Gender Issues



Gender issues, especially as reflected in religion, have always been a focus of my fiction as well as nonfiction.  It goes without saying that expressions of homosexuality are usually crushed in monotheistic religions and supported in earlier reflections of belief.  That is part of the reason my attention is drawn again and again to the Middle East where religions are not only born, but where the expressions of gender differences have historically been most starkly drawn.  Think of the white-robed Saudi and his black-clad women.  Black and white indeed.  In my search, however, I’ve also seen that even where there are lines of starkest black and white, the gray between also has historically had a place.

More than likely, the time period that fascinates us had no name other than “unnatural sin” for same-sex attraction.  The problem is compounded when you want to write fiction that is in the mind set of the time.  How can your characters do other than deny what they cannot name?  And yet, often monasteries were the refuge of men and women who had no desire for heterosexual relations.  The way to embrace what you cannot name always offers drama.

“What is this love you speak of?” Turkish readers have asked me.  It has no name.  And writing in the minds of historical characters, I cannot give it its modern names full of pride and acceptance.

Those readers who get what I mean are not always sympathetic.  I have, in fact, received hate mail declaring that I need to apologize to the world for suggesting that the Ottoman empire had such expressions of love.  “We were pure,” I’ve been told.  And yet, in the early modern period, it’s known that a number of men left Europe and went to the Turks in order to express themselves.  That certain Middle Eastern societies within living memory had “an accepted third gender” (see the Wikipedia article on Khanith and the writings of anthropologist U. Wikan).  I use those terms when I can.

This “purity”, I feel, is part of the culture we keep trying to force on the East.  Like “democracy”.  Why else would a female US soldier, winning over “hearts and minds” between fire fights in Iraq and Afghanistan, have told the young men she was instructing that they could never be liberated until they stopped walking arm in arm together down the street.  Not that I see such expressions as rampant “depravity”, only a freedom of expression of even heterosexual affection.  Such pushes towards “freedom” turn into pushes for “purity” in the next edit.

For me, such cultural expressions are better investigated in historical fiction than in military directives.

Born and raised in Salt Lake City, Ann Chamberlin also spent big blocks of time as a child in Europe where her father was visiting professor of mathematics. After flitting from school to school and major to major including theater, history and English, she finally majored in Archaeology of the Middle East at the University of Utah. She spent a summer in Israel excavating the biblical city of Beersheva, traveling throughout the Holy Land and living in the old city of Jerusalem for a month. She reads Hebrew, Arabic, Egyptian hieroglyphs and ancient Akkadian as well as French and German. She has traveled across all of North Africa, Turkey, Syria and Jordan. She lives in an old farm house on nearly two acres near Salt Lake City.

Ann is the author of eleven historical novels and a non-fiction HISTORY OF WOMEN’S SECLUSION IN THE MIDDLE EAST. Her trilogy set in the 16th­-century Ottoman Empire was on the bestsellers list in Turkey for over six months.  Her most recent novel is THE WOMAN AT THE WELL, set in early Islam.

She is the author of many plays which have been produced across the country from Seattle to New York. JIHAD, produced by New Perspectives Theatre in New York City, won The Off-Off Broadway Review’s best new play of the year in 1996.
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23 Responses

  1. Fascinating blog this morning. it really surprises me that Turkey has no word for homosexuality or perhaps there is no word for romantic same gender love in the historical context? I can see I need to read your book and have more coffee this morning.

    And the point you make about Saudi society being seen as black (women) and white (men in their robes) walked up and smacked me. Its stark in its reminder of today’s Saudi culture and the brutal repression of homosexuality.

    Yet I also think of Sir Richard Burton (as well as T. E. Lawrence) and his Sotadic Zone which included parts of the Middle East as areas of homosexual culture. Again a wonderful and thoughtful blog.

    • Great reply, Melanie. I should clarify that there are Turkish and Arabic words for homosexuality, few of them pleasant, and a lot of the shame goes along with who’s getting penetrated, not so much with the penetrator whoever that may be. I just wanted to point out the difficulties for writers of historical fiction of finding the words to describe what’s going on here when most cultural references are pejorative and when modern readers can’t get their minds around the possibility. How hard it is to Speak Its Name.

      • I would find that writing historical fiction daunting in its challenges in terms of accuracy while still getting your story across in the manner you wish to tell it. But I would think that placing your story within the Ottoman Empire or Arabia would add that additional layer of “foreigness” to those of us with an Anglo or Anglo American background.

    • I should also add what an important thing it was to bring up Sir Richard Burton. Thanks for that, covering for my oversight. Burton was one of those I think escaped the strictures of Victorian England by heading East. I love Burton, shameless rogue. (I have a friend who wrote a romance with Burton as the hero. Who could resist?) At the same time, no matter how fluent his Arabic, he was without family constraints upon his honor as he moved to al-Medinah and beyond, and that was a good part of his freedom. We cannot imagine that–unless as bosomfriends mentions below, he were a sultan–your average man in the East enjoyed similar freedom.

