were coming under fire by more conservative religious forces. And when she is again reunited with that friend (for whom she had expressed longing), suddenly she becomes aloof, distant, and ill. “O kind friend, o old companion: you did not deny me your sweet sould. I was so nurtured by you, as though fallen from the heavens. But my fortune did not comply. I was exhausted. The whole time I was suffering. I was afflicted with fever and torment. Not for a moment was I able to be her partner in [a work translated as “conversation/soul/sex”]. I did not become physically intimate with that good-natured one.” And then after leaving Urdubad, the widow once again takes up the symptoms and language of a lover pining for the absent one.

Babayan digresses for several pages on how the Ka`ba ischaracterized in Persian poetry as a female figure and specifically as a bride, but the widow’s descriptions when she reaches the goal of her pilgrimage avoid this gendered approach. Performing the ceremonies of the pilgrimage, she feels washed clean and relieved of her sins. But on leaving Mecca to return to Isfahan, the melancholy of longing returns.

Overall, this is a difficult and abstract text, and Babayan has done a heroic job of providing sufficient historic, cultural, and religious context to support her interpretation of the widow’s relationship with her sworn sister and the forces that might have driven them apart (and tainted the enjoyment of that relationship for the widow).