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Lesbian Historic Motif Project: #43 - Westphal-Hellbusch 1997 “Institutionalized Gender-Crossing in Southern Iraq”

Full citation: 

Westphal-Hellbusch, Sigrid (trans. Bradley Rose). 1997. “Institutionalized Gender-Crossing in Southern Iraq” in Islamic Homosexualities - Culture, History, and Literature, ed. by Stephen O. Murray & Will Roscoe. New York University Press, New York. ISBN 0-8147-7468-7

Publication summary: 

It is an unfortunately useful rule of thumb that any academic collection that both includes the word “homosexual” in the title and is edited solely by men will tend to be oblivious to the existence of lesbians. Fortunately, Murray & Roscoe’s Islamic Homosexualities does not follow that rule of thumb. The collection is a bit of an odd combination of historic studies and modern ethnographic work. Another somewhat unusual feature is that 2/3 of the contents are authored (or co-authored) by one or the other of the editors. To the best that I can tell (based purely on authors' names), the only authors that themselves come out of Islamic cultures are in the section on modern ethnographic work. Overall, although the editors seem to have made a sincere attempt to include diversity both in their topics and authors, it has a tacked-on feel. Despite that, the collection includes 5 articles that contain and least some material relevant to the LHMP. The first two I’ll present have a brief mention of lesbians in the context of articles primarily covering male topics. Next week I’ll finish up with the other three articles. One is the sole article focusing on lesbians as the primary topic, the other two being ethnographic studies of recognized cross-gender roles for women in specific Islamic societies where there is not an expectation of same-sex sexual activity.

Westphal-Hellbusch, Sigrid (trans. Bradley Rose). 1997. “Institutionalized Gender-Crossing in Southern Iraq”

This finishes the relevant articles in Murray & Roscoe. I feel a certain wariness with regard to this article. A great deal of it is an overly-general summary of gender roles and relations in southern Iraq that is utterly devoid of nuance. The entirety of the author’s familiarity with the “mustergil” role seems to come via this one informant who may not be typical, due to class and economic privilege. After describing a gender-segregated, mysogynistic society in which girls and women were said to have no power and no say in their own lives, we are given to believe that a girl could become a mustergil purely by her own decision and that the family would support (or at least tolerate) that choice. I’m not sure I buy it. I think there are some fascinating themes buried here, and I'd love to know more about how they manifested in earlier times, but I would advice serious further research before basing a character on the information in this article.

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This article is primarily a mid-20th century case-study of one particular woman from an upper-class clan of southern Iraq who is a poet and lives as a “mustergil”, that is, a woman living as a man. The informant reports that there are perhaps fifty women in her clan alone living as mustergils. The description of this category with its characteristics and range of variation is similar to that of the “sworn virgins” described in Dickemann 1997, except that -- as presented -- the motivation for entering this life is personal choice rather than a structural void in the family created by a lack of sons. This specific woman reported that she had felt inclined to live as a man from an early age, but there is no indication in the article that personal inclination was the universal motivation, and no real discussion of the extent to which parental permission was involved. The woman has not taken on all attributes of a male role, retaining some female garments and sticking to female religious activities. (For that reason, and based on the language of the article, I have retained female pronouns.) It is noted, however, that some mustergils pass so completely that their original sex is not known until after death.

Time period: 

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