Think Piece

Islamic History and Medicine in Trans Muslim Lives

By Shireen Hamza

“Without desire, …research would never take place: we would be unable, literally unable, to discover anything. But at the same time, we have to bring this under control.”
— Carlo Ginzburg, Twelve Snapshots from a Conversation with Carlo Ginzburg

“For too long, Black trans people have fought for our humanity, and for too long, cis people have been acting like they know what the fuck are talking about.“
— Ianne Fields Stewart, rally in Brooklyn, NY, on June 14th, 2020

In the year 952 AH/1545-1546 CE, writes the historian al-Muḥibbī, ‘Alī ibn al-Rifā’ī, a brown-skinned boy who had yet to grow a beard, was binding books in the Damascene district of al-Qaymariyya. A man named ‘Abd al-Raḥmān ibn al-Ẓannī was passionately in love with ‘Alī. By the end of al-Muḥibbī’s tale, ‘Alī – now a woman called ‘Aliyyā – had given birth to several children with ‘Abd al-Raḥmān, and most of Damascus could attest to this. In al-Muḥibbī’s telling, ‘Alī’s gender shifts after both doctors and the jurist presiding over the court declare ‘Alī to be a woman,  ‘Aliyya. However, the marriage contract that would have been drawn up for them would likely have shown a neater and more normative reality: that a man named ‘Abd al-Raḥmān wed a woman named ‘Aliyya. Reading about ‘Alī/’Aliyya makes me wonder: how many other stories of “non-binary” Muslims are hidden in plain sight in the documentary record of Islamic history? What keeps historians from seeing them? And who stands to benefit from an increasing awareness of the history of sex and sexuality in the Islamic world?

Many scholars of Islamic history acknowledge that gender and sexuality are historically contingent, and that the process of gendering people was enacted primarily through “social and legal discourses,” for example by Islamic law. However, scholarship on the premodern Islamic world often rests on the implicit assumption that there are, now and historically, only two “real” sexes – which many historians would contest. The process of premodern “sexing,” or medical sexual differentiation, was determined by physicians whose understanding of the body was rooted in a largely Galenic paradigm in which “ideas about conception easily explained nonbinary sex,” and the determination of sex “did not necessarily depend on genital morphology,” but also on a variety of other physical attributes. 

Physicians’ understandings of sex did not automatically sort humans into men and women but included other sexes in between. These views in turn influenced jurists as well as authors of lexicons like Ibn Manẓūr and popular encyclopedias like al-Qazwīnī, for whom sex differentiation could lead a fetus to develop into one of five sexes: woman, masculine woman, khunthā, effeminate man or man. Thus, their discussions of surgery on a khunthā’s body are not described as corrections of sex or gender, but rather seek to relieve discomfort, enable intercourse for married people, and overall, to serve “an individual’s health and religious needs.” Paired with the understanding that one’s sex (and depending on whether this caused social disruption, perhaps also one’s gender) could change through the course of one’s life, medieval Islamic understandings of sex start to seem quite different from biological sex. 

Stories like ‘Alī/’Aliyyā’s and ‘Abd al-Raḥmān’s have great importance for queer and trans Muslims, to whom a range of conservative institutions suggest that Islam and LGBTQI+ identities are incompatible. Iran and Pakistan have received significant attention for their government programs providing specific kinds of trans affirming healthcare (in contexts in which homosexuality is illegal). Such government programs are grounded in a legal synthesis of biomedical and classical Islamic legal understandings of sex. Although official government policy has not led to widespread societal affirmation of trans, hijra or khwaja sira people in these countries, these institutional changes are a crucial part of a broader transformation. Iran’s legal stance on trans people has enabled contemporary Iranian filmmakers like Negar Azarbayjani, director of Facing Mirrors, to tell stories of contemporary trans people cinematically. Historians have the power to access and amplify narratives from the past that may inform both institutional and societal change today.

Historians of the premodern Islamic world study different configurations of law, medicine and state power. The work of historians shows that when the state has intervened on issues of ambiguous sex, the outcomes for those whose sex is called into question are not always positive, as with the wife of Muḥammad ibn Sallāma in 1506 CE. Amīr Ṭarābāy called on women, presumably women with medical training, to determine the sex of Muḥammad ibn Sallāma’s wife. After determining that she was not a woman or a khunthā but a man, the Amīr brutally punished the couple, who died as a result. Although difficult to read for queer and trans people who are subject to myriad forms of violence, this story is nonetheless one which shows that people troubled binaries of sex and gender in the Islamic past, thus suggesting that the presence of gender nonconforming and trans Muslims today is no aberrance. 

But these stories are also important for physicians to hear. The history of medicine includes episodes of harm and coercion as well as of care, healing and ingenuity. There is growing historical research on how binary sex and heterosexuality were conceived of and enforced by nineteenth century physicians, scientific sexologists, psychoanalysts, science-writers for the popular press, and many actors of colonial and/or national governance in the Middle East, South Asia, Africa, Latin America, and here, in the settler colony known as the US. There is a history to the “straight” understanding of sex and sexuality – the social and medical views that there are only two true, fixed biological sexes in humans and that heterosexuality is natural. Just recently, as Sean Saifa M. Wall, an intersex activist, says:

Variation in sexual anatomy… should show us how beautifully diverse nature is. It should remind us that anatomical sex is not fixed, but fluid. …But sometimes it feels like debating ethics with butchers. Too many in the medical profession see surgery as their duty.

