I started work on my new project, Queer Diasporas: Islam, Homosexuality and a Micropolitics of Dissent, based at the School of English, University of Leicester, in September 2014, after being awarded a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship in May. The Leverhulme Trust offers different grants depending on the career stage of applicants. In the case of the Early Career Fellowships, these are career-establishing grants for early scholars that should typically lead to a permanent academic post. They are awarded to promising junior academics with a good track history of publication, a new exciting project that is not the topic of their PhD theses, and a clear idea of where this project would be best carried out. Before I started putting my grant application together, following the encouragement of Professor Gail Marshall and Professor Martin Dzelzainis at the University of Leicester and the support of my now mentor Dr Corinne Fowler, I would have never thought I’d end up being the holder of such a competitive and prestigious grant, so my advice to any budding academics out there who need a kick-start to their careers is: don’t be afraid, and seriously consider applying for postdoctoral grants: it’s definitely possible to get one!
The key to securing a Leverhulme EC Fellowship is: publications (get your monograph out soon), originality (think big, take risks!), and an excellent fit between you, your project, and the institution where you are applying to undertake it, including a supportive mentor whose strategic knowledge of the area will ensure you stay focused. These three criteria are essential to the success of the application.
When did I start thinking about my new project? I began reading novels about queer Muslims before I really started considering that this could be the feasible topic of a new project separate from my doctoral research. Sometime in 2013, as I was finishing writing my first monograph, Compromise and Resistance in Postcolonial Writing: E. M. Forster’s Legacy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), based on my PhD at the University of Leeds, I started reading the work of Moroccan gay author (and now film-maker, but more on this soon) Abdellah Taïa, in translation and in the original French, since not all of his fiction has yet been translated into English. I was used to reading queer fiction; I was also used to reading fiction about, and by, Muslim writers; but the topic of Muslim queer sexualities was once that started germinating when I read the work of the first publically ‘out’ gay writer in Morocco, and it made me wonder about a topic that is still a large taboo within many Muslim communities.
Some initial searches alerted me to the fact that queer Muslim fiction is highly scattered and that it often involves displacement or a challenge to received values. Something that became apparent quite early on, as well, is the relative lack of visibility of the female side of Muslim queer experience. I found it extremely hard to find queer narratives about Muslim women, which also made me think about the curious – and dispiriting – parallel with the plight of female homosexuality in the so-called ‘West’, and to Queen Victoria’s sweeping erasure of lesbianism from the map. (Female homosexuality was never legally penalised in Britain because Queen Victoria didn’t deem British women capable of such perverse thoughts, hence rendering them non-existent, at least legally.) A similar narrative seemed to be encroaching queer Muslim women. Given the stronger emphasis of the Bible and the Qur’an on male sexuality, it’s little wonder that the situation of the female queer contingent has remained in the shadow of its male counterpart. Fortunately, the work of my colleague at the University of Leicester Dr Emma Parker, who has edited a special collection of Textual Practice entitled Contemporary Women’s Writing and Queer Diasporas (Vol. 25, Issue 4, 2011) and of other established queer scholars in the country, such as Dr Sara Ahmed at Goldsmith’s, to name just two, has ensured that global perspectives on queer women haven’t gone unnoticed in the UK’s academic environment, and it opens up the arena to exciting debates about female queer dissidence.
Why the focus on Muslims? Although the conference I will be organising in 2015 will be open to perspectives from other cultures and faiths, I became interested in the plight of queer Muslims because of how highly politicised Muslims have become in the wake of 9/11. Although the seminal work of Edward Said, most specifically Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine how we See the Rest of the World (1981, 1997), demonstrates that the tense relationship between ‘Islam’ and ‘the West’, both real and ideologically exacerbated, has a much longer history, relations between the ‘West’ and ‘the rest’ have become even more polarised since the attacks in New York and Washington DC and the ensuing ‘War on Terror’.
My attention to the experience of queer Muslims is highly sensitive to the ideological scapegoating Muslims have been the object of over the last decade, as well as to the continued and strategic pitting against each other of two seemingly separate ‘civilisations’ which, in reality, are far more interdependent than it would seem. I’m also particularly interested in the experiences of these sexually dissident Muslims because they not only have to deal with either the explicit or latent Islamophobia of Western societies, but they are also ‘Othered’ in terms of their sexualities, and find themselves at a complex cultural and political crossroads. Western queer activists are ready to stand up for their Muslim confederates and to defend them against their coreligionists’ narrow, conservative views. So my project will have to tackle two problems here: the prejudice against Muslims that is rife in Western societies and that still objectifies queer Muslims as members of a ‘dangerous’, alien community infiltrated in the ‘West’; interestingly, also the appropriation of queer Muslims by white Western queer activists which obviates the complexity of perspectives on homosexuality within the often highly simplified ‘Islamic world’. In other words, Islamophobia can still be operational when Muslim queers are defended against their Islamic peers, a gesture that doesn’t take into consideration queer Muslims’ own investment in their cultural and religious background, which may not necessarily be at war with their Muslim identities.
Where do we go from here? What I’m hoping to arrive at through a careful consideration of queer visual and literary narratives from the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and their diasporas in Europe and North America, is a measured picture of queer Muslims that will allow us to begin closing the cultural gap that has been so firmly planted between a seemingly secular ‘West’ steeped in Christian tradition and a global Islamic world whose plurality of perspectives and expression isn’t matched by the persistent stereotypes depicted in the Western media. An emancipation from discriminatory discourses regarding dissident sexualities brings queer Muslims closer to sympathetic Western audiences; their often conflicted but highly personal relationships with Islam should also alert us to the uniqueness of each narrative, and hence start challenging well-established assumptions about a seemingly holistic Islam that is threatening to ‘take over’ the rest of the world.
Queer Muslims should thus offer one model of micropolitical resistance to heteronormativity, but their struggle should be framed, more generally, within a much wider political and historical context that persistently constructs Muslims merely as aggressors and Islam as a backward religion in need of reformation. These instincts that set people in the ‘West’ against ‘Islam’ are some of the most deeply seated ideological positions my work will be challenging.
If you’re interested in my project, please check the project’s website or write to me, and please watch out for my new blog (coming soon).