“Women’s souls are in their vaginas,” an Arab “sage” told a man coming to him to complain about his wife, for rejecting his overtures. This phrase summarizes to a large extent how many Arab men perceive women. Indeed, in old books, there are many quotes and anecdotes showing how so many men saw women as nothing more than sex machines, and how they were intimated by these machines believing they were hard to keep up with.
Reading old Arabic books dealing with issues like sex and sexual relations reveals just how much Arab men are intimidated by women. This sense of anxiety comes from a patriarchal value system that calls for male dominance and fears anything that threatens this paradigm. To make it worse still, is the fact that many Arab men also saw women as mysterious entities, impossible to understand, a fool’s errand so to speak.
The frightening sex machine
Old Arabic literature often depicted women as nymphomaniac, sex-crazed beings. According to an old Arab anecdote, some men sought the counsel of a wise woman nicknamed “the Debauchee.” She was asked, “where can intellect be found, O womenfolk?” to which she answered, “between the thighs.” “And desire?” “In the same place,” she said. “What about the love and hate of men?” “In the same place still,” she replied.
Women’s alleged insatiability is best seen in a story featuring a woman named Aisha al-Mughanniya at times and Hubba al-Madaniya at others. As the story goes, one of the two women once described a sexual encounter thus: “I have copulated with my man in such a way that a thousand animals scattered in fear; they are yet to come together.” Such narratives show how Arabs thought women’s sexual desire extraordinary, if not terrifying.
Many Arab men believed that the only way to get closer to women was sex, if not rough sex. For this an Arab concubine once sang (loose translation):
No good comes to a concubine
Nor from scarves nor from robes
Nor from dinars nor from clothes
Unless her knees get a thrashing
Arabic texts focusing on sexual relations contain many such tales reinforcing these perceptions, including the belief that men cannot obtain what they want from women unless they can satisfy them sexually. For example, as another story goes, the wife of a man named Abbas initially refused his overtures because she did not find him attractive. Abbas complained about this to a wise man who told him, “Women’s souls are in their vaginas,” and proceeded to prescribe him a remedy that would enlarge his phallus, which was supposedly effective. The man’s wife was impressed, and soon returned his love and “gave him her money and put herself and all her belongings at his disposal to do with them as he pleased.” In the same vein, another anecdote tells the story of a man who fell out with his wife. The man offered to have sex with her to make amends, to which she replied: “You came to me with an intercessor that I could never reject,” in reference to his phallus.
Men’s fear of women as such had to do with their belief that women are created in a way that renders them superior to men in sexual prowess. According to Arabic folklore, a king once asked Burjan and Habahib, two of his most important concubines, “who had more lust, men or women?” The women answered, “The weakest yearning among women is stronger than the strongest among men.”
The belief in women’s sexual superiority even crept to the ranks of religious scholars. A man once asked al-Shaabi, an early Muslim scholar: “What do you say about a woman who tells her husband if he penetrates her, ‘you have killed me with pain?’” Shaabi replied, “Let him kill her like that and I will take care of her blood money,” suggesting he believed that this would have been impossible.
The importance of these perceptions lies in their implications, including the belief that women have an instinctive tendency to cheat on their husbands. According to one story from the era of the Caliph al-Ma'mun, a fool named Bahloul had an affair with Hamdouna, the daughter of al-Ma'mun and wife of his grand vizier. She was known for her great beauty. The affair itself is not relevant, but what is relevant is the conversation they had after intercourse. Bahloul asked Hamdouna what pushed her to sleep with a stranger when she is married. Hamdouna answered by likening women to mares, and told Bahloul that women were pushed to infidelity if they had not had intercourse for a long time, but also by the influence of sweet talk.
An intractable puzzle
Further complicating the relation between Arab men and women is the conviction of the impossibility of understanding women. Men were also convinced that women were impossible to trust, because they only gave their affections for a reason that men could never fathom. In one of his poems, Abu Nawas says something to this effect, calling women “devils” and questioning the honesty and durability of their affections.
Women in the eyes of Arabs were not completely subdued and docile beings as many wrongly believe. Rather, they were riddles that required careful studying to solve. But of course, the Arab idea for solving women’s mysterious riddles did not go beyond the traditional views of patriarchal society.
Nevertheless, Arab men soon became convinced that it takes a woman to understand a woman. For this reason, women were the best messengers between men and women, being more knowledgeable about their mysteries. For example, procuring prostitutes was a profession at which women excelled, especially old women. Arabs called those who would do so “wise mothers,” for their role in facilitating difficult liaisons.
Fear of women domination
Arab men's perceptions of women created fears of the possibility of a shift in gender roles, where women would dominate society since they, by their nature, had sexual powers that men could not match. From ancient times, rural men despised urban communities because of women’s central role in them. One story goes that a hermit who lived in the mountains went to the city one day. When he saw the kind of relations that went on there, he was appalled and told some wise men before he left: “I saw everyone there were slaves to women.”
In matters of sexual intimacy, Arabs refused those sexual positions that let women dominate men. They justified these preferences by invoking medical myths, as it appears from the words of Sheikh al-Nifzawi in his book Al-Rawd al-Aater fi Nuzhat al-Khater. Addressing men, he wrote: “Do not let her mount you, for I fear for you from her water, and the possibility that it might mix with yours and give you hernia and stones.”
Even religious scholars weighed in on the subject of sex positions. The Arab scholar Ibn al-Qayyem al-Jawziyyah dedicated several pages to the topic in his book Al-Tubb al-Nabawi. After repeating several times that “a woman’s company cannot be pleasant except if she is copulated with,” Ibn al-Qayyem asserts that “the best forms of intercourse is where the man mounts the woman, laying on her after foreplay and kissing, which is why women have been called bedsteads [Sic]. This is the perfect application of [the principle of] man’s stewardship over women.”
According to Ibn al-Qayyem, though, the worse form of intercourse is where “the woman mounts the man and he copulates with her on his back, which is contrary to the natural way.” Ibn al-Qayyem then concludes by saying: “Women are to be acted upon in nature and in accordance with Sharia. If she is the agent, then this contradicts nature and Sharia.”
In a related issue, Ibn al-Qayyem praises virgin women and favors them over non-virgins, writing: “Intercourse with the virgin is special with a perfect attachment forming between her and the man laying with her. Her affection would not be shared with others, something that is not true of non-virgins.”
Stories and anecdotes about sexual matters in old Arabic literature are not historical facts. Most probably, many of them are fabricated, yet they no doubt reflect some Arab men’s perceptions of women. Their implicit, yet profound fear of women can help us understand many social phenomena that are still prevalent in the Arab world, such as the extreme importance assigned to the hymen, as well as female circumcision meant to reduce women’s sexual desire. All these beliefs are nothing more than a way to perpetuate the patriarchal society.