Beyond Binaries


Conference Presentation on “Gender Transgression”


My talk at ECIS 10 (Leiden 21-25 August 2023) was entitled “Gender Transgression in Premodern Persianate and Shiʿi Legal and Medical Discourses: the case of intersex.” It was part of our panel on “Gender and (Un)Belief Transgressions in Persianate Culture and Shiʿi legal Discourses.



The present traditional Muslim and orientalist approaches assert that Islam is intolerant of trans-genderism or non-binary sex/gender divisions. By contrast, Islamic medical and legal discourses on sex and/or gender are oftentimes surprisingly more flexible than one might expect. Although the dominant discourse in premodern Islamic culture amplifies a dichotomous of sex/gender, I challenge the exclusive binary notion of gender in Islam and Persianate cultures. To elaborate, on the one hand, a number of classical Persian medical experts have transgressed the gender norm and apparently suggested a discourse on non-binary conceptions of sex/gender. On the other hand, a group of Shiʿi jurists, notably since the post-classical period of the 14th century, have categorised indeterminate intersex people as a third nature (third sex and/or gender). Focusing on two premodern treatises entitled “Risāla fi al-ubna/al-Dā’ al-khafī (the Hidden Illness)” and “Risāla fi al-khunthā,” composed by the physician Muḥammad b. Zakariyyā al-Rāzī (d. 925) and the jurist Sayyid Muḥammad Kāẓim al-Ṭabāṭabā’ī al-Yazdī (d. 1919) respectively, I shall examine the aforementioned legal and medical assessments of intersex as illustrations of non-binary conceptions of sex/gender in Shiʿi and Persianate cultures. I will also elaborate on how these two figures debated and classified intersex nature within various human categories.
*The pictures were taken by Narcis Frotan. 


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