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Social Networks, Subjectivities, and Sexualities in the Middle East

Panel VIII-08, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, December 3 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
People's relationships with their bodies, sexualities, and intimacies they engage with has functioned as a regulatory practice in colonial and post-colonial politics. Especially in the Middle East, as recent scholarship underlines, heteronormative, classists, and racial state politics attempted to shape colonial subjects' and citizens' subjectivity as political actors and their social belonging at local, imperial, and global scales. Literary texts, newspapers, and state documents produced and circulated discourses on the ideal, hence "normal" bodies, relations, and citizens. Medical and literary intellectuals, for instance, articulated and disseminated teachings through popular texts on how a "normal" and "healthy" individual could experience their sexuality. Despite such attempts and interventions that mainly aimed to regulate social networks of individuals and groups defying sexual, national, and moral norms, stigmatized and outcasted subjects of colonial and national states defined new subjectivities and social networks that altered the sociopolitical norms of state politics. Additionally, at the turn of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, forced or voluntary mobilization of people in the Middle East complicated further the cultivation of subjectivities and social networks in new sociocultural climates. Between new and old, traditional and “modern”, intimate encounters, bondings, and subjectivities required new approaches to understand these new experiences and networks. Against this backdrop, this panel initiates an interdisciplinary conversation about the experiences and historical, cultural, and political representations of stigmatized and outcasted subjects and social networks of colonial and post-colonial policies in the Middle East. It explores the experiences and political, literary, and historical representations of LGBTQIA+ individuals, sex workers, feminist activists, HIV+ individuals across different spatial and temporal contexts to explore experiences and the cultivation of social networks and alternate social belongings altering sexual, racial, and political norms of colonial and national politics. By bringing together historical and anthropological approaches on different gendered and sexual subjectivities, this panel explores varying experiences of age, love, body, and sex through the lens of queer and feminist studies.
  • This paper explores the framing of prostitution in the last decade of the Ottoman Empire during the Balkan Wars (1912-1913) and World War I (1914-1918) through an analysis of the word âşüfte. Following the Balkan Wars and World War I, the increasing visibility of sex workers in social life alarmed the Ottoman government. In 1916, the Ministries of War and Interior resettled vast numbers of female sex workers in Konya, a gradually industrializing yet secluded town in central Anatolia, to “protect public morals and rehabilitate sex workers.” The term that was used in the state records to define these women from different age groups and ethnoreligious backgrounds was the word âşüfte. Despite being used interchangeably with the Turkish word for prostitute, fahişe, the term âşüfte translates into English as "woman addicted to love; horny and mentally unstable; promiscuous." The direction that the wartime policy of resettling sex workers in secluded towns such as Konya by labeling them as âşüftes was a deliberate choice. In the elite and state discourses at the time, prostitution was framed as an act purportedly performed by women and girls with moral deficiencies. For instance, women whose outfits did not meet social norms, those engaging with any form of an extramarital relationship, including same-sex intimacies, started to be labeled as âşüfte and resettled in Konya as a part of the government's wartime rehabilitation policies. Against the background mentioned above, this article analyzes sex work as a liminal category incorporating women who practiced sex work as a profession and those who experienced their sexualities in a non-conventional and non-heteronormative forms. Deploying queer and historical methodologies, I argue that this particular perception around the sex work blurred the lines between a sex worker and “ordinary women” and destabilized the social categories such as age, sex, gender, and ethnicity defining the Ottoman woman. This liminality in defining sex work created an ideological climate that informed âşüfte women's experiences, vulnerabilities, exposure to sexual violence, and their social networks in the most chaotic episode in the Ottoman Empire. Using state documents, police registers, petitions, and newspapers, this paper explores sex workers as a liminal social category through discourses around âşüfte to explore these women’s experiences with the society surrounding them and the sociopolitical context shaping their interactions, subjecthood, and cultural representations.
  • In the realm of HIV/AIDS, civil society activism is credited with much of the progress made in the early days of the pandemic concerning both treatment and prejudice (Epstein 1996). It is still a cornerstone of the story of HIV/AIDS around the world and a focus of academic work (Lorway 2016; Smith 2014). The case of civil society activism around HIV/AIDS and related issues, such as homosexuality, in Lebanon provides a window into the ways in which this activism not only links social networks, subjectivities, and sexualities, but into the ways in which these work in concert to (re)formulate and co-constitute one another. This paper asks how people living with HIV in Lebanon do so in light of civil society activism to overcome social stigma associated with this illness. Based on 18 months of fieldwork among civil society organizations, physicians, and people living with HIV, this paper draws on semi-structured interviews, participant observation, and media analysis. It ultimately argues that, in large part due to the advocacy work against stigma done by the original civil society organizations and activists in Beirut, Lebanon, people living with HIV and other marginalized identities there are now leading their own related organizations and telling their own stories. Building on Härdig’s (2015) understanding of civil society as a “space rather than a membership…a realm of contention, where strategies are devised, alliances are built, and activity is inherently political,” this ethnographic study of the people involved in this activity offers insights into theoretical debates around subjectivity. While recent work engages sexuality and subjectivity in the Middle East and North Africa region (Atshan 2020, Merabet 2014; Najmabadi 2013), studies of what frames sexuality do not acknowledge the role sexual health can play in this process, a dearth “especially egregious in the era of HIV/AIDS” (Inhorn 2014). This paper begins to address this lacuna, situating sexual health in Lebanon broadly and HIV/AIDS specifically within the global imaginary of the Middle East and North Africa, one centered on colonial histories and modern development discourse (Moussawi 2020; Steger 2008). It finds that without further engaging the agential subjectivities of those living with, treating, and advocating against the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS in our conceptualizations of civil society activism, the Middle East and North Africa will remain the region in the world in which HIV is spreading the fastest (UNAIDS 2013).
  • In my research, I focus on the Druze diaspora in Southern California - as well as North America more broadly - to think through and theorize a Druze feminist praxis. Through this line of inquiry, I ultimately argue that the traditions brought to the United States by Druze women is and should be regarded as a model for feminist praxis. By using autoethnographic vignettes as an entry point into the space of the “zyara” or ‏زيارة, which roughly encompasses the gatherings at one another’s homes, I think through the ways in which these Druze immigrant women have brought traditional values with them that inform this Druze feminist praxis that I am naming, defining, and advocating for in Arab, Arab American, and Feminist Studies. In looking to these spaces and their subsequent daily rituals, I also unpack the role that emotional intimacy plays in this context and the radical queer potential of that intimacy - especially on their second generation Druze children. I work with texts from scholars Nadine Naber, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Cherríe Moraga to structure the feminist and queer theorizations that I make in the Druze diasporic context in order to make these claims. My research aims to unpack how Druze “youth” - a vague category assigned to teenagers to twenty- and thirty- somethings in the American Druze community - are taking up these emotional intimacies that they have grown up with and re-imagining it/applying it to their/our own lives. I posit that the social and cultural traditions held by women in the Druze community, which they brought with them from the Levant, have queer radical potential beyond their own scope through cross-generational experiences, knowledges, and understandings. That is, Druze women are carrying out forms of community and family care that have traditionally been gendered/assigned to women in a way that fosters a subtle disruption and dismantling of oppressive structures - thereby enacting and informing both radical feminist and queer politics.