It is striking how wondrous some writers in the medieval Islamic world considered this fluidity of sexual anatomy to be, while this fluidity has been considered an aberration or monstrosity in other times and places, including our own. Physicians, public health officials and historians are increasingly acknowledging scholarship on the “coloniality of gender” as relevant to their professions – a scholarship which shows how race, gender, sexuality and other emerging categories were co-constructed for marginalized people in both metropole and colony. Physicians in precolonial contexts operated within medical systems that did not rest on binary sex, but within legal and social systems which did tend towards binary gender. Historical accounts of healthcare before colonialism may also provide healthcare workers today with food for thought. While ethicists are calling healthcare providers toward practicing “justice, beneficence and nonmaleficence” by following specific actions in their treatment of trans and gender nonconforming patients in systems not built to accommodate them, the distant past may help us imagine futures beyond the confines of the present. 


‘Alī was a boy until he was a khunthā; he was a khunthā until she was a girl. In this description, I follow the gender pronouns ascribed to ‘Alī by al-Muḥibbī. No explicit reason is given as to why ‘Alī and ‘Abd al-Raḥmān were called before the judge, Kamāl al-Dīn al-’Adawī, but al-Muḥibbī suggests that it had to do with ‘Abd al-Raḥmān being in love with ‘Alī. The judge said, upon first consideration, that ‘Alī seemed to be a khunthā, and that he “tended towards being female.” He called in physicians to examine him. These physicians discovered a vulva, hidden beneath a (skin) covering with “three small nipples,” which they cut away. The judge ruled on ‘Alī being a woman, and they named him ‘Aliyyā. al-Muḥibbī then starts referring to ‘Aliyyā with the feminine pronouns, to say she was married to her lover, ‘Abd al-Raḥmān. 

حكم الحالكم الشافعي بأنوثته و سموه عليا و زوجوها بعاشقها عبد الرحمن 
The Shafi’i Judge ruled on ‘Alī’s womanness, and they named him ‘Aliyyā and married her to her lover ‘Abd al-Raḥmān. 

al-Muḥibbī offers no explanation as to who this “they” is, but the sentence implies that it was people other than the judge who did so.

In this story, the authority of physicians and the law, combined, officially changed ‘Alī’s gender with almost no surgical intervention. As al-Muḥibbī reports, most of the people of Damascus knew about these events and could attest to their veracity – implying, perhaps, that rather than any public outcry, the story was considered strange, wondrous, marvelous. al-Muḥibbī’s account, and many other stories involving physicians, leave many important questions about medical ethics unanswered. Was the love ‘Abd al-Raḥmān had for ‘Alī requited? Did ‘Alī consent to the examination and intervention by doctors? Did ‘Alī want to live as ‘Aliyyā, and as ‘Abd al-Raḥmān’s wife? And yet, this story – by no means an ideal for doctors and courts today – has the power to unsettle people’s presumptions about sex, gender and sexuality. 

Several kinds of texts and documents form a fragmentary and checkered archive for understanding the lives of khunthā, people neither men nor women of a “medial sex” in the premodern Islamic world. Both medical texts and juridical texts speak to what the doctor and jurist should do when encountering someone whose sex is ambiguous. As Saqer Almarri writes in his translation of the passages about khunthā in one such legal text, “evidence of the historicity or the specificity of the lives of people” is rare, but legal manuals still tell us something about the social and cultural contexts that shaped them. Surviving legal documents, however, show us glimpses of law in practice, as records of events like marriage, divorce, business transaction and partnerships, disputes, the purchase or sale of enslaved people, and inheritance. While some kind of narrative emerges from these documents, they are not always as detailed as the one about ‘Alī/’Aliyyā related by al-Muḥibbī above. In practice, as Sara Scalenghe argues, jurists like al-Ramli in the seventeenth-century often “chose to brush aside the evidence of contradictory signs of maleness and femaleness” in order to enable someone to continue living within a gender role, opting for “the least problematic verdict.” Historical chronicles took biography or “life-writing” of exemplary figures, as well as ordinary and even disreputable people, as the unit organizing history. The stories in these chronicles do not often describe the “adjudication by urination” (ḥukm al-mabāl) test that is ubiquitous in legal manuals as a way to determine whether a khunthā is a man or a woman, casting doubt as to how prominently this was used in practice. In short, none of these texts allow us unmediated access to the lives of people categorized as khunthā in the premodern Islamic world. The best work on the khunthā and other elusive archival figures, like hermaphrodites in early modern Europe, has been done by reading across multiple genres.

The texts and documents themselves may give us reasons as to why some genres are forthcoming, and others entirely silent, about the khunthā. To the best of my knowledge, the mention of someone as a khunthā in marriage or divorce contracts is rare or nonexistent because, as both the historical and juridical manuals show, jurists tried to resolve cases by declaring a khunthā to be either a man or a woman. This enabled a khunthā to live as either a man or a woman, sometimes with a lover who had previously been forbidden, as in the case of ‘Alī/‘Aliyyā’s marriage to ‘Abd al-Raḥmān. Databases make digitized documents in Arabic and Persian, including marriage contracts, increasingly accessible, but this additional awareness of historical realities is also necessary when approaching these kinds of documents. Otherwise, the silencing, first enacted in the creation of the archive, is repeated by the modern historian. As scholar Indira Falk-Gesink says: 

Twentieth-century academic prejudices colonize and efface the sexualities of the past, overwriting authors’ words with “corrective” translations, in the process constructing a palimpsestic narrative laden with heteronormative cisgender assumptions that invalidate the efforts of contemporary Muslim activists to reconstruct authentic bases for pluralism.

Let us rid ourselves of these prejudices in our engagements with people, past and present. 


Recently, the Trump administration sought to establish a definition of fixed, binary sex based on genetic science, thereby making irrelevant “what the medical community understands about their patients – what people understand about themselves.” The administration tried to eliminate transgender civil rights protections to nondiscrimination in healthcare in the middle of a pandemic, and on the anniversary of the massacre at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. Transgender people have long faced refusal of care and harrassment in medical settings, and if not overruled by the Supreme Court, the suggested changes to the definition of sex would have made discrimination against trans people legal. 

