A Rainbow of Identities
Queer is a glitch in the system, a space of agitation
I find myself in the margins of my society solely because I identify as a queer woman. This position (which I share with others) has led me to question the various forms of repression that it engenders, a repression that is inflicted on me in many ways: from a pre-determined model of the type of life I am supposed to strive for, and even succeed in achieving; to certain values and parameters that shape my awareness of myself and the limited space of maneuver within my different identities; and to various daily choices, which at times bow to the rules of the system, and at other times resist them.
I am constantly thinking about this social system’s phobia of diversity and difference. I try to look for how this phobia manifests in the different strategies that are implemented by the various institutions that constitute this system to create individuals within these pre-set molds, and re-shape them if they try to transgress.
On the other hand, we — those of us who identify as queer, with identities and orientations that are non-conventional and non-heterosexual — destabilize the so-called “norm” through our varied and complex identities, by not presenting the fixed, expected image of ourselves. We represent a glitch in that antiquated, fragile machine — a machine filled with societal roles and perceptions that have been passed down through generations, which are rarely challenged, their purpose in our lives rarely questioned. When they are challenged by one of us — when a glitch arises in the machine — all the societal forces and repressive structures come together to fix the defect, via different channels and tools such as religious institutions, the family, the political regime, and the educational system. Each of these expends its utmost effort to fix the defect, no matter the price , in order to preserve the institution of morality and public decency under the umbrella of the heteropatriarchy.
How do we define our identities ?
The concept of “queer” challenges what is considered “ordinary.” It represents the opposite position to the prevailing one, upsetting and destabilizing the dominant social order. Queer literally means anything that is “strange” or “unusual.” This term was used in the late 19th century to insult and stigmatize sexual and gender minorities that were non-heterosexual. In the late 1980s and 1990s, the term went through a process of reappropriation and reclaiming and became one of the terms used by the LGBTQI+ community to express their identities. This restoration of ownership and power is a political act that defies an authoritarian socio-historical context, as well as a normative heterosexual order that controls the definition and cultural signification of anything that is “different” or “strange.”
And so, even though I exist in the margin, as defined above, it actually provides me with more space to move, to explore, and to understand myself, and it opens up my imagination to non-conventional choices and paths.
Many Paths, One Goal: The Reproduction of Dominant Structures
In social contexts like mine, religious institutions enjoy tremendous power in establishing the social codes of normalized gender performativity. They also establish the family as a primary space to preserve and perpetuate this. The following words, for example, are taken from a document on women’s rights, published by Al-Azhar in 2013:
The family is the foundation of society and its primary unit. It is a contractual, material, and moral entity, and all measures that support and preserve this entity should be taken. The family is a contractual entity because it is a voluntary relationship that is entered into by agreement, and is terminated either by agreement or by the rule of law, with or without compensation. The man and the woman have an equal will in forming a family and in ending it, by the original parties or by a legal representative, which is carried out according to the terms of the contract and the rules of Sharia. Its primary basis is mutual agreement and satisfaction. The fact of documentation is to protect both sides, especially the rights of the woman. A family is built on participation, consultation, justice, affection and compassion. God has decreed that the man must spend money on the family, as the woman carries out her natural role of procreation and childrearing. Spending is thus the woman’s right, and children are the duty of the man.
What is apparent in the text above is the delineation of the “natural role of women” as reproduction and childcare, and the role of men as financially supporting and providing for the woman and children. Furthermore, the use of such terms as “natural” and “instinct” creates a barrier to deter any criticism or questioning of the definition and purpose of these “natural” roles for men and women. Thus, different powers converge to preserve and perpetuate the institution of the heterosexual family. Article 10 of the Egyptian Constitution declares that “family is the basis of society”, and that “the state shall enable the reconciliation between the duties of a woman toward her family and her work”, demonstrating that the Egyptian constitution also treats the reproductive role of women as their most important duty.
I am reminded here of Silvia Federici’s words in her book Wages Against Housework: “We must admit that capital has been very successful in hiding our work. It has created a true masterpiece at the expense of women. By denying housework a wage and transforming it into an act of love, capital has killed many birds with one stone. First of all, it has got a hell of a lot of work almost for free, and it has made sure that women, far from struggling against it, would seek that work as the best thing in life (the magic words: ‘Yes, darling, you are a real woman’).” The capitalist system thus plays a major role in the oppression of women, by not recognizing the unpaid work women do in the home.
In the early stages of industrial capitalism, the capitalist system waged a war on the traditional family, but soon realized the importance of this nuclear family in reproducing the working class, and therefore maintaining the accumulation of capital. The roles within the nuclear family were thus divided accordingly to serve the interests of capitalism. The primary role of men became to provide for the family by dedicating themselves to production work, and the primary role of women became child-rearing and housework, i.e. reproduction work. Capitalism viewed the effort expended by women in reproduction work as a way to conserve resources which might be expended if the system took responsibility for raising children, by providing childcare centers and community nurseries. To avoid this cost, the capitalist system used traditional ideological narratives found in religious texts and promoted by the media to propagate the idea of the sanctity of motherhood and keep women under the illusion that their natural role is to take care of the family.
