Love between women in medieval Arabic literature

Love between women in medieval Arabic literature

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We often hear that Islamic Law (Sharia) imposes harsh punishments on same-sex acts. It is true that these punishments are prescribed in legal texts, but in reality, they were rarely applied. If we instead read other texts, we find that same-sex love was often tolerated, sometimes even cherished, especially in poetry by male poets who express their love for younger men or adolescent boys. If we look closer, however, we will also find depictions of love between women.

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Figure 1: The front cover of Pernilla Myrne's most recent book, showing a twelfth-century bowl from Fatimid Egypt depicting a female dancer

According to the ninth century Arab historian Ibn al-Kalbi, Hind bint al-Nuʿman, a pre-Islamic princess, was the first Arab woman who fell in love with another woman. Her beloved was the legendary Zarqa al-Yamama, a woman with miraculous sight. Her name, zarqa means ‘blue-eyed’, but her eyes were more than that: she could see from a very far distance. One day, she spotted an enemy tribe advancing towards the place in al-Yamama where she lived and warned the others. Nobody believed her, and her people were massacred. She herself was taken captive by the raiders, who tore out one of her eyes and found that its veins were black. She died a few days after this violent treatment, and when Hind got the news, she withdrew to a convent and stayed there until she died.

Obviously, the story about Hind is fiction; tragic love was a popular theme in the medieval Islamic world and there were many stories about love with unhappy, even disastrous, endings. The names of loving couples were familiar to everyone, Majnun and Layla, Jamil and Buthayna, Urwa and Afra, Qays and Lubna, Kuthayyir and Azza, and all the others. Ibn al-Nadim, a bibliographer who lived in Baghdad in the tenth century, gives the names of eleven lost stories with female love couples, with names such as Ruqayya and Khadija, Sukayna and al-Rabbab, Salma and Suʿad. Apparently, even if these stories were fictitious, love between two women was not conceived as different from love between a woman and a man. This is illustrated by a tragic story quoted in the etiquette manual al-Muwashsha, written in Baghdad in the early tenth century. The author, al-Washsha (d. 936), presents it as an example of unfulfilled love and suffering leading to death, one of his favourite themes. Remarkably, however, this particular story is a love triangle: a young woman loves a young man but the young man loves a female singer, who in turn loves the young woman. The young woman’s father, the narrator of the story, was present, together with the young man, when the singer performed a song about suffering in love. The sad song broke the young man’s heart and caused his immediate death. When she heard this, the narrator’s daughter perished and so did the singer, in turn, upon hearing about the fate of her beloved. Thus, three people died from lovesickness, an utterly tragic ending which demonstrated the power of love, regardless of the sex of the lovers.  

Between law and social norms
Does this mean that same-sex love was considered unproblematic? According to medieval Islamic law, homosexual acts constituted adultery and were therefore criminal. The stipulated penalties were harsh, especially for acts between men, which were considered capital crimes if the culprits were (or had been) married. Female same-sex acts were considered less serious crimes by most jurists and were punished by flogging instead of stoning to death. There is a paradox here, as representations of same-sex love were quite common and, as mentioned above, not necessarily considered negative. Several historians have highlighted the inconsistencies between the harsh attitudes towards homosexual acts in Islamic law and the fact that especially male homoerotic desire was a common motif in literature in the Islamic world, not the least in poetry. However, we do not know how often these harsh punishments were imposed, if at all, in medieval Islamic societies. They required the testimony of four witnesses, who must have seen the sexual act, and false accusations were considered crimes. Few documents have survived from this early era, but court records from the Ottoman period show that harsh punishments for adultery were extremely rare, if inflicted at all, and that adultery was seldom punished.

