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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #101b Habib 2007 - Female Homosexuality in the Middle East: Histories and Representations (Part I Ch 2)

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.

Part I - Chapter 2: Constructing and deconstructing sexuality

I am amused that I have developed the ability to identify a bookified doctoral thesis at first glance. No criticism of the text, in this! Just that there's a specific idea-shape for a thesis, in terms of breadth, depth, and the drawing in of what appear to be tangential topics that is very different from a non-thesis monograph. In Chapter 2, we get the standard review of the methodological debate for the history of sexuality, but we also get an introduction to the ways in which medieval Arabic data cuts diagonally across that debate.

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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.]

Time period: 

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