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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #101a Habib 2007 - Female Homosexuality in the Middle East: Histories and Representations (Part I Ch 1)

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 I - Chapter 1: Introduction

I first ran across reference to Habib's work via a comment on my review of Sahar Amer's book on Goodreads. Since one of my minor anxieties about how much I loved Amer's work was that I didn't know of anyone else working with the same texts so I had no triangulation on her interpretations, I was delighted to discover the even more extensive examination that Habib was doing. And--in the context of the purposes of the LHMP, even more delighted to discover that Habib also writes historic fiction about lesbians in 9th century Baghdad! I have one of her novels on order, and if the gods of UPS are kind, I may be able to include a review of it before I've finished covering the two non-fiction works from Habib that I currently have in hand.

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Part I: Introducing studies on female homosexuality and contemporary critical theory

Chapter 1: Introduction - Contemporary views of female homosexuality in the Middle East

Habib reviews the social and political context of studying both historic and contemporary homosexuality in the Middle East, a study that has been much hampered by religious-based positions that not only identify homosexuality as a sin but consider it inappropriate to study it in a way that would appear to normalize it. [There is one section where she seems to be arguing, not that this religious objection is irrelevant, but that it’s based on shaky theological grounds. This is reminiscent of some of the objections to Brooten’s work--see Halperin 1998--to the extent that it seemed to be arguing for the compatibility of homosexuality with Christian doctrine, rather than treating doctrine as irrelevant to modern social and legal issues.] Emphasis on gender binary in contemporary Arabic cultures means homosexuals often pressured into being treated as transexual and “cured” by gender change.

A survey of historic terminology brings out some of the underlying assumptions and framings of same-sex relations in Arabic-speaking cultures. Unlike Western historical terminology, there is no built-in assumption of an active/passive distinction, although for both men and women there is a distinction between sexual desire and gender presentation. For men, the most common term is luṯi (for a person) and liwaṯ (for the activity), both derived from the Biblical name Lot. For women, the basic term is suĥaq (for the activity) and suĥaqiyya (for the person), both derived from the root saĥq which has a range of meanings around “to grind (as for spices)”, with the image of “grinding saffron” being a traditional poetic allusion. This origin reinforces the understanding of the basic sexual activity between women being tribadism, and the historic literature lacks standard terminology to indicate penetrative sex between women.

Terms indicating transgression of gender presentation include mukhanațh for an effeminate man and mutathakeera for a masculine woman. There are multi-layered social nuances to what these terms indicate, for example a mukhanațh not only has an effeminate presentation and is understood as preferring a passive role in sex, but may be able to live among and socialize with women in a way normally forbidden to men. A mutathakeera has masculine mannerisms and is characterized as competing with men for the affections of women. More clinical terms have been added to modern Arabic, generally as literal translations of Western terminology.

In the next section, Habib reviews the history of the essentialist/constructionalist debate, including the ways in which essentialism has been used both to support and undermine homosexual rights. Her work tends to identify an essentialist position in historic Arabic culture, or at least a nuanced version of it, but she doesn’t argue directly against constructionism. When social constructionist theorists talk about “the modern homosexual” it’s important to note that they’re talking about white Eurocentric culture. [Which, given the premise of social constructionism, should be apparent, but isn’t always foregrounded.] The aim of Habib’s study is to present evidence of a medieval Arabian epistemology of sexuality, desire, and identification as it relates to female homosexuality.

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