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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #23 – Malti-Douglas 2001 “Tribadism/Lesbianism and the Sexualized Body in Medieval Arabo-Islamic Narratives”

Full citation: 

Malti-Douglas, Fedwa. “Tribadism/Lesbianism and the Sexualized Body in Medieval Arabo-Islamic Narratives” in Same Sex Love and Desire Among Women in the Middle Ages. ed. by Francesca Canadé Sautman & Pamela Sheingorn. Palgrave, New York, 2001.

Publication summary: 


Palgrave is one of the most important academic publishers of work in the loosely-defined field of “queer history”, both monographs and collections such as the present work. As with the collection on singlewomen, I will be blogging all the articles in Same Sex Love and Desire Among Women in the Middle Ages, regardless of their direct applicability to my project. And expect to keep seeing the various authors included here in other publications yet to be covered.

Malti-Douglas, Fedwa. “Tribadism/Lesbianism and the Sexualized Body in Medieval Arabo-Islamic Narratives”

When I started this blogging project, I pledged to make an entry every day during June, to celebrate Pride Month. With this 23rd entry (and 22nd day, since I doubled up on one day) I've fulfilled that pledge. Having gotten a little momentum going, I certainly plan to continue the project, though I may allow myself the occasional lapse. My working spreadsheet currently has 103 publications (either articles or books) and that's only a minor subset of what I have in my bookshelves and file folders of article offprints. And those are only a subset of all the bibliographic citations I have yet to track down and lay hands on. And more scholarship is being done every day in this field. At some point I will convert these entries into a more permanent form on one of my websites, make the keywords searchable (and standardize them a bit more!) and probably return to tackling topic-related summaries that present the material in more digested form. But I once more want to emphasize that my little summaries are only meant to be pointers to the original research, which is far more detailed and nuanced than I can cover here. The purpose of this project is to break down some preconceptions and stereotypes of what the lives of lesbians in history might have been like and -- I certainly hope -- to inspire a few more novelists to find that sweet spot between historical accuracy and satisfying fiction.

Malti-Douglas takes us outside my focus of Europe for the first time (although further articles on Arabic sources will show that there is no bright dividing line here). Medieval Arabic-speaking cultures were far from a feminist paradise, but the concerns and anxieties with respect to women's same-sex relationships were different, allowing us a broader triangulation on the historic possibilities.

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Several of the articles in Same Sex Love and Desire Among Women in the Middle Ages look outside the European sphere that the phrase “Middle Ages” normally implies. Malti-Douglas looks at the language and discorse around lesbianism in medieval Arabic texts, particularly as contrasted with the treatment of male homosexuality which is mentioned extensively in medieval Arabic/Islamic texts. The core text under consideration in this article is the 13th century Nuzhat al-Albâb fîmâ lâ Yûjad fî Kitâb (The Diversion of the Hearts by What is Not to Be Found in Any Book) by the jurist Shihâb al-Dîn Ahmad al-Tîfâshî (henceforth: al-Tîfâshî). The book is a collection of entertaining stories centering around sex, falling more in the “entertainment” side than the “sex manual” side. As such, it is part of a tradition of adab literature that combines entertaining and edifying material, often with verses from the Qur’an, poetry, and sayings of the Prophet, to form a sophisticated whole covering a topic or topics, with a traditional internal structure reflecting the social hierarchy from top to bottom. Women, therefore, and especially women’s same-sex activities come fairly late in the book. Even within the book’s section on sahq (tribadism, from a root meaning “to rub, pound, or make soft”) the material is structured into “stories and poetry”, “arguments in favor”, and “blame.” Presentation of sahq within this structure integrates and normalizes it within the literary genre as a whole.

The article provides a linguistic tour through the Arabic vocabulary for female same-sex relations. Much of it derives from the same root as sahq, such as the reciprocal verb tatasâhaq clearly implying the mutual participation of both women. A different root supplies a more intriging label zirâf, which the women call themselves, meaning literally someone who is witty, elegant, and charming, but used as a codeword. “If they say so and so is a zarîfa, it is then known among them that she is a tribade.” (This is not a fixed meaning, and elsewhere the term is used without sexual innuendo.)

Despite the topic, the material is always filtered through the male gaze and experience of the author al-Tîfâshî and many of the humorous anecdotes focus on male reactions to the women’s activities. One anecdote carries the implication that all (or most) women participate, when man curious about sahq is advised to enter his own house stealthily to learn more. Another focuses on a man’s indifference to his wife’s sexual activities with women as he considers it will better prepare her to appreciate him. But other descriptions and anecdotes build up an image of the lesbian as a distinct subculture with its own habits and practices (or at least its own stereotypes). The women are said to use perfume excessively, to be fastidious in their clothing, and to enjoy having beautiful possessions around them. They love each other more intensely than men love women, and spend large amounts of money on the object of affection. There is some implication of active/passive roles labeled as “lover” and “beloved”, with the “lover” normally taking the top position during sex. (Although an allowance is made for larger body types.)

A later article in this same collection provides more material from al-Tîfâshî.

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