Creating a language of our own
Where can we read about the causes that concern us, if we don’t write about them ourselves?
This article is translated from Arabic
One week ago, a question was posed in a closed Facebook group. The group consists of people who are interested in the Wiki Gender platform: a space in which we try to produce, develop, and document knowledge in the Arabic language about gender, feminism, sexuality, and other issues of concern to us.
The question was about how to translate the phrase “gender non-conforming” into Arabic. The group members offered a variety of responses. The first suggestion, proposed by the Women and Memory Forum, was an Arabic construction to the effect of: “does not submit to the conventional categorization of gender identities.” Another, which has been previously used by several organizations, was: “not aligned with gender identities.” One of the members commented — and rightly so — that both translations were clunky, and that we needed a translation that was lighter, clearer, more deft. My view was that the translation “not aligned with gender identities” is problematic because it reinforces the stereotype of gender duality based on two biological sexes, and describes anyone who exists outside of that as “not aligned” with it. “Does not submit,” on the other hand, rejects this stereotype. Two suggestions then emerged that met with more approval from the group: “resisting gender identification” and “not yielding to gender conventions,” which are simpler and perhaps more clear.
Another question that arose in one of the weekly meetings of Wiki Gender members was about the translation of “heteronormativity.” This term has previously been translated in a number of ways, including “normalization of heterosexuality,” “normativity based on heterosexuality,” and heterosexual puritanism. After a long discussion, my colleagues arrived at the conclusion that they preferred using the phrase “normativity based on heterosexuality,” as it describes more precisely the assumption that heterosexuality is the normal standard for sexual orientation, and that anything outside of that paradigm is veering away from the norm.
We are conscious, still, of the limitations of these linguistic efforts
These are the kinds of questions and challenges that arise daily in my work with my colleagues on the Wiki Gender platform, and they’re not limited to translations and definitions. From the very first days, as we were collectively drawing up our editorial framework, we had to pause, for example, at the grammatical gendering of the Arabic language, and the implications of this on our writing and translation. After discussing this question at a number of meetings and work retreats, we came to an agreement — so far — to use both the feminine and masculine forms conjointly, and to employ the feminine form first, as a challenge to the norm. We are conscious, still, of the limitations of these linguistic efforts, as they continue to reinforce a gender duality. We are aware that the solution we came to is a temporary one. We do this, however, knowing that our editorial policy is not a closed control room, but rather a river that flows and shifts with our ongoing conversations and ever-evolving knowledge.
When we started the Wiki Gender project, we were concerned, first of all, with gathering information about the organizations and groups that are interested in gender and women’s issues, in order to facilitate access to them and forge connections between them. We then began to document and archive the Arab knowledge production of some of these feminist groups and organizations in our region. Gradually, our questions and needs — as parties interested in feminism, gender, and sexuality — expanded, and we could not always find, in Arabic and from a feminist perspective, the answers that we were seeking.
And so, as a contribution to the current body of feminist projects — from work groups to readings and discussions, magazines, publications, and translations — we decided to launch Wiki Gender, a participatory, decentralized, ever-evolving platform that produces open content in the Arabic language.
Through this space, we explore our questions. We write about different subjects, concepts, people, events, and campaigns that are of interest to us; we review and critique books, films, songs, and other works of literature and art; we translate from time to time; and we collate the material others are producing, in the Arabic language, into an archive that includes studies, research papers, articles, caricatures, pictures, and more.
Knowledge related to gender and sexuality — whether general or academic, from coining terms to discussing issues and formulating theoretical approaches — is still, by and large, produced in languages other than Arabic, and especially in English, even by feminists who speak Arabic and live in the region. One reason for this is that universities are still the main loci of gender and women’s studies. They offer these fields of knowledge in languages other than Arabic and insist that their students produce their work in these languages. Thus, throughout one’s academic career as a student, graduate, researcher, and writer, one remains stuck in the orbits of the English language, its words and contexts. We are then able to speak about issues that matter to us and affect our daily lives more easily, and deeply, in English; and Arabic lags behind, like a turtle, nudged forward from time to time by studies, translations, and academic attempts from activists, researchers, and feminist groups and organizations.
Another reason is that writing in Arabic about the issues and intersections of gender, sexuality, and the body is in itself an enormous challenge. Many of us are unused to even thinking about our sexuality, much less writing about it — content with the notions that we have been fed about our bodies and desires.
Most of us arrive in this world with external signs that indicate our biological sex — female or male — and are then assigned a gender — woman or man. Along with that, we are handed a set of social expectations regarding our role in society, our sexual orientation, and the behaviors, fantasies, and desires that accompany this presumed gender and orientation. The process of thinking as an individual and as a society about issues such as sexuality, the body, and consent is still in its nascent stages; the discussions are still very limited and the social taboos are many, on the level of concepts as well as language.
