History of Sexuality: A Cross-Cultural Approach

Let’s start with some questions about my research project (click on the “SPACES” button in the bottom left of the image above to know more) and its relations with present-day social and political issues that I find particularly urgent and that have inspired my trajectory as a scholar since I was an undergraduate student. Why does it matter to talk about sexuality in a historical perspective? And why does it make sense to explore this issue from a non-exclusively Western-centric perspective?

We are living in times of political instability and uncertainty, one that produces anxiety and disorientation. Economic insecurity goes hand in hand with the fear of the “other” in a world in which massive migrations are taking place from the world’s poorest countries to the industrialized “West” (no matter where this “West” is actually located geographically).

At the same time, the tense relations between the so-called Western World and the Middle East have been increasingly presented in the public discourse as a “Clash of Civilization,” an easy solution that avoids tackling the complexity of the situation and the responsibilities of the West in the escalation of violence in Muslim-majority countries.

In this context, the complicated interactions between gender, sexual, religious and cultural issues are at the centre of public debates. The Muslim presence in the Western world is seen as a threat to the political and civil rights that women and LGBTQI people have fought for for decades, in an effort to undermine—at least in theory—patriarchal domination. At the same time, the rhetoric of civil rights is often used to justify the war waged by Western countries in the “Islamic World”. Strategic and geo-political interests seem not to play a role in the picture often portrayed by some news (not to speak of what happens in social media). As a result, Muslims in western countries—be they migrants or not—who are non-binary or do not identify as “straight”, have to face discrimination not only in their cultural and ethnic communities, but also from the LGBTQI community.

Studying the history of sexuality in the Mediterranean world can help us to rethink some of the issues on the table, at least in regard to the question of homosexuality. The unequal power relations between men and women are indeed more problematic. But what is currently happening with the abortion bans in many US states encourages us to reframe the problem of the control over women bodies in terms of patriarchy and male domination, a matter that appears to be more transversal than the dichotomy created in public discourses between the “progressive west” and the “regressive” Islamic world would have all of us believe.

As per homosexuality, same-sex attraction, and homoaffectivity, by looking at the past one may be surprised to know that, up to the 19th century, (mostly male) homoerotic desire was allowed to be represented in the figurative and literary expression of Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman art to an extent that would have been inconceivable in contemporary Western Christianity.

The ban of homoerotic themes in the literary canon of Muslim-majority countries is a result of the influence of Europe in North Africa and the Middle East starting from the end of the 18th but mostly in the 19th century, as a result of the aggressive colonial policies of European states. The progressive disappearance of male same-sex desire in literary representations was precisely encouraged by those currents within Muslim countries that supported a process of “modernization” inspired by “Western” values.

That is to say, the internal cultural and political dynamics of change within Islamic countries cannot be understood without taking into account their relationship with the “West”. Despite the complexity of this subject matter, to understand the diverse cultures of the Muslim world we need to take into account their interactions with the “West” in a context of growing tensions and conflicts. Who is to be held accountable for what? The answer is often more complex than it may appear at a first sight…


On the influence of the West in the eradication of homoerotic desire in Muslim-majority countries’ art and society see:

Afsaneh Najmabadi, Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards. Gender and Sexual Anxities of Iranian Modernity, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2005

Dror Ze’evi, Producing Desire: Changing Sexual Discourse in the Ottoman Middle East, 1500-1900, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2006.

On premodern conceptions of homosexuality in Muslim-majority countries see:

J.W. Wright Jr. and Everett K. Rowson (eds.), Homoeroticism in Classical Arabic Literature, New York, Columbia University Press, 1997

Stephen O. Murray and Will Roscoe (eds.), Islamic Homosexualities: Culture, History, and Literature, New York, New York University Press, 1997

Khaled El-Rouayheb, Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500-1800, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2005.

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