By Dr. Nof Nasser-Eddin and Dr. Nour Abu-Assab
Art work by Ahmed Morsi, from the Flying Horse Series
When we were first asked to author for My.Kali magazine, we hesitated. A feeling of discomfort comes with the fact that as authors we might be taken as a voice of representation and authority. At the same time, we felt the need to debunk the myth of representation from a queer intersectional feminist perspective- a perspective that we adopt in our lives and work. Through professional and personal experience, we have come to realise that unfortunately the feminist and the queer as political standpoints rarely meet. A majority of on the ground queer activism revolves around LGBTQ identity categories, which in essence beats the purpose of queerness, which is meant to disturb identities rather than reinforce them. Let alone the fact that feminism has for long been associated and limited to women’s rights, instead of it being a fight against patriarchal social structures that oppress not only women but also queer voices and the voices of non-normative people. Our perspective is also intersectional as we do not believe in the universalisation of experiences, and we believe that people face multiple oppressions and no one’s single experience can be representative of others. Many different factors come together into play to shape our experiences and these cannot be limited to gender and/or sexuality; our race, ethnicity, nationality, age, dis/ability, religion, and class background among others shape our experiences. Taking this into account, we are here not claiming to be representative of all queer intersectional feminist voices, but rather we are representing our own voices as queer feminist academics from occupied Palestine, who believe in the importance of looking into subjectivity to understand social, economic and political realities. This intersectional queer feminist approach is one that validates subjectivity, as peoples’ everyday experiences, as a source of knowledge, and therefore rejects notions of representation based on universalising, categorising, and generalising about experiences.
In mainstream platforms, including online and visual media, academia and literature, we usually talk about representation in the context of addressing marginalised groups, who are underrepresented in mainstream dominant culture. Rarely do we think of representing a majority. In diaspora, we think of the representation migrants and/or people of colour. In the Middle East and North Africa, we think of women’s representation, or more recently we started looking at the representation of non-normative people, or self-identified LGBTQs. Nowadays, representation is being portrayed as the end-goal to achieve social justice, equality, cohesion, diversity, multiculturalism, etc. This form of representation, however, oftentimes is tokenism aiming to whitewash the actual structures and systems of oppression causing inequality in the first place. In other words, tokenism in mainstream popular culture is the phenomenon of selecting a small number of people belonging to a specific underrepresented social group for employment, advertisements, political positions, in some academic conferences, etc. in order to give a false impression of inclusiveness and diversity, and to cover institutionalised discrimination. Therefore, instead of addressing inequalities, governments, media, academia among others, hail themselves for allegedly providing platforms and spaces for otherwise marginalised people. The main issue with representation, thus, becomes that it disguises the structures of inequality, such as classism, racism, and patriarchy, which cause underrepresentation and marginalisation in the first place.
Oftentimes, we find, the few selected tokens are people who belong to marginalised groups, but who are co-opted to dominant mainstream cultures, whether intentionally or unintentionally. The tokens are also often people who have access to cultural capital and who manoeuvre within the system rather than work against and/or challenge it. In relation to the rights and issues of self-identified LGBTQs, Palestinian academic, Joseph Massad, highlighted the emergence of a global universalised gay identity, termed the gay internationalist. Massad explained that this global universalised identity is part and parcel of cultural imperialism imposed by the ‘west’ on the ‘east’, reinforces the binary of the hetero-homo person. This binary system, Massad refers to, makes sexual identity as such central to the lives of LGBTQ people, erasing the multiple identities people actually belong to. In addition to that, this identity category becomes the only way to attain sexual, gender and bodily rights, minimising the struggle to a de-politicised sexuality issue. This also erases the orientalist colonial imaginary of the colonised as ‘sexually perverted’ and ‘barbaric’, which justified colonial conquests. To add to Massad’s theory, we also suggest that this gay internationalist identity has become in fact the voice that is represented by the ‘west’ within its popular mainstream culture- the token.
In the context of the Middle East and North Africa, pre-colonisation, colonisers often portrayed the ‘east’ as ‘sexually perverted’ and ‘barbaric’, and in need of order and control over bodies and sexualities. This image has shifted throughout historical processes. Instead, the ‘east’ now and particularly, the heterosexual man has become to be portrayed as controlling over the bodies and sexualities of women and of gay men, in particular. This portrayal, of women and gay men as victims with no agency and in need of saving and liberation from the heterosexual man, is however limited to some women and some gay men from the region. Therefore, the token women and gay men are mostly used to reinforce that colonialist image of the ‘east’, and to contribute to further subordination and control over the colonised world- something Spivak warned off decades ago. The token must also always fit within a specific category for them to be represented within mainstream/popular ‘western’ culture.
Mashrou’ Laila themselves reject being perceived as representatives of queer voices… Their largely middle class male audience, serving a gay internationalist agenda, however, is far from representative of the wide variety of non-normative people in the MENA region.
Through research, experience and observations, we have noticed that people who are presented as representatives of the underrepresented groups are usually (1) relatable to the mainstream/popular audience and/or (2) fit within the victims stereotype. The majority of people represented by the ‘west’ are in fact very relatable to mainstream ‘western’ culture. For example, they are mostly people who, intentionally or unintentionally, buy into the narrative that sexual orientation is a de-politicised identity category, and people who can identify with one of the LGBTQ letters. Identifying with one of the letters is of course a luxury afforded to those who have access to cultural capital and globally accepted terminologies, and not necessarily those underprivileged and cannot afford such access. According to the UNHCR, for example, LGBTQ people are considered a vulnerable group in need of protection. However, this protection is only offered to people who can demonstrate their gay-ness, either through appearances or using ‘western’ terminologies. A case that we came across was one of two Syrian refugee men seeking UNHCR protection, as they fell in love with each other. As both came from rural backgrounds and did not know how to describe their situation in ‘western’ mainstream terms, and explained that they do not identify as ‘gay’, they were refused humanitarian protection, as they could not define themselves in a way similar to the gay internationalist.
A couple of years ago, Lebanese music band Mashrou’ Laila was banned from entering and performing in Jordan. International media started claiming that the band was banned due to its apparent support to LGBTQ rights. Although this is not true and is far from the actual reason, this incident made the band in mainstream ‘western’ culture to become the voice of the Arab gays abroad, and to gain even more popularity among queers in the MENA region, despite the fact that Mashrou’ Laila themselves reject being perceived as representatives of queer voices. The gay kiss in Tunisia and the rainbow flag in Egypt, during their concerts, became shallow markers of victory. Their largely middle class male audience, serving a gay internationalist agenda, however, is far from representative of the wide variety of non-normative people in the MENA region. Yet, more disturbing than anything, is the fact that shallow markers of victory such as a gay kiss and a rainbow flag are at the centre of the international stage, and are used to whitewash other atrocities committed against non-normative people in the region. One day after the infamous gay kiss in Tunis during the Mashrou’ Laila concert, a group of 20 non-normative people were exposed to violence and were expelled from a club in Sousse in Tunisia. The incident was barely reported by international media.
Moreover, ‘western’ media is more likely to report on and publicise gay-male led initiatives from the Middle East and North Africa, rather than women and trans-led initiatives. The first queer film festival in the region in 2015, which was led by women in Palestine, al-Kooz, has never been mentioned not even once in mainstream ‘western’ media. Attention was given to male-led initiatives that took place after al-Kooz. Al-Kooz queer film festival for instance is one that challenges occupation, pinkwashing, colonialism, and other systems of oppression. Al-Kooz’s intersectional queer feminist approach does not appeal to the mainstream ‘western’ culture, as it does not fall into the trap of victimhood that is based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity as de-politicised. Women-led initiatives in the region are often more intersectional, and receive less funding. Although women’s and men’s experiences and the challenges women and men face in their daily life experiences are not only the result of one identity, or only the result of their sexual orientation. However, as a replication of structures in the ‘west’ we see that the minimalist approaches to gender and sexuality are more likely to receive funding and ‘western’ platforms. Therefore, usually the experiences of queer women from the region are marginalised, as they do not fit into the minimalistic categories of the LGBTQ letters.
This, if anything, represents a replication of the stonewall riots, which were led and organised by trans-women of colour, who were with time side-lined by their male-gay counterparts. This replication cannot be perceived as anything other than cultural imperialism. The many women-led initiatives, which are making a difference on the ground and changing the face of gender, sexual and bodily rights in the region, are being overshadowed by male-led initiatives, which in fact buy into ‘western’ narratives of such rights, and do not necessarily speak local languages. We are, by no means, undermining the experiences of those who identify with such categories, and are self-identified LGBTQs, but we are problematising the way they are being used and utilised to serve the agenda of cultural imperialists. This is not to say that some queer women are not being used in a similar way. Often, we see that the women within the LGBTQ categories who are given mainstream platforms are those who either adopt a victim’s narrative, or are very much embedded into identity category narrative- both of which are relatable.
In addition to creating an image that is relatable to the ‘western’ mind and imaginary, this type of representation, as ‘saved’ and given the space and platform by the ‘west’, unfortunately, creates a backlash in local communities at home. These tokens, regrettably, become to be perceived by their own communities as ‘westernised’, ‘traitors’, and ‘anti-nationalist’, leading to even more discrimination against other non-normative people in their home countries. In many cases, we see that the wider normative community reacts to symbols associated with ‘westernisation’, therefore association with symbols such as the rainbow flag or the LGBTQ letters does not serve to the benefit of advancing the rights of non-normative people, but rather the opposite. The emphasis on gay rights in the ‘west’, in addition to other interventionist approaches on behalf of some ‘western governments’ to ‘save’ the gay people of the ‘east’, have undoubtedly caused reactions among communities in the Middle East and North Africa, who are resistant to this form of cultural imperialism. This, cultural imperialism, pushes for a construction of an ‘other’ that pushes normative people in Arabic-speaking countries to define the boundaries of their group, and increases anti-non-normativity within the wider community, because homosexuality and gay lifestyles become to be perceived as ‘western’ and related to imperialism.
In addition to this impact on the larger normative community, these narratives of victimhood are also utilised by the ‘west’ to legitimise their interventions, occupation, and colonisation. An example of that is the Zionist occupation’s use of gay rights to ‘pinkwash’ the atrocities they commit against the Palestinian people. Israel’s portrayal of itself as leading on gay rights and as ‘saviour’ of gay people, not only in occupied Palestine but also across the whole region, although far from true, pushes normative people in the region to react and further marginalise non-normative people as they become to be associated with the Zionist entity. Therefore, Israel strives to ‘provide a platform’ and represent queer Palestinians in order to ‘pinkwash’ their crimes against the region. In these cases, representation becomes harmful not only because it creates backlashes by the local community, but also harmful as it justifies occupation and colonial conquests.
In this article, we meant to start a conversation about representation; its implications, consequences and what it reflects on the ground. We do so in an attempt to shed light on the importance of questioning one’s positionality within any platform. We do not live in a vacuum. Our actions, reactions, words and positions exist within larger structures and institutions. It is important to question ourselves when we are ‘given a platform’: what end does our presence serve? To what extent are we benefitting the people and causes we care about? How can we use our platforms to advocate for rights without marginalising others? How can we use our voices without overshadowing other voices? And, most importantly, how can we avoid being used as tokens?
About Dr Nof Nasser Eddin and Dr Nour Abu-Assab
Dr Nof Nasser Eddin obtained her MA in Race and Ethnic Studies, and PhD in Sociology from the University of Warwick. For her PhD, Dr Nof carried out fieldwork in Amman, to look at the intersection of class and gender and its influence on women’s economic activities. Read more here
Dr Nour Abu Assab has extensive experience as a practitioner and an academic in the fields of human rights, gender, sexuality, ethnic and sectarian conflict, as well as the general fields of development and stabilisation. She was awarded a PhD in Sociology from the University of Warwick in 2012, and an MA in Race and Ethnic Studies in 2006. Read more here