Panel: Sex and Gender in Medieval Europe and the Middle East: Contributions to a Transcultural History of Concepts


Room: F 42, UG, Fürstenberghaus
day time    
Tue 09:00-09:30 Bachtin Male Homosexuality in Medieval Iran (Persia): Between Perversion and Ideal Love
Tue 09:30-10:00 Höfert Between the sexes and genders: Hermaphrodites in pre-modern Middle East and Europe
Tue 10:00-10:30 Mesley Medieval Christian Discourses on Celibacy: A Third Gender?
Tue 10:30-11:00 break
Tue 11:00-11:30 Guirguis A new position for the women in medieval Coptic Community
Tue 11:30-12:00 Tolino Between the Masculine and the Feminine: Eunuchs in the Medieval Islamic Discourse - cancelled
Tue 11:30-12:00 Thomann Shahrazad cross-dressing: Dangling gender in the earliest recorded closure of the Arabian Nights
Tue 12:00-13:30 lunch break
Tue 13:30-14:00 Lauri Code of love, code of philosophy The place of women in the righteous city
Tue 14:00-14:30 Myrne Conceptualizing gender and the representation of women in ʿAbbāsid literature


Almut Höfert

Beschreibung des Panels:

When Gender history was established as a new historical approach in the late 1980ies, the promising ticket for the analysis of gender conceptions, roles and practices has been the distinction between “sex” as invariable, biological marker of male and female and “gender” as the historically changing way in which men and women acted according to their respective gender roles. This dichotomy of “sex” and “gender”, however, has been challenged and (at least theoretically) dismissed since historical research has shown that the biological category of “sex” has been a product of the 19th century. Since then, there is a discussion going on of how to analyze physically and/or culturally based gender perceptions of different time periods. This experimental panel will approach this problem inspired by the “history of concepts” in enhancing the Begriffsgeschichte of Reinhard Koselleck on new transcultural and methodological levels.


Interdisziplinär (Islamwissenschaft; Historische Anthropologie und Materielle Kultur)

Abstracts der Vorträge:

Bachtin, Piotr: Male Homosexuality in Medieval Iran (Persia): Between Perversion and Ideal Love

In Islamic Iran the sexual (and/or emotional) relationships between mature men and young, beardless boys (called amrad) constituted a widespread phenomenon during the Medieval era and in the subsequent ages, until the time of profound societal and cultural transformations during the reign of the Qajar dynasty (1781-1925 CE).

The predominantly pederastic form of male homosexuality emerged and prevailed in opposition to the official teachings of Islam, condemning any kind of sexual relations between persons of the same sex. The boyish beauty, symbolized by a beardless face of an amrad and the figure of a beautiful boy itself, also influenced the philosophical and religious concepts, such as nazar (‘gazing’) which has become one of the fundamental notions in certain Sufi traditions. The concept and practice of “gazing” seems to be derived from a particular understanding of beauty (jamāl) which at the same time was interpreted as an expression of the Beauty of God and the spiritual way to see Him and connect to Him. According to some Sufi philosophers God could make Himself present through the fairness of a boy called shāhid – ‘a witness [of Lord’s perfection]’.

In the Pre-Modern Muslim societies a man was the recipient of beauty and fairness which could manifest in a woman’s or young, beardless man’s (or boy’s) physique, but this “gender-neutrality” was always accompanied by a clearly defined convention of (homo)sexuality in which everyone had their own roles and functions, determined by age and social/financial status. Breaking this convention would result in exclusion and stigmatization.

Guirguis, Magdi: A new position for the women in medieval Coptic Community

The Arab conquest of Egypt in 641, has dramatically affected the Coptic Community, and has led to deep changes in its structure and authority, to the extent that the Popes, as leaders of the community, have almost lost their power. At the same time, the Coptic elites, who adopted the Arabic Islamic culture to keep their social economic privileges, took over the leadership of the community. At the end of the tenth century, the Coptic Church had the chance to regain its power and to reestablish its structure on, I argue, new bases. Through these processes of re-institutionalization, new “Islamic Arabic” culture has emerged and dominated many aspects within the Coptic community at whole, and manifested itself in language, theology, liturgy, legislation etc. This paper is an attempt to trace the new legislation body concerning the women’s position, and analyze the roots of this position, and to what extent it consists with the new emerging culture, or it’s a sort of continuity of old traditions. To do this, this paper will explore many unpublished manuscripts includes liturgical and legal texts from early 11 century to late 15th century.

Höfert, Almut: Between the sexes and genders: Hermaphrodites in pre-modern Middle East and Europe

The hermaphrodite is a pre-modern concept that has vanished in most modern societies – up to the cruel point that healthy intersexual children are submitted to surgical adjustments according to the modern biological dichotomy of male and female. In exploring pre-modern concepts of the hermaphrodite, this paper addresses the question of how the difference between male and female was articulated in a figure that seems to embody gender ambiguity par excellence.

This paper will first look at Arab and Latin medical discourses. In both cases, medieval scholars took different positions in answering the question whether the hermaphrodite stood “really” (as the antique model of Hippocrates and Galen suggested) or only “apparently” (according to Aristotle) between the sexes. With the reception of the Arab medical knowledge in Latin Europe, the hermaphrodite was dealt in a similar conceptual framework on both sides and linked to models of human procreation.

In the legal sphere, however, there was a considerable difference between Arab and Latin scholars. Muslim fuqahāʾ were especially concerned with the hermaphrodite in heritage law and took the hermaphrodite as a mathematical challenge while playing through all possible constellations of succession. These tracts are contrasted by the European legal tradition that took no particular interest in the hermaphrodite.

