By Barbara Cohen and Bahija Lovejoy
Rebecca and I were discussing the other day whether it is possible to have a romantic storyline with the old trope wherein the heroine dresses as a boy without including even a hint of homophobia. You know: girl is disguised as boy, girl meets and falls in love with boy, and boy discovers the disguise when he also falls in love with girl since he just knew he could never have those kinds of feelings for another boy. The Fourth Vine writes up an excellent analysis of the inherent homophobic issues in Georgette Heyer’s The Masqueraders here.
I had suggested Robin McKinley’s Outlaws of Sherwood as a possibility, in which Little John says that after he began to have feelings for an apparent boy, he studied her more closely to see what was attracting him since he had never before felt that way for a boy, and then saw through the disguise. It is a fine point, but an important one that he didn’t automatically know that she was a woman because of his feelings, so he wasn’t immediately repudiating homosexual attraction. Confusion instead of repulsion.
Rebecca suggested Seven Sons and Seven Daughters, in which the middle daughter in a family of seven daughters dresses as a man in order to go out and make her fortune in trade like her male cousins do. I’d never read it, but was at loose ends, book-wise, so figured I’d give it a shot. It is also quite short, since it is more Young Readers than Young Adult (I would estimate late elementary/early middle school). It does still have some of the inherent anti-gay sentiment, though more by omission in that it never occurs to the love interest that he could be romantically attracted to a boy. Either he has a strong brother-like friendship with a young man or a great romance with a young woman, and the gender of his person of interest will determine that. Considering that this book is the retelling of an eleventh-century Iraqi folktale, that is pretty good.
More interesting than the treatment of the romance-in-disguise, though, was the description of the evolution of Sharia law in the Middle East. The heroine Buran’s family is very poor and pitied by the locals because having seven daughters and no sons at all is clearly a curse from Allah. Sons are how one gains wealth and prestige, and Buran’s wealthy uncle is considered additionally blessed with his seven sons. When coming up with her idea to set out as a man, Buran thinks back over the previous centuries, when women were free to be “musicians, scholars, warriors, poets, and merchants,” and describes how the caliphs had given their power away to the conquering Persians, who brought with them the hajib, and then the Turks, who brought even stricter restrictions for women.
Even though the book itself is very clearly pro-women, the pervading anti-women sentiment in the general society can be a bit shocking to modern ears. One reason Buran is able to stay disguised as male for several years is that no one believes that women have the minds for business strategy, so if someone is successful in business, that person is unquestionably male, all appearances aside.
As evidenced by this quite long review, this 220-page, large print book for young readers gave me quite a bit of food for thought, especially in our current political discourse on the Middle East, Islam, terrorism, gender roles, definitions of traditional families, and sexual equality. Not so bad for a couple day’s reading of a folk tale and love story.