Written by Zineb Khelif
Translated by Bertille Fitamant
If homosexuality remains a taboo in most contemporary societies, the relationship to it in the Arab-Muslim world is particular. Out of twelve countries where homosexuality is punishable by death, six are Middle Eastern countries (Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Afghanistan, United Arab Emirates, Brunei, Iran) and it is illegal in all the other countries in the area. Local particularisms in fact diversify the study of the subject in each of the countries, but the choice made on the territory ranging from Morocco to the Arabian Peninsula is linked through Muslim and Arab culture and by models of similar hegemonic masculinities on many points, such as virility and the position of patriarch, i.e. of a dominant. This patriarchal reality is not unique to this area but it is one of the common denominators among the different cultures found there. The other similar aspect is the mark of colonisation, whose struggle for independence on different scales continues to shape the various political and social landscapes. As a result, this part of the world has rigidified its laws and its relationship to homosexuality over the last few decades, and today seems to be one of the most inflexible on the issue. The interest of this study lies in questioning the origins of this reality, in particular to avoid making a hazardous correlation between Islam and intolerance. The study of this subject is organised around the prism of postcolonial studies and constructivism, to understand the relationship between the region’s patriarchal reality and its relationship to homosexuality by going back to the pre-colonial period. So, what does the relationship to female and male homosexuality in the region reveal about these gendered relations?
Historical reading of the relationship to homosexuality in the region and in Islam
The relationship with sexuality in the Arab-Muslim world is traditionally based on the precepts of the Quran, which indicate the licit and illicit nature of practices relating to the body. Unlike the Christian religion, which condemns the sins of the flesh and reduces the sexual act to procreation, sexuality is considered positive in the Muslim text, but only within the framework of a marital unionBellakhdar, S. (2008). Prescribing homosexuality in Islam. Topique, 105, 105-116.. Between the 11th and 14th centuries, at the end of the golden age of Islam, certain interpretations of the Quran by theologians such as Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawziyya and Al-Ghazali even considered sexuality to be healthy and divineAl Ghazali (1955). Revitalising the sciences of faith. 2ème dizain, Livre XII. Paris, Besson..
However, even within marriage, not all sexual acts are considered licit, especially sodomy, which is forbidden by the extensive interpretation of the condemnation of the people of Lot, who indulged in public orgies, the rape of men that didn’t come from their city, and various acts of banditryKligerman, N. (2007) “Homosexuality in Islam: A Difficult Paradox,” Macalester Islam Journal: Vol. 2: Iss. 3, Article 8.. However, in the Quran, every transgression is subject to a precise legal and moral standard, which is theoretically not the case for sodomy. In fact, this exegesis reflects the socio-political context in which it took place in the early days of Islam in the 12th century, rather than a precise, neutral reading of the sacred textKugle, S.S.H.( 2010). Homosexuality in Islam. Critical Reflection on Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Muslim. Oneworld Publications. London.. However, the issue at stake in the ban on sodomy is central, since its importance lies not so much in the act itself but more like in the people to whom it is assimilated, that is to say, homosexual men.
While the prohibition of sodomy and its extensive interpretation have led to a relative consensus on the illicit nature of homosexual relations among men in the region, its prohibition does not explain why homosexuality among women should also be forbidden. The prohibition of both forms of homosexuality thus reflects the centrality of penetration in marriage, as a governing act and source of social orderBouhdiba, A. (2010). Sexuality in Islam. Presses Universitaires de France.. The Muslim tradition began in a tribal society governed by a patriarchal order, based on the binarity of man and woman, the former as provider of household needs and the latter as the essence of natality. Homosexuality would be the antithesis of this binarity between the two sexes, since it prevents the perpetuation of the social framework it creates to ensure the inheritance of financial capital, as well as social capital through culture and religion.
Similarly, same-sex attraction calls into question the frameworks of femininity and masculinity supposedly put forward by the Koran, even though it is more a question of fatwa, legal opinions on the field of religion and its practices in Islam, dating from the years following the death of the Prophet MuhammadBouhdiba, A. (2010). Sexuality in Islam. Presses Universitaires de France.. Those who were called mukhannath, the “effeminate”, and the way society looked at them is an eloquent example. Until the reign of the Umayyads, from the 7th to the 8th century (until the 11th century in Al-Andalus, southern Spain), they were considered asexual and rarely attracted to men, then during the Abbasid period until the 13th century they were considered passive homosexualsAlmarai, A., Persichetti, A. (2023). From Power to Pleasure: Homosexuality in the Arab-Muslim World from Lakhi’a toal-mukhannathun. Religions.. Studying the relationship with homosexuality solely through the way mukhannaths have been viewed over the centuries would be irrelevant, but their example illustrates the importance of the binarity between man and woman and its deep roots as a reading grid in Arab-Muslim societies.
