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(I explain the LHMP here.)

The reference to lesbians in this article is only as a post-script to the main discussion and is rather downplayed by the author. There is always a tension between looking for historic evidence of lesbian relationships and acknowledging that the motif of lesbianism is often used as a political fiction (within a culture) or a byproduct of “exotic orientalism” (from an outside observer). In this case, Murray emphasizes the pattern of disconnect in Islamic sources between women’s cross-gender behavior and women’s sexual activities with each other. In the context of the LHMP, this lack of correlation isn’t as relevant as it would be in a purely historic context. All is grist for the mill!

Murray, Stephen O. 1997. "Male Homosexuality, Inheritance Rules, and the Status of Women in Medieval Egypt: The Case of the Mamluks” in Islamic Homosexualities - Culture, History, and Literature, ed. by Stephen O. Murray & Will Roscoe. New York University Press, New York. ISBN 0-8147-7468-7

The article concerns the interrelationships in the Mamluk military caste between the lack of an ability to pass on inheritance, the relatively high status of women, and a general acceptance of homosexuality (among men). At the end of the article is an appendix discussing cross-gender behavior and possible evidence for lesbianism among women in the Mamluk community. One author (Mervat Hatem), discussing 18-19th century Mamluks in Egypt, notes “Lesbian women in Mamluk harems behaved like Mamluks, riding pedigreed horses, hunting, and playing furusiya (chivalrous) games. They are also said to have indulged in debauchery and wine drinking ....” But Murray has doubts that the evidence behind this description supports a conclusion of lesbianism as opposed to cross-gender activity and notes several weaknesses in the reasoning behind the conclusions. Hatem’s data, however does look like a good lead on lesbian-like behaviors that subverted gender roles.

Keywords: military



( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 11th, 2014 04:37 pm (UTC)
I'd love to see a story about these furusiya game playing women, and the Mamluks in general. What happened to their stuff if they couldn't pass it on, for one thing? And from where came the stuff to start their lives with?

And too, I know that "harem" means something quite different in those societies from what it means in the current western imagination, and I suspect it means something quite different in each of the communities, but what? And how did women carve out a life of agency in that? because we know they did.
Aug. 11th, 2014 10:05 pm (UTC)
The history and dynamics of the Mamluks is far beyond my ability to summarize (see Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mamluk) but the relevant aspect is that they were specifically create to be a military force that had no external loyalties or social connections. And part of that was the elimination of any hereditary aspects of the position: only slaves could become Mamluks and anything they acquired during their careers returned to the ruler after death. They might have families, but there was no incentive to accumulate wealth or power to benefit their descendents. Lots of other aspects and nuances, of course.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )