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Queering the Question: Rethinking Middle East Studies through Queer Methodologies

RoundTable X-2, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 5:30 pm

RoundTable Description
The presence of queer studies within Middle East studies has increased substantially over the last decade. Queer studies scholars have challenged the field to confront its inattention toward queer histories and ambivalence toward queer subjects and politics both in and outside the region. Queer studies scholars working in the field of Middle East studies have also created methodological interventions specifically attuned to how race, gender, and sexuality form and inform colonialism and imperialism. This roundtable gathers scholars whose work focuses on a broad range of regional and transnational contexts, including: Iran, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and diasporic communities in North America and Europe. These scholars address a variety of topics, including: solidarity, kinship and refugee sponsorship; privacy, intimacy, and queer socialities; labor and sexuality in diaspora; as well questions of outness, visibility, and survival. The scholars also study a diverse range of texts: contemporary SWANA art, performance, and visual culture; literatures, languages, and linguistics; online dating apps; visual and legal archives; spaces and places; and embodiments, affects, and emotions. In bringing queer methodologies to these topics and texts, scholars have developed new reading practices, archival methods, and strategies for data analysis which unseat the presumed cisheteronormativity of all subjects of study, whether in Middle East studies or beyond. With scholars hailing from a wide range of humanistic and social science fields, this roundtable seeks to stage a public discussion on the political stakes and interdisciplinary imperatives of queer methodologies for Middle East studies. The chair will pose a series of questions to frame the conversation at the beginning of the roundtable. Each participant will speak for roughly 5-10 minutes before the session transitions to a question and answer period and general discussion. Framing questions include: how does queerness inform your study of the Middle East? How does your knowledge of the Middle East inform your study of queerness? What are the political and intellectual stakes of this kind of interdisciplinary work? What challenges do you face in your research which queer studies seeks to address? How can queer methods challenge gender and sexual normativity in Middle East Studies, and how can Middle East Studies decenter whiteness and western hegemony in queer studies?
Art/Art History
Media Arts
  • On June 8, 1989 approximately eighty women gathered at the Women’s Building in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission District to attend a community forum, “The Palestinian Uprising and the Lesbian Community: An Evening for Lesbians about Palestine.” Co-sponsored by the activist groups Lesbians in Solidarity with the Palestinian People (LISPP) and the Arab Lesbian Network (ALN), the forum was hosted by ALN founder Huda Jadallah. According to the flyer which advertised the event, the forum set out to cover four interrelated issues: “the roots of the intifada, the role of women in the intifada, anti-Arab racism in the lesbian community, [and] homophobia in the Palestinian community.” This flyer and the event it promoted offers an example of how lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT, referred to collectively as queer from here on) Arab American activists mobilized coming out as a strategy in the service of community building and social justice activism. This strategy of coming out was not limited to sexuality and its accompanying cultural politics, it also meant coming out as Arab, along with accompanying cultural politics, Palestine solidarity included. From the late 1980s through the early 1990s, Jadallah and others strategically deployed this outness in order to accomplish three interrelated goals: 1) to formally organize a queer Arab American community and social life, in order to 2) challenge Arab invisibility and anti-Arab racism within the broader queer community, and 3) challenge homophobia and lesbian erasure within the Arab American community. Although the author located this flyer in the ephemera files of the Gay and Lesbian Historical Society in San Francisco, California, the full story behind this flyer was not evident in any of the other materials contained in that archive. Instead, the story behind this flyer was obtained through a research methodology loosely dubbed “the queer Arab phone tree,” or an informal mode of communication and private social networking in order to connect with other queer Arabs for social, emotional, financial, and informational support and networking. By leveraging the queer Arab phone tree, the author was able to reach out to Jadallah to request an oral history interview. Jadallah not only obliged, she welcomed the author into her home and shared with the author her own personal archival collection of flyers, newspaper clippings, and organizational materials from her time organizing the Arab Lesbian Network.
  • In my research on responses to the “refugee crisis” produced by the Syrian War, I examine how Western approaches to humanitarian aid and resettlement relied on normative discourses of gender and sexuality that reified the gendered delineation of deserving and underserving refugees; where women, children, and families were constructed as ideal subjects for humanitarian aid and resettlement, and single men (with the exception of gay men) were barred from resettlement consideration under Canada’s 2015 #WelcomeRefugees initiative. Drawing on the discursive representation refugees and their sponsors in the form of human-interest stories of refugee sponsorship in Canada, I have argued that Western norms around gender roles and family structure serve a disciplinary function in the refugee-sponsor relationship, including: resettling nuclear families (adult children, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles are not included); domestic and international laws that prevent polygamous families from being eligible for resettlement; and discouraging refugee women from having more children in favour of the nuclear family model. Despite the good intentions of governments, humanitarian aid workers, service providers, and refugee sponsors, the function of many support efforts either require or serve to enforce disciplinary regimes of gender and sexuality on refugees that require them to conform to Western and neoliberal forms of the modern family, such as the economic independence of the family, discouraging reliance on state welfare, and preference for smaller family size. Research on refugee sponsorship has also illustrated that narratives around kinship emerge heavily in refugee-sponsor relationships, wherein heteronormative hierarchies of intimacy structure the sponsorship relationship, where sponsors serve paternalistic and/or patronizing roles. While most research on refugees focuses on empirical analysis of refugees, their displacement, and their resettlement, my own research draws on two queer methodological frameworks, queer kinship studies and transnational queer solidarity, to interrogate the discursive, narrative, political, and policy approaches to refugee studies. In doing so, I move beyond a critique of power in the refugee-sponsor relationship and propose a denaturalization of the family as a starting point for responding to “the refugee crisis” by turning to solidarity and kinship as a model for interdependent transformation in the refugee-sponsor relationship.