However, a notable difference between sexual practice and desire, or homosexual love, is illustrated in the history of the Arab-Muslim world. Numerous poems attest to older men’s praise of young ephebes, age being an important variable in the acceptability of this desire, as these young boys were almost considered feminine because their “masculine” physical characteristics were not yet developed.
The existence of this kind of poetry, which developed in the region until the beginning of the 19th century, highlights the fact that homosexual relationships are not prohibited themselves but that it is rather a prohibition of the act itself, sodomy. This also explains why such relationships were relatively socially accepted, as long as they remained discreet and didn’t call into question the way society was organisedEl-Rouayheb, K. (2005). Before homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic world, 1500-1800. University of Chicago Press. However, from the 19th century onwards, particularly through members of the region’s elites, a new attachment to Victorian standards, which were much more puritanical in terms of sexuality and family norms, drastically reduced tolerance of this type of homoerotic literature and rigidified the approach to homosexual relationshipsGarcía, J. (2022). Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500-1800. Entremons, 203‑207.. During the colonial period, Western domination also changed the way homosexuality was viewed. This was achieved in particular through the influence of the Napoleonic Code, which circumvented the revolutionary gains in terms of individual freedom by introducing the notion of public indecency, since homosexuality was not prohibited in the first penal code of 1791Biotti-Mache, F. (2015). The death sentence on homosexuality. A few historical reminders. Études sur la mort, 147, 67-93.. These Western influences have significantly reshaped the Arab-Muslim world’s relationship to gender relations, which in turn has also influenced its relationship to homosexuality.
Political reading: a complex march towards the illiberalisation of morals?
As a result of the Western influence that spread through colonisation in the region studied, the sexual morals of the countries in the region were gradually modified. Thus, through the reflections of Western authors such as the French philosopher Michel Foucault, sexuality and the body can be read as notions defined by politics as normal or abnormal. The control of the body through politics has created categorisations throughout history, with the homosexual one being born in the 17th century at a time of rationalisation of human relations in the bourgeois West, particularly through the institution represented by the familyBanens, M. (2009). Foucault on the history of homosexuality: A theory in three phases. La Revue.. The 19th century saw the medicalisation of sexuality and the extreme rationalisation of the body by science. The homosexual was no longer the person who practised the act of sodomy, but rather the person suffering from a « kind of inner androgyny, a hermaphroditism of the soul. The sodomite was a relapser, the homosexual is now a separate speciesFoucault, M. (1976). Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Gallimard.».
From the end of the 20th century in the West, through the liberalisation of morals, a new politics of sexuality was achieved by civil society, particularly through the fight for the rights of sexual minorities. The work of David Halperin, an American queer historian and theorist, illustrates the way in which the appropriation of sexuality by politics has made it possible to establish new freedoms for homosexuals, among others, and has led to the conception of an identity through sexuality in queer circles. This is what Foucault warned about: the danger of making sexualities visible locks them into a categorisation that effectively supports the contrast between homosexuality and heterosexualityLinhares, A. (2010). Gender : from political to clinical. Champ psy, 58, 23-36.. However, because of the weight of Western influence, perceptible in the Arab-Muslim world despite the decolonisation processes, this categorisation of sexuality as synonymous with identity has influenced and gone against the relationship with sexuality in the region.In this region, the ban on sodomy had not hitherto created a dichotomy between heterosexuals and homosexuals. The controversial article “The Gay International” published in 2002 in the magazine Public Culture by Joseph Massad, professor of Arab political and intellectual history at Columbia University, denounced the influence of the political struggle of major American associations such as ILGA and IGLHRC. According to the author, their influence on the Arab-Muslim world is tainted by Western hegemony. Their fight for the rights of sexual minorities has, despite the advances it has made in the West, conceptualised a vision of homosexuality that reflects a profoundly Western view of gender relations, encompassing all homoerotic practices in a political definition of homosexual identity that divides homosexuality and heterosexualityMassad, J. (2002). Re-Orienting Desire: The Gay International and the Arab World. Public culture, 14(2), 361‑386.. According to him, through their desire to ‘save’ sexual minorities in the Arab-Muslim world by urging governments and their populations to give greater freedom and visibility to LGBTI+ people, these associations have instead highlighted a difference and a Western influence that is frowned upon in Arab-Muslim countries, which has led to greater rigidity on this issue, relative to the temporality of the waves of arrests of LGBTI+ people in countries such as Egypt or IranMassad, J. (2002). Re-Orienting Desire: The Gay International and the Arab World. Public culture, 14(2), 361‑386..
