The Orient, once conceived in Foucault’s ars erotica and Said’s deconstructive work as the place of original release, unfettered sin, and acts with no attendant identities or consequences, now symbolizes the space of repression and perversion, and the site of freedom has been relocated to western identity.

Jasbir K. Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 94.

The Muslim woman – often coded in the image of a veiled female figure – has become a major preoccupation of the mainstream media in the West, framing this figure in conjunction with religion (Islam) and gender. The notion “Islam” functions as a term to explain all aspects of society and culture and circulates discursively in the singular, implying that there is one essential, monolithic thing called “Islam” that is consistent across time, space, and culture. The overwhelming sentiment in the West perpetuates an understanding of Islam as uniquely sexist and even misogynist, which in turn explains the supposedly low status of Muslim women. What is important to recognize is the fact that mainstream Western discourse on Islam is misleading insofar as it is premised on an essentialized and monolithic Islam emptied of history, diversity, complexity, and dissent. However, far from unveiling the insidious workings of Islam, this discourse actually actively constructs it, legitimizes certain political Western projects, and is thus deeply ideological.

Where did this discourse emerge and what is its history? In Orientalism (1978), Edward W. Said established “Orientalism” as a concept to describe the West’s depiction and portrayal of the “East” (societies and peoples who inhabit the places of Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East) in a contemptuous manner through the years. Said argues that Western discourse on “the Orient” provided the ideological justification for European colonialism in parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East from the eighteenth century onwards. This justification rested on the idea that colonialism was a civilizing mission rather than an exercise in the occupation of non-European lands and the exploitation of non-European peoples and resources. Post-colonial feminists extended this initial work and argued for the centrality of gender and sexuality to the European colonial enterprise. Non-Western women became cast in colonial discourse as victims of their oppressive culture(s) and tradition(s) and allowed colonialism to emerge as their savior. The post-colonial feminist scholar Gayatri Spivak has captured this logic in her reformulation of the colonial civilizing mission as “white men, seeking to save brown women from brown men” (101).

Of course, white women also played an important role in the colonial enterprise. For example, many of the early British suffragettes were fervent supporters of imperialism and uncritically accepted their government’s claims that the British imperial project was actually about protecting and furthering the rights of “native” women. In fact, the discourse in Britain around the plight of native women served to undermine feminist claims domestically, since it allowed critics to argue that British women were much better off than women elsewhere in the world; therefore, they had no cause for complaint and no reason to demand greater rights. This support of imperialism in the name of native women’s rights has come to be known as “imperial feminism.”

A contemporary version of “imperial feminism” surfaced in the aftermath of 9/11, when George Bush invoked the very real plight of Afghan women under the Taliban to justify the attack on, and subsequent occupation of, Afghanistan. The most familiar media image during this period became the burqa-clad Afghan (read: Muslim) woman; in fact the burqa itself became a symbol of Islam’s attitude towards women. Once more, white men were exhorted to save brown women from brown men. This was an ideological move designed to secure the consent of the American public for an unprecedented act of international aggression. However, life for Afghan women not only did not improve under the new US-approved administration, but actually became worse.

What we had instead was an outpouring of “expert commentary” and “analysis” on women and Islam which argued that Afghan women’s troubles under the Taliban were part of a broader problem of Islam’s essential and unique misogyny. This is now an accepted part of popular Western discourse on Islam. One of the problems with this discourse is that it constructs a flattened and monolithic idea ofIslam which is then used to explain the behavior of all Muslims regardless of their varied cultural, social and political contexts.

Similar to Afghanistan, Iran was presented as a Muslim villain and a backwards misogynist society. However, a sexual revolution, which has been taking place in Iran since the late 1990s, has coalesced with other movements (women’s rights, minority rights, etc.) and has developed into the political movement known as the Green Movement.  The process (set in motion after the fraudulent election of President Ahmadinejad) is part of a social movement that has been building amongst various groups of Iranians within the country, most prominently spurred by Iran’s sexual revolution, multiple women’s movements (religious and secular), and civil and political reform movements.

Sexual revolutions have shaped the history of many societies and cultures since the 1950s globally, bringing together the importance of change, sex, and civil rights. Sex, drugs, and Rock-n-Roll were key components to the sexual revolution in the United States and Europe in the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, these sexual revolutions set the stage for larger social movements that culminated in changes in attitudes towards social justice, equality, and the self, based on shifting views on sexuality, gender relations and social recreation. During this time, folks not only experimented with sexual relations outside of traditional familial arrangements and heteronormativity, but also advocated for civil rights, women’s rights, minority rights, the rights of the disabled, and lesbian and gay liberation. These movements were also connected to broader justice issues such as anti-poverty, low-income housing, unionization, etc.

