How do we challenge misconceptions of queer sexualities in Arab cultures?
Mejdulene Bernard Shomali, assistant professor in women’s & sexuality studies at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, has some suggestions.
Mejdulene Bernard Shomali is a queer Palestinian poet and assistant professor of Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She received a PhD in American Culture from the University of Michigan and an MA in Women’s Studies from the Ohio State University. Her work focuses on femininity, queerness, and transnational Arab cultural production. Her first book, Between Banat: Queer Arab Critique and Transnational ArabArchives was published by Duke University Press in February 2023.
Challenging Misconceptions about Queer Sexualities in Arab Cultures
One common misconception about Arab culture is that it practices forms of misogyny and homophobia unparalleled in other communities. And that because of this exceptional oppression, queer Arab people must not exist, or must not be allowed to exist. This perception is bolstered by Orientalism, anti-Arab prejudice, and by the belief of some Arabs that LGBT identities are Western imports.
In contrast, my research looks at how Arab people experience and narrate their queerness in unexpected ways. For example, Arabs may be in same sex relationships but might not claim gay or lesbian identities. Many queer Arabs might not check off Western benchmarks of LGBT identity, like being “out.” Some of the existing Arabic terms for queer people have negative connotations and are also not popular.
Instead, many queer Arabs feel their sexualities are fluid. Consider the neologism Arabs use to describe people who experience same sex desire: ﻣﺛﻠﻲ (mithli) or ﻣﺛﻠﯾﺔ (mithliya) whose root word, ﻣﺛل (mithl), denotes sameness via analogy, suggesting—I am like you—our connection is marked by sameness. Mithli and mithliya base sexual identity on what is between two desiring people, rather than based on the object of one’s desire. This makes sexuality relational, and relationality is fluid and generative. As we work toward queer freedom, emphasizing our connections and relationships, rather than organizing around single identities, provides new and powerful forms of solidarity.