Since the processes of decolonisation, the former colonised countries of the region have been constructed as a mirror in opposition to this Western hegemony, so the subject of homosexuality has become central to the reincarnation of what would be the Arab-Muslim identity. The 1990s saw a resurgence of national culture and identity, as illustrated by theories such as the clash of civilisations by American political science professor Samuel Huntington. This new emphasis on cultural identity and the reconstruction of post-colonial national identities have had a strong influence on the relationship to sexuality in the Maghreb and the Middle East, with the Queen Boat affair in Cairo in 2001 providing an eloquent example. On 11 May 2001, 55 men were arrested in a club known to be gay-friendly and subjected to interrogation under torture, to make them confess their homosexuality and denounce others. As Egypt had been in a state of emergency for some twenty years at the time, the case was tried under the authority of the High State Security Court, an institution that does not allow appeals. This high-profile trial was legitimised by the Egyptian state as a matter of national security because the men were allegedly endangering the authenticity of Egyptian cultureLong, S. (2004). The Trials of Culture: Sex and Security in Egypt. Middle East report (New York, N.Y. 1988), 34(230), 12‑20., the paradox being that the legal principle for which the men were charged was public indecency, a legacy of the Napoleonic Code.
It seems relevant to understand the current implications of this exposure of cultural particularisms through a mirror in opposition to the West, for which the Queen Boat affair provides a kind of temporal reference point and constitutes a new influence on gender relations in the region.This new rigidity is more or less important in countries where political Islam is also important, which is less the case in the Maghreb than in the Middle East. In countries in the region such as Kuwait, the visibility of the fight for the rights of sexual minorities on an international scale since the beginning of the 21st century and the exchange of ideas via the Internet and travel have led to greater tolerance within certain circles of Kuwaiti society. This tolerance, isolated and specific to a certain social circle, has nonetheless led to greater visibility for LGBTI+ people, which in turn has led the government to believe that more people will break out of the pattern of heterosexual relationships. This state interpretation is leading to greater security rigidity towards sexual minorities, in particular through increased police checks and the creation of medical devices that would enable homosexuals to be identifiedScutti, S. (2013). Rainbow demolition. Newsweek Global, 161(37).http://www.newsweek.com/2013/10/18/rainbow-demolition-243686.html.. his has led to a new inflexibility with regard to the codes of masculinity and femininity to be respected, which previously existed at a social level but which are now criteria of good conduct among Kuwaitis, which if broken can become grounds for police suspicionScull, N. C., & Mousa, K. (2017). A Phenomenological Study of Identifying as Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual in an Islamic Country. Sexuality & culture, 21(4), 1215‑1233..
This rigidity is illustrated at regional level by the online targeting of LGBTI+ people by police authorities using false online accounts and arbitrary searches in Iraq, Jordan, Egypt and TunisiaHuman Rights Watch. (2023). “All This Terror Because of a Photo” Digital Targeting and Its Offline Consequences for LGBT People in the Middle East and North Africa. … Continue reading. In some countries, such as Tunisia, the Arab Spring has given greater visibility to associations working openly for the rights of LGBTI+ peopleKréfa, A. (2019).The Tunisian LGBT movement: an effect of the revolution? Ethnologie française, 49, 243-260.. However, their fight remains complex and is still poorly understood by the political authorities because of the still predominantly traditional customs. According to a BBC survey, only 7% of Tunisians consider homosexuality to be acceptable in 2019, compared to 26% and 21% in Algeria and MoroccoThe Arab world in seven charts: Are Arabs turning their backs on religion? (24 juin 2019). BBC. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-48703377..
Social reading: paradoxical reciprocities between gender relations and homosexuality in practice
At a societal level, the importance of the family as an institution is a determining variable in the region’s relationship with homosexuality. While the cultural particularities of each country in the region vary in terms of the central importance of the family, the latter remains predominant and governing in terms of social order. Family is often defined as more than just the nuclear family and is omnipresent in the daily lives of individuals, with the collective often prevailing over individual interests. In this way, the importance of the group gives priority to appearances, through the reputation of families, because each family atom is a mirror of its group, so to speak, which individuals can use to navigate. In Saudi Arabia, for example, a country with Wahhabist Islam where homosexuality is punishable by death, homosexuals play on the difference between the private and public spheres. Despite a certain rigidity when it comes to the rules of public decorum, a point of honour is placed on the almost sacred aspect of the household, which can be associated with a society within society under the aegis of the husband. Thus, the sacredness of the home and the traditionally gendered separation within society allow homosexuals relative freedom in the private sphere, especially for those who know how to play with appearances and use discretionWhitaker, B. (2011). Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian life in the Middle East. Saqi..