I am not arguing that there is a direct, linear correlation between reading stories of sex and gender diversity in the Islamic world and affirming and accepting behavior towards people today. There is no shortage of literature, scholarly and otherwise, about the ways certain pious Sufis flouted norms of gender and sexuality in their search for earthly and divine love, but this is a vision of the Islamic past that is increasingly decried and censored. And as previous generations of scholar-activists have done, today’s scholars of Islamic Studies need to pair research on past marginalized lives with advocacy for those in the present. 

And for those who are interested in providing medical care that fully addresses the needs of queer and trans Muslims to be affirmed in body, mind, spirit, and history, a collaboration between historians, medical workers, faith workers, archivists and community organizations may be necessary. Too often, LGBTQI+ Muslims are presumed to have automatically left faith behind. Those working in healthcare may find that – despite the gruesome reputation that premodern and especially medieval medicine has in popular culture – there are yet reasons to reflect on these past encounters. There may be resources available therein to stimulate conversations about how to better serve the needs of queer and trans Muslims. 

Most Islamic bioethics is rooted in the literature produced by jurists and ‘ulamā’ broadly, rather than considering the words and actions of ordinary Muslims, insofar as we can discern them, to be a resource. But to the many Muslims living on the margins of the umma, there may be other voices that are important for historians to attend to and amplify, and for bioethicists and physicians to consider. For example, stories like ‘Alī/‘Aliyyā’s are meaningful to many queer and trans Muslims today — although the use of terms like LGBTQI+ to describe people in the past has been interrogated extensively by historians, who prefer us to learn the terms used by those past people, when we can. But the affinity of many queer and trans Muslims with different kinds of “deviant” and marginalized people in the Islamic past runs deeper than finding lexical similarities with the identities some people use today. This June, a month of pride, is also one of the remembrance of ancestors, and mourning for those lost – whether to murder, to suicide or to the indifference of governments during a pandemic

Historians bring our own desires to the texts we read. No longer do those in the ivory tower claim a view from nowhere, an objectivity – this claim, too, has been historicized. The desires of LGBTQI+ Muslims today for stories that may have a bearing on the community’s intense marginalization should be heard as a call to action for those of us with the time, privilege and skillset to be able to heed it. This desire is one to center and respect in our research, whether one believes one works on sex and gender or not. It is a desire that has been, and will be, generative – not only for research, but for the lives of everyday people.

Shireen Hamza is a doctoral candidate in the History of Science at Harvard University, working on the history of medicine and sexuality in the premodern Islamic world. She is also a managing editor of the Ottoman History Podcast and editor-in-chief of Ventricles, a podcast on science, religion and culture.

Featured Image: Poster of Facing Mirrors. Directed by Negar Azarbayjani. Facing Mirrors is defined by The Film Collaborative as “the first narrative film from Iran to feature a transgender main character.”

Dispatches from the Archives

Annulling the Marriage of Two Men: A Marginal Note in a Yemeni Manuscript

By Shireen Hamza

Please see the note at the end of the original post for an update by the author on 06/20/2020. A change to the original text is indicated in the post.


During my second week of research at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, last September, I found a note in a manuscript that made my heart race.

Most of the Arabic manuscripts at the Ambrosiana are from Yemen, purchased from a single collector, Giuseppe Caprotti (1869-1919 CE). Many of these share physical and stylistic traits, like similar kinds of handwriting and the convention of using a larger pen for title-headings (more on the topic in the Chroniques du manuscrit au Yémen). I had become used to these conventions as I studied Yemeni manuscripts with medical content over the last several months, and was thus comfortable reading these manuscripts. But on this day in September, while sleepily flipping through page after page of manuscript Arabi Nuovo Fondi E437 and waiting for my next espresso break, a short note at the bottom of the page caught my eye: 

فسختُ النكاح بين الذكورين و اشهدت على صدور ذلك اعني و انا بمجلس القضى من وضع اسمه بعد خطي هذا بتاريخ اخر ربيع الاخر سنة اربع و ستين و الف ١٠٦٤

I annulled a marriage between two men, and I called upon a witness to its issuance*, while I was in the court. By [the witness] I mean, one who puts his name after my note here, at the end of Rabī’ II 1064.

Jolted out of my afternoon haze, I read and reread the note. It was written in a clean, clear نسخي / naskhi handwriting towards the end of the manuscript. The rules against photography at the Ambrosiana precluded me from taking a photograph, but there was no doubting the clarity of the handwriting. Not a single letter was smudged or otherwise harmed by worm or wear,  and the first word even had a vowel marked, clarifying that this sentence is written in the first person. It seemed to be a note penned by someone who had cancelled the validity of the marriage ceremony, نكاح / nikāḥ, between two men. There are two plural words used in this note which I find unusual. The word used for the beginning of the court proceedings صدور / ṣudūr, which is also a word which can refer to the head or leader of a gathering, usually occurs in the singular. Another possible reading is that the judge summoned a witness to the joint leadership of the ruling. Also, the word for the two men, ذكورين / dhukūrayn, appears to be the dual form of a word that is already a plural—the word ذُكور / dhukūr means “males” in the Quranic verse 42:49, and is the plural of ذكر / dhakar, or male. Despite these peculiarities of language, which is often a feature that manuscript researchers encounter, it is quite possible to make sense of this note.

Examples of marginalia from a Yemeni medical text. Digital collection of The Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin.

This note seemed to indicate that a Muslim jurist, or قاضي / qāḍī, likely the author of this note, married two men, before 1064 AH / 1654 CE. As much as I would want to believe this to be possible, I think there is a more likely explanation. Someone officiated a marriage ceremony between two people: one person was a man and the other was either a woman or a خنثى / khunthā, meaning someone whose gender was ambiguous to others, usually because of the person’s genitalia and/or sex characteristics. Later on, a court decided that this latter person was actually “a man,” perhaps by calling on relevant witnesses or physicians to examine the person, and thus the marriage between these two “men” was annulled.

