Skip to content Skip to navigation

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.

Contents summary: 

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.

Contents summary: 

Chapter 2 - Constructing and deconstructing sexuality: New paradigms for “gay” historiography

Cultural context provides both nuance and ambiguity to apparently homoerotic cultural artifacts. There is a genre of Arabic poetry/song continuing through the 20th century where a male singer performs a love song to a linguistically male beloved (ĥabibi). While the genre may well have its origins in homoerotic Andalusian love poetry of the late Middle Ages, it is explained modernly with a number of interpretations that nullify (or at least obscure) this interpretation, such as a perception that directly addressing a woman in an erotic song would be rude or offensive. (This explanation is undermined historically by the prevalence of songs by male authors who didn’t feel the need to make this gender substitution, and the fact that songs in female voices don’t seem to have been expected to make a similar substitution of a female beloved.) The existence of this sort of deflective framing makes the social historian’s job more difficult.

Research alone can’t identify the “truth” of the essentialist/constructionalist debate but can illuminate what historic cultures thought about the two possibilities. For example, a 9th century source describing two types of suĥaqiyya -- some who also love men, and some who reject men entirely from an early age -- indicates an essentialist framing of sexual desire. But conversely, catalogs of “types” of suĥaqiyya that can be converted to preferring men by a particularly skilled and attentive male lover suggest more of a constructionalist frame, or at least one that allows for situational same-sex desire. Study of identifiable emergent “types” of transgressive sexuality in historic Arabic literature show systematic similarities with themes in modern sexual identities (e.g., the “butch lesbian”), which would then fall on the side of an underlying essentialism, not simply in the nature of the desire but the overall expression.

In considering the influence of the frameworks a researcher brings to the topic, Habib notes the contrast between work on “homosexuality” as a monolith, that not only overlooks cultural differences in the past, but inevitably ends up privileging male experiences, and a more topic-focused look, such as Brooten’s study on specifically female data. Even when female data is mediated through male writers, we get glimpses of social realities and contexts in which that data is situated.

Habib offers the example of a 9th century poem appearing in a text by Aĥmad Bin Moĥamad Bin Åli al-Yemeni which he attributes to a suĥaqiyya. It begins with poetic imagery of oral sex but moves on to a plea that surely it cannot be forbidden by God to drink from such a well when one is thirsty. Thus the text both acknowledges and protests against a cultural prohibition against sex between women. The inclusion of such a text by an author who otherwise repudiates homosexual behavior suggests a normalization of the behavior to the extent that he felt the need to recognize and counter such a position. This pluralistic acceptance of a range of viewpoints tends to disappear from Arabic texts after the 1250s, more or less in parallel with a similar shift noted by Boswell in European cultures.

The early Arabic sources intersect with Brooten’s evidence that relationships between women were well known and to some extent normalized in early medieval Middle Eastern culture. A mythic origin story for lesbians is cited by al-Yemeni, who tells of Hind (the wife of a Nestorian Christian king) who fell in love with the daughter of Ĥassan Yamani who described lesbian sex for her, telling her it gave "a pleasure that cannot be between the woman and the man." Having tried it, Hind found the pleasure even greater than expected and their love and desire increased, even though "it had never been so between women before this." (The text skips over the question of where the daughter of Ĥassan Yamani had learned about lesbian sex if it had never existed before!) Hind became an icon of loving devotion and was said to have sat at the grave of the daughter of Ĥassan Yamani after she died, becoming a byword for romantic devotion.

Another early story of a relationship between women gives hints at how the social and family dynamics might play out. Rughum and Najda romanced each other and became lovers, but when Rughum’s brother was taunted for his sister's relationship, he killed Najda and carried off his sister. Rughum then incited Najda’s people to kill her brother in revenge, causing a war. The implications of this story are rich: that women might live in a publicly-known relationship; that this was considered at least somewhat scandalous (although evidently not enough for their families to take spontaneous action); and that a woman might consider such a relationship to take priority over kinship. [Note: Habib has written a historic novel that appears to be based on this story. She has another historical novel A Tree Like Rain but this appears to be out of print currently.]

Habib spends several pages dissecting the methodological debate between Brooten and Halperin then turns to Traub’s call for consideration of a “sophisticated continuism” that goes beyond simplistic versions of both essentialism and constructionalism. As part of this quest for a nuanced notion of underlying essentialism, Habib next turns to studies of homosexual behavior in non-human animals to remove the “cultural construction” aspect of behavior, and then reviews theories of a biological basis for homosexuality. [This is all very broad and far-ranging for a book this short! It’s elements like this that give away the text’s origins in a doctoral thesis.]

Contents summary: 

Part II: The history and representation of female homosexuality in the Middle Ages

Chapter 3: An overview of Medieval literature concerning female homosexuality

Medieval Arabic literature covering sexuality takes note of the diversity of sexual behavior in nature and tends to set up categories as a way of accounting for different varieties of human behavior. The medieval scholar al-Jaĥeṯẖ quotes another author named Muțhana Bin Zuhair who notes “I have never seen [any sexual behavior] in man and woman that I haven’t seen in the male and female pigeons” continuing with a description of various combinations of gender and behavior, including contrasts of exclusive and inclusive sexual preference, and preferences for an “active” or “passive” role, or no preference.

