In following up on references to gender transgression in medieval Arabic literature, I’ve been struck by the way certain motifs align differently from what we see in the literature of Christian cultures. In European romances, “Amazonian” characters who dress and act as men are often a context for accidental homoeroticism. Cross-dressing in general also provides this opportunity. But as we saw in Rowson’s article on categories of cross-dressed entertainers in medieval Baghdad, the social signals and assumptions around gender-crossing were different in the Islamicate world, in part because of the greater normalization (if not actual approval) of male homosexuality. I chose Kruk’s article to cover to illustrate some of these differences even though it touches on female homoeroticism only very tangentially.
There is a long history in western culture of projecting female homosexuality onto the Other, and especially onto an Orientalist fantasy of harems and odalisques. Lesbian historical fiction is not immune to this projection. That makes it all the more important to familiarize ourselves with how issues of homoeroticism and gender performance were understood within the cultures we may consider as fictional settings. The "woman warrior" motif was popular in medieval Arabic epics, but she represented different things from the woman warrior of European chivalric romance, and the gender dynamics of these stories are very different. Historical fiction that wants to use motifs like these as a jumping off place either needs to engage with those differences or risk being nothing more than yet another Orientalist fantasy.
Kruk, Remke. 1998. “The Bold and the Beautiful: Women and ‘fitna’ in the Sīrat Dhāt al-Himma: The Story of Nūrā” in Women in the Medieval Islamic World: Power, Patronage, and Piety, ed. Gavin R. G. Hambly. New York: St. Martin’s Press. ISBN 0-312-21057-4
Scholarship on medieval Arabic literature has tended to focus on scholarly works or on the specific set of stories that has come to western attention as the Thousand and One Nights. Only recently has the enormous corpus of traditional popular epics begun to receive more attention and analysis. This article looks at one specific episode in a longer epic that illustrates the popular motif of the warrior woman, and how she becomes a force either for disruption or stability.
The role of women in the popular epic tradition is very different from how they are depicted in the more literary traditions. Female warriors are a popular stock figure in the epics (not only in Arabic language traditions, but also in Persian and Turkish). Female characters are typically portrayed as clever and resourceful. Sometimes the female warrior will be a close relative of the male hero and serve as a counterpart, sometimes she will begin as an antagonist and eventually be incorporated into the social structure through marriage. Often she is a link to “outside” cultures. There is a common motif (as in the story discussed here) of female Christian warrrior figures being brought into Islamic society not only through marriage but through conversion.
Kruk is interested in examining how the image of women in epic literature differs from the image of men, but in the present paper is only examining one specific example to explore the different roles women may play. The specific figure in question is the Princess Nūrā, a Byzantine princess who figures within a story cycle about conflict between Muslim forces, led by a woman, Dhāt al-Himma, and her son, against seven Byzantine castles. The superficial male focus of the epic is belied by the way the story revolves around how desire for Nūrā disrupts the social stability of the Muslim forces and the struggle between Dhāt al-Himma and Nūrā to neutralize her effect by means of pairing her off to one of the men.
Nūrā is introduced as the daughter of the king of one of the Byzantine fortresses. She and her female companions live in a monastery apart from the fortress where they engage in all sorts of revelry including wrestling matches, at which Nūrā excels. They are listening to tales about the wars between the Arabs and Byzantines and especially about one particularly heroic Arabic warrior. Nūrā expresses a desire to meet the warrior (the summary notes “even though until now she has only been interested in women”--take that as you will) and by strange coincidence he’s been spying on them and makes himself known. He immediately falls in love with Nūrā. In fact, pretty much every many in the story falls in love with Nūrā--Muslim and Byzantine alike, which provides much of the conflict. Eventually (and it’s a very long, drawn-out eventually) Nūrā is married to this Arabic hero, converts to Islam, and continues to play a major role in the epic as a warrior.
The article takes a detailed look at two repeating themes during the adventures that form that “eventually”: the ways in which men lose all responsibility, dignity, and judgement when driven by obsessive desire for Nūrā, and the relationship between Nūrā and Dhāt al-Himma as the latter attempts to control the disruption caused by the former. Although Dhāt al-Himma expresses admiration and sympathy for Nūrā, her primary concern is to maintain social stability.
There is a continuing theme throughout the epic of how Nūrā is considered an existential danger (her prospective husband is so terrified of her on their wedding night that he orders her to be tied up and drugged), and Nūrā’s willingness to use this as one of her weapons in battle, including uncovering her face or breasts to distract her opponents and defeat them. Many of the adventures involve captures and escapes and competition among various men for the right to Nūrā. If Nūrā isn’t exactly given a choice in these matters, her resistance to being married off against her will shapes a great deal of the narrative.
While much of the interactions between Nūrā and Dhāt al-Himma have a flavor of shared exasperation at the antics of the men, there are indications that Dhāt al-Himma is not entirely immune to Nūrā’s attraction. We can overlook one episode where the matriarch participates in a combat over who will “get” Nūrā as being intended to keep the princess still in play, but there are other episodes where Nūrā seems to appeal to a sense of female solidarity that transcends other loyalties, and some where Dhāt al-Himma herself experiences the force of Nūrā’s sexual attractions, as in one case where they embrace and kiss when Dhāt al-Himma is in disguise and al-Himma expresses at least a hypothetical desire for her.
Within the epic, the existence of female warriors and their normalization on both sides of the combat is taken for granted. Nūrā and Dhāt al-Himma first meet when the latter is besieging the Byzantine fortress and both women express a specific interest in meeting each other in combat. When Nūrā is first captured by the Arabic forces, it is by Dhāt al-Himma herself, who then thinks to herself that she understands why the girl causes so much disruption: “if this girl had been a man, I would have lost my head.”
But in the end, Dhāt al-Himma’s primary concern is to neutralize Nūrā’s disruptive potential, which is done by enforcing her marriage to the designated hero by a disturbing use of overwhelming force. Even so, the hazard Nūrā represents continues until she is “domesticated” by her hatred turning into love, by her conversion to Islam, and by the production of children, although she still continues her martial activities throughout the remainder of the epic.