A compendium of treatises on various legal and religious topics, manuscript codex Arabi Nuovo Fondi E437 also includes a medical text. It was the kind of manuscript that would have been of interest to, and could have been owned by, a student of the law, a jurist (قاضي / qāḍī), or another functionary of the court. There was no name included after the note, though there was plenty of space at the bottom of the page for one. The rest of the page is covered in miscellaneous notes and remedies in an informal handwriting. There is no official signature, because this was not an official document—perhaps the person who wrote this was practicing on a spare bit of paper before copying it on an official document, or a court register. While my explanation for the note occurring at the bottom of the page cannot move beyond an educated guess, I believe this kind of “documentary” source, which records the practice of law, is a crucial resource for historians of gender and sexuality as well as for feminist scholars of Islamic law.

A Qadi and the Court. From the Maqamat-i Hariri.

In Disability in the Ottoman Arab World, 1500-1800, historian Sara Scalenghe writes of several accounts of the court intervening in marriages to rule on the gender of a person, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. She describes the case of Ali/Aliyya, a teenage boy whom physicians found to be a girl, after it came to the court’s attention that a man, Abd al-Rahman, was in love with Ali. In another case, a pious man named Muhammad was married to a “woman who was an obvious khuntha” (امراة خنثى واضح / ‘imra’a khunthā wāḍiḥ) but a cousin and rejected suitor of Muhammad’s wife brought their marriage to the attention of the city’s ruler. After women medical practitioners found “her” to be a man, the Amir punished them both publicly—and unjustly, in the opinion of the chronicler who first recorded this episode. The note I found at the Ambrosiana may point to a case such as these.

Many questions remain unanswered. What prompted an inquiry into this marriage? Were any questions raised at the initial marriage ceremony as to the gender of the participants? How was it determined that these were “two men”? Finding queer and trans ancestors in the archives is extremely important to LGBTQI+ people today. But there is also another reason for drawing special attention to this marginal note which regards histories of gender and sexuality in the Islamic world, broadly. We can’t write the history of women—or practice feminist Islamic legal studies—if we impose biologically determined, binary gender on the past in our search for women.

Scholarship on the medieval Islamic world, from medical and legal theory to social and legal history, supports the idea that gender existed beyond a male-female binary. From the 1970s onward, a rich field of scholarship on the history of gender and sexuality has explored non-binary “identities,” like khwaja sira خواجه سرا and khunthāخنثى (an Islamic legal and medical category), and the ways these complex identities are present today. The field has investigated the ways that class, religious identity, devotion and slavery could gender people. Critical studies of Islamic masculinities are emerging, and scholars have long argued that beardless boys are treated as a separate gender than mature men in both literary and legal contexts.

However, few references to this literature can be found in recent debates about feminism in Islamic Legal Studies. Suggesting ways to move beyond the “patriarchal” and “White Supremacist” modes of Islamic Studies which focus exclusively on Muslim male scholars in the premodern world, Ayesha Chaudhry pushes for a progressive “Intersectional Islamic Studies,” in which modern Muslims (especially women) are also authoritative and authentic. Others, like Sohaira Siddiqui, argue that there is a longer history to this kind of critique, and that Chaudhry’s program curtails the agency of scholars, especially those approaching the complexity of the premodern Islamic world. Focused on Islamic law, neither Chaudhry’s article nor Siddiqui’s response engages with work on the history and anthropology of gender and sexuality in the Islamic world. Similarly, historians of sexuality rarely suggest the impact their work could have on contemporary Muslims—let alone speak to and advocate for these communities. Muslims of marginalized gender and sexual identities seek examples of accommodation and acceptance in the Muslim past, as they navigate homophobia and transphobia in their communities, and seek to repeal the European colonial laws which imposed these realities. Histories of gender and sexuality can provide insight into precolonial social lives that Islamic legal studies currently do not. Two ships, feminist Islamic Legal Studies and the history of gender and sexuality, are passing each other, to the detriment of both fields—and many Muslims today.

Part of the reason for the siloing of these two fields is the difference in the kinds of sources they draw on, and the ways they analyze them. Generally, scholars of Islamic Legal Studies, and feminists within that field, are interested in doctrine: the Quran and its hermeneutical traditions, jurisprudential texts of Islamic law, and prophetic traditions. Some historians of gender and sexuality, especially those working on early Islam, have worked with these sources as well—especially jurisprudence. However, their primary archive has been ادب / adab, or literary texts (poetry, biography, chronicle, travelogue), as well as the bread and butter of social history: government archives. The richest of these for the Islamic world are those of the Ottoman Empire. And rarely does a single scholar possess the ability to read across all of the relevant languages and genres; collaborative research practices will help in this regard. As Khaled El-Rouayheb noted in his Review of Elyse Semerdjian’s book, Off the Straight Path: Elicit Sex, Law and Community in Ottoman Aleppo, “These different approaches and competencies are often reinforced institutionally: scholars who work on court registers are often “Ottoman historians,” whereas those who work on Arabic religious and literary texts are usually in “Arabic-Islamic studies.”Gender categories were constructed and debated across different textual genres in the Islamic world. Jurisprudential manuals constructed legal ideals, but these ideals did not always match up with court practice. The same could be said, for example, about theoretical medical texts and practices, as represented by case histories.

This division is also alive in the question of whether only legal doctrine should determine what we consider Islam to be, or whether the lives of Muslims—all Muslims, not just علماء / ‘ulamā’ or scholars—should also constitute a valuable source for understanding what Islam is, and can be. This question is one that has animated the debate represented by Chaudhry’s work and its critics discussed above, but Chaudhry is advocating mainly for the inclusion of the ideas of modern and contemporary Muslim women in Islamic legal studies; she does not urge us to think of people outside the gender binary, or of the lives of premodern women. Perhaps the numbers of Islamic texts written by premodern women are limited, but we can also draw on the growing social histories of the Islamic world to learn of—and from—non-literate people, as we seek to address key questions as scholars of Islam today.

