Same-sex desire and unions in A Bride’s Story

Shirin & Anis

Otoyomegatari is an ongoing manga series by Kaoru Mori, the same artist who brought us Emma. It is published in English by Yen Press in a beautiful hardcover edition, translated as A Bride’s Story, and chronicles the life of Amira with her younger groom and her relationship with her tribe as well as the cultural observations of Dr. Smith, an English doctor, in the Central Turkic area in the late 19th century. Mori’s love for details is evident both in her luscious artwork and her well-researched historical tidbits thus winning in 2014 the 7th Annual Manga Taishō Award.

In the 7th volume (chapters 36-44), which is going to be published in English towards the end of 2015, we meet Anis, a beautiful slender woman, hidden away in a huge mansion by her rich beloved husband according to the customs of the region -probably Iran, judging from the clothes. To make her mistress feel less lonely, her servant suggests going to the bathhouse to befriend other women and this opens a whole new world for her. Shirin, a poor voluptuous woman, catches her eye and they connect quickly. What makes this arc special is that the focus is on a second type of marriage, equally established and esteemed; that between “sisters”: siqqah-yi khwahar khwandagi. Did you really think same-sex marriage was a 21st century invention? Let us take a look at same-sex desire, the customs and the sexual politics of Middle East depicted in A Bride’s Story.

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Nowadays marriage in a big part of the western world is an individualistic choice that usually embodies romantic love, sexual gratification and a nurturing environment for the two partners involved. In the past, marriage was above else a financial contract between two families with social benefits, where the people concerned and especially the woman rarely had a say in this whole affair. In such a climate, people sought to fulfill their psychological needs for love and understanding in circles of the same sex[1].

It’s also noteworthy that in premodern societies class superceded any possible[2] identity concerning sexual practices. Naturally, that meant that in certain eras and places class was a limiting criterion imposed in sexual affairs, but it also left some free spaces and generated positive ideals about queerness, which is of interest to me and the focal point of this post.

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In Arabic literature, for example, we do come across words that denote sexual preferences and acts: liwat describes sex between men and musahiqa or sahq[3] sex between women; sapphism was also termed sehhaukeh and lesbians[4] were called contemptuously sehheekehs (=rubbers, tribads); other crude and euphemistic titles were lisaun-fee-gubb (=tongue in bush, cunnilingus) and mejhool-el-izarbund (=laxity of the trouser-string). In the restricted harem esh-seykheh-el-bezzreh was said to be the one who teaches rubbing clitoris against clitoris, ie. lesbian sex, and merseeneh or reehauneh (=myrtle) were the female partners the concubines chose to exercise their techniques and  console them in their loneliness[5].

We haven’t only found terminology stating a recognized presence of queerness, but we’ve also got both neutral and positive comments about it. The first recorded lesbian couple in history comes from the 7th century Iraq, Al-Zarqa and Hind Bint al-Nu’man, a Christian princess, whose love is praised by an unnamed poet as purer and more honest than that of heterosexual couples[6]. Al-Kindi, a 9th century philosopher theorizes the roots of lesbianism as a vapor generating heat in labia which can only be soothed by sex with another woman, since female sexual juices are cold compared to semen. He believed it was caused through particular nutrition during pregnancy but wrote about it in a factual tone and didn’t deem it needs any sort of cure[7].

Hammams: the homosocial spaces of women

Sufi, mystics of Islam, are famous for boy-gazing as a form of comprehending and appreciating the beauty of God. Becoming a sufi meant pursuing a spiritual love that was also “produced, sustained, and consummated corporeally” -though not through sexual intercourse. Brothels and coffeehouses[8] where beardless young boys whose services could be purchased also existed. The customs of siqqah-yi ikhwat, vows of brotherhood, and siqqah-yi khwahar khwandagi, vows of sisterhood, probably stemmed from within the Sufist framework of experiencing the love of God directly. Manuals of chivalry suggested that the love of God was attainable only through a friend for whom one cares and with whom one shares. Moreover, this friend would attest for their entry into paradise before God on Judgment Day.

Aqa Jamal (1694-1722), a clergyman, wrote a book, ‘Aqa’id al-Nisa’ (=the beliefs of women) satirizing female behavior. He entered the female homosocial spaces of public baths (hammams) as well as gatherings that were entertained with live instrumental music, and described what he saw as improper behavior and how women broke the rules of seclusion. He portrayed female friendships to have involved more passionate emotions than matrimony itself. Obviously, these intimate friendships were prevalent enough to cause general male anxiety[9].

