Where has the LGBTIQ+ community been? Had been here! And shall continue to be…
By Cici Mouchart
Love in Bloom
I die of love for him, perfect in every way,
Lost in the strains of wafting music.
My eyes are fixed upon his delightful body
And I do not wonder at his beauty.
His waist is a sapling, his face a moon,
And loveliness rolls off his rosy cheek
I die of love for you, but keep this secret:
The tie that binds us is an unbreakable rope.
How much time did your creation take, O angel?
So what! All I want is to sing your praises.
Abu Nuwas (756-814), a poet embracing same-sex love under the Abbasid Empire
Arabic-speaking countries are not renowned for being LGBTIQ+ friendly. In fact, they are rather notorious for being intolerant towards this issue, as they are largely considered very oppressive and discriminating against the LGBTIQ+ community. Fair enough. But would you believe it if you learned that the region had been a safe haven for homosexuals from medieval to Ottoman times? That the issue was not in any way as controversial as it is today? How come the SWANA region has become so hostile to its LGBTIQ+ citizens? And what are the challenges faced by the community to assert their rights?
First, let us give a historical overview of the region concerning the rights and presence of same-sex relationships and transgenderism. Unfortunately, there is little historical data available on female same-sex relationships, which is why male homosexuality will be more discussed here.
Religion, religion, religion…
As most Arabic-speaking countries justify their unfavorable stance towards homosexuality by both religion and the need to preserve morals, let’s start by looking at what Islam says about the topic. Even though many other faiths exist in the SWANA region, Islam will be the one looked upon as it is the religion having the most weight in political and societal decision-making in most countries of the region.
Like all Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), Islam is not gay-friendly and homosexuality is considered a sin by all schools of Islamic jurisprudence. This is justified in the Qur’an by the story of the people of Lut: inhabitants of two cities who were engaging in same-sex intercourse and non-consensual sex and who refused to cease their activities even after the Prophet Lut came to warn them against their sinful practices. Both cities were quickly “turned upside down” (Quran 11:82), and the story remained the ground justifying Islam’s disapproval of homosexuality and rape. Whereas the people of Lut were condemned because of their sexual orientation, the fact that they were engaging in anal sex and rape, or they did not listen to the Prophet sent by God is however not clear. This leaves some space for scholars to interpret the story in different manners and thus more or less reprobate same-sex relationships. The Qur’an, however, does not mention same-sex relationships between women. Muslim jurists are however hostile to it and consider it haram and punishable.
However, some hadith are clearer about the issue. Indeed, one states that “no man should look at the private parts of another man, and no woman should look at the private parts of another woman, and no two men sleep [in bed] under one cover, and no two women sleep under one cover.” Technically, according to this hadith, two female best friends sleeping in the same bed is forbidden, but what if they use two different covers? And what if two men have sex without looking at each other’s “private parts”? All things can be interpreted differently.
An undiscussable issue, however, is the practice of sodomy with men or women: it is clearly condemned in religious texts. But there is no clear mention of same-sex kissing, love, or other sexual practices, which could thus be considered permissible.
Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that religious texts view sex as a means of procreation, and not as a pleasurable activity, which thus marginalizes same-sex sexual relationships. But could medically assisted procreation be ground to further legitimize rainbow love?
Texts can be re-interpreted and re-modeled to adapt to modern society. Some religious scholars are starting to do that across the world and have initiated designing religiously lawful norms, more tolerant of the Muslim LGBTIQ+ community. There is thus space for hope and change.
The Golden Islamic World or the Golden Homosexuals’ Time?
Despite the reticence expressed in religions towards same-sex relationships, the Islamic world has historically been one of tolerance of homosexuality until the arrival of Western influence in the 20th century. Prohibitive religious norms flirted with a sexually permissive society. Indeed, many texts and paintings prove the existence and acceptance of homosexual relationships in medieval Islamic societies, as well as in the more modern Ottoman times. Depending on the period and the ruler, it was either glorified or sanctioned.
Indeed, a common practice in medieval Islamic times, as well as in Ancient Rome and classical Greece that would be condemned nowadays is pederasty, sexual intercourse between a male adult and a passive adolescent boy. The adult in the relationship was seen as the mentor of the boy and was also often his teacher. The practice was thus normalized and considered part of the natural process of learning. These men and boys were nonetheless not considered homosexuals.
Moreover, male homoerotic feelings were more or less accepted in society and they were most commonly expressed through literature and art. Indeed, the celebration of male-male love in poetry was customary. The work of the renowned poet Abu Nuwas (756-814), still widely studied in schools throughout the Arabic-speaking world, is the best example of homoerotic poetry during the Abbasid rule. Abu Nuwas was not afraid to clearly express his admiration and love for other men. Many of his poems hinting at same-sex love have however been banned from some Arab countries as they refuse to include this reality in their history. For example, in 2001 the Egyptian Ministry of Culture ordered 6000 of his books containing homoerotic poetry to be burnt. Through the vibrant homoerotic medieval literature, the Arabic language has also developed a rich vocabulary to describe male same-sex relationships (liwat, luti, ma’bun, qatim, ubnah).