I may have found a trace of a non-binary person and “their” partner, marginalized people in a marginal comment on Arabi Nuovo Fondi E437. And I believe that feminist research in Islamic studies should be as attentive to non-binary Muslim peoples as it is to Muslim women, past and present. To understand the category of “woman” in Islam, we must study all textual genres, as well as genders, including masculinities, trans- and nonbinary genders, and the many names, forms or silences which these may have outside of modern LGBTQI+ identities. To do so, Islamic Studies should make good use of the work done by those studying documentary sources and social history. Adopting a research mode which integrates legal theory, legal practice and social history may yet help us learn how to understand this marginal comment, the people about whom it was written, and may bring more such events as this possible نكاح / nikāḥ annulment to our attention.

*In the original publication of this post, ṣudūr was translated as commencements rather than issuance. This, though nothing else in the post, has been amended. See the update below for more information.

Update by the author on 6/20/2020

Many scholars of Islamic legal history have taken the time to read and engage with my original post and suggested that the word I read in the margins to mean “two men,” al-dhukūrayn, should be read as al-madhkūrayn, “two aforementioned people.” I acknowledge that I misread what was likely a subtle lām-mīm ligature at the beginning of the word, and appreciate those scholars who have reached out to me in the spirit of care and generosity. However, no rules of Arabic grammar prevent the possibility that one of the madhkūrayn, the two aforementioned people, could refer to a khunthā, a person who is neither a man or a woman, whose presence in the Islamic world is well attested to by a variety of sources. This point was lost on those who claimed that this mistake disproved the argument of the post. The larger question of how scholars have brought heteronormative assumptions to their interpretations of texts is one that feminist scholars of Islam have long taken up in their work.

Who is worthy of being considered the subject of madhkūr—and a subject of history? I take my misreading to be generative, and true to the intention of the post—for scholars of Islamic law and history to remember that there were more than two genders in the medieval Islamic world as they read and interpret their sources. From what I have learned in the last week, Mohammad ibn Sallāma and his spouse were likely referred to as al-madhkūrayn in their wedding contract — though his spouse is described to have a variety of genders by different sources, including a “woman who was an obvious khuntha” (امراة خنثى واضح / ‘imra’a khunthā wāḍiḥ). The note I found in Arabi Nuovo Fondi E437 is certainly not a legal document, like a marriage contract, nor is it the kind of note that people leave in the margins of their books to take note of current events. The note was devoid of any relevant context, like location or names, which madhkūrayn (or the later ismahū) could refer back to. If it was left by someone practicing writing a sentence about annulling a marriage before making an official copy, what was the reason for this marriage to be annulled? Much remains mysterious about this note, but the possibility of it referring to a non-binary person is not one of them. 

There are decades of scholarship on the khunthā in fiqh (Islamic law), as well as the lack of a strict gender binary in medical discussions, for example, about the generation of humans. But there should be much more—and scholars should do their best to make technical training increasingly available to students interested in gender and sexuality. We need careful readings of texts to understand the variety of discourses on gender and sexuality in medicine, law, literature and other genres of texts composed in the Islamic world. These careful readings should be based not only on sound philology, but a critical understanding of our own analytical assumptions. Let us look inward and ask why we, as scholars, continue to ignore the possibilities of these non-binary lives in our archives, especially when doing so has ongoing impacts on LGBTQ+ Muslims today. 

Shireen Hamza is a doctoral candidate in the History of Science at Harvard University, working on the history of medicine and sexuality in the premodern Islamic world. She is also a managing editor of the Ottoman History Podcast and editor-in-chief of Ventricles, a podcast on science, religion and culture.

Featured Image: Qadi and the Court. Wikimedia Commons. Yahya ibn Mahmud al-Wasiti / Public domain.

Think Piece

Impermanent Dwellings: Bookstores and Feminist Approaches to History

by contributing editor Brooke Palmieri

It would make an amazing opening sequence to a film: the camera catches the glint of chrome, leather, motorcycle, boots, asphalt. A helmet is secured, and a stack of books and belongings piled onto the back are double-checked for safety. On the top of the stack is the silver-on-blue imprint of a peacock, the book is Rita May Brown’s Songs to a Handsome Woman.


A voiceover narrates a poem from the book, “For Those of Us Working For a New World”:

The dead are the only people
to have permanent dwellings.
We, nomads of Revolution
Wander over the desolation of many generations
And are reborn on each other’s lips
To ride wild mares over unfathomable canyons
Heralding dawns, dreams and sweet desire.

The year is 1974 and the woman on the motorcycle is Carol Seajay, and she’s about to ride from Kalamazoo to San Francisco. Forget Shakespeare’s sister Judith in a room of her own — this is Jack Kerouac’s younger, smarter, and politically awakened sister’s On the Road. Revolutionary without the misogyny, nomadic without the exploitation. The screenplay to this film would be written by Sarah Schulman in the style of Girls, Visions, and Everything. The protagonist Carol Seajay really did ride across the country in 1974, stopping at the kinds of bookstores that sold books like Songs to a Handsome Woman. Other women would make similar trips to these feminist bookstores, which in the 1970s began to open all over North America in a glorious manifestation of the energy and passion of the Women’s Liberation Movement. The film documenting this explosion of over a hundred bookshops would begin with Seajay’s ride to San Francisco, feature a pitstop at the Amazon Bookstore in Minneapolis. It would show her arrival as a volunteer at the bookstore ICI: A Woman’s Place, in Oakland. It would cut to 1976, when Seajay opened Old Wives’ Tales in San Francisco 40 years ago this Halloween. In that same year, it would show her typing up and collating Feminist Bookstore News, the publication that the transnational network of bookstores used to communicate and coordinate with one another when they weren’t travelling to meet in person at the Women in Print conferences they planned. The Feminist Bookstore News was a tool for calling out racism within the sprawling community of feminists; it was a tool for sharing information about books worth stocking; it was a tool for coordinating campaigns to keep books by female authors in print; and it was a tool for fighting against the rise of large chain booksellers and, and their impact upon the sustainability of independent bookstores. The movie would end in 1995, when Old Wives’ Tales closed.

