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Full citation: 

Murray, Stephen O. & Will Roscoe eds. 1997. Islamic Homosexualities - Culture, History, and Literature. 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.

Contents summary: 

As the article title indicates, this primarily focuses on men. The bulk of the article focuses on a treatise on love titled “The Dove’s Neck-Ring about Love and Lovers”, written by Ibn Hazm in 10th century Spain. Ibn Hazm includes a scattering of anecdotes and discussions of love between men in a greater preponderance of heterosexual material, but also contains a single reference to love between women. The item is short enough to be worth invoking fair use and quoting Crompton’s paragraph in full:

"This chapter also contains Ibn Hazm’s sole reference to lesbianism. “I once saw a woman,” he tells us, “who had bestowed her affections in ways not pleasing to Almighty God.” But her love changed to an “enmity the like of which is not engendered by hatred, or revenge, or the murder of a father, or the carrying of a mother into captivity. Such is Allah’s wont with all those who practice abomination” (Ibn Hazm 1953:249). But again, Islamic references to lesbianism were apparently not always this condemnatory. At least a dozen love romances in which the lovers were women are mentioned in The Book of Hind, who was herself an archetypal lesbian. The ninth century produced a lost Treatise on Lesbianism (Kitab al-Sahhakat) (Bosworth 1954-5:777b; Foster 1958:84-85) and later Arab works on eroticism contained chapters on the subject. In this respect they are perhaps unique in pre-modern literature.”

Contents summary: 

This article provides a brief historic survey of evidence regarding love between women in Islamic societies. Classical treatises on sexual transgression discuss tribadism (sahq) from a male perspective. There are occasional comparisons to male homosexuality, but in general the two are considered distinct, except generally as vices. Popular imagination, (especially in western accounts) considered lesbianism common in harems. The 16th century Venetian, Ottaviano Bey, comments that lesbianism was common (and discouraged) enough in the harem of Suleiman the Magnificent in Constantinople that the women were only allowed sliced cucumbers lest they use the vegetables to "play the wanton with each other". The mid 20th century collection of supposedly historic practices written by Allen Edwardes claims lesbianism was common in harems, including tribadism, cunnilingus, and dildos. But he fails to give sources or even specific historic contexts. A 17th century account notes that the harem of the Persian Satava shah 'Abbas went hunting with him dressed "as Amazons" though sexual activity between them is not mentioned. One modern researcher on Arabic gender variance discounts an association of sex between women with gender transgression or with the adoption of male-female or active-passive roles within the relationship. Women adopting masculine dress and activities certainly occurs but is not considered to correlate with lesbianism. Such gender transgression provoked both positive and negative reactions, and reports are more common in early sources (7-8th Islamic centuries, i.e., 13-14th centuries CE) when seclusion was less rigorous. The works of several lesbian poets are either recorded or commented on. Lesbianism is noted as being tolerated or sought as it reduces sexual demands on men and eliminates risk at pregnancy. One inspiring description by 12th century writer Sharif al-Idrisi of what is framed as a lesbian orientation (rather than situational activity) is worth quoting in full.

There are also women who are more intelligent than others. They possess many of the ways of men so that they resemble them even in their movements, the manner in which they talk, and their voice. Such women would like to be the active partner, and they would like to be superior to the man who makes this possible for them. Such a woman does not shame herself, either, if she seduces whom she desires. If she has no inclination, he cannot force her to make love. This makes it difficult for her to submit to the wishes of men and brings her to lesbian love. Most of the women with these characteristics are to be found among the educated and elegant women, the scribes, Koran readers, and female scholars. (from Walther 1981)

Just for the sake of triangulating translations, here’s the same passage as quoted in Jacqueline Murray (1996) taken from Jacquart & Thomasset 1988 as translated by Matthew Adamson:

There is a certain category of women who surpass others in intelligence and subtlety. There is a great deal of the masculine in their nature, to such an extent that in their movements, and in the tone of their voice, they bear a certain resemblance to men. They also like being the active partners. A woman like this is capable of vanquishing the man who lets her. When her desire is aroused, she does not shrink from seduction. When she has no desire, then she is not ready for sexual intercourse. This places her in a delicate situation with regard to the desires of men and leads her to Sapphism. [The final sentence from the previous version is not included in this quote.]

An 18th century western writer, de Busbecq, notes the women's baths as a reputed site of lesbian activity. Male writers (historic and modern) often framed lesbian activity as situational and due to lack of access to men. More casual references to lesbian activity can be hard to interpret, especially when recorded by cultural outsiders, and rarely are sufficient to identify a distinct social category or role. Isolated mentions of women dressing and acting socially as a man in descriptions of 20th century Islamic cultures rarely involve the social access to determine is if lesbianism is also involved. The article includes the image of a 17th century Mughal (Indian) painting depicting what one hopes is a symbolic representation of lesbian activity involving a didlo shot as an arrow. Murray also references the articles by Westphal-Hellbusch and Dickemann in this collection, which will be covered separately. The author notes that modern sexually-repressive attitudes in Islamic cultures have made discussion of lesbianism (or other transgressive sexual and gender practices) very difficult.

Contents summary: 

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.

Contents summary: 

Although this article concerns itself with evidence from 20th century ethnographic work, a number of researchers have suggested that the evidence of folklore and earlier historic references indicate that a recognized role of this type previously existed much more widely in various European cultures. (See, e.g., Clover 1995 covered previously.) The “sworn virgins” represent a trans-gender role, although one expressed with a broad range of variation in gender expression and identity. The basic characteristics of the role are: a woman elects or is selected to fulfill a masculine social role and swears to forego sexual relations with men. The context generally requires that there be no brothers--a situation that creates a functional void in the family structure of the strongly-patriarchal and gender-segregated traditional societies in which the role occurs. The need for a “surrogate son”, although significant, is not the only motivation and marriage-avoidance or the desire to provide support for a widowed mother are also cited, and in individual cases a childhood preference for male gender performance was mentioned. The “sworn virgins” typically wear male dress, perform male occupations, and are given the social privileges of men (and may participate in misogynistic language and practices). Other gender attributes may vary: they may take on male names or retain female ones, they may use (or be referred to) using male pronouns or female ones. Officially, the disavowal of sexual relations with men was permanent, however there are anecdotal cases of later reversals or covert sex with men. The available evidence for relations with women is scanty, but again there are anecdotal cases of two sworn virgins becoming “blood sisters” and forming a household together, as well as more common acknowledgment of sexual attraction to women and some cases of marriage to women or regular sexual liaisons with women. In at least one case, one of these couples is described as identifying as lesbian. But romantic or sexual desire/activity with women was not considered a core aspect of the role.

Contents summary: 

This article is primarily a mid-20th century case-study of one particular woman from an upper-class clan of southern Iraq who is a poet and lives as a “mustergil”, that is, a woman living as a man. The informant reports that there are perhaps fifty women in her clan alone living as mustergils. The description of this category with its characteristics and range of variation is similar to that of the “sworn virgins” described in Dickemann 1997, except that -- as presented -- the motivation for entering this life is personal choice rather than a structural void in the family created by a lack of sons. This specific woman reported that she had felt inclined to live as a man from an early age, but there is no indication in the article that personal inclination was the universal motivation, and no real discussion of the extent to which parental permission was involved. The woman has not taken on all attributes of a male role, retaining some female garments and sticking to female religious activities. (For that reason, and based on the language of the article, I have retained female pronouns.) It is noted, however, that some mustergils pass so completely that their original sex is not known until after death.