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  • Medieval Arab Lesbians and Lesbian-Like Women
  • Sahar Amer (bio)

If the absence of a specific terminology to denote lesbianism in medieval Europe seems to have compromised the production of scholarship about same-sex love and desire among women, the existence of the label sahq and sihaqa, musahaqat al-nisa', or sahiqa (Arabic words for "lesbianism" and "lesbian," respectively) in medieval Arabic writings did not result in a richer critical production. In fact, if relatively little research has been conducted on female same-sex desire in medieval Europe, even less has been produced on homosexuality in the medieval Arabic literary or Islamicate tradition, and almost no research at all has been done on medieval Arab Islamicate lesbianism.1 This state of scholarship into alternative sexual practices in the Arab Islamicate world is especially astonishing considering the survival of a noteworthy body of primary texts dealing precisely with this topic. Furthermore, if one broadens the category of medieval Arab lesbian to include women who were "lesbian-like," as Judith Bennett has invited us to do in our construction of the history of Western female homosexuality, we uncover additional expressions of medieval Arab lesbian [End Page 215] presence.2 For indeed, the cultural and social life of some women in certain medieval Arab courts, including their work and lifestyle, may well unveil unsuspected spaces in which same-sex activities might have occurred. If it is not always clear that these practices could be dubbed lesbian, they may well be considered lesbian-like.

Medieval Arab Lesbians

One might argue that the Arabic terms for "lesbianism" (sahq, sihaq, and sihaqa) and "lesbian" (sahiqa, sahhaqa, and musahiqa) refer primarily to a behavior, an action, rather than an emotional attachment or an identity. The root of these words (s-h-q) means "to pound" (as in spices) or "to rub," so that lesbians (sahiqat), like the Greek tribades, are literally those who engage in a pounding or rubbing behavior or who make love by pounding or rubbing. In fact, some medieval medical views of lesbianism, reported in the Arabic sexological tradition, point to rubbing as an essential cause of the practice. Galen, the second-century Greek physician whose own daughter was a lesbian, according to medieval Arabic writers, is supposed to have examined his daughter's labia and surrounding veins and to have concluded that her lesbianism was due to "an itch between the major and minor labia" that could be soothed only by rubbing them against another woman's labia.3 Similarly, according to the famous ninth-century Muslim philosopher al-Kindi:

Lesbianism is due to a vapor which, condensed, generates in the labia heat and an itch which only dissolve and become cold through friction and orgasm. When friction and orgasm take place, the heat turns into coldness because the liquid that a woman ejaculates in lesbian intercourse is cold whereas the same liquid that results from sexual [End Page 216] union with men is hot. Heat, however, cannot be extinguished by heat; rather, it will increase since it needs to be treated by its opposite. As coldness is repelled by heat, so heat is also repelled by coldness.4

In al-Kindi's view, then, the cause of lesbianism is the heat that is generated in the labia and that can be reduced only through friction and orgasm with another woman. Interestingly, it is only friction between two labia that can cure this condition, since it permits the ejaculation of a cold liquid that calms the original heat; the reduction in heat cannot be achieved through intercourse with a man, since the man's liquid is hot and, as al-Kindi points out, "heat . . . cannot be extinguished by heat."

Foreshadowing the medicalization of homosexuality in nineteenth-century Europe, lesbianism in the medieval Islamicate medical tradition seems to have already been regarded as a medical category (though not a deviant one) requiring specific treatment, namely, rubbing. In the ninth century some physicians from the Islamicate world thought of lesbianism as an inborn state caused by the mother's consumption of certain foods that, when passed through the milk during nursing, led to labial itching and lifelong lesbianism. Hence, according to the ninth-century physician...


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