However, there is a noticeable difference in the treatment of male and female homosexuality. Despite the fact that female homosexuality is forbidden by Muslim jurisprudence, it remains a minor issue in fatwas and academic research on sexuality in the region. We should therefore ask ourselves whether this is due to the patriarchal theory that women are passive in both public and private life, that they are not subjects of active desire and that this makes sapphismTerm derived from the name of Sapho, an ancient poetess, to refer to sexuality between two women. Source: Landete, P. (2016). Sappho of Lesbos and anandrism. Sigila, 38, 127-146. impossible and unthinkable. Thus, as with the major cases of LGBTI+ arrests in the region over the past 30 years, the overwhelming majority of those charged have been men, a fact that supports the absence of female homosexuality from the social and political agenda, perhaps because, unlike male homosexuality, it does not undermine a dominant position in society..
Similarly, because the man is the guardian of the family’s reputation in relation to the patrilineal model of society, some women are not worried by their parents when they show no interest in men when they are young, because this leads to less parental concern about their daughter’s virginity in the future. Virginity is still a prerequisite for marriage in many societies in the Arab-Muslim worldWhitaker, B. (2011). Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian life in the Middle East. Saqi.. This brings us back to the game of appearances and the taboo on sexuality that is omnipresent in Arab societies. Some families will not be too fussy if they suspect that their daughters are having relations with other girls, as long as this does not jeopardise the possibility of marriage, which would have been jeopardised by premarital sexual relations with a manMassad, J. (2002). Re-Orienting Desire: The Gay International and the Arab World. Public culture, 14(2), 361‑386..
This disparity in treatment between the two forms of homosexuality is also influenced by its reciprocity with gendered relations in social settings, i.e. by the way in which each gender occupies public space. In most of contemporary societies, this space is characterised by the omnipresence of men, or rather by the ease with which men can move around in it, due to the traditional patriarchal separation of the private sphere, which is linked to the feminine, and the public sphere, linked to the masculine. In the Maghreb, this separation in the public space is traditionally achieved through the café, especially the traditional cafés that are further away from the centres of tourist activity in countries such as Morocco and Tunisia. Indeed, the usual, everyday aspect of sociability between men in cafés, or more generally in the street, makes it relatively easy for gay men to meet in front of passers-by who would not suspect the nature of their exchangeRebucini, G. (2011). Spaces of homoeroticism and male homosexuality in Marrakech. L’Espace Politique.. Homoeroticism is to be found in the streets, cafés and large squares, while homosexuality is to be found in counter-spaces, defined by Foucault as spaces that seem to be open within a society but that do not correspond to the rules of that society, and in fact require a certain initiation to enter and understand how they workNal, E. (2015) Heterotopias: the challenges and roles of alternative spaces for education and training. Recherches & éducations.. This is the case with nightclubs and bars in Marrakech, where entry or consumption requires a certain amount of economic capital and where homosexual relations are more accepted, particularly because of the mix with Western tourists. However, the economic barrier of this counter-space maintains an otherworldliness between homoeroticism and a non-categorised sexuality, more present in the working classes, and homosexuality, recognised as a categorised sexuality and in some cases as an identity in the affluent classes. Similarly, this otherness is reflected in gender inequalities, since men traditionally have more freedom to move around and use their money in public than women.
In light of the reciprocities between gendered relationships and homosexuality, to what extent could the strict distribution of gendered roles in the region explain the rise in violence and discrimination against people embracing forms of sexuality that diverge from the heterosexual model? The openness of the region’s societies to Western values via the Internet, economic and political difficulties, and the average age at which people marry as a result of longer school careers and changing family models, all lead to a kind of dysphoria about the heterosexual model to be embodied and the reality of human relationships, which are more subversive and difficult to categorise. This dysphoria could explain the frustration, anger and violence that would be directed at people who embody a model of gender roles that would be more flexible by the very nature of their sexuality. Nevertheless,
Homosexuality, source of evolution for the patriarchal paradigm?
