The Masculinities of Ruling Eunuchs in the Middle East

Responsible for the Postdoc Project: Prof. Dr. Serena Tolino


My post-doc project, which is part of the Swiss National Science Foundation project “Geschlechterambiguitäten in Wissens- und Herrschaftsordnungen: Hermaphroditen, Eunuchen und Priester im arabischen und lateinischen Mittelalter” directed by Prof. Dr. Almut Höfert, investigates the role and significance of eunuchs in Near Eastern Courts, shedding light on how these men’s masculinity was constructed and what political and social consequences their involvement in the elite life had. My specific case study is the Fatimid dynasty (909-1171), which ruled over North Africa, Egypt and Yemen.

Eunuchs held a central position in court politics: nevertheless, in the field of marginal groups within Islam, the history of eunuchs is almost completely neglected. Some social histories have tried to shed light on the history of other “marginal” groups, like women, but this has not been done yet with regards to eunuchs, a part from few studies and apart from the Ottoman case.

Eunuchs were much more than simply harem guardians: having access to both feminine and masculine worlds, they had an important key to power. Nevertheless, it is important to consider that virility was considered a fundamental aspect of masculinity: when a man was castrated, he lost a characteristic which is fundamental for the definition of his masculinity, at least from a biological perspective. For sure for some aspects they were not considered completely as men: if not, they could not have access to the harem. But, in other situations, they were fully considered men: they could act as army commanders, just to give an example. Also jurists usually tend to classify them as men in different fields of law. Therefore, it is possible that a specific gender conception should be imagined, in which they were “gendered” only in specific contexts and not in others.