To be queer is “to abrade the classifications, to sit athwart conventional categories or traverse several… We are all athwart if we expose and repudiate some of the comforting lies told about us and that we tell ourselves.” – Hall
Who wants to talk about radical (sorta) feminist (some of them) women (anatomically and biologically) and religion (Islam), and sex (wheee), and god (kinda) and the meaning of queer (read: subverssive)? I DO!
I am constantly puzzled, perplexed, and fascinated by identities, their stability, their labels, and the power of labels. I am a champion of fluidity, in terms of sexuality, but also as a larger philisophical stance. So, this is today’s proposition/question: David Halperin calls queer “an identity without an essence”. So, is the simple practice of ‘troubling’ and the subverssive and transgressive destabalization of praxis enough to warrant the label of queer? How do you feel about queer being pretty much …anything?
In Saleemah Abdul-Ghafur’s, Living Islam Out Loud, sixteen American Muslim women recount their personal struggles to negotiate their variety, and at times competing and disparate identities.Their autobiographies, narrated through essays and poetry convey personal battles and negotiation between expectations and desires, the old and the new, the Muslim and the American, the orthodox and the heterodox, the familial and the personal. The books expels any notion of a monolithic Muslim American woman, and complicates and nuances and the variety of ways such women are challenging dominant discourses and practices. (This is cool because so many of us have misconceptions about Muslim women, and I like to destroy your stereotypes. I am a sterotype destroyer. Also, they are pretty rad women.)
While all but perhaps one of the book’s contributors wouldn’t label herself ‘queer’, this book haunted me as a sort of modern example of queer idenity that doesn’t only refer to non-heterosexuality, but that relates to alternative forms of sexuality and modes of being that may lay outside of normative socio-cultural and socio-sexual expectations. It struck me so clearly that the metaphor of the closet, and the notion of ‘queer’ as different, as troubling, as a mode of being, could be used in so many other contexts outside of the LGBT community. The book has represented for me, an example and a clarion call for understanding not only the fluidity of our sexuality but of all of the other places of intersection and identities in our lives.
Beyond that, these women’s stories offer hope and an example about how all queer people can approach their faiths, and cultures more critically, responsibly, and with intention and purpose. Their stories about the internalization of sexism should be a light to those facing and internalizing homophobia within their faith communities, and their responses should be equally enlightening.
The voices and stories from these women represent the voices of the marginalized (queer?) in discourses and histories, and are engaged in a transgressive, subversive and creative processes (queer?) of understanding the divine and their relationship to it as sexed beings. So, I call this process, and this mode of being, tentatively and experimentally, “queer”.
I am sure people will have lots of feelings about the use of the notion and word “queer” outside of the usual context, of using OUR metaphor to understand their stories. It is a complex process and a potentially controversial point. Hear me out.
The objective of queer theology (did you know there was such a thing?) is to challenge the sexual ideological normativity of theology. In other less philosophical words, it is to point out that Hey! Your god is kinda heterosexist and you have all read your heterosexual feelings into these books and ideas (theology) that make it sound like there is only one way that sex happens (normative sexuality) and oh right, we are here to make everything super queer and challenge all concepts you take for granted (normativity). More or less.
Queer theologians are pretty controversial because they say lots of things that religious people are super offended by. Like this: “Doing theology as if touching God under her skirts is a duty of love and justice and an encounter with God among us.” You won’t ever hear Pat Robertson endorsing that.
The following stories are queer, in my opinion, only in that they attempt to unsettle and trouble fixed theology and a fixed God, the creations and elements of heteropatriarchy.
Living Islam Out Loud, offers up personal and intimate reflections on sexuality and spirituality from a variety of accomplished Muslim American women. Even when not explicitly talking about sexuality, gender relations within Islam are at the heart of all the narratives. The book’s contributors are African American, South Asian, Arab, Palestinian, Sunni, and Shi’ia, conservative and liberal, married, divorced, single, and lesbian, but most prominently all are women, Muslim and American. They are scholars, journalists, writers, lawyers, politicians, musicians, and activists.
