Skip to content Skip to navigation
Full citation: 

Habib, Samar. 2009. Arabo-Islamic Texts on Female Homosexuality: 850-1780 A.D. Teneo Press, Youngstown. ISBN 978-1-934844-11-3

Publication summary: 

This book makes a good companion volume to Habib's other works as it provides a comprehensive set of the texts she's working with. (The relevant parts of them, at least.) It also includes the text of two lectures that provide background and context for the texts themselves.

Contents summary: 

This work is a compilation of two lectures and a collection of primary texts in translation. The first chapter is a lecture sponsored by Aswat a Palestinian lesbian organization. It discusses issues of identity and especially issues around coming out in modern Islamic society.

Habib delves into the history of social and legal attitudes towards homosexuality under Islam, and especially the basis of condemning and punishing homosexuality. The official (religious) history of this topic makes it fairly clear that the impulse to persecute came first and only afterward did people cast about for justifications for that impulse.

Outside of purely religious literature, early (9-11th c.) texts were far from unified in their approach and many treated homosexuality positively, or at least neutrally. Condemnation specifically of female homosexuality revolves around one specific and questionable hadith [attributed saying of the Prophet] that equates “grinding” with fornication. But internal evidence casts doubt on the authenticity of this text. [At least, its status as an authentic hadith within the context and rules of that genre of texts.] Another modern position considers homosexuality to be a Western import and worth condemning on that basis, but the early Arabic sources clearly contradict this position.

The chapter continues with an overview of mentions of “grinders” in literature, which will not be repeated here as they will be reviewed in detail in later entries.

Contents summary: 

This essay is included in the book in English, Arabic, and French. It concerns itself not with homosexuality as a “problem” but with the articulate and literate voices of the women themselves that shine through the writings, even when mediated through male authors. These voices describe the pleasures and attractions of “grinding” as well as speaking to the social context in which it occurred.

The glimpses of female homosexuality in medieval Arabic society relate closely to modern queer theory in embracing variation and instability of categories. But modern scholars studying them may misunderstand the material and focus on the extremes of hypothetical punishments or attempt to impose an arbitrary periodization on the literature to associate eras with praise or censure of homosexual practices.

The medieval texts focused to a large extent on categorization, trying to understand (and perhaps control) transgressive sexuality by means of cataloging. For example, writers take note of the trope of the hyper-clitoral (or intersex?) lesbian, similar to the motif found in Western sources. But neither “negative” or “positive” texts can be read straight-forwardly. Within a given author’s work, both may be used to explore (and sometimes to disprove) these popular but fictitious tropes.

Contents summary: 

An Appendix of Texts from the Arabian Middle Ages Concerned with Female Homosexuality

”On the Mention of Grinding and Grindings” in al-Yemeni, Ahmad Bin Mohamad Bin Åli (d. 850).

Explains the nature of “grinding” and the vocabulary.

Notes the hadith the equates grinding with fornication.

Gives the story of Hind credited as the first “grinder”.

Gives the story of Rughum and Najda (tragic lovers).

There are two types of grinders: those who do not hate the penis and those who reject it utterly. Among the first type, motivations for taking up grinding include: physical incompatibility, lack of sexual satisfaction with men, unavailability of men, to avoid pregnancy or scandal, initially as one subordinate to a grinder who then comes to prefer it. The second type is called Mutathakeera (a “masculine” woman). From an early age she competes with men and refuses to submit to them. She is jealous and protective of women. Some claim she has an enlarged clitoris and that when she engages in sex with women both enjoy a greater pleasure than with men, but the author contradicts this claim and says that it’s only that men are ignorant of the clitoris and if they paid more attention to it sex with them would be just as good. A Mutathakeera may sometimes enjoy sex with a specific man (especially a beardless boy) but this doesn’t negate her general rejection of men.

A conversation between a Mutathakeera and a woman she is courting who is afraid of pregnancy but still prefers sex with men. (The “straight” women in the next few examples are identified by the word mutaqeeya and in this example it’s suggested that this means “a woman afraid of pregnancy”, but it isn’t clear whether the word specifically means “a woman who might participate in grinding due to fear of pregnancy but who otherwise prefers men” or simply “a heterosexual woman”.) Both parties present their cases at length, including quotations of poetry. The difference of opinion is treated politely as a matter of taste and differences in what gives pleasure, rather than as a moral matter or a claim that one way is universally better than the other. The heterosexual woman offers to introduce the grinder to a beautiful beardless youth she might find esthetically acceptable.