Indeed, there seems to have been a discrepancy between law and social norms when it came to same-sex relations. There were even specific sections devoted to same-sex relations in Arabic sex advice manuals, a thriving genre from the tenth century to the modern period. The earliest such manual, the late tenth century Encyclopaedia of Pleasure contains several chapters on different types of love and intimate relations. The only thing we know about the author is his name, Ali ibn Nasr al-Katib. When discussing different types of love relationships, he divides between male-female, male-male and female-female love and devotes a chapter to each of these relations. He introduces the chapters by letting proponents of the three main categories defend their positions in a section of short poems. They begin with the assumption that the reader might want to know who would be the happiest, “a man who has captured a woman, a young man who has captured a gazelle, or a woman with another woman, who do not desire men”.  The first to answer is a woman, who defends her desire for women:

We are two women and sisters, who are equal in our reunion
One at the time, we mount pleasure when we are together
Let every derider leave us alone, we are above to men

The second to answer, a male poet, defends his love for a boy, who he claims is beautiful like a gazelle. The third poet, also a man, defends the love between men and women, claiming that people who are attracted to the opposite sex have the advantage of being able to enjoy sexual relations both legally and illicitly. By this statement, he alludes to the fact that the other poets are confined to illicit sex. The male poet who explains his preference for boys does so in terms of his lover’s outstanding beauty and social competence. It is noteworthy that the female poet, instead, declares that she and her girlfriend (‘sister’) are equal, they take turns in satisfying each other.

" "Figure 2: Excerpt from the oldest surviving manuscript of the Encyclopedia of Pleasure (Ayasofya 3836). The title of this section reads 'Lovers' Ways to Have Intercourse." Below is a diagram of the three main categories, from left to right 'man and woman', 'man and boy', and 'woman and woman'. Source: author

Sexual pleasure
The word sahq, which means ‘rubbing’ or ‘grinding’, is the term for a sexual act performed by two women. Other words from the same root are used as well, namely sihaq and musahaqa. The woman who prefers this activity is referred to as a sahhaqa, meaning ‘someone who rubs’. The female poet quoted above declares herself a sahhaqa. She is also called a lady (mutazarrifa), which is a word that seems to refer both to a women’s social standing, she belongs to the upper class, and to her behaviour, she is stylish and sophisticated. The plural, ladies (mutazarrifat), seems to refer to a subgroup in society, whose members, for different reasons, have renounced male company, at least temporarily. A whole chapter is devoted to these women in Encylopaedia of Pleasure. In a number of poems and verbal exchanges, often bawdy, women defend their choice to engage in sex with women against the argument that heterosexual sex is better, and explain why they have chosen to engage in it.

The author also quotes different explanations for this preference. The Arab physician Ibn Masawayh (777-857) is supposed to have said that the preference for ‘rubbing’ is caused by certain vegetables and herbs eaten by the mother or wet-nurse while breastfeeding. He mentions especially celery and arugula. The philosopher and scientist al-Kindi, also from the ninth century, is supposed to have claimed that this preference is a natural desire emanating from an ulcer-like condition inside the labia, which generates vapours that in turn generate heat and an itching sensation. The only way to recover from this condition, to soften the ulcer and cool the heat, is by scratching and ejaculation. The female sperm (physicians took for granted that both women and men had sperm) that is generated from tribadism is very cold, in contrast to the sperm that is generated from heterosexual intercourse, which is hot. Therefore, it is only rubbing that can recover this condition, as only a cold sperm can cool down the heat. Another physician, Qusta ibn Luqa (820-912), suggested that same-sex desire is a natural characteristic that has to do with variations in human temperament. The author of the encyclopaedia, Ali ibn Nasr, also gives a sociological explanation. Some women choose rubbing for fear of losing their virginity before marriage and good reputation or for fear of pregnancy. This claim is demonstrated by a few anecdotes and three poems attributed to women. The first poem is directed to a female beloved, called ‘sister’:

How much we have practiced rubbing, my sister! For a long time
and it is still more enjoyable and concealed than the inserting of penises and pregnancy,
the knowledge of which would please the enemy and, worse than that, the censure of the blamers.
We are not imposed hadd punishment for rubbing, as for adultery,
even though it is more desirable for women who take the active role.