Carol Seajay at Old Wives Tales, c. 1980.  Image courtesy of Found SF.

Cross-country travel linked Old Wives’ Tales with hundreds of other bookshops between the 1970s and 1990s. Kristen Hogan’s The Feminist Bookstore Movement: Lesbian Antiracism and Feminist Accountability (2016) details the story of the women who ran Old Wives’ Tales, the political and social contexts and plain hard work that allowed for it and so many other bookstores to flourish. This is also taken up in This Book Is an Action: Feminist Print Culture and Activist Aesthetics. The influence of bookstores upon their local communities is difficult to pin down, but diffuse in the opinion of Carol Seajay, who described to Hogan in The Feminist Bookstore Movement the importance of finding the right book at the right time in these terms:

I brought those books back and said to friends of mine, “These are the lesbian books with good endings. These are going to change our lives.” And they all looked at me, like, “Yeah, yeah, Carol. All about books, Carol, again. Yeah, yeah, yeah.” “No these are going to change our lives. No, you have to read this. Songs to a Handsome Woman, you have to read these!” They did read them. And it changed some of their lives and not some of them. But I do think that there being lesbian books changed even the lives of the women who didn’t read. Because it changed the lives around them.”

Sometimes a book’s message, or the feeling of having read it, can be felt by those who haven’t picked it up — the sight of that radiance in the face of the reader can change the quality of a room. Sometimes the book’s existence becomes a distinctly distant comfort: unread, alongside others on the shelf, it is not alone, and neither are you. Libraries and bookstores produce those comforts, working in tandem to foster existing communities , and to imagine those that do not — although less on the level of the imagined national communities of Benedict Anderson than on the level of the neighborhood. Yet the latter is a precondition to the former, as Kay Turner put it, speaking almost directly to the “dreams and sweet desire” from “To Those of Us Working For a New World”: “The dream of a common language couldn’t exist without the dream of a common bookstore.”

Scholarship in history of the book has concerned itself with the dreams imagined by individual books — the imaginary readers, the individual houses a book has inhabited. It has scaled up to think about the history of libraries. But in The Feminist Bookstore Movement and This Book Is an Action, the authors and editors expand our understanding of the reading experience by thinking about the relationships between books and their audiences within pre-sale geographic and economic contexts. Particular to the feminist bookstore movement was the repeated use of the bookstores as platforms for transnational and international conversation and debate. Bookstores themselves (during road trips especially) and the Feminist Bookstore News, were the sites of sometimes-painful arguments about the practices of inclusive feminist activism in real time. Bookstores were incubation chambers where theory turned to to practice. The presence of books that addressed racism, colonialism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia head on encouraged and informed the discussions and practices not only of bookstore workers, but also for the community that took shape in and around the shops. For example, in 1989 Sharon Fernandez, and Cindy Beggs, in tandem with the Toronto Women’s Bookstore collective, published the Women of Colour Bibliography documenting publications of and by women of color in the 1980s to make it easier for other bookstores to keep those titles in stock. There was nothing like it at the time, even in the academy. The bibliography was much more than a list of books — it was a record of the pain and struggle within as well as outside feminism to come to terms with its own systemic racism, and to hold readers accountable for theirs. This was a bibliography that meant something, not just to the people that wrote it and the authors of the books they documented, but to a larger community that strove to address the needs and experience of women of colour.

The feminist bookstore movement offers a powerful model for analysing the influence of bookstores as units of intellectual meaning as well as forces for social change beyond the Women’s Liberation Movement. The history of libraries is increasingly well documented and theorised within scholarship, but the history of bookstores is only beginning to receive a similar level of attention — such as with the University of Pennsylvania’s Gotham Book Mart Project, work documenting the influence of Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, or New Beacon Books in London. Focus on these bookshops facilitates a shift within book history as a subject taught in English and History departments to one requiring the tools of the anthropologist or sociologist, of doing fieldwork to square up the changing realities of bookstores today and their staff and patrons. It is fitting that this work might take as its model the work of The Feminist Bookstore Movement and This Book Is an Action — thinking socially about the collective action fostered by communal spaces is an inherently feminist methodology. To focus on the sociology of bookstores also realizes the dreams set forward by scholarship focusing on much earlier time periods. Bookshops, like public libraries, offer modern heirs to the ‘textual communities’ of medieval heretics Brian Stock documents in The Implication of Literacy, or complementing the observations of Margaret Ezell’s Social Authorship and the Advent of Print or Helen Smith’s Grossly Material Things to think about the highly collaborative nature of the production of books, and the role readers and booksellers play in that collaboration. Finally, the fusion of history and experience that has given rise to these works of scholarship also allows us to acknowledge the role bookshops play in the individual development of scholars and writers — The Feminist Bookstore Movement, for example, is as much a memoir as it is a work of intellectual and cultural history.

