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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #41 - Murray 1997 "Male Homosexuality, Inheritance Rules, and the Status of Women in Medieval Egypt: The Case of the Mamluks”

Full citation: 

Murray, Stephen O. 1997. "Male Homosexuality, Inheritance Rules, and the Status of Women in Medieval Egypt: The Case of the Mamluks” in Islamic Homosexualities - Culture, History, and Literature, ed. by Stephen O. Murray & Will Roscoe. New York University Press, New York. ISBN 0-8147-7468-7

Publication summary: 

It is an unfortunately useful rule of thumb that any academic collection that both includes the word “homosexual” in the title and is edited solely by men will tend to be oblivious to the existence of lesbians. Fortunately, Murray & Roscoe’s Islamic Homosexualities does not follow that rule of thumb. The collection is a bit of an odd combination of historic studies and modern ethnographic work. Another somewhat unusual feature is that 2/3 of the contents are authored (or co-authored) by one or the other of the editors. To the best that I can tell (based purely on authors' names), the only authors that themselves come out of Islamic cultures are in the section on modern ethnographic work. Overall, although the editors seem to have made a sincere attempt to include diversity both in their topics and authors, it has a tacked-on feel. Despite that, the collection includes 5 articles that contain and least some material relevant to the LHMP. The first two I’ll present have a brief mention of lesbians in the context of articles primarily covering male topics. Next week I’ll finish up with the other three articles. One is the sole article focusing on lesbians as the primary topic, the other two being ethnographic studies of recognized cross-gender roles for women in specific Islamic societies where there is not an expectation of same-sex sexual activity.

Murray, Stephen O. 1997. "Male Homosexuality, Inheritance Rules, and the Status of Women in Medieval Egypt: The Case of the Mamluks”

The reference to lesbians in this article is only as a post-script to the main discussion and is rather downplayed by the author. There is always a tension between looking for historic evidence of lesbian relationships and acknowledging that the motif of lesbianism is often used as a political fiction (within a culture) or a byproduct of “exotic orientalism” (from an outside observer). In this case, Murray emphasizes the pattern of disconnect in Islamic sources between women’s cross-gender behavior and women’s sexual activities with each other. In the context of the LHMP, this lack of correlation isn’t as relevant as it would be in a purely historic context. All is grist for the mill!

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The article concerns the interrelationships in the Mamluk military caste between the lack of an ability to pass on inheritance, the relatively high status of women, and a general acceptance of homosexuality (among men). At the end of the article is an appendix discussing cross-gender behavior and possible evidence for lesbianism among women in the Mamluk community. One author (Mervat Hatem), discussing 18-19th century Mamluks in Egypt, notes “Lesbian women in Mamluk harems behaved like Mamluks, riding pedigreed horses, hunting, and playing furusiya (chivalrous) games. They are also said to have indulged in debauchery and wine drinking ....” But Murray has doubts that the evidence behind this description supports a conclusion of lesbianism as opposed to cross-gender activity and notes several weaknesses in the reasoning behind the conclusions. Hatem’s data, however does look like a good lead on lesbian-like behaviors that subverted gender roles.

Time period: 

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