This is, in fact, the only instance in this chapter when a lesbian sexual encounter is described in terms of active/passive dichotomy. The poet refers to women “who take the active role”, which means that some are passive. This contradicts the statement made in the poem above, that women take turns when having sex with each other, and are equal in their reunion. The poet makes a strong argument for lesbian intercourse, however: it does not lead to unintended pregnancy, which in turn provokes gossips and censure for unmarried women. Pregnancy is also the ultimate proof of fornication, for which there is a harsh penalty in Islamic law. Many jurists supported the claim that women who have sex with women do not have hadd punishment imposed upon them, which was prescribed for crimes against God. Notably, the poetic persona has not chosen rubbing only because it is safer; she also claims that it is more pleasurable, especially for a certain category of women – those who like to take the active role. Avoidance of pregnancy is the excuse for engaging in rubbing in the next poem, which accentuates the dire consequences for girls of losing their virginity.

I was content with my beloved woman and refused something the consequences
of which make a noble woman condemned,
when they say, ‘She is pregnant!’ May bastards, making me unhappy, be far off!
What would be my excuse to my parents if fornication had cut the ropes of my virginity?

In another poem, the poetic persona admits that she began practicing rubbing to avoid pregnancy, but found it satisfying and therefore continued to practice it. It also hints at the understanding of lesbianism as being more than a practice. It is a lifestyle that makes her part of a female community:

I drank wine for love of romance and embarked on rubbing for fear of pregnancy.
I slept with my beloved in private and surpassed men in performing well.
As long as rubbing satisfies me, I am content with it and reject men.

Other poets in the chapter on female same-sex desire defend rubbing for the sole reason that it is more pleasurable, regardless of whether it is safer or not. They exclude men, not only as objects of desire, but also as active participants. The happiness promised by rubbing is out of reach for men, who are excluded from participating. But according to the following verse, beardless men – boys and eunuchs – are likely to desire this type of sexual encounter:

May the pleasure of life be granted those who practice rubbing until the Day of Judgment.
If men tasted it, they would not refrain, but the one who desires rubbing has never had a beard.

To practice rubbing, according to the following poem, means belonging to a sisterhood, in which rubbing is compared favourably to penetrative sex, called ‘fucking’ (nayk).

By God, rubbing is what we yearn for, my sister; fucking is nothing but futility.
Rubbing is preferred for us white, eloquent, and laughing women,
So renounce fucking and similar things, for fucking is falseness.

Who were the ‘white, eloquent and laughing women’, a group to which the poetic persona belongs? The epithet ‘white’ indicates that the poet belongs to a group of women who do not have to go out in daylight, to work like women from the lower classes or do errands like an ordinary slave girl. They are ladies, eloquent and laughing, meaning they are skilled in improvising poetry and mastering the language, while at the same time enjoying bawdy poetry and other amusements. Their male equivalents, famous poets, such as Abu Nuwas, wrote poems about their drinking sessions, not in the least at the taverns. The women in their company are generally supposed to be courtesans and prostitutes, women who depend on men for their incomes. When the poetic persona instead, albeit humorously, calls on her sociable female friends to renounce sexual relationships with men, she also evokes the world of the taverns, where men and women seemingly associate freely, but where women, depending on the men for their livelihood, have to adjust their feelings and preferences.

Eventually, according to Encyclopaedia of Pleasure, female same-sex relationships could be a refuge from male domination as well as a pleasure, a preference and a sisterhood, as well as a natural variation. We do not know who wrote the poems quoted in the encyclopaedia and if they are born from real life situations. However, there are similar depictions in other premodern Arabic books, even though not as many as of male same-sex relationships. In all, it is likely that same-sex relationships, female as well as male, were tolerated at certain times and in certain milieus.

Pernilla Myrne works at the University of Gothenburg. Her research focuses on women’s history and sexuality in the premodern Islamic world. She is currently examining medieval sex advice manuals written in Arabic.