Islam, Gender and Sexuality Meet Postcolonial Sociology
Fatma Müge Göçek
When imagining the intersection of Islam, gender and sexuality in my mind’s eye, what I envisioned used to be one of a couple of naked or barely clad women languishing and touching each other in the harem of a powerful yet absent male potentate, much in line with those often portrayed in many Orientalist paintings. These days, however, I have realized that another more current image has replaced the traditional one; now, I think of women sexually enslaved by the Islamic State in Syria.
Edward Said’s masterful criticism of the Orientalism inherent in the Western gaze enables us to critically analyze both images. In both, time and space are compressed and rendered invisible, making the impact of the images omnipotent. The social actors involved are reduced to a single dimension of their identities; the often publicly contained and carefully covered Muslim women appear unprotected, due to the failures of a local male authority and an inadequate religion. Sexuality in both deviate from normalized heteronormativity; the former imputes a homoerotic relationship among the women while that latter portrays a violent, oversexed masculinity. By carefully constructing such depictions, the Western gaze aptly extends its power from its current political and economic control over the Middle East to cultural domination, drawing specifically on patriarchy, heteronormativity and the imputed superiority of Christianity in doing so.
How can postcolonial sociology approach the analysis of such culturally embedded and naturalized power located at the intersection of Islam, gender and sexuality? According to my interpretation, postcolonial sociology is predicated on the critical investigation of current inequalities; once these are identified, their origins are traced in history with the intent to eventually eliminate them thereby emancipating humankind. The methodology postcolonial sociology employs in doing so is two-pronged. On the one side, scholars destabilize existing power hegemonies by problematizing the embedded yet naturalized networks among knowledge, meaning and power within the dominant. On the other, they critically analyze the dominated on its own terms with the intent to produce alternate sources of knowledge, meaning and, eventually, power. Hence inequality is approached from the vantage points of the dominating and the dominated simultaneously.
Given the political, economic and/or cultural domination of most of the world during many centuries up to the present by Western European imperialism, it is not accidental that the colonial experience inherent in the post-colonial is often interpreted as referring specifically to the initial Western European and later American hegemony. Such an interpretation has two drawbacks, however. First, it quickly reduces the complexity of social relations across time and space solely to a stark binarism of power inequalities between the have’s (read the West) and the have not’s (read the non-West). As such, the inequities within the West and the non-West that are very significant in sustaining existing hegemonies are often overlooked. Second, it privileges the vantage point and ensuing narrative of the Western European and later American hegemony in approaching the analysis of power inequalities.
In addition, scholars also often prioritize the deconstruction of such hegemony rather than engaging, at the same time, the production of alternate sources of knowledge, meaning and eventually power. Hence, since Edward Said’s publication of Orientalism in 1978, many scholars have masterfully displayed the manner in which the Western gaze had in the past deployed, and still at present culturally employs patriarchy, heteronormativity and religious ideology to establish and sustain its power grip over the world. Yet, in spite of this persistent deconstruction of the dominant power, the expected ensuing destabilization is far from complete. Indeed, most recently, in his wildly successful political ride, the US presidential candidate Donald Trump not only highlights, but then gloats and celebrates existing social inequities in the US and the rest of the world. In relation to our particular context, he proposes to ban Muslims from entering the US. He does so without much pushback.
I would argue that the dominant has not been adequately destabilized because of the lack of adequate studies focusing on the generation of alternate knowledge and meaning across time and space through local, in-depth analyses on the one side and theorization similar in impact to Edward Said’s analysis of Western hegemony through the conception of Orientalism on the other. I agree that the extremely promising works of Raewyn Connell on Southern Theory and Margaret Kovach on indigenous methodologies are great starts, but many more studies need to be undertaken in order to turn these new paths into highways of change.
Returning to the intersection of Islam, gender and sexuality, given the successful destabilization of the dominant West through Edward Said’s conceptualization, what needs to be done next? I would argue that there need to be many more works contextualizing Islam, gender and sexuality across time and space. After all, there is not only one Islam, but many interpretations and practices throughout the world that have generated and continue to generate a wide spectrum of meanings over time; not one gender, but many relations with similarities and differences that are practiced throughout villages, cities and diasporas and across class, race and ethnicity; and not one sexuality, but many expressions of physical attraction and intimacy covering a wide range of ideas and behavior. In addition, one needs to constantly remember that Islam, gender and sexuality are in constant interaction with each other. Perhaps the complexity of the task I outlined here explains why there still exist only a small number of studies. I would like to see postcolonial sociology approaching this particular intersection of Islam, gender and sexuality in the near future through, for instance, critically analyzing local memoirs and diaries, researching archival records of court trials on this intersection, or conducting interviews with those living this experience on a daily basis.
Fatma Müge Göçek is a Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies. Her research focuses on the comparative analysis of history, politics and gender in the first and third worlds. She critically analyzes the impact of processes such as development, nationalism, religious movements and collective violence on minorities. Her published works include: East Encounters West: France and the Ottoman Empire in the 18th Century (Oxford University Press, 1987), Reconstructing Gender in the Middle East: Tradition, Identity, Power (Columbia University Press, 1994 co-edited with Shiva Balaghi), Rise of the Bourgeoisie, Demise of Empire: Ottoman Westernization and Social Change (Oxford University Press, 1996), Political Cartoons in the Middle East (Markus Wiener Publishers, 1998), Social Constructions of Nationalism in the Middle East (SUNY Press, 2002), The Transformation of Turkey: Redefining State and Society from the Ottoman Empire to the Modern Era (I.B. Tauris Publishers, 2011), A Question of Genocide: Armenians and Turks at the End of the Ottoman Empire (Oxford University Press, 2011 co-edited with Ronald Grigor Suny and Norman Naimark), Denial of Violence: Ottoman Past, Turkish Present and Collective Violence against Armenians (Oxford Univerity Press, 2015), and Women of the Middle East (Routledge, 2016). https://www-personal.umich.edu/~gocek/
Banner Image: Parisiennes in Algerian Costume or Harem, by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, oil on canvas, 1872. (artwork in public domain, original at the National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo, Japan).
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