Ambigous Genders (Abstract)

Ambiguous Genders” in Classical Islamic Law:

the Case of the Eunuch and the Mukhannath

Serena Tolino, Zurich University

This paper investigates how gender ambiguities, and specifically ambiguous masculinities, were understood in the Islamic Legal discourse.

In Islamic Law categorizing each individual as a man or a woman was very important. Indeed, there is a strong difference between males and females for what regards both duties and rights: for example, in general circumstances women inherit half the share of inheritance available to men; blood money of a woman is (generally speaking) half of that of a man; men have the duty to economically support women, and the dressing code for the two genders is very different. Needless to say, there is a strong insistence on the separation between men and women, with women (in practice: elite women) relegated to the private sphere. Though, Muslim jurists also had to deal with less normative “genders”: in this paper, I am going to focus on two of these cases, the eunuch and the “mukhannath”, the effeminate man. These cases were not addressed specifically from a gender perspective, as it happened instead with the hermaphrodite, where we find sophisticated discussions focusing on how to categorize him/her. Nevertheless, through an analysis of those fields of law where the division between male and female was particularly important, it is still possible to infer something about the jurists’ understanding of these two “ambiguous men”. 

On the micro-level, the aim of this paper is to reflect on how medieval Muslim jurists understood, defined and “gendered” eunuchs and effeminates, and how (and if) they categorized them with respect to the “gender binary”. On a more general level, this paper will try to explore the applicability of a binary conception of sex/gender in the Islamic medieval discourse.


Serena Tolino

I have a PhD in “Islamwissenschaft” from the University of Halle-Wittenberg and the title of Doctor Europaeus in “Studi sul Vicino Oriente e Maghreb” from the University of Naples “L’Orientale” (co-tutelle). I have been a PhD fellow at the Graduate School Society and Culture in Motion, Halle-Wittenberg (2008-2012) and I currently hold a post-doc position at the History Department, University of Zurich. From April 2015 I will move to the University of Hamburg as Junior Professor in Islamic Studies. I have been a visiting fellow at the Islamic Legal Studies Program, Harvard University (fall 2013) and I am a member of the executive board of the International Society for Islamic Legal Studies. I am particularly interested in Islamic Law, gender studies, history of sexuality.

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Serena Tolino

I have a PhD in “Islamwissenschaft” from the University of Halle-Wittenberg and the title of Doctor Europaeus in “Studi sul Vicino Oriente e Maghreb” from the University of Naples “L’Orientale” (co-tutelle). I have been a PhD fellow at the Graduate School Society and Culture in Motion, Halle-Wittenberg (2008-2012) and I currently hold a post-doc position at the History Department, University of Zurich. From April 2015 I will move to the University of Hamburg as Junior Professor in Islamic Studies. I have been a visiting fellow at the Islamic Legal Studies Program, Harvard University (fall 2013) and I am a member of the executive board of the International Society for Islamic Legal Studies. I am particularly interested in Islamic Law, gender studies, history of sexuality.

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