Babayan, Kathryn. “’In Spirit We Ate Each Other’s Sorrow’ Female Companionship in Seventeenth-Century Safavi Iran” in Babayan, Kathryn and Afsaneh Najmabadi (eds.). 2008. Islamicate Sexualities: Translations Across Temporal Geographies of Desire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-03204-0
This article strikes me as solidly hitting the target purpose of the collection: to examine the dynamics of same-sex relationships in the Islamicate world within the social, political, and religious dynamics of that time and place, without presupposing categories or labels that developed in Western culture. What this means is that there is a great deal of information presented that is tangential to the specific text being analyzed, and therefore this summary can only scratch the surface of that context.
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Babayan examines the poetic narrative of a late 17th century Iranian widow’s pilgrimage to Mecca. While this would not appear to be a fertile ground for themes of same-sex desire, the social context of gender segretation and the structures of women’s friendships and relationships brings to light a number of relevant motifs. The article is relatively long and I will be skimming it for these most relevant aspects. Therefore my summary is likely to present a rather skewed understanding of the entirety of Babayan’s analysis.
The most salient topics are Isfahani pratices involving sworn friendships established through a ritual of sisterhood or companionsip (khwahar khwandagi) which framed female love and friendship in religious or mystic language. The text reminisces on the love the widow had for a female companion (yar) from her past. Women’s first-person records of their experiences in the pre-modern Islamicate world are rare and largely preserved as artistic expressions, such as this poem.
The widow of Mirza Khalil [no personal name is given for her, but in Arabic naming practices it isn’t uncommon for both women and men to be identified through their relationships] was obviously educated, and was from an elite family serving the last Safavi king. This status was what enabled her to fulfil a pilgrimage to Mecca, which was an expensive and dangerous undertaking at the time. Her impetus to undertake the pilgrimage is expressed as sorrow and loneliness after her husband’s death, but in keeping with Sufi poetics, the longing to unite with an absent beloved is conflated with the longing to unite with God.
As the widow describes her feeling of loss, she raises another, earlier and secret loss and forced separation: from a female companion. Babayan interprets this as having been an illicit relationship and therefore contributing to a sense of guilt that contributed to her quest and that there is a poetic/mystical tradition implying one purpose of the pilgrimage is to “cure” her of this love for an absent woman. And though there are three strands of loss and longing (God, husband, and female friend), once she sets out on the pilgrimage, references to her husband disappear.
A great deal of the text is travellogue and encounters with other pilgrims and with those providing hospitality along the way. The liminal space of the pilgrimage frees the widow from the usual strictures on cross-gender socializing.
And then, while on the road to Damascus, she makes a detour to her birthplace Urdubad where her female beloved now lives. She writes, “Together in Isfahan, we had been companions. In spirit we ate each other’s sorrow. She was a relative better than any sister, kinder than any of my other relatives.” But then, for unspecified reasons, they were separated and her beloved returned to Urdubad. The separation seemed like a century, but now, “Until at last, the end of the night of torturous separation turned into the morning of spiritual union. After a century, I saw the face of that friend and I ghrew the baggage into her house. The remedy for the incurable pain of separation, o dear one, was patience and endurance.”
To understand possible reasons for that separation, Babayan turns to literature discussing and critiquing the custom of siqahyi khwahar khwandagi, a vow of sisterhood exchanged between two women. This critique occurred in the context of a conservative turn in the interpretation of religious attitudes towards virtue and modesty, addressing issues such as the consumption of wine, modesty of both men’s and women’s clothing, and the mingling of the sexes at social events such as weddings. Sufi social institutions, coffee houses, and taverns were forcibly closed. In this context, a satirical polemic written by Aqa Jamal focused on Isfahani urban women’s culture and on five elite women in particular. The satire concludes with an examination of passionate female friendships, even touching on sexual desire between women. References to sworn bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood exist outside this polemical literature, and examples of the vows that were used are recorded. The language invokes siqqah--elsewhere used to designate a temporary marriage--creating a partnership both in this world and the next, but situated within a religious framework. A woman would swear, “I take you as a sister before God” pledging devotion to God and invoking God, the angels, and the prophets as witnesses.
Another side of the social context are explicit legal prohbitions on homosexual practices, with sex between women identified with the word musahiqa.
Aqa Jamal’s satire describes some of the details of rituals of sworn sisterhood. A woman would propose by sending a trusted intermediary with a small wax doll designated as a “little bride” (aruschak) and either acceptance or rejection would be indicated by how the doll was decorated when it was returned. If accepted, vows would be declared at a shrine and celebrations might include dancing and sherbet drinking. Although these descriptions occur in the context of condemnation, there is no reason to think they do not represent actual customs.
Returning to our widow, her language--both in speaking of her spiritual experiences and her relationship with her female companion--fit within the context of Sufi mysticism and Isfahani social structures, at a time when those practices were coming under fire by more conservative religious forces. And when she is again reunited with that friend (for whom she had expressed longing), suddenly she becomes aloof, distant, and ill. “O kind friend, o old companion: you did not deny me your sweet sould. I was so nurtured by you, as though fallen from the heavens. But my fortune did not comply. I was exhausted. The whole time I was suffering. I was afflicted with fever and torment. Not for a moment was I able to be her partner in [a work translated as “conversation/soul/sex”]. I did not become physically intimate with that good-natured one.” And then after leaving Urdubad, the widow once again takes up the symptoms and language of a lover pining for the absent one.
Babayan digresses for several pages on how the Ka`ba ischaracterized in Persian poetry as a female figure and specifically as a bride, but the widow’s descriptions when she reaches the goal of her pilgrimage avoid this gendered approach. Performing the ceremonies of the pilgrimage, she feels washed clean and relieved of her sins. But on leaving Mecca to return to Isfahan, the melancholy of longing returns.
Overall, this is a difficult and abstract text, and Babayan has done a heroic job of providing sufficient historic, cultural, and religious context to support her interpretation of the widow’s relationship with her sworn sister and the forces that might have driven them apart (and tainted the enjoyment of that relationship for the widow).