As capitalism developed, the family’s role began to be undervalued, and many women entered the workforce with the advent of the economic crisis. But the narratives propagated by the system about the natural role of women remained; and “women’s belief that the social role they perform is their duty and natural work is what makes them accept lower wages than men for their work outside the home.”
The capitalist system thus managed to secure the tacit consent of women by using tools that it monopolizes — such as education, the media, and others — to cement the dominant social view of women having a feminine nature that is specific, fixed, and based on subservience. The capitalist system ingrains the idea that the primary role of women is to create a family and care for it, so a woman’s primary goal in life becomes to find a husband, give birth, and raise children, as this is the highest purpose assigned to any woman.
Therefore, different forms of oppression and interest converge to achieve one goal: to delineate precise and reinforced borders for us and for our identities, which serve these interests.
Unlike the capitalist system and religious institutions, society itself, as embodied in our lived experience, controls our narratives about ourselves in a deeply ingrained way. This cultural control manifests itself on our bodies, in the private as well as the public realm, in our behavior, in our gender expression; in all of our pivotal decisions as well as our daily ones. Women, for example, always take into account the opinions of those who wield power over their lives — such as the mother, the father, and the doorman — when we choose the piece of fabric that will cover our bodies, which are violated most of the time, in public and in private. All of these modes of oppression are not fleeting, randomly occurring incidents; they are inflicted on women and on those with marginal identities in a systematic way, by a deeply entrenched and institutionalized system.
How do we view ourselves?: The Lens of Social Hegemony and Power Relations
In a hierarchical system, the people on the top rungs of the ladder are the beneficiaries of the reproduction of discourses that consolidate the prevalent modes and definitions of our social identity, to perpetuate this hierarchy and their positions of privilege. These definitions are imposed on us as givens, so we undergo an internal battle over these categories that have been pre-determined for us versus the ones we choose for ourselves. For example, the conventional definition of my identity as an Egyptian Muslim woman is a dominant and normative one (that is, it is seen by society as ‘normal’), which might be completely different from my own personal imagining and definition of my identity.
My personal definition challenges the dominant definition of women, and it transcends the socially or culturally pre-set models of gender identity. This explanation also applies to other issues and phenomena, such as transphobia: the fear of transsexual or transgender people. This fear emerges simply because these individuals try to move from a gender identity that has been forcibly assigned to them, by individuals or institutions, to another identity that they can choose and define for themselves, for their bodies and being. But with every attempt to move away from a category that has been imposed by the capitalist patriarchal system, to declare sovereignty over our own bodies, we are met with repression, marginalization, and social rejection.
Acts of Power: Who Decides?
In Michel Foucault’s attempt to deconstruct the concept of power in our everyday lives, he highlights its various forms and their interaction with the multiple domains they operate within and the institutions they give rise to. This process of interaction is reflected in continuous confrontations and struggles that reinforce power relations and produce “systems” or “chains” or “contradictions” and “disjunctures” that isolate the forms of power from one another. This power manifests itself on the institutional level in state apparatuses and the legal structures , and, to a larger extent, in social hegemony.
Social rules and judgements intervene in our daily choices. We do not exist in isolation from our surrounding environment and its reality. Our relative awareness of some of the forms of persecution and marginalization we face based on our gender, race, class identity, or sexual orientation does not necessarily alter this reality. We try to be active agents in our smallest daily decisions, from our choice of clothes and expression of our personal identity, all the way to the decision to come out of the closet, under a colourful rainbow. We do our utmost to take ownership of our decisions. This may seem simple to some, but in fact it is nearly impossible, for many reasons: first and foremost, the heterosexual social system’s terror of diversity and difference, of the existence of multiple, unfamiliar forms. We are all familiar with how the state, the family, or other patriarchal institutions can react to our attempts to make our own choices and reveal our identity: from severe marginalization, harassment, and bullying, to prosecution, punishment, and detention.
Pride is Our Resistance
What we tend to do is that we resist and then we weaken, and often in our journey of resistance we surrender and succumb to the totalitarian powers that have been socially and historically entrenched, we succumb for no reason other than to be appropriate, to be accepted. This is fine if it makes us realize our position, our power, in this ongoing social process. It is fine if it makes us recognise when we need to pause for a moment, and recognize our weaker position. In other moments, we try to assimilate into the conventional molds, to get closer to the social centers of power and to enjoy the heterosexual privileges that come through assimilationn.
In the words of Audre Lorde: “Difference is that raw and powerful connection from which our personal power is forged.” In my view, difference is what challenges hegemony and the fixed conventions that are hostile to anything different: the heterosexual, patriarchal, capitalist system, a single, hegemonic system that does not permit criticism, questioning, or transgression. And so, we must not only accept our differences, but also reclaim ownership of difference and diversity. We have to recreate the definitions and meanings that accompany difference, and to view our differences as a source of power for change and for resistance.
But the world is suffocating: how can the world breathe without a margin?
The outcasts are the lungs of life
The heart of life is the margin
- Wadee Saada, “Dust”