The prevailing attitude underlying this sexual revolution and its accompanying social movements (often captured under the umbrella phrase “counterculture”), was a profound distrust of authority, and a resistance to the government. (In the US this distrust was fueled by the botched Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, skepticism towards the investigation into the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, and the involvement in Vietnam War.) Activists and protesters, who were part of the counterculture movement, began pointing at the shortcomings of the US government and questioning law enforcement, which resulted in a number of (violent) clashes with the police.

The counterculture movement had a series of defining characteristics which set it apart from its predecessors:

  • the movement seemed to be driven by young people. Many of today’s “boomers” were leaders of these social movements, and students were at the heart of the counterculture on university campuses. They sought to break free from the repression of the 1950s, and transform notions of social justice, tolerance and equality
  • resistance to authority through civil disobedience
  • culture of experimentation extended from the body and gender roles to dress and drugs

In Eastern Europe, countercultural movements spread rapidly as a series of collective reactions to the harsh authoritarian regimes of the Soviet bloc. The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was perhaps the first instance of a civil rights social movement in Eastern Europe; it was met with a harsh crackdown by the Soviet government. In 1968, the “Prague Spring” in Czechoslovakia laid the groundwork for the Velvet Revolution that took place in Czechoslovakia in the late 1980s.

In Western Europe, countercultural movements spread rapidly to major European centers such as Amsterdam, Berlin, London, and Paris. The German student movements of the 1960s and the French general strikes of 1968 were manifestations of the counterculture. In Britain, the emergence of the “New Left” was a movement of leftist activists that first centered on labor unions and then expanded into a broader movement seeking social justice, tolerance, and equality for different populations. 

BIG IDEA: Visibility, Regulation, and Sexual Norms

In a foundational queer theoretical text, Eve Kosofsky-Sedgwick argues that “[t]he closet is the defining structure for gay oppression in this century” (Epistemology of the Closet, 71). According to Kosofsky-Sedgwick, the metaphor of the closet, and its associations with hiding/revealing, private/public, and ignorance/knowledge, shapes the lives of queer people and is indicative for homophobia (75). However, the notion of “coming out” and visibly expressing one’s sexuality (or gender identity) to others is normatively desirable is an unquestioned assumption in the Western world. Indeed, LGBTQIA2S identities are made visible and invisible so much so that visibility and invisibility play a major role in the politics of queer oppression and queer liberation.

Subject formation in Western societies is structured around the logic of visibility as people tend to organize themselves and their communities around a sense of a distinct identity, realized and expressed through specific practices, discourses, and appearances that are visible and recognizable to others. Moreover, in the West, visibility enjoys a privileged epistemological status. That something can be seen is taken as evidence that it exists, and conversely, what is invisible is often interpreted as non-existing. Feminist philosopher Judith Butler asserts that the regulation of visibility establishes what will count as reality and what will not (Precarious Life, xx). 

However, it is important to note the following: there is not necessarily a direct correlation between something being visible and it being seen. In other words, normative positions like heterosexuality are often unmarked and unrecognized in public, while the practices and rituals that produce them as hegemonic are disguised. In many societies, heteronormativity is dependent upon visible acts of affection between opposite-sex couples, which occur throughout the social and cultural landscape but are often not perceived as sexual, expressive, or political. Thus, visibility can be described as “a complex system of permission and prohibition, of presence and absence, punctuated alternately by apparitions and hysterical blindness” (Kipnis, 158).

Given this dual nature of visibility, it may not always be connoted positively and might be linked to forms of control. As you have seen in module two, Michel Foucault outlined how visibility is tied to discipline and social regulation (see, for example, the assigned resource “Repressive Hypothesis”). Foucault argues that Western modernity has brought about a “visible explosion of unorthodox sexualities” (1990, 49), whereby sexuality is governed less by hiding and suppressing it than by constant discussion, categorization, and revelation.

Relatedly, while a goal of much LGBTQIA2S activism has been to make oneself visible to the state in order to attain recognition and protection, for some groups within the queer community, to be seen by the state is hardly desirable. As the debates around the issue of police participation in Pride marches in Canada and elsewhere indicate, whereas law enforcement presence in queer spaces is seen by many as a sign of recognition and increased protection from hate crimes, the same presence could make certain groups, such as racialized minorities or queer undocumented immigrants, arguably less safe.

Looking beyond the Global North, queer research has explored the limits (and possibilities) of a politics based on visibility and coming out in societies where identity formation, as well as notions of public/private and individual/collective, differ from those prevailing in Western liberal democracies such as Vietnam, Zimbabwe, Taiwan, Lebanon, or Dominican immigrants in the United States, and many other contexts. In the global context, invisibility is often seen as enabling, challenging the idea of the closet as a metaphor of queer oppression. We must attend to the contradictory and varying aspects of visibility in different contexts and recognize how Western visibility politics may be part of imperialist projects. For example, queer activism in Israel–Palestine shows how the visibility paradigm promoted by international activism equates freedom with outness (rather than freedom from occupation) and reproduces the dichotomy of an “open” West and a “repressive” Islam in order to legitimizes colonial violence.