Alienation plays prominently in the experiences of the women and experiences of marginality within Islam are common to almost all. Some have rejected their Muslim communities, angry, bitter, resentful of their treatment. Others still, like Asra Nomani, are choosing to stay and fight for a place in their mosques and communities, as full memebers and as leaders. They are engaged in a process of truth-telling, what I tentatively call, coming out of the closet.
Abdul-Ghafur writes, “each of us is revealing parts of our lives – our challneges, triumphs, and innermost secrets – which, in many cases, neither our friends nor families know” with the intention of “creating a better future” knowing “it’s time for the world to hear our unfiltered voices.” For many, their truth telling requires great courage and places them in grave danger. (Khalida Saed writes under a pseudonym out of fear for her physical security as a lesbian Muslim.) Sounds pretty queer to me. I know you are all reliving your own coming out stories right now.
Most recount memories of over-protective parents, and more commonly, many reflect on their earliest memories of realizing their less priveleged position as women and then too, on the time they began to question the explainations for their submission and disempowerment. They talk about when they began to dissent, and to contest the narrow confines of their tradition. (Sound familiar?)
Su’ad Abdul-Khabeer’s poem, “A Day in the Life of”, explains her tireless fight to please and to do right, specifically trying to follow the ordinances of dress and modesty, smiling through castigation and derision, finally pushing back at the stifling and suffocating legalism of those around her, who are quick to point out any mistep.
Wereselling MODESTLY COLORED JILBABS AND KHIMARS
Because frankly dear
Purple is a bit Provocative.”
my lavender-purple-plum scarf
my purple tunic
my perfect sandblast jeans
placed them neatly in her hands
“you know, you’re right.”
You see I figured
if they are going to treat me like a whore,
I might as well dress the part.
In Samina Ali’s, “How I Met God”, queer malleability is also present. One of the most striking acknowledgments in the pieces is Ali’s reflection that she came to “associate men with God” because of men’s power and privelege in the Muslim community, similarily stated by Sarah Eltatntawi who claims that she “literally thought God was [her] grandfather”. Later in life, after rejecting Islam, exploring other traditions, and finally finding resonance in Sufism, Ali has an exceptionally queer image of God as neither existing in a defined place and time, nor having definitive characteristics. We presume that she no longer associates men with God, nor God as man. Ali’s explanation of God rejects any real knowable features including gender.
Mohja Kahf also describes the freedom of queering God: “I began to free myself of the false god who lives within, the god whose obsession is obedience. I had been battered by an internalized idea of this god.” Here we see a willingness from both to bend and to shape the image of God given to them and to define, in their own terms, their relationships with this God.
Queering is also accomplished by troubling individual identities, and particularly aspects of one’s identity normally considered natural, biological, proper, or essential. This is the most common sense of to queer in the lives of these Muslim women. The most common shared experience of the contributors is the negotiation of identities, attempts to please and be “decent”, “good”, and “virtuous” women, wives, mothers, and Muslims.
Ali’s deconstruction and denaturalization of identity is evident when she writes. ‘I have moved beyond such labels, occupying the very space of negation that my parents feared though in a radically different way. I am no longer Indian, Shi’ia Muslim, daughter, woman, or even American, mother, twice divorced, writer. I am no longer just human either.” She critiques the notion of identity itself. (Gawd, I wish the gay community was there already!!!)
In her own story, Abdul-Ghafur calls her gender and sex expectations prior to marriage an “illusion”. She writes that, “I believed that the limitations were prescribed by Islam, and as a good Muslim girl, I should comply”, referring to why she abided by rules of sex segregation, rarely talking to or interacting with non-related men, wearing hijab, and finally in permitting a marriage arranged by her parents. Being a “good Muslim girl” promised, in her mind, perfect rewards, of which she was sorely dissapointed. Being a “good Muslim girl” did not save her from derision, abuse and eventually divorce and complete alienation from her mosque and community on the grounds of not having been a “good Muslim wife”. Finally, her acknowledgement came, albeit unorthodox, realizing that “by following others’ interpretations of Islam, [she] had constructed [her] own prison and reliquished the rights God granted to [her]”. Abdul-Ghafur took the responsibility for her relationship with God upon herself, stopped wearing hijab, and approached religious texts and rituals outside of traditional confines. “I had internalized that those in authority defined my self worth,” she writes, and acknowledged her silence and complicity.