By looking at further evidence from other historical sources, the paper shall make some first conclusions whether we can or cannot apply the modern categories of “sex” and “gender” by analyzing pre-modern manifestations of the hermaphrodite.

Lauri, Marco: Code of love, code of philosophy The place of women in the righteous city

My speech will discuss some political implications of gender in medieval philosophy.

Muslim falāsifa discussed gender largely on basis of Plato and Aristotle, rationalising social and political male dominance. Thinkers such as al-Fārābī and Ibn Rušd however tended to tone down the more misogynistic Greek attitudes, building upon Plato’s Republic to limit the Aristotelian view of natural gender inequality.

Medicine and Aristotelian physics and biology, set the framework to discuss social and political gender roles in naturalistic term, tempered by attention spiritual realities where, according to al-Fārābī, natural difference between men and women is not relevant to the search of truth. Ibn Rušd expands this notion in his commentary to Plato’s Republic.

I see the “utopian” narratives by Ibn Ṭufayl and Ibn al-Nafīs as a development in this tradition. Ibn Ṭufayl’s removal of women from social picture, pointed out by Fedwa Malti-Douglas, should be seen within his general view of society at large as a problem. I then see his perfect man as essentially non-gendered. Ibn al-Nafīs, defends on a rational basis existing social reality; he sees gender as a social function that is best regulated by šarī‘a. Sexual vigour is presented as a positive feature in males at least.

On the other hand, literature can portray women as the bringers of a different political morality, love as code opposed to power; however, this doesn’t seem to have related to the falāsifa’s political and social reflection if not marginally and indirectly.

Mesley, Matthew: Medieval Christian Discourses on Celibacy: A Third Gender?

This paper will explore the ways in which medieval contemporaries conceived of celibacy. From the eleventh-century there were increasing calls from the ecclesiastical hierarchy for all male clergy, those who held a rank of sub-deacon and above, to live a celibate life, free from marriage and sexual intercourse. Such men were still to hold important and sometimes powerful positions within society, yet they were in theory expected to live differently from the vast majority of other men; indeed, at the same time as celibacy was promoted and enforced through canon law, marriage increasingly was valorized as a central and vital component for laymen and women. In such circumstances, some scholars, such as Robert Swanson, have suggested that the clergy existed as a third gender – conceived of outside of normative masculine ideals, yet still not thought of as less than men. This paper asks how clerics viewed their place within society, and to what degree their thoughts on their vocation were gendered. It will suggest that the idea of a ‘third gender’ is persuasive but ultimately leads to an interpretive blind alley, and places a modern conceptual framework upon a group who almost overwhelmingly viewed themselves as men.

Myrne. Pernilla: Conceptualizing gender and the representation of women in ʿAbbāsid literature

This paper addresses the linguistic and narrative constructions of gender roles and heterosexual relationships in ʿAbbāsid literature, especially in regard to the representation of women. The paper detects a normative process in ʿAbbāsid literature that may influence language and narrative. An example is Kitāb al-ṭabaqāt al-kabīr by Muḥammad ibn Saʿd. The ṣāḥibāt are constantly linguistic and thematic objects of their marriages and genealogy but subjects of pious endeavors. Their ability to act is transferred to the pious spheres of society, whereas they have a subservient role in marriage. This feature is noted in other works of the era and it is often elaborated upon in akhbār and wisdom where women willingly and actively choose to submit to the rule of their husband. Several ḥadīths emphasize that active subjugation (obedience) to a husband is women’s jihad.

I suggest that what we see here is a dynamic process of conceptualizing gender in the ʿAbbāsid Empire, in which choice, willingness and hierarchy are significant constituents. This process is partly related to genre. Normative literature tends to depict heterosexual relations as hierarchical and stable, based on men’s supremacy and women’s subordination in a homogenous world. The concepts of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are here didactic and exemplary.  In anecdotes, which depict a more diverse world where hierarchies tend to be unstable, gender is not equally significant. Instead, other variables, such as class, age, ethnicity and educational level, are also relevant.

Thomann, Johannes: Shahrazad cross-dressing: Dangling gender in the earliest recorded closure of the Arabian Nights

In medieval Islamic thought, the terms “male” and “female” where neither essential  nor exhaustive. Among men and animals, the khunsā “hermaphrodite” was thought to be neither male nor female, and human beings could be described as more or less male, and more or less female. Moreover, men could perform femininity. These mukhannathūn (“effeminated men”) played an important role in early Islamic culture. Less known are their female equivalent, women who performed masculinity.  They were called ghulāmiyyāt “boy-like women”.  As it seems, they enjoyed a short-lived popularity in the 3th/9th century. Al-Maqrīzī described the ghulāmiyyāt as a new fashion in his time.

It has gone unnoticed that the motive of the ghulāmiyyāt appears at a prominent place in the earliest preserved version of the final section of the Arabian Nights. In the course of the wedding festivities in a bath, Shahrāzād and her sister Dunyāzād appear in a series of dresses. As the final climax, the two sisters appear in men’s dresses in order to seduce their bridegrooms. Besides seduction, this had the effect of being met as equals by their male partners. In the broader context of this version of the Arabian Nights, this scene of cross-dressing is but the ultimate step in Shahrāzād’s long strategy to rearrange the king‘s attitude towards her and towards women in general. It is noticeable, that cross-dressing is presented as an entirely appropriate act. This fits well into the general positive attitude shown towards otherwise scandalized sexual behavior.