A recent article suggests that lesbian activities of women in the medieval Arab world were far more common and open than is commonly believed, or would be considered acceptable in today’s Middle East. In the article, “Medieval Arab Lesbians and Lesbian-Like Women,” Sahar Amer describes the large amount of material related to this topic, as well as the difficulty in accessing some of these records.
Amer, a professor of of Asian and International Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, explains that the topic of lesbianism is described in various medical texts dating back as far as the 9th century, a condition they explain is innate and lifelong. The reason why some women are lesbians was also written about – a 9th century physician named Yuhanna ibn Masawayh, believed that “lesbianism results when a nursing woman eats celery, rocket, melilot leaves and the flowers of a bitter orange tree. When she eats these plants and suckles her child, they will affect the labia of her suckling and generate an itch which the suckling will carry through her future life.”
Arab literature also has several examples of women were involved in same-sex relationships – a catalog from the late 10th century names twelve books which seem to be about two women. One of the more popular stories was that of Hind Bint al-Nu`man, the Christian daughter of the last Lakhmid king of Hira in the seventh century, and Hind Bint al-Khuss al-Iyadiyyah from Yamama in Arabia, known as al-Zarqa’, who were praised by poets and writers for their devotion to each other.
Also, Arabic texts related to eroticism also mention lesbian women. The thirteenth-century Tunisian writer Shihab al-Din Ahmad al-Tifashi describes the local lesbian community, and how these women taught each other various practices. Amer uses this evidence to explain, “Arab lesbians were both named and visible in medieval Arabic literature. Moreover, and in contrast to their status in the medieval West in the same period, for example, Arab lesbians were not considered guilty of a “silent sin,” and there is no clear evidence that their “crime” was punished by death. In fact, lesbianism in the medieval Islamicate literary world was a topic deemed worthy of discussion and a lifestyle worthy of emulation.”
Amer also notes that Islamic legal texts have very little to say about same-sex relations and practices between women, and that perhaps it was considered an acceptable alternative for women in avoiding sex with other men outside of marriage. For example, a 14th century Arab writer, explains, “Know that lesbianism insures against social disgrace…”
The author does point out that “we must not rush to equate the medieval Arabic Islamicate notions of female-female sexuality with modern Western notions of lesbianism and sexual identity, for the very categories of heterosexuality and homosexuality are modern Western concepts, as many scholars have demonstrated, and do not have parallels in the medieval Arabic tradition.” But her research does suggest that scholars should reconsider some of their notions about the social history of the Islamic world during the Middle Ages.
The author also writes about some of the challenges of doing research in this field. Although various writings about sexuality and eroticism were popular in the medieval Arab world, Amer found it difficult to access these texts today. She notes how she had to have a male friend secretly buy a copy of a printed edition of a work called the Encyclopedia of Pleasure from a Cairo bookseller, and that publishers had gone to great lengths to avoid running afoul of government censors, including putting the image of a large red tree on each page.
Sahar Amer’s article, “Medieval Arab Lesbians and Lesbian-Like Women,” appears in the Journal of the History of Sexuality, Volume 18:2 (2009). She has also recently published the book Crossing Borders: Love Between Women in Medieval French and Arabic Literatures.