Homosexual behaviors were also widespread in popular culture; for example, the famous Ottoman karagoz, the main character of popular puppet theater destined both for children and adults sometimes engaged in both active and passive sex with another male character. Moreover, several respected Muslim leaders were known to be gay and tolerated as such as long as they also had a family and would publically conform to heterosexuality. The Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II and the Sultan Mahmud Ghaznawi are examples of when homosexuality was largely socially accepted in Ottoman society.
Not a sexual orientation, but rather a way of being
However, it is important to note that the concepts of “homosexuality” and “transgender” as we know them today have never been used in pre-colonial Muslim societies. Indeed, people engaging in same-sex relationships wouldn’t have automatically defined themselves as homosexuals. Sexuality was much more fluid and open at the time, especially for men, they did not need to label themselves as having a different sexual orientation. The choice of a partner thus depended on taste rather than sexual identity – we could sort of say people were pansexual. Despite that, throughout different Islamic Empires, same-sex relationships were tolerated as sexual relationships, but not as marital or love bonds.
Later on, Westerners encountering these societies were shocked by the widespread same-sex sexual practices; the concept of homosexuality as a sexual orientation was thus brought by the latter to classify these practices and the people engaging in them. Several gay European artists and writers like André Gide and Oscar Wilde actually traveled to various Arab countries in the 19th and 20th centuries to break free from homophobic Europe. They found in these countries a more permissive society regarding their sexual orientation, as well as a possibility to easily find partners.
Transgenderism is not explicitly mentioned in the Qur’an but the somewhat equivalent concept of mukhannath is referred to in the hadith. Nevertheless, the Qur’an acknowledges that some people are not male or female or could situate themselves in between. The definition of transgender and mukhannath is however not exactly the same. Indeed, a mukhannath is considered an effeminate man who has physical female characteristics and who socially operates in roles traditionally assigned to women. However, he does not necessarily want to change his biological sex. The term mukhannith would be closer to the Western definition of a trans woman as it refers to people wanting to initiate a sex change. The term khuntha designates an intersex person who could biologically be female or male. Because more widespread interpretations of the Sharia allow sex reassignment for intersex people but not for transgender individuals, countries in the SWANA region have always largely discriminated against the latter and very few options have been available for sex change. However, even if few mentions are made in historical texts, a large spectrum of transgender and intersex individuals have been known to exist in the region throughout history. The fact that their appearance, tone of voice, and behavior were different from their biological sex was tolerated. They also had specific roles in their society. In early medieval times, they were very much praised and associated with singers, dancers, musicians, and entertainers, as well as matchmakers between men and women. They were however sporadically persecuted depending on the ruler as they were linked to entertainment, wine, and pleasure. As time passed, their persecution strengthened and they became objects of mockery and discrimination until today.
So what has happened to these permissive societies?
Well, that is where the role of the West comes in. When foreign powers started to influence the African and Asian continents, they were not the countries we now know. Patriarchy was even stronger than nowadays; capitalism was widening class and gender inequalities and Christianity was the backbone of their societies constraining norms and morals. Same-sex relationships were largely stigmatized, if not considered illegal (the UK legalized it only in 1967). The West had a very clear definition of homosexuality as designing a particular type of person, a deviant type , and that concept was imported as they engaged in colonization. This change in perception was a turning point in the Islamic world as the taboo on same-sex love became a common thing. For example, it wasn’t until the 1850s when European criticism of the permissive sexual norms in Ottoman society multiplied, that homoeroticism started to be controversial in the Empire . However, authorities still decriminalized homosexuality for as far as 1858 through the then Tanzimat reforms, over 100 years before the USA and the UK.
Furthermore, following independence and the formation of new states worldwide, many countries kept the Civil Code and Penal Code inherited by their formal European occupiers, this is particularly the case of English former colonies where same-sex relationships were legally criminalized. As the issues of the LGBTIQ+ communities were not set as a priority in the SWANA region following independence, the laws were never reformed in most of the states. After their self-determination, Jordan and Bahrain were the only countries to get rid of homophobic laws, even before Britain.
Nowadays, the general opinion in Arab societies is that homosexuality and transgenderism are wrong, haram, and a Western import. But that is not true. It is conservative views on homosexuality and more generally homophobia that are a Western import, not the opposite. As Islamic fundamentalism rose in the 1980s, LGBTIQ+ rights and visibility multiplied in the West. That is how the cultural gap widened, and the West and the East blaming one another was instrumentalized for political ends. Homosexuality became analogous to the West and repression associated with Islam. Both sides manipulated these ideas to gain popular support: Islamic movements blamed the West for the “flooding of ravaging moral decay” in their societies, as the Ayatollah of Iran stated in 2016 . Hizbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah did not hesitate to reuse these words to express his worries concerning the increased visibility of the LGBTIQ+ community in Lebanon. Conversely, the West blamed Muslim majoritarian countries to be run by oppressive, conservative, and retrograde regimes.
Maybe the current view on what it means to be LGBTIQ+, the labels and stereotypes associated with it, and the rights the community should benefit from in today’s society are a Western import, but it all ends at this limit . Same-sex relationships have always been a reality in the SWANA region and they will always be, whether the West intervenes or not. Because love does not have a gender, and desire does not have a sex; and this is and will remain universal.