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LHMP #187 Rowson 1991 The Categorization of Gender and Sexual Irregularity in Medieval Arabic Vice Lists

Full citation: 

Rowson, Everett K. 1991. “The categorization of gender and sexual irregularity in medieval Arabic vice lists” in Body guards : the cultural politics of gender ambiguity edited by Julia Epstein & Kristina Straub. Routledge, New York. ISBN 0-415-90388-2

Publication summary: 

A collection of papers on topics relating to non-normative gender and sexuality in history. The Project will cover four of the papers with relevant content.

Rowson, Everett K. "The Categorization of Gender and Sexual Irregularity in Medieval Arabic Vice Lists "

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Western interpretations of variant sexuality in Middle Eastern societies have often been filtered through stereotypes and Orientalism. There can be a fixation on certain key gender-related social differences, such as the harem and the veil. From an early date, Western commentaries have attributed to Islamic societies the acceptance or promotion of self-indulgence, licentiousness, and sexual deviance--views that often say more about Western attitudes than Islamic ones. This article examines certain aspects of the underlying historic reality of the cultural differences that gave rise to those stereotypes, especially as expressed in “lists of vices” in medieval Islamic literature.

Although legal and medical literature in Arabic also touches on sexual variance, these lists and discussions come from a more literary genre, which gives us  better insight into everyday attitudes, at least of their literate, urban, elite, male audiences. The texts are generally encyclopedic works that include stories, proverbs, discussions of literary tropes, and other genres. Not all such works cover sexuality, but in those that do, the structure and organization of the text sheds much light on how their societies viewed gender and sexuality, especially when they strayed into irregular behavior.

The content of the volumes cannot always be assumed to reflect precisely contemporary attitudes, as material that entered the genre, for example, in the 9th century, remained in use unchanged in subsequent collections for the next millennium. New material is added over time, which can provide clues to changes in attitude, but the continuity of material is itself illuminating.

The material covered in this article falls generally under the topic of “profligacy”, that is, behavior that was considered outside societal norms. The literary texts imply a fairly indulgent attitude toward such transgressions, but this cannot be taken literally as indicating indulgence in everyday life. Furthermore, although the author of one of these works may tell stories of profligacy on himself, it can’t be assumed automatically to reflect his actual behavior. But the genre certainly gives evidence for attitudes, especially the humorous material which relies of certain social assumptions and attitudes for its “punchline”.

The humorous anecdotes give evidence for the relative importance of sexual behavior, choice of sexual object, and gender stereotyping. As humor, it pokes fun at those who deviate from approved modes, but without necessarily applying moral judgment. Inappropriate sex was funny but not necessarily immoral. As a literary genre (as opposed to a factual account), the humor could be mitigated by a contrast of desire and action. One might admit personally to inappropriate desires but retain one’s dignity by not admitting to indulging in them. When the humor was directed externally rather than internally, it was more likely to reflect an underlying hostility to the behavior.

As an illustrative example, the author reviews the contents of the 11th century work by al-Jurjānī The Book of Metonymic Expressions of the Litterateurs and Allusive Phrases of the Eloquent, an instruction manual for speaking of indecent or ill-omened topics obliquely. Nine chapters cover sexual matters, in a hierarchical fashion going from the least negative topics to the most negative. The ways that the topics are grouped within these chapters, as well as the hierarchy, give insight into underlying cultural assumptions--in particular, they point up the contrast in Western sexual assumptions with the structures implicit in this text.

The primary focus is on identifying sexually illicit topics, while there is also a cultural assumption that the book’s audience (and therefore the book’s viewpoint) is an adult male whose sexual identity is as someone who takes the active part in penetrative sex. [Note: Although only a small part of the text is relevant to the topic of women having sex with women, it’s useful to have a brief tour of the larger structure.]

The first chapter concerns fornication--that is, a man having penetrative sex with a woman he does not have legal access to. This is followed by three chapters covering other deviations from “normative” sex: failure of the sex act due to male impotence, sex with a virgin, and anal sex with a woman. The next chapter completes the possibilities for illicit penetrative sex: sex with a boy. The book then moves on to non-penetrative sexual activities with a set of topics that might otherwise seem a random collection: inter-crural sex, male masturbation, and sex between women. The common factor, however, is the absence of a penetrative sex act. (Penetration was not considered a typical part of sexual activity between women.) Moving on to less acceptable sexual modes, there is a chapter on an adult man who is the passive recipient of penetrative sex. The last two chapters cover the social context of sex: the question of sexual jealousy (and lack thereof), and the act of pandering (procuring a sex partner for a third party).

For the rest of the article, I’m only going to summarize the section of the one chapter that includes sex between women.

The usual term for sex between women was saḥq literally “rubbing, pounding.” But the metaphoric euphemisms in al-Jurjānī’s work are all male-centered and disapproving (being intended for the use of male poets): “a war in which there is no spear-thrusting”, “a shield with a shield”, “a seashell whose edges close over another seashell”. But at the same time, anecdotes are given that indicate the existence of such relationships. And other euphemisms are given that appear more neutral, such as saying that someone “eats figs” to imply sex between women. [Note: I'm going to guess that this is a image metaphor of a ripe fig that has split open, to display the pink flesh inside, and is specifically a reference to oral sex.]

Another author, al-Rāghib (The Colloquies of the Litterateurs, also 11th century?) has a few more details on the possibilities of sex between women, including the use of dildoes (though this specific element is placed in the chapter on penetrative sex, again showint the hierarchy of concerns--the point isn't the type of partner, but the act of penetration). Al-Rāghib includes an anecdote in which a woman expresses a preference for saḥq over heterosexual sex, but outweighs it with several in which sex between women is presented as a dispreferred option. There is also a general failure to distinguish between female masturbation and sex between women. In general, saḥq is framed as a rejection of men (and typically of penetration in general) and he cites a legendary origin of the practice in pre-Islamic times in a love affair between an Arab noblewoman and the wife of a Christian Arab.

Although sex between men in Arabic sources sometimes involves feminization of the passive partner, there is no indication that sex between women was associated with women taking on masculine traits or dress. Nor is there any reference to an active-passive distinction between women (where such a distinction is critical to the acceptability of male-male relations). There are literary references to women adopting masculine behaviors: wearing male clothing, carrying swords, riding horseback, etc. (more in the 7-8th centuries when the practice of seclusion was less rigorous) but this was not associated in the popular mind with sexual irregularity. One class of ritualized female cross-dressing was the ghulāmīyāt--slave entertainers who dressed like pubescent boys or young men (complete with painted mustaches in some cases)--which were popular in 9th century Baghdad. However this form of cross-dressing was associated with providing pleasure to men who enjoyed sex with boys, not to an adoption of a male role in reference to a female sexual partner. [Note: I have another article coming up in the queue that goes into this topic in more detail.]

Time period: 

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