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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #40 – Murray 1997 “Woman-Woman Love in Islamic Societies”

Full citation: 

Murray, Stephen O. 1997. “Woman-Woman Love in Islamic Societies” 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. “Woman-Woman Love in Islamic Societies”

I'd originally scheduled this for next Monday, but I'm tired of the little tiny scraps that are all I get from the other articles in this volume.

Of the articles in this collection, this is the only one that focuses specificially on lesbians. (The ethnographic material is more about gender transgression.) For all that historic Islamic culture was just as male-centered and misogynistic as historic Christian culture, and for all that non-heterosexual activity was just as officially frowned on, the difference in how sexual topics are discussed and treated is refreshingly different. There are, however, a number of cultural landmines to beware of around this topic. In particular, the way in which information is framed and filtered should be constantly kept in mind. The historic texts invariably work from a male gaze, and the observations of cultural outsiders carry a miasma of exoticism and orientalism (especially in the streak of prurient interest in the sexual activities of harem residents). A future blog entry (actually, probably a series of entries) will cover more of Sahar Amer's cross-cultural studies of lesbian themes in medieval Arabic and French literature (especially her book Crossing Borders: Love Between Women in Medieval French and Arabic Literatures) which I hope will help balance out the approaches to this topic.

* * *

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.

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