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Dr. Polak, as a court gynecologist and obstetrician, confirms the continuation of such practices in the mid-19th century while Ali Javaherklam has written about them in the 20th century[10]. These relationships had a sort of ritual to them, one made among married women only, and a pasabz, an intermediary who prepared a wax or leather doll, called the aruschak[11], on a plate with some treats and took it to the prospective sister. If the latter rejected the proposal, she placed a black cloth on the doll; if she accepted she placed either a white sequined cloth or a valuable like a necklace or a pin on it.

Before getting married to one another they usually waited at least six months to see if they were compatible. During that time they courted each other sending miscellaneous gifts and symbolic fruits to convey their passionate feelings. Afterwards, the sister brides-to-be visited one of the shrines of Prophet Muhammad’s descendants through his daughter Fatima and cousin Ali to announce their intended union with the following words: “In the name of Ali, the shah conqueror of Khaybar, oh God, accept and fulfill our desire.” The bonds were officiated on the day of the anniversary of Quadir Khum, the last sermon of the Prophet, or on the last day of the Persian calendar and were accompanied by dance and sherbet drinking. The one khwahar khwandah[12] would say: “I seek protection for you in God, I shake hands with you before God, I pledge myself to you for God, and I pledge myself to God, His angels, books, messengers and sent prophets. And praise be to God, Lord of the Two Worlds.” The other one would answer: “I accept and forfeit all the rights of the sisterhood in favor of proximity to God. I take you as a sister before God.” Like with a heterosexual marriage, the wedded would go on a trip together to celebrate their union.

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In the case of A Bride’s Story, Mori shows us the whole procedure quite faithfully but abbreviates the time between the proposal and the vows, and omits the honeymoon for practical plot reasons (Dr. Smith can’t stay six months there). The words spoken during the vows are a bit different and Shirin and Anis tie a colored cloth on each other’s thigh, something I can’t judge if it’s her liberty or not with the sources I have on my hands. What I find really endearing is how their culture of polygamy allowed these two women to be even closer to each other and actually really happy in the narrative of this manga -Shirin’s husband died and thus Anis pleaded her husband to take Shirin as his second wife.

With the rise of the Safavi estate and especially during the rule of Sultan Husayn (1694) the Shari’a and Shi’ism were enforced and the jurists effected heteronormativity on their subjects through the control of their religious and sexual practices. Additionally, the Shi’i clergy wanted to be the exclusive intermediaries between God and Muslim believers and the custom of the adopted brothers and sisters were in their way. This meant that such relationships were judged more harshly (especially liwat).

This is what makes A Bride’s Story such an interesting series -it gives us a glimpse of a very cultured premodern vein of same-sex relationships that are otherwise rarely heard of, while reminding us that Islam isn’t a monolith.

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Notes and bibliography:

  1. The term “same sex” is preferred nowadays to the term “homosexual” for two reasons: a. the latter carries clinical baggage, and b. it’s a label used after the 20th century, so it’d be anachronistic to apply it for people in different eras and cultures. The negative aspect of the term “same sex” is that adheres to the binary system as it implies an “opposite sex”, but that’s the best we have right now.
  2. Michel Foucault in his books about sexuality distinguishes between the modern societies where there’s the lgbtq identities and the premodern societies where the focus was mainly on the act.
  3. The root of the word sahq/sahiqa is s-h-q which means to pound (as in spices) or to rub.
  4. As I said previously, it’s good to have on our mind that there isn’t one-on-one alignment between the words of now and then.
  5. We get these information from Allen Edwarde’s survey of other people customs. He didn’t state his source, but there must be truth in what he wrote since the 13th century Tunesian physician, philosopher and poet Shihab al-Din Ahmad al-Tifashi mentioned a “lesbian community” and their “saffron massage”.
  6. “O Hind, you are truer to your word than men./ Oh, the difference between your loyalty and theirs!”
  7. Amer, Sahar. “Medieval Arab Lesbians and Lesbian-Like Women.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 18.2 (2009): 215-36.
  8. Bachtin, Piotr. “Male Homosexuality in Medieval Iran (Persia): Between Perversion and Ideal Love.” Panel Sex and Gender in medieval Europe and Middle East: Contribution to a Transcultural History of Concepts (2013).
  9. Babayan, Kathryn. “”In Spirit We Ate Each Other’s Sorrow”: Female Companionship in Seventeenth-Century Safavi Iran.” Islamicate Sexualities. Cambridge, MA: Center for Middle Eastern Studies of Harvard U, 2008. 239-76.
  10. Afary, Janet. “Class, Status-defined Homosexuality, and Rituals of Courtship.” Sexual Politics in Modern Iran. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2009. 79-108. Print.
  11. aruschak < arus-i kuchak= little bride
  12. khwardan has multiple meanings: eat, drink, gnaw, corrode, suffer, hit, strike etc. It’s seen as compound in gham khwardan which means to grieve or feel grief and be sorrowful, literally “eat sorrow”. Sisterhood was a relationship where the women supported each other through their sorrows.