The historical study of female and male homosexuality in the countries of the Arab-Muslim world shows a vision that differs in many ways from the Western one. More subversive, the forms of homosexuality in the region during the pre-colonial period did not conform to the dichotomy between heterosexuality and homosexuality characteristic of the West. Through the processes of colonisation, Western hegemony has left its mark on this region and continues to influence it by constructing the socio-political and religious realities of the former colonised populations in opposition to the culture of their former oppressors in terms of sexuality and the rights of LGBTI+ people. While homosexuality in all its forms remains little accepted in the region, as an object of study it bears witness to the gender relations characteristic of patriarchal societies and exposes the patterns that make them up. Negative attitudes to homosexuality highlight patriarchal relations and maintain them by maintaining an essentialist binarity between men and women. This is why it seems appropriate to establish that more open reflection, as well as advances in terms of the visibility and rights of people espousing forms of sexuality other than heterosexuality, could lead to a reduction in gender inequalities, because they call into question the notion of heterosexuality and the paradigm of domination associated with it.
To quote this article: Zineb Khelif (2023). Homosexuality and gender relations in the Arab-Muslim world. Gender in Geopolitics Institute. https://igg-geo.org/?p=14282&lang=en
The statements in this article are the sole responsibility of the author.
|↑1||Bellakhdar, S. (2008). Prescribing homosexuality in Islam. Topique, 105, 105-116.|
|↑2||Al Ghazali (1955). Revitalising the sciences of faith. 2ème dizain, Livre XII. Paris, Besson.|
|↑3||Kligerman, N. (2007) “Homosexuality in Islam: A Difficult Paradox,” Macalester Islam Journal: Vol. 2: Iss. 3, Article 8.|
|↑4||Kugle, S.S.H.( 2010). Homosexuality in Islam. Critical Reflection on Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Muslim. Oneworld Publications. London.|
|↑5, ↑6||Bouhdiba, A. (2010). Sexuality in Islam. Presses Universitaires de France.|
|↑7||Almarai, A., Persichetti, A. (2023). From Power to Pleasure: Homosexuality in the Arab-Muslim World from Lakhi’a toal-mukhannathun. Religions.|
|↑8||El-Rouayheb, K. (2005). Before homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic world, 1500-1800. University of Chicago Press|
|↑9||García, J. (2022). Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500-1800. Entremons, 203‑207.|
|↑10||Biotti-Mache, F. (2015). The death sentence on homosexuality. A few historical reminders. Études sur la mort, 147, 67-93.|
|↑11||Banens, M. (2009). Foucault on the history of homosexuality: A theory in three phases. La Revue.|
|↑12||Foucault, M. (1976). Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Gallimard.|
|↑13||Linhares, A. (2010). Gender : from political to clinical. Champ psy, 58, 23-36.|
|↑14, ↑15, ↑25||Massad, J. (2002). Re-Orienting Desire: The Gay International and the Arab World. Public culture, 14(2), 361‑386.|
|↑16||Long, S. (2004). The Trials of Culture: Sex and Security in Egypt. Middle East report (New York, N.Y. 1988), 34(230), 12‑20.|
|↑17||Scutti, S. (2013). Rainbow demolition. Newsweek Global, 161(37).http://www.newsweek.com/2013/10/18/rainbow-demolition-243686.html.|
|↑18||Scull, N. C., & Mousa, K. (2017). A Phenomenological Study of Identifying as Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual in an Islamic Country. Sexuality & culture, 21(4), 1215‑1233.|
|↑19||Human Rights Watch. (2023). “All This Terror Because of a Photo” Digital Targeting and Its Offline Consequences for LGBT People in the Middle East and North Africa. https://www.hrw.org/report/2023/02/21/all-terror-because-photo/digital-targeting-and-its-offline-consequences-lgbt|
|↑20||Kréfa, A. (2019).The Tunisian LGBT movement: an effect of the revolution? Ethnologie française, 49, 243-260.|
|↑21||The Arab world in seven charts: Are Arabs turning their backs on religion? (24 juin 2019). BBC. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-48703377.|
|↑22, ↑24||Whitaker, B. (2011). Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian life in the Middle East. Saqi.|
|↑23||Term derived from the name of Sapho, an ancient poetess, to refer to sexuality between two women. Source: Landete, P. (2016). Sappho of Lesbos and anandrism. Sigila, 38, 127-146.|
|↑26||Rebucini, G. (2011). Spaces of homoeroticism and male homosexuality in Marrakech. L’Espace Politique.|
|↑27||Nal, E. (2015) Heterotopias: the challenges and roles of alternative spaces for education and training. Recherches & éducations.|