Another exchange, both of poetry and erotic artwork, between a grinder and a Mutaqeeya each arguing the pleasures of their preference. The grinder’s offering includes a very poetic description of oral sex with a comparison to a thirsty person drinking from a well. This image is then used to protest that if it is lawful (halal) for a thirsty person to drink, how could it be forbidden (haram) to enjoy this pleasure?
Examples of poetic criticisms of grinding from male viewpoints, using metaphors like “a war without weapons” and “shield banging against shield”

Contents summary: 

Al Jaheth (ca. 860) quoting Muthana Bin Zuhair

An extended catalog of different combinations of gender preference and preferred sexual roles using the behavior of pigeons to assert that all similar human combinations are natural (though there is loaded language used in describing some of the behaviors, such as “depravity”). The following descriptions are of pigeon behavior (with the implication of analogous human behavior.) Some females desire only their male mates. Other females who have a mate will also allow other males access. A female may mount males and another female may mount females. Some female pigeons will only mount other females and will not allow them to mount her. Some male pigeons will mount another male and then allow the other to mount him. Some males will mount anything they encounter, and some females will allow access to any other, male or female.

Contents summary: 

A satiric poem from a man to his female rival for his beloved, using metaphors such as “you can’t patch a hole with a hole” and “what use is a hammer without a handle?” to argue the superiority of heterosex over grinding.

An anecdote about the female entertainer Bathal who, when singing to a male client, substituted a lyric in praise of "grinding" (sex between women). Her client contradicted her, but then requested that she finish the song and offers more lyrics that are in favor of grinding.

Contents summary: 

An extensive legal/religious discussion/debate on the question of whether grinding [sex between women] is forbidden. The debate is largely framed as a discussion by “the father of Mohamad”.

He reviews various positions on whether female homosexuality is forbidden or permitted. Is it fornication? Is it worse than fornication? Is it not fornication at all? The conclusion is that it isn’t fornication because fornication is specifically define as unlawful penis-in-vagina sex.

The prohibitions against grinding are ascribed to tradition and not to God. But the discussion continues to argue that sex between women is prohibited under the general concept of male rights to a woman’s body (and especially her genitals). So, for example, a woman’s genitals should be exposed only to her spouse (or hypothetical future spouse) and therefore she should not expose them to another woman during sex. Similarly, the right to see a woman’s skin belongs exclusively to her Mahram (close male relative or husband). Sex between women violates this exclusive right, but also creates the potential for one woman’s husband to vicariously “see” his wife’s female lover’s nakedness if the wife describes it to him.

There is also a discussion of prohibitions on “resembling” the opposite sex, presumably including cross-dressing.

Contents summary: 

An “origin story” whereby men turned away from God and began treating women badly, at which a devil came to the women disguised as a woman and taught them grinding. (With the implication that they wouldn’t have been tempted if the men had treated them better.)

Contents summary: 

A catalog of reasons why women might take up grinding, essentially identical to the one given in al-Yemeni: due to physiological or esthetic issues, because she is slow to climax with a man, because of pain on intercourse, because she prefers smooth-cheeked kisses, because she has a dominant “masculine” personality.

Contents summary: 

He calls grinding an “illness” and offers various possible causes, including having an “inverted womb” (a variant on the clitoral hypertrophy motif), or a mis-match between the shape of a woman’s vagina and the shape of the penis. Another possible cause he lists is the mother’s diet during breast-feeding. Some women pick up the habit from having sex with concubines. Another explanation is that grinding is a natural appetite, derived from a variant of humoral theory.

There is an extensive discussion of grinder sub-culture where they identify themselves as “witty ones” (Tharaf) and use this as a code word for discussing other grinders. They romance each other more intensely than men do and are lavish with gifts. They use a great deal of perfume and are fastidious in their clothing, furniture, food, and other possessions.

There are a couple of extended descriptions of specific sexual techniques and their associated behaviors, especially sweet-talk and other verbal behaviors such as groaning and screaming at orgasm.

An anecdote is given of an Egyptian judge who spied on a pair of grinders and wanted to join them, but they played a trick on him and humiliated him.

A joke about a man who wanted to know “how grinders do it”, who was told to sneak quietly into his own house to find out.

Mention of the fear of pregnancy as a motivation.

Quotations from a famous poet, Warda, who praises grinders and their activities. More excerpts from poetry, referencing how grinding is better than the risk of pregnancy and disgrace.

A selection of poetic and philosophical discussions between grinders and their former loves who turned to preferring men.

Condemnation of grinding from men, using metaphors of incomprehension, such as “shield against shield” and “a house without a pillar” or “patching a hole with a hole”.

Contents summary: 

References to legal prohibitions on both female and male homosexuality.

Contents summary: 

A list of religious quotations prohibiting grinding as fornication.

Prohibitions on effeminate men and masculine women.

Contents summary: 

A satire on a woman, accusing her of being a grinder.

Contents summary: 

Criticism of a particular tribe as promiscuous, where the women are preoccupied with grinding.