      Think frat boys away from Mama at college.

      • Burton was a roque wasn’t he. But that is an excellent point about the lack of familial constraints and his freedom.

      • For you Richard Burton fans.. have you all read Phikip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld series? Burton and Sam Blemmens share the prootagonist roles. It’s science fiction.. everyone who ever lived on Earth wakes up young and fit on a vast world where all their needs are taken care of.


  2. Again, the topic of whether our assumptions about history are correct, given that “all history is fiction” and that the recorders of history even now have their biases. Brilliant job on this and I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts and knowledge on it.

    I contend also that class plays a huge role in how we see history. So many novels about medieval women concentrate on the upper class, so you miss the fact that women in lower levels of society may not have had many rights but they had responsibilities often commesurate with their men. This goes double for the women who followed their men to war. They fought, they were blacksmiths, they held down responsibilities a noblewoman would never know.

    I think this goes for homosexuality too. Whether a person could get away with it had a great deal to do with his position in sociiety, the opposite of the situation with poor women.

    Thanks again for this thought pronoking piece!

    • Good points about class, bosomfriends. I remember my sister-in-law saying how much she’d like to have lived in the middle ages. When some convenience and sanitary lacks were pointed out to her, she said, “But of course I would be the princess.” Of course she would.

      At the same time, not having vast estates entrusted to your womb may have been freeing. I think there were ritualized means for the European peasantry before the strait laces of Protestantism for the wife of an impotent husband, for example, to periodically get her jollies and maybe the much-needed younger hands for the work as well.

      • As a matter of fact, Anglo Saxon women had the right to divorce a husband, and if the reason was impotence, she got to keep his morning gift. Irish women under Brehon law had divorce rights too, as did the men.. They even had trial marriages.

        One factnot generally known is that among the lower classes the Church did not even get involved in marriage. It was considered beneath its dignity. In England marriages were more like what are called hand fastings. It was not until the 10th century that the church got involved in marriage… and that’s also when priests no longer could marry.

        The other area not often mentioned is that in warrior cultures m/m sexual relationships were not at all uncommon. Not only Spartans and Athenians, but Celts and others. I have read that the Norse were not so enamored of this, but I’ll need proof before I’ll relent. Irish warriors routinely formed couples and shared beds. Much of the pathos of the story of Cuchellain is that the comrade Ferdiad he had to fight and ultimately kill was his lover.

        One of the reasons I love the Dark Ages!


  3. Really interesting blog — notions of gender, class and race and their intersections are always historically and culturally specific, which makes the study of these specificities so important. Your writings sound fascinating, keen to find out more 😀

  4. Good to hear from you, Kay. Keep reading!

  5. That last anecdote about the soldier is just tragic. A very interesting post with some equally interesting discussion in the comments.

    Hywel Dda’s laws of 9th century Wales were comparatively friendly to women – a couple could divorce by mutual agreement and the lady could take her goods and gear and her pick of the cats!

    • Thanks for posting, Elin, and for your point about Wales, which connects to Nan’s about the Anglo-Saxons, so I’d like to reply to them both together. I did write with a flippant broad brush, lumping the middle ages together as a whole. Forgive me for that. (And to keep generally on topic, I should remind us that “medieval” Islam was the height of civilization.) In general, “progress” through the period say 500-1500 CE meant more and more consolidation, of laws, of religious belief, of economic compulsion, of everything, so that pyramids of society got broader and broader bases supporting narrower and narrower pinnacles. So the Normans came along and knocked the Welsh and the Anglo-Saxons into conformity. And they did the same to the different cultures in Sicily. The Parisians did the same in France. Et cetera. Crusade and ethnic cleansing honed sharper and sharper. The enforcement of general religious confession is but one way uniformity was stressed. Witch burnings another. Later, removal of general access to land by enclosure. If you can’t maintain body and soul together by the work of your own hands with access to the means of production, pressure to stay married in an approved marriage and to curtail your soul to meet the norms becomes greater and greater.

      I like Richard Bateson’s image: Around 1500, he says, European society had evolved to be like a married couple with a dual-control electric blanket. Only the controls have gotten switched. The one side who likes it warm keeps turning up the control while the other side keeps turning it down making both more and more uncomfortable.

      I’ve explored some of these ideas in my series of novels about Joan of Arc and hope to do more. This fifteen-year-old cross-dresser comes out of a culture that might be likened to Anglo-Saxons in the 8th cent., the Welsh up to Edward I. Many ancient practices are in place in Lorraine (see for example Ginzburg, The Night Battles), allowing her to hear her own voices, speak their name. The powers that be, on the English side and the French, both interested in more consolidation for their own pocket books, do not like what they hear when she confesses. They do not like what they *see*. We know the result.