  • I began attending MESA as a graduate student, excited to share my budding research on economic policy in Iran. While my specific interest was how economic policy impacted women's homosocial space and what might be queer about homosociality, I thought queer theory was more fitting in other academic circles. In 2015, however, I found it impossible to separate my economic analysis with a queer reading I was developing. I presented a paper integrating queer theory with my area studies background, arguing that (presumably straight) women were formulating a “non-sexual erotic” in communal fitting rooms in bra shops in Tehran and that neoliberal economic policies ultimately shut such shops down. At the end of my panel a scholar approached me and shared “you put into words something we all feel there [in SWANA] but don’t really have words for.” I was excited that queer theory could not only make sense at MESA but could speak to experiences many of us have but find difficult to articulate while working in the region. As my research has progressed, I have continued centering queer theory in my work at MESA to demonstrate how a queer methodology facilitates expansive readings of being and relationality, particularly in SWANA. On this roundtable, I will briefly share how I use queer theory and Queer of Color Critique in my own research projects: one exploring how women engage the erotic in communal sites of homosocial nudity and how such spaces enable women (regardless of sexual identity or desire) to deepen their capacities for desire, and a second mapping a queer genealogy of Iranian diaspora studies through difficult objects. Using my work as a springboard, I will offer the audience a set of provocations to show attendees how they may already be doing queer work and how to fully integrate that frame into their research.
  • For this roundtable, I will discuss my use of queer methodologies to analyze and articulate queer Arab subjectivities as they appear in three Arabic “lesbian” novels: Elham Mansour’s أنا هي أنت (Ana Hiya Inti /I Am You), Seba al-Herz’s الآخرون (Al Akharuun /The Others), and Samar Yazbek’s رائحة القرفة (Ra’ihat il Kirfa /The Scent of Cinnamon). I will discuss queer Arab critique as a distinct reading practice formed between queer of color critique and transnational feminist theory. Here, I will employ queer Arab critique to argue that the novels feature queer Arab subjects with an interiority not collapsible either to Western, Orientalist, or Arab nationalist scripts. Instead, the novels reveal queer subjects with lives and personhoods more expansive than an identity category like “lesbian” suggests. I reject queerness in Arab cultures as evidence of western assimilation or only possible through recourse to a romanticized pre-colonial queer past. Instead, queer Arab subjectivity is a constantly moving formations. Attention to the novels' narration of longing and desire reveals queerness to be marked by ambivalence and fluidity with regards to sexual identities, practices, and desires. Further analysis of the novels reveals intergenerational queer histories, rejects essentialist articulations of queer Arab identities, and produces robust criticisms of Arab heteropatriarchy and heteronormativity. Read queerly, the texts present intersectional analyses which highlight the significance of ableism, anti-blackness, socioeconomic status, and settler and state violence for understanding gender and sexual normativity. Ultimately, my contention with these texts is that centering Arab subjects and looking at Arab cultural production is transformative to queer methods, and simultaneously, that queer methods make and remake what we consider “Arab” culture to be.
  • My approach to this roundtable’s questions stem from my commitment to interdisciplinary historicist inquiry into the lives of Arabs in the diaspora, with particular attention to sexuality as a site of desire and disciplinary power in the United States. I will be discussing my work that looks at how networks of Syrian peddling in the early 20th century U.S. diaspora became a focal point for both white American and elite Syrian discourses concerning sexual normativity. Peddling was a common occupation for Arabs who immigrated to the United States starting in the 1870s. It involved networks of labor beyond peddlers themselves, including many women who operated boarding houses, who made small items for peddlers to sell, and who took care of children while long-distance peddlers were away. Both U.S. and Syrian commentators hyper-focused on women peddlers, highlighting that peddling diverged from the expected sexual and reproductive contributions of Syrian women’s labor to the family and the home. I also argue that Syrian male peddlers were queer figures because of the widespread associations of transience with aberrant sexuality and because of the erotic fantasies and revulsion projected onto them. Finally, I discuss how I use a queer affective method that pushes against heteronormativity in the archive by critically interrogating my own desires with regard to historical practice. I also practice a method I call historical grounded imagining to piece together the homoerotic dimensions of peddling labor in Arab American history.