A bookshop is impermanent by nature: its contents are always changing, and there is a constant threat of closure if the rent isn’t paid. The closure of Old Wives’ Tales at the end of my movie on the feminist bookstore movement would fulfil the opening poem, “For Those of Us Working For a New World,” as if it were a prophesy. Bookstores must remain impermanent dwellings if they are to remain faithful to the reality of the changing needs of changing times. Their impermanence and precariousness makes them feel more human and more real than the institutions that take on an immortal purpose and character. Every great bookstore gives us something connect with – perhaps even to fight for – when it’s going, and model revive when it’s gone. For instance, in July 2016 Her Bookshop opened up in East Nashville, Tennessee, another heir to Seajay’s work. Loss can be formative, and it can build resilience. The stress dream of impermanence generates a very different worldview from the escapist dream of endlessness—the trick is, in the case of bookshops, to document the worlds they create before they vanish.


Think Piece

Dissenting voices: positive/negative: HIV/AIDS in NYU’s Fales Library

By guest contributor Mia D’Avanza

A screen-printed poster with the familiar Coca-Cola logo, reading “Enjoy AZT”, greeted visitors to the recent show positive/negative: HIV/AIDS at NYU’s Tracey/Barry Gallery. The poster, produced for AIDS activist group ACT UP, alters the Coke logo to criticize the high cost and low efficacy of AIDS drug AZT. Suggesting that the pharmaceutical company producing AZT is profiting from the epidemic, the poster asks, “Is this Health Care or Wealth Care?” It is a fine example of the dissenting voices to be found in this exhibition, and the urgency with which individuals and groups challenged the status quo during the AIDS epidemic.

(Photo courtesy of the author.)

Curated by archivist Brent Phillips, positive/negative presented selected archival material from the Fales Library that documents “the positive and negative reactions to AIDS in the U.S.”, including public health brochures, magazines, posters, zines, art films, photographs, documented performance pieces, and news clips. The documentary collections strategy of the Downtown Collection, from which these materials are culled, was reflected in the spare design of the show. The materials are loosely arranged, reflecting a spectrum of reactions to the biggest public health crisis of the 1980s and 1990s in the U.S. The brochure that accompanies the exhibition includes a checklist of materials and an introduction from the curator. This introduction serves as a timeline and certainly helps provide context for these materials, as there is very little interpretive text within the show.

The scope begins with Reagan Era, when HIV and then the AIDS epidemic were first detected and identified (1981-83). Conservative politicians, including President Reagan, approached the epidemic as unworthy of real attention beyond ridicule and moral judgment. Until 1986, his administration advised the media that “the Surgeon General would not answer questions about AIDS, and that he was not to be asked about it.”

Finally in 1986 Surgeon General C. Everett Koop released his report on the epidemic, which was progressive in its urging for early AIDS education in schools and frank descriptions of preventative options, including condom use. Koop’s viewpoint is represented in the exhibition by his article for the journal AIDS Patient Care titled “An AIDS Health Care Network—The Time is Now!”

In 1987 President Ronald Reagan mentioned AIDS publicly for the first time. As deaths increased over the next ten years, it could no longer be denied that there was a massive health crisis, and gay men were not the only ones at risk. However, those who contracted the disease through blood transfusion or in utero (usually children and heterosexual men and women) were often portrayed as “innocent victims”. This dynamic of victims versus deviants would color the discussion of AIDS in the years to come.

Much of the positive response here reflects the “Silence=Death” ethos of ACT UP, which tellingly stands for AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. Their message of the power of each person to enact change, and exerting influence through group advocacy, resonates throughout the exhibition. Artifacts of non-violent mass action are seen in film clips from the Gay Cable Network’s 1990-91 coverage of ACT UP demonstrations at the National Institute of Health and Grand Central Terminal to protest high drug prices and government inaction despite escalating AIDS deaths. Powerful personal narratives of loss and living with HIV/AIDS are also presented, in the form of drawings, open letters, and memorials to loved ones by artists Chloe Faith Dzubilo, Keith Haring, and David Wojnarowicz. In a 1989 ACT UP support letter written by Haring, he tells his own story of being diagnosed with HIV and emphasizes the affirmative meaning of the word “positive”, which had become associated with test results, fear, and the stigma of an incurable disease.

Photographer Bill Bytsura’s portraits of AIDS activists from 1989–1998 allow his subjects to speak for themselves in the accompanying subject statements. Next to his portrait of Mona Bennett of Atlanta, her typed words echo Haring’s message that even seemingly banal tasks can help the fight against AIDS.

One of the last pieces in the show is also the most spectacular. Hunter Reynolds’ “Patina du Prey’s Memorial Dress”, 1994, is a black ballgown printed in gold with the names of those who have died from AIDS. The gown is presented on a platform in front of a video that documents the artist in the process of applying makeup and becoming his alter ego du Prey, getting ready at a vanity and wearing the dress, then standing on a slowly rotating dias, gloved arms outstretched. The screen tells us, “For us, it is hope upon which I am turning.”

Patina du Prey’s Memorial Dress. (Photo courtesy of the author.)

These testaments to the human face of an epidemic sit side-by-side with U.S. Government documents invoking biblical scripture in relation to AIDS and photographs of conservative religious groups declaring “God Damns Sodomy.” In this way the exhibition manages to present both the macro view of the Reagan administration’s inaction and tone of moral judgment in the face of HIV/AIDS, and the humanizing stories of individuals who called out employment, school, and housing discrimination, decried mass testing and quarantine suggestions, and demanded better treatment options.

positive/negative: HIV/AIDS was on view October 12, 2015—January 15, 2016 in the Tracey/Barry Gallery, Bobst Library at NYU.

Mia D’Avanza is the Head of Circulation at the New York Society Library. She is co-editor of Frida Kahlo’s Garden, the catalog accompanying the exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden.

Think Piece

The Gay Past and the Intellectual Historian

by Emily Rutherford

In the papers this week was the news (slow, it seems, to come to the mainstream media’s attention) that, thanks to a Kickstarter campaign, University of British Columbia graduate student Justin O’Hearn helped to fund the UBC library’s purchase at auction of two rare 1890s homoerotic novels, Teleny and Des Grieux. Teleny, a story of a love affair between two men which includes explicit sex, has been reprinted in modern editions and is fairly widely available to researchers, but Des Grieux, a sequel (the title refers to Teleny‘s protagonist) hasn’t and isn’t. O’Hearn’s campaign was spurred by his intention to edit a critical edition of the text and to incorporate it into his dissertation.

