April 20, 2013

The Girlfags of Ancient Baghdad

Shereen El Feki's fascinating glimpse into the sex life of the Arab World, Sex and the Citadel, includes the  amazing story about female to male crossdreamers in ninth century Baghdad.

Some of the Jasmines of ancient Baghdad
preferred the life of Aladdin (Image: Disney)
As the story has it, the wife of Sultan Harun al-Rashid, Zubayda, was starting to get worried about their son, al-Amin.

My sources are divided as regards his sexuality. Feki argues he was attracted to men, while the Wikipedia article refers to his fascination for castrated  eunuchs. Regardless: There would clearly be no heir from the heir to this throne.

Al-Amin and his girlfags

But Zubayda was a resourceful woman. She dressed up some of the slave girls up as boys and cut their hair, in the hope that they would attract the attention of their son.

This  seemed to have worked. Al-Amin's favorite boyish slave girl was 'Arib, famous for her beauty and her intelligence -- a singer, poet, chess player and excellent horsewoman.

The story may perfectly well be true. If al-Amin was attracted to eunuchs, he would be what we today call gender queer rather than homosexual, probably with some kind of trans-fascination. If that was indeed the case, an interest in girls taking over the role as boys would not be out of the question.

Be that as it may, to me story sound a little bit like an after-rationalization -- an attempt by non-transgender people to explain the unexplainable: the ghulamiyyat of ancient Baghdad.

There is no doubt in my mind that many of these girls were indeed what I call female to male crossdreamers, also know as girlfags.

The gulamiyyat

This is what El  Feki says about them:

"In ninth-century Baghdad, the hottest girls on the streets looked like boys. These were the ghulamiyyat -- a feminine derivative of the Arabic word for a young man.

"These women were a curious combination of male and female. The ghulamiyat dressed like men, yet wore makeup. While they plucked their eyebrows and painted their lips, they also drew on mustaches in musk. 

"In an age of strict segregation, they hung out with men at dogfights, hunts, horse races, and chess matches, all the while eschewing such feminine niceties as wearing jewelry and braiding their hair.

"They even took male names. Yet they made no attempt to bind their breasts and were decidedly heterosexual, often painting their male lover's names on their cheeks."

El Feki tells us that according to some accounts there were as many as four thousand ghulamiyyat at the court of al-Rashid. That might be an exaggeration, but the number tells a lot about how common they must have been. There are reports saying that they became quite fashionable.

Given the current phobias of most religious leaders of the Arab world today, it is hard to believe that muslim countries could be this tolerant of gender diversity in the ninth century. But history tells us otherwise.

Al-Tifashi's Promenade of the Hearts

The most important source of Arab trans-gressions in earlier epochs is the ninth century writer Ahmad ibn Yusuf al-Tifashi.

It pains me to say that there is no complete English translation of his most important work, A Promenade of the Hearts, in What Does Not Exist in a Book, available.  El Feki says that  Daniel Newman is preparing one, however, and as soon as I can get hold of it, I will come back to you with more.

Contemporary girlfags in the Arab world

Arabian boyat.
The image was found doing a Google search.
The ghulamiyyat are still around, but today you won't find them in the palaces of presidents and kings. Arab political and religious leaders now argue that girls bending the genders are an import from the decadent west.

El Feki tells the story about the boyat of the United Arab Emirates, where police squads scan malls and other public places in search of suspicious looking girls:

"Boyat have been variously accused of mental illness, defying God's creation, and sowing moral corruption through predatory homsexuality and same-sex marriage, not to mention Satan worship and jinn possession."

These are similar to the arguments heaped on homosexuals and transgender people by bigots in Europe and North America, as well.

The distinction between lesbian and man-loving boyat is not clear to me, nor to the Arabs it seems.

Most of the boyat, regardless of sexual orientation, are active cross-dressers. Most of them cross-dress in private. In conservative societies with strict gender dress codes, even gender challenging women become visible when crossdressing.
Arabian boyat found on the Web. I have
blurred the faces to protect the persons' identities.


I am sure there are those who would like to correct me now, arguing that neither the ghulamiyyat or the boyat are really crossdreamers. Instead they are girls and women trying to express traits and abilities forbidden to women in most parts of the Arab world.

In Afghanistan there is a tradition where parents without a son let their daughter live like a boy until she is to marry. This has the benefit of allowing her to work outside the house and help the family in this way.

But this will be to miss the main point of my argument: These girls dress up as girls out of an inner need, not because their parents ask them too. Most Arab girls would not even contemplate doing this, and their parents would be appalled. The social pressure to stick to the norms is so strong, that it takes an enormous psychological drive to make a girl take on the role of a boy.

If this  was a political need only, it would make much more sense for the girl to focus on getting an education and an independent job, if possible. It is easier to achieve such a goal, if you stay under the radar and pretend to be a "regular girl".

As for the sexual part, it is pretty clear that the ghulamiyyat lived an active sex life,while  playing the role of  boy. It is extremely hard for me to accept that this need was completely decoupled from their sexuality.

Indeed, we have a description of the sexual side to women's gender bending from an Arab serving the Normans on medieval Sicily:

Stephen O. Murray quotes Sharif al-Idrisi (1100-66) describing  Arab girls who wanted to be on top:

"There are also women who are more intelligent than others. They possess many of the ways of men so that they resemble them even in their movements, the manner in which they talk, and their voice. Such women would like to be the active partner, and they would like to be the superior to the man who makes this possible for them. Such a woman does not shame herself, either, if she seduces whom she desires. If she has no inclination, he cannot force her to make love. This makes it difficult to submit to the wishes of men and brings her to lesbian love." 

In other words: These women may have been heterosexual, but the power struggle of their times pushed them into the arms of submissive women.

The invisible crossdreamers

Hadn't it been for the book by El Feki, I wouldn't have found out about the ghulamiyyat. There is close to nothing about them online in English. A regular Google search yields nothing. Google Scholar brings up a few references.

As in the case of the girlfags of the Kama Sutra it is as if there is some kind of conspiracy going on, aimed at making the crossdreamers invisible -- today as well as yesterday. The current stigmatization of crossdreamers among sexologists, post-structuralist academics and radical feminist only serves to reinforce this invisibility.

It is therefore extremely important to identify examples as the ones given by El Feki. No longer is it possible to say that crossdreaming is a social construct of a "capitalist patriarchal society" or a fetish  only. The girlfags of Baghdad and the FTM crossdreamers of ancient India point to an underlying condition that is there independently of the cultural context.

If there are any of my readers fluent in languages like Arabic, Persian, Mandarin, Hindi and Sanskrit who can help me track down relevant literature, I would be very grateful.

See also my post on the ancient Indian girlfags of the Kama Sutra
All blog posts mentioning girlfags.
Gulf News on the Boyat pheonomenon
Sahar Amer: Crossing Borders
Stephen Murray: "Women-women love in Islamic Societies" in Stephen O. Murray and Will Roscoe: Islamic Homsexualities

Discuss crossdreamer and transgender issues!