Skip to content Skip to navigation

LHMP #135 Epps 2008 Comparison, Competition, and Cross-Dressing: Cross-Cultural Analysis in a Contested World

Full citation: 

Epps, Brad. “Comparison, Competition, and Cross-Dressing: Cross-Cultural Analysis in a Contested World” in Babayan, Kathryn and Afsaneh Najmabadi (eds.). 2008. Islamicate Sexualities: Translations Across Temporal Geographies of Desire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-03204-0

Publication summary: 


This collection of papers came out of a workshop that brought together a cross-section of scholars from various disciplines to explore aspects of same-sex practice and desire in the Islamicate world. “Islamicate” is a relatively new term coined (in parallel with “Italianate”) to describe people, cultures, and practices in regions dominated or strongly infuenced by Islam, without the implication that specific individuals are necessarily Muslim or that the cultures and practices are being considered in a religious context or that they represent “Islamic culture” in a definitional sense. The papers in this collection primarily focus on literary representation. There is no implication intended that any one study represents the Islamicate world as a whole, and the variety of representations and practices is emphasized. As is usual with a collection of this type, I have covered only those papers pertaining to women.

Epps, Brad 2008 “Comparison, Competition, and Cross-Dressing: Cross-Cultural Analysis in a Contested World”

I confess I'd been hoping for a bit more new-to-me material from this collection. The article from Amer is simply a re-working of a portion of her book, and this one by Epps is more of a met-analysis of how to view such material, rather than bringing in new material relevant to the Project. (The collection has a lot more male-oriented material, as usual.) The final article that I'll be covering next week is a new topic, although falling more in the realm of friendship between women than desire.

* * *

Epps considers themes in stories from The Thousand and One Nights that compare and contrast gender, particularly in terms of evaluating gendered ideas of beauty, and cultural framings of gendered responses to another’s beauty. The initial discusion covers a debate between two jinn (one male, one female) regarding whether boys or girls are more beautiful. On test that is suggested is which gender is least able to control themselves sexually on seeing the other. I.e., that greater beauty will more easily overcome self-control in the other.

The jinns test this theory by bringing together Qamar al-Zaman, the son of a sultan, and Princess Budur, with the consequence that the two fall in love (and Budur’s loss of control gives victory to the male side of the argument). Having settled their debate, the jinns return Budur to her home and her pining sets in motion the gender-bending part of the tale that Sahar Amer has covered previously. Budur’s gender disguise to go in search of Qamar (taking on his name and identity to do so) finds herself manoevered into marriage to another princess before the real Qamar appears and marries both of them.

Epps, while noting that this later episode involves a fair amount of explicit physical affection between the two, reviews other researchers’ arguments against Amer’s framing of it as a “lesbian interlude”. Specifically, viewing cross-dressing as purely a literary trope with no implications for sexuality, and arguments on both sides that treat homosexuality as an objective category in medieval Arabic society. From there, Epps moves to the problems of vocabulary versus category in both Arabic and Western history, particularly as employed by modern historians.

The analysis then moves on to a cross-dressing episode in Don Quixote and additional discussion of the problems that arise from historians’ personal agendas influencing their interpretations. Overall, this is an article far more concerned with historiography than history, and the theoretical discussions get quite dense.

Add new comment