Sahq (Arabic: to pound or rub) is the base word for “lesbianism” and “lesbian” in Arabic folklife. Another term for lesbian lovemaking was “saffron massage” (the method of grinding saffron into cloth as a dye).
Lesbianism as a Medical Condition
According to scholar Sahar Amer, lesbianism in Arab world is called sahq, sihaq and sihaqa, and lesbian is sahiqa, sahhaqa, and musahiq. The root word for these terms is the aforementioned “sahq.” The tenth century CE Encyclopedia of Pleasure by Abul Hasan Ali ibn Nasr al-Ratib describes lesbianism as a medical condition. He and other medieval Arab writers attribute this diagnosis to the ancient Greek physician Galen. After conducting a physical examination, Galen supposedly concluded that his lesbian daughter’s same-sex desire was the result of a vaginal itch that could only be satisfied (but not cured) by rubbing her vagina against another woman’s vagina. The root cause of lesbianism was the consumption of certain foods, such as celery and bitter orange tree flowers, bay a woman. These foods changed the content of breast milk, making a baby daughter susceptible to the aforementioned medical condition.
Al-Ratib considered same-sex desire between women a disease rather than a crime or sin, around 900 years before the West began considering same-sex desire a medical condition. The position held by al-Ratib was also ahead of the West in that a-Ratib did not consider lesbianism to be a cause of criminal behavior. Lesbian devotion is likewise praised in the legend of al-Zarqa, a Muslim woman who fell in love with a Christian woman.
Amer, Sahar. “Medieval Arab Lesbians and Lesbian-Like Women,” Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 18, No. 2 (MAY 2009), pp. 215-236. Austin: University of Texas.
Habib, Samar. Female Homosexuality in the Middle East: Histories and Representations. New York: Routledge, 2007.