Further reading:

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13 thoughts on “Same-sex desire and unions in A Bride’s Story

  1. Hi !

    Your site was one of the two only results I get by searching “khwahar khwandah” on google !

    I just bought the last Bride Stories and I was so curious about this practixe and if it was true (even I know that Kaori Mori does a looot of historical researches for her work).

    As you said well at the end, this show us that “Islam is not a monolith”. And it’s a good thing I think, because media only speak bad of thaf religion, and I didn’t expect that a sort of same sex marriage existed before.

    Thank you for your interesting article and fof giving notes and bibliography !

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  2. Pingback: Okazu » Yuri Network News – (百合ネットワークニュース) – April 10, 2015

  3. I’m not much of a history reader, but all these references to historical facts in Mori’s works are fascinating. I also find it interesting that same-sex relationships were really not just a modern invention, as ill-informed debates against LGBT may be implying.

    There’s this Chinese movie, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, that was an adaptation of Lisa See’s novel of the same title. It’s labeled as ‘sisterhood’, but I haven’t read much to certainly say that ‘lao tong’ is more than just sisterhood. Nevertheless, the parallels of sapphism in pre-modern Middle East and China are impressive. Knowing that the Middle East and China had pretty solid trade relations (I don’t know since when, but it should have been there at least in the 9th century), I can’t completely shake off the possibility for some cultural exchanges. It’s that, or simply lesbianism spontaneously started in both locations independent of each other’s influences.

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    • Oh I’ve never heard of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, so thanks! I’ll check it out!

      “I can’t completely shake off the possibility for some cultural exchanges” Same sex desire isn’t architecture; it’s not an idea/ technique/ tool to talk about it as something to be “imported”. Although the words we ascribe to it and its social framing and utilization are socially constructed, desire is a genuine feeling, namely sth experienced by individuals and at the core of human nature. Sex is a need much like food. There are many different cuisines but hunger is found in all human beings.

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      • Glad to be of help. 🙂

        I meant, the practice of taking in a sister-wife? But yes, it would make sense that these practices in China and Middle East were independent of each other. In China it seemed a bit different, from what I can recall from the movie, because sisterhood meant the bride confiding in another woman, who may already be a wife of her own husband.

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        • Oh sorry I misunderstood because you talked about lesbianism in general in one sentence. I’ll have to research more to tell you with certainty. It seems though taking a side lover has been a very “popular” practise in Eurasia in general since people made a distinction between marriage and love and there was this need to produce lawful heirs. In ancient Rome we encounter this between men even as stand alone marriages!

          I’ll watch the film and fill you in!

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    • Thanks for the reblog! Glad it caught your attention. It’s surely a fresh setting and Mori might emphasize positive relationships in those societies but doesn’t hide the problems either.

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    • If you’re referring to the manga, you should know that Anis’ husband didn’t plan on taking any more wives despite his affluence, exactly because he treasured her so much and didn’t want to make her jealous. It was Anis that insisted he married Shirin as well to save the latter and her family from straving to death. His care and respect towards his first wife is highlighted multiple times during that arc (and is also cast as an exception). Bear also in mind that polygyny doesn’t necessarily equate threesomes in bed. They could just sleep in twosomes.

      If you’re referring to historical situations, only the rich could afford more than one wife and even then I’m not sure how things functioned (I haven’t searched this area). The classical male fantasies definitely existed back then (the desire to peek in) but from a few anecdots I’ve come across lesbian sex was either thought of as preparation for appreciation of heterosexual intercourse or seen antagonistically.

      I hope I answered your latent doubts and questions. Thanks for commenting and welcome to our blog!

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