      I have also written a non-fiction History of Women’s Seclusion in the Middle East, mostly pre-Islamic, a pretty dense tome, even more than my novels. In this book I postulate that such monolithic consolidating as I outlined above–with attendant stress on the individual and her expression–took place ages earlier in the Middle East. Women took drastic measures–veils and harems–to keep their lives from as much scrutiny as possible. The Northern European (yes, Anglo-Saxon) emphasis on a man getting his honor by serving another man eventually led to an end-run around these defenses which we in the West, like my cultural manipulating soldier above, are now trying to foist on everyone, often with the co-conspiracy of the guys in charge in the Middle East. Because they’re in the oil pocket book, too.

      My 2 cents on a Monday morning.

      Thanks all for your interesting posts. I will shortly pick the winner of a copy of my latest book to be announced on Christmas Eve.

      • Ann, what a delight your comments about women’s history are. And what a switch on the old idea, that is, you talk about women’s seclusion as a sort of separatism.. downright empowering. i am going to have to get my brain around that.

        I have to read your Joan books. I am sure you are aware of my own “Joan” in Beloved Plgrim..they actually only had their clothing in common.


      • Thanks for such a detailed response and the interesting points you raise.

        so that pyramids of society got broader and broader bases supporting narrower and narrower pinnacles.

        Like our economic structure today. 😦

  6. This is such a fascinating thread. Do you mean that women voluntarily took on the veils and created/participated in harems? And that they did so as a means of protection and not had them foisted upon them by men as I had always thought. I can understand the veil as a mask that hides facial expressions as well as identity. Such a useful item from a modern pov. And the concept of a group providing social structure, support (sustenance, etc.) is such base concept whether it is a school of fish, a pride or a nunnery, to me the idea of a harem has always seemed so male oriented. (no backup research here just an opinion culled from readings etc.). Need another cup of coffee this morning to mull all of this over. Love this group.

    • That’s what a book full of research led me to believe, Melanie. You can read it and see if you agree. Personally, the notion that so many of our foremothers were such dupes is harder to swallow, and nearly every woman I’ve met in the Middle East, covered or uncovered, is not a person you could pull something over on. But then again, the fact that we would collectively swallow the economic situation that has the world currently in such a mess never ceases to amaze me as well.

  7. I would love to read the research behind this. I could see forming any other type of construct except a harem which to me says ownership. And true, in so many cultures, women (and children) were chattel so a harem might be the best they could do under certain circumstances. It is hard to say from my very modern (and happily so) landing, what women in those ages might consider necessary in order to survive, including the harem. Still it brings up the sister/wives of polygamy and the treatment of women in certain cultures today.

    • Fatima Mernissi, born “in a harem” in Morocco was completely taken aback by western reactions to her memoirs published in “Dreams of Trespass”. Faced with the leers of possessive western male interviewers, she later wrote about her experiences in “Scheherazade Goes West”. She never felt possessed by men, growing up. (Later, in the West.) In fact, she felt the men were terrified–I think that’s her exact word– by the possible censure of their women. She thinks the chattel construct the fantasy of western men–who of course never actually entered a harem themselves–along the worst lines of Orientalism a la Edward Said. I believe her. Of course, the other version gets so much more press in the West. It justifies our attempts to recreate other cultures in our own image. I’m sure there are unpleasant relationships in the East to be trotted out. But let me tell you about my own abusive western marriage. . . No, don’t let me go there.
      I think the chattel image is a way for the guys in the West to keep us from embracing our eastern sisters. Divide and conquer. Their guys tell them tales, too, about us.

      • Thank you, Ann. My own list of books I want for the holidays has just grown. I have not heard of Dreams of Trespass by Fatima Mermissi but I can see this is a voice I need to hear. I would believe her too. I think this is why “going to the source” is so important as is doing the research (pointed out again in the Advent posts).

        The who as in “who is writing this history” should be considered when looking at beliefs and opinions, something I should have remembered. Recently, here in the area, a Virginia history school text was removed from the school system due to major inaccuracies and flawed historical perspective (think happy slaves). The makeup of the committee who originally approved the author and the book would make the most reasonable person shudder (think religious leaders, political right politicians with some old southern viewpoints on slavery). Not a historian among them who would have pointed out the flaws before it even got printed. And don’t get me started on the sources the author used as the basis for the history book. Doesn’t it always come back to “do the research, people”?

        Oops, somehow I have lost my thought here but hiking around to the beginning of the post, I can see a chattel image as a viable “divide and conquer” method but I also think about the “honor defense” that gets used time and again in courts in the Middle East, Turkey and even parts of South America (both past and present). This occurs where men (husbands, brothers, cousins etc.) have been found “innocent” of horrendous crimes against women because they have used as their defense the idea that the woman committed a crime against their honor. And that her offense demanded that such a price be paid. To me, this indicates that the woman is not a individual but an extension of the male society/family with no “self” of her own. I can see both views existing together.

  8. Wow this is so fascinating. I’m glad I stumbled over this site today, I think I’m going to learn a lot.

  9. You are so right, Melanie. What a line we have to walk, East and West. I know women in the West who have no “self” of their own. I think of the stress of having to raise a child on your own without support of family or society. And I know of many a jealousy killing here in the US. Thank goodness, I’ve never heard the jury looking kindly on such behavior.

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