In another instance of “internalization” of the master narrative, Manal Omar writes, “being a quiet and demure girl was the path to being a respectable and pure woman”. I use the term internalization because it is the word chosen and employed in each of the stories. It connotes a feeling of being misled, and illustrates their resentment of those who misled them, and the sociosexual ideology with which they were led. This sociosexual ideology claimed their childhoods and defined their womanhoods, a horror many attest to, recognizing the internalized sexism within their distinctive Muslim communities.
Many of the women struggle to listen to their conscience and to please their families and communities, painfully aware of the position of “indecency” they pose in their ways of life. For Asia Sharif-Clark, this was marrying an unbeliever, a non-Muslim man, a prohibited union in Islam. For Yousra Y Fazili, it was a struggle to negotiate Islam with sexual expression, her engagement with issues of sexuality itself controversial.
For some women, they are lead to new and provocative forms of worship and practice, radically queer ones, in fact. For Khalida Saed, this recognition was a requisite for living an empowered life:
I realize that a lot of what I had been attributing to Islam is really a byproduct of my own culture. Patriarchy and sexism are not necessarily Islamic traits but are actually cultural traits. Realizing this has allowed me to give religion another chance. I have also been empowered to begin reinterpreting the text outside the confines of sexim and homophobia.
Journalist and provocateur, Asra Nomani, an un-wed Muslim mother who is well-known for leading a fight against her Morgantown mosque for the full inclusion of women is another important troubler. When she became an activist, finding her voice to stand up to injustice, she “felt like a rule breaker”. Rule-breakers are queer. Queerness epitomizes rule-breaking. These women, in fighting injustice and sexism, break the rules that are given to them and which are enforced through great systems of orthodox authority and hierarchy. Queering the rules is an act of rebellion, but also the creation of something new, particularly a space for innovation. Identities and ideas are queered by shaking off, Eltantawai says, “many of the major pieces of folklore, patriarchy, and authoritarianism.”
So what is queer?
The women in the book elucidate on their previous existence under the shadows of ignorant duty and unquestioning piety, committed to being decent, good and virtuos. They explain their struggles with veiling, sex segregation, arranged marriages, their changing relationship with God and family, the importance of viriginity, and the shame of failure and dissappointment. They explain the frustration of living a life of dualistic thinking, leading to the eventual turmoil and anxiety over what seem to be contradicting desires and beliefs. This is the common thread of all of their experiences; they are involved in the project of reformation, innovation, and creation of meaning and place for their own hybrid identities, rejecting, accepting and traversing disparate parts. They are opening up a place for fluidity, for the queer.
(As I write this I reflect on how the previous paragraph could describe my own journey, and perhaps explains the lasting, haunting influence this book has had on my conception of identity.)
Donald E. Hall dissociates the adjectival, nominal, verbal and theoretical meanings of queer, categories which I think are useful. The noun – a queer – is a classification of people, but is understood as one half of a dichotomy, the definitional opposite of straight or heterosexual. The verb, to queer, particularly as a transitive verb, connotes the possibility of becoming queer, or that something or someone may be queered. Queering, suggests the troubling of something formerly understood as stable, but susceptible to being uprooted, like sexuality, but also characteristics like race or sex. Theoretically, queer problematizes almost all other forms of logic or analysis which make claims of knowing or using the essence of human experience, including those of feminists, gays, and lesbians. Queer theories “work to challenge and undercut any attempt to render ‘identity” singular, fixed, or nomal”. The adjective, queer, describes the unconventional, paradoxical, and unusual response to “a sometimes violent, sometimes dreary and debilitating dominant culture”. Queer has the linguistic root meaning to traverse, or accross and suggests the traversing, subverting, or troubling of stabled identities and ideas.
In Living Islam Out Loud, the project is queering, as in subverting, and is queer, in the adjectival sense. I discard the noun because all but one of the women in this book do not identify as queers, as not heterosexual. It is actually, this exact situation that I want to contemplate: Are the adjective, verb and theory useful outside of and seperate from the noun? Can heterosexual, monogamous, marriage-affirming, womanhood-worshipping women practice, employ, or even embody the queer?
Let’s talk about it! It wouldn’t be Sunday Skool if there wasn’t a discussion.