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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #101d Habib 2007 - Female Homosexuality in the Middle East: Histories and Representations (Part II Ch 4)

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 4: A close reading of Ahmad Ibn Yusuf Tifashi's Nuzhat al Albab: Toward re-envisioning the Islamic Middle East

This chapter gets into the heart of Habib's research, taking an in-depth look at one of the more extensive treatments of sexual relations between women in medieval Arabic literature and exploring the various attitudes and implications contained in it.

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Chapter 4: A close reading of Aĥmad Ibn Yusuf Tifashi’s Nuzhat al-Albab - Toward re-envisioning the Islamic Middle East

Foucault’s identification of “homosexual identity” with 19th century European culture led to those studying Middle Eastern homosexuality to avoid making connections between the categories lest they be accused of colonialist thinking. More recent work like Murray & Roscoe 1997 [collection is discussed here, article on female homosexuality here] begins to redress this by challenging the presumed historical absence (in Middle Eastern contexts), citing historic descriptions clearly indicating exclusive sexual preference among both men and women.

Other modern writers, in contrast, identify hostility to homosexuals as western and Christian in origin and note that, historically, Islam had generally more sex-positive attitudes. There are plentiful examples of male homoeroticism in Arab-Islamic cultural history, and not only in literary sources. Classical Arabic poetry is rife with this theme. It is more difficult to trace the history of exclusive female same-sex relations, but examples are more plentiful that some sources would lead one to believe. Folk literature with an “amazon” motif provides examples of powerful women rejecting men and desiring only women, although this position is presented as atypical and given a negative spin. The “amazons” are also often present as non-Muslim, and the stories’ resolutions typically involve both a religious and sexual conversion to “orthodoxy”, similar to the heteronormative resolutions found in medieval European literature.

Al-Tifashi belonged to an early 13th century family of scientists and similarly intellectual occupations. This was an intellectual Golden Age in the Islamic world, especially in North Africa and Andalusia. His “scholarly encyclopedia” approach was not intended to provide either titillation or entertainment (as many other discussions of sexuality were). He is concerned with truth and generally provides a detailed “transmission chain” for each of his anecdotes. When expressing a more personal opinion, to the extent that his attitudes can be discerned, they are not negative.

The work was produced in a period that included (if not embraced) female sultans and regents in Egypt and elsewhere. This was just prior to the rise of Mamluk rule in Egypt and the Mongolian conquest farther east. Women were not only prominent in the political realm but a few held positions of religious authority and had a strong presence in scholarly circles.

The lesbian material occurs in a chapter entitled “Fi Adab al Saĥq Wal Musaĥiqat.” As discussed previously, the root “saĥq” is rich in cultural imagery and implications. But another term provides even more nuance and context for how the women understood themselves. Al-Tifashi says that they call each other ṯẖarifa (verb: ṯẖaraf) meaning “a witty woman” and notes, “So if they said that so and so is “witty” then it became known amongst them that she is a grinder [suĥaqiyya].” In later times, public verbal performance became disapproved of in women and was associated with sexual impropriety in general, so this term may have been doubly transgressive. The way the term is described there is an implication that it may have been a covert code-word, implying social networks or communities of women who identified as such.

Al-Tifashi reviews medical discourse which was divided in considering homosexuality natural versus diseased. The specifics of these positions tend to echo the essentialist/constructionalist debate, with the “essentialist” position claiming that natural, inherent desires for same-sex love could not be condemned, while the “constructionalist” position viewed the activity as a chosen licentiousness. When al-Tifashi presents his own views, as opposed to quoting others, he is generally positive in tone. And overall, he presents information that is positive to homosexuality in a more sympathetic light than that which is negative.

The anecdotes indicate public knowledge of female same-sex relationships, which might be criticized for excess (e.g., over-spending on one’s beloved) but do not appear to criticize the nature of the relationship itself. Those identified as ṯẖarifa are said to love beautiful and sensual things and only when this preference is excessive is it frowned on.

In contrast, the literature of legal orthodoxy with regard to bodies emphasizes aspects of power and authority, while the erotic texts focus solely on pleasure. Habib contrasts previous studies of al-Tifashi that selectively filter his evidence in distorted ways to support the author’s biases (in various directions) rather than accepting a historic context that is foreign to modern concerns.

Even texts expressing the reasoning of women who have turned from a female lover to a male one tend to focus on aspects of personal preference rather than right or wrong. In this genre (which includes some rather heartbreaking poetry), there are distinct concepts mapping closely to bisexual versus exclusively lesbian women.

When the literature includes male denunciation of female same-sex relationships it is rooted more in ignorance and phallic privilege (“what could they do together?”) than moral disapproval. This incomprehension is often expressed in martial metaphors: “a war without stabbing”, “shield against shield”. [The connection between this language and some of the imagery in de Forgères’ “Livre des Manières” is explored in Amer 2001.] It is interesting that most of the literary arguments against “grinding” presented in male voices are metaphoric in nature and thus rely for their effectiveness on accepting the premise of the metaphor, e.g., “who would patch a hole with a hole?”

These arguments are in contrast to anecdotal stories of men encountering pairs of female lovers, where the assumption that the women would automatically turn to a man if available is often disproven to the man’s great embarrassment.

Descriptions of sexual techniques used between women focus on clitoral stimulation and there is no discussion of, or vocabulary for, penetrative sex between women. [Note that Habib 2009, which I will cover next, does include some later references to penetrative sex between women.] But their erotic technique went beyond the purely physical. There is an emphasis on an entire ritualized art, including conversation, the verbal expression of arousal, and other techniques that may be taught from one to another.

Poetry in praise of grinding often begins by focusing on its social advantages: that sex with men was forbidden as fornication and risked pregnancy. But the poems often indicated that a woman who began practicing grinding as a safe outlet might come to enjoy it more that sex with a man, and women might come to view men as unnecessary for their pleasure. There is also appreciation for the sensual benefits of sex with women and the elevated aesthetics of communities of grinders who had developed their own traditions of seduction, courtship, praise, and adoration.

Habib spends several pages discussing the poetry of a woman named Warda whose work emphasized the mutual fulfillment and desire felt between women and invoked classical poetic tropes, such as the adaptation of phrases from the Quran to love poetry, in this case using various images in the description of an ideal woman that--taken in context--imply divine sanction for the love of women. Several rather racy passages are quoted at length.

Overall, the evidence presented gives a clear picture of medieval Arabic categories of sexual orientation that could include women with an exclusive orientation toward other women, as well as women equally desiring women or men, and women who preferred men but were open to sex with women. These women express a self-perception of themselves not only as an identifiable class, and one that views themselves as more refined (ṯẖarifa), but also as being a marginalized group who have developed code-words to identify each other and perhaps to conceal their interactions to some extent. This data calls for a revised understanding of Islam’s historic attitude toward homosexuality, noting that the current dominant hostile orthodox position has not been omnipresent throughout time and therefore is not a fixed feature of the faith.

Time period: 

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