Every new contribution is needed and welcomed
The participatory approach we chose for the Wiki was therefore based on our awareness that, at this stage, all feminist contributions to building this body of knowledge in Arabic are important, and every new contribution is needed and welcomed. We are aware of the fact that there is a valuable opportunity in the diversity of our backgrounds, ages, experiences, beliefs, and practices, and that all of our contributions are cumulative, building upon one another to create our stories about the terms we favor, the topics that affect us, and the issues and events that are part of the history of our struggle, among many other things.
And because the knowledge production, in Arabic, on issues of sexuality and gender is recent and rare, we — and many others like us — still depend, to a large extent, on translating terminology, which sometimes results in heavy, clunky phrases that lack clarity, such as the ones given in the examples above. This is always a topic for discussion during our work on the Wiki Gender platform: when do we translate and when do we create? And where do we source the knowledge from, if we cannot find an origin for it in our language, despite the authenticity of the experience of feminism and sexuality in our lives? Or are our minds, like our language, simply not agile enough? Is that why we find it strange and difficult to adapt to new linguistic constructions, always looking for phrases that are brief, simple, clear? This raises another question for me: are all of these terms in English really that deft and clear? Or have we just grown used to reading them and seeing them, and have come to accept them as they are?
The process of translating some concepts or finding original terms for them in Arabic, apart from the difficulty, is also dynamic, constantly changing, which corresponds with the concept of the Wiki, based as it is on continuous research and collective work. Articles and pages on the Wiki are not fixed. They are not journalistic articles and publications, signed with their authors’ names; they change every time the knowledge is updated or we have come to new agreements.
In the beginning, for example, we translated the word ‘transgender’ as ‘gender transformation.’ After some time, however, and discussions with other feminist groups, we decided to use the term ‘gender transitioning’ instead, as it is free from dual-gender normativity. It also casts off the idea of ‘transformation,’ which implies a new act of morphing from a normal state to ‘another’ state, rather than perceiving gender identities as a wide spectrum and the individual as the first and last representative of their own gender identity, thus transitioning to what truly represents them.
As with all the content that we produce, the dictionary is also not fixed
We have also launched a dictionary of gender and sexuality, in order to collate all the different definitions of gender and sexuality that have been produced by various parties working in the Arabic language, and to encourage thinking about all aspects of these terms — short, long, clear, complicated. As with all the content that we produce, the dictionary is also not fixed: it can be updated, parts of it added or removed, or augmented with more sources at any time.
The journey of research, thinking, and experimentation in the Arabic language is cumulative. As we spend long and exhausting hours trying to find solutions that sometimes end up being compromises, there have been some success stories: promising attempts at formulating Arabic words and structures for terms that matter to us. These make our ongoing efforts feel worthwhile. One example is the Arabic term jinsaania in Arabic, the equivalent of sexuality in English. It is defined by Muntada Al Jinsaania – The Arab Forum for Sexuality, Education and Health as “A dimension of humanity that stays with humans throughout their lives. It comprises sex, gender identity, role, sexual orientation, eroticism, pleasure, intimacy, and reproduction. Sexuality is expressed through thoughts, fantasies, desires, beliefs, attitudes, values, behaviors, practices, roles and relationships.” As such, the word jinsaania, which was chosen by the forum, achieves that difficult balance of lightness and logic, combining the word jins (meaning both biological sex and the sexual act) and the word insaania, meaning humanity. The latter evokes the aspects experienced by human beings — ideas, beliefs, fantasies, values, practices, relationships, and the body — and also reminds us that there are rights connected to being human.
I believe that the challenge that faces us, as producers of feminist knowledge — in Wiki Gender, Jeem, and other forums — lies in opening ourselves up more to the whole experience: from considering our individual sexuality and expressing it, to thinking of ways to open and further the dialogue around issues of gender, sexuality, and the body in our societies. To attempt — with our own hands, time and again — to produce this knowledge related to gender, sexuality, and feminism in Arabic, without waiting for the academia to direct our path.
We, as feminists from across the spectrum — gay, lesbian, heterosexual, bisexual, and of non-conforming gender — are capable of expressing our experiences, thoughts, questions, and crises, in written, visual, and auditory forms. With persistence and continuous production, we can break the taboos and rigidity of the Arabic language. Just as intensive campaigns and writings over the past ten years have succeeded in bringing the term ‘sexual harassment’ into common use, and helping many women express themselves without fear about the harassment and assault they have undergone; our constant production of knowledge, in all its facets and forms, can also help to spread and deepen the understanding of issues related to feminism, gender, sexuality — using our own language, in the ways that are most relevant to us.