In pre-13th century Arabic literature, religious prohibitions on same-sex activity are noted but not taken particularly seriously. For example, the early 12th century al-Raghib al-Asfahani wrote an encyclopedic work drawing on the adab and mujun genres, Muĥadarat al-Udaba which pays a perfunctory attention to religious prohibitions on homosexuality but presents anecdotal examples of “forbidden” behaviors using relatively neutral language. Al-Asfahani also wrote religious treatises so this was not a case of an unusually secular attitude. When discussing male homosexuality, he specifically notes that relationships are not organized by hierarchies, as with the Greeks, but inspired by “appetites and desires”.

His examples cover both male and female same-sex relations and describe conjunctions of behavior+desire that often align with modern sexual-behavioral categories without sharing the same social context and construction of identity. [That is, Habib observes “bundles” of characteristics related to homosexuality that could not possibly be derived purely from a particular cultural context, and considers this support for the “nuanced continuism” that she proposes.]

Al-Asfahani’s cataloging of male homosexual “types” focuses on sexual desire, sex roles, and gender presentation, whereas the discussion of love and intimacy as a motivation is only present when discussing women. While most sections of his work (not only the ones covering sexual behavior) are prefaced by citations of the religious prohibitions on the activities he’s describing, the section on women’s same-sex relations lacks any such citation. His apparent source text includes such prohibitions in this section, but the ĥadițh in question is dubious and may have been added in later versions of that text. That is, it is possible that al-Asfahani omitted any similar prohibition on women’s activities because he was unaware of any.

Abu Nasr al-Samaw’uli, a mid-12th century writer, discusses female homosexuality with a clinical/medical approach and does not discuss the religious aspects as that falls outside the interests of his text. He provides an encyclopedic catalog of reasons why women might prefer sex with women, such as a different speed of arousal, pain on penetration, an esthetic preference for a smooth face when kissing, having a dominant/masculine personality. Generally, he takes the position that if a particular man can overcome or avoid the specific trigger for a woman’s homosexual preference (e.g., a young beardless man could overcome the preference for smooth cheeks), then the woman will find heterosexual relations acceptable.

One significant difference between the literature on female homosexuality in medieval Europe and medieval Arabia is that the former derives primarily from institutional sources that were highly disapproving and sufficiently removed from their topic to allow doubt about its actual existence. In contrast, medieval Arabic writers covered female homosexuality plentifully and in detail, and were not universally hostile, even in theory.

Ibn Ĥazm (11th century) discussed various conflicting legal positions on lesbian sex, noting that some felt it was permitted as a means of sexual relief that was not counted as fornication. A collections of songs and anecdotes from the 9th century includes an incident involving the famous courtesan Bathal singing a song in which she indicated a preference for “grinding” (i.e., lesbian sex).

But beginning around the 13th century, this relatively open and almost even-handed treatment shifts to one of more formulaic condemnation. The 14th century writer al-Nuwayri gives an account of the “origin” of lesbian sex as being taught to women by the devil, and this theme appears repeatedly thereafter (often in combination with the motivation of male ill-treatment). The uncertainty as to whether Islam prohibited homosexual activity fades and discussions of the topic are focused on compiling the case that it is forbidden. In particular, lesbian activity is reclassified as “fornication”. Ĥadițhs also begin being quoted that condemn cross-dressing (in both directions) in the context of forbidden gender presentations: effeminate men and mannish women.

The chapter continues with a detailed analysis of the chronology and relationships of various writers discussing the status and reliability of several relevant ĥadițhs, and the increasing severity of recommended punishments for transgression. [In this section, I feel that Habib falls into the approach that some accused Brooten of falling into: accepting the premise that religious attitudes toward sexuality have objective validity, but arguing that the traditional interpretation and understanding of those attitudes is flawed.]

Contents summary: 

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.

Contents summary: 

Part III: The history and representation of female homosexuality in the contemporary Middle East

Chapter 5: Contemporary representations of female homosexuality in Arabic literature and criticism

This chapter focuses primarily on the first identified modern lesbian-centered novel written in Arabic: Ana Hiya Anti (I am You). In contrast to the emergence of lesbian literature in the U.S. out of the pulp novels of the '50s, where an emphasis on sensationalism and deviance gradually gave way to more sympathetic portrayals, this novel was written in a context of literary silence, but one where there was a tacit social understanding that homosexuality was a disease and sinful.

The novel focuses on three women coming from various backgrounds who come together in various configurations of desire for each other. Written in multi-cultural Lebanon and published in 2000, it was both an international best-seller and the subject of criticism and debate that often redirected the critics' discomfort with the subject onto critiques of the book's structure and composition. This criticism exposed many of the underlying cultural assumptions about the motivations and “causes” of lesbianism, even when those assumptions were directly contradicted by the novel’s content.

Chapter 6: Some like it luke-warm: A brief history of the representation of (homo)sexuality in Egyptian film

This chapter has an interesting survey of themes and plots of movies addressing non-normative sexuality, but as none of the content addresses historical stories or settings, it doesn’t fall within the scope of this project.