Unless specific circumstances caused anglophone sexually explicit/pornographic novels of historical importance to be reprinted in twentieth-century (often badly-made, pirated) editions, they tend to languish, sometimes only in single copies, in the British Library’s Private Case holdings, accessible only to those who can afford the trip to London and work up the courage to collect pornography from the librarians in the Rare Books reading room. Part of O’Hearn’s stated interest in these two texts is that Oscar Wilde has long been held to have been one of the anonymous authors behind Teleny, and bibliographer of erotic fiction Peter Mendes argues that Des Grieux was written by the same group, including Wilde. Association with canonical literary figures gives pornography redeeming social importance, and leads to reprints: while (surprisingly) little Private Case Victorian pornography is available online or in modern editions, one text you can reliably find is the flagellation periodical The Pearl, to which the poet Algernon Swinburne is believed to have contributed. The association of Wilde with these two novels, however, has an added connotation: thanks to the drama surrounding his 1895 gross indecency trials, and more recently to Richard Ellman’s biography and the 1997 biopic starring Stephen Fry based upon it, Wilde has been viewed as a great tragic hero of gay mythology, whose (possibly fictitious) courtroom defense of “the love that dare not speak its name” has firmly established him as a key figure in a gay male literary and cultural canon. In a popular historical narrative centered on a teleology of gay liberation, the scandalous story of Wilde’s downfall assumes an outsize role.

I’ve been writing about male homosociality, homoeroticism, and homosexuality in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century England for some years now, and when I first came to the subject as a college junior it seemed extremely important to push against narratives which look to the past for gay heroes who stand out because they seem to us to be boldly ahead of their time, and instead to insist that men who wrote and talked about and practiced same-sex sex and love prior to the last couple decades of the nineteenth century simply weren’t gay—it was bad history to connect them to later figures who did see gayness as an identity category. My research on John Addington Symonds shows that he lived in a milieu where there were many competing models for understanding the nature of same-sex desire, and also that—however important we might believe his writing on homosexuality to be today—he was predominantly known during his life and in the years after his death as a historian of ancient Greece and Renaissance Italy. He also had a wife, four daughters, and several female friends. As Sharon Marcus has written, we have to squelch our present-day impulses to see homosexuality as the card that trumps all other salient facts about a historical figure’s life and work, and homosocial, -erotic, and -sexual bonds as subversive of hetero ones and of the nuclear family. For Symonds—or, as Marcus points out, for Wilde, who also was married, for some years edited a women’s magazine, and had meaningful friendships with women—this simply wasn’t the case (Marcus 261).

And yet. Both Symonds and Wilde and their twentieth-century reception played significant roles in bringing into being our modern conceptions of homosexual sexual orientation (as congenital, unchooseable and unchangeable, both physiological and psychological, constituted in opposition to heterosexuality) and of gay (sub)culture. It wouldn’t be right to treat them in the same way as the countless other unknown men in their period who had close homoerotic friendships/relationships (in which sex may or may not have played a part), who consumed homoerotic pornography, who may have been married, and who didn’t consider themselves homosexuals or take a public stand in the name of a nascent identity category. Furthermore, there is something important and powerful—and relevant to academic historians—about narratives of gay history (or other kinds of minority identity history) and their ability to inspire those living in other times and places. Symonds relates in his autobiography that he first gained an inkling of same-sex desire by reading Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus as a teenager, and it is remarkable how often in twentieth-century gay life-writing and fiction moments of self-discovery are framed in terms of encounters with the past through books and the discovery of authors or other historical figures whom the reader is able to label as gay. Even in our moment of widespread acceptance of gay identity as a category of cultural diversity, these narratives compel. Witness the recent furore over Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game, which set out to tell a tragic, Wilde-esque story about a national treasure who was forced to suffer at the state’s hands for his sexual orientation (under the same law with which Wilde was sentenced), but wound up, as Christian Caryl has incisively argued, in the process managing to desecrate basically everything the genius and war hero achieved in his life other than being found guilty of “gross indecency”—thus doing violence to other ways in which Turing might be seen as an inspiring figure from the “gay past.”

Numerous historical projects recognize and respect a wider public’s desire for an inspiring narrative of gay history while still emphasizing how much has changed in a relatively short span of time about the concept of sexual orientation. is an important public resource written by professional historians, while historians including George Chauncey and Matt Houlbrook have written academic books which bring to life the fabric of gay communities of the past while understanding them on their own terms. I’m excited also to read Robert Beachy’s new book Gay Berlin, just out from Knopf, which looks like it expands on his 2010 article about “The German Invention of Homosexuality” to show how nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century German thinkers and political campaigners were pioneers in using science to define the homosexual as a kind of person (who could then be advocated for as a protected class). In the book, he supplements this argument with a lot of detail about Berlin’s flourishing queer subculture in the years before the Nazi period—in the process urging us not to see early-twentieth-century Germany simply as a lead-up to the rise of Hitler.

When you work on sexuality, it’s easy to get typecast as someone who does only that—and, at times, as someone who doesn’t have the intellectual chops to engage in meaty, intricate, ideas-focused topics. It’s also easy to get bound up in the salaciousness of it all, reading pornography for work and speculating about dead people’s sex lives. The rich literature and vibrant debates around the history of homosexuality as a concept and around the lives of people like Wilde, Turing, and other far less famous individuals show, though, that “who had sex with whom, and how” is one of the least important questions a historian can ask. As I’ve tried to show here, the questions about the methods and uses of history that this subfield actually does raise are as challenging and urgent as in any other.