Agency and Queer Representation in Joseph Mossad’s Re-orienting Desire: Autoethnography
In his article “Re-orienting Desire: The Gay International and the Arab World,” Joseph Mossad opposes the universality of LGBTQ movement, arguing that it is a Western (mainly the US) agenda to “produces homosexuality and repress same-sex desires that do not assimilate into Western epistemology” (2001, 363). Saba Mahmood opposed the universality of desire and thus the definition of agency as given by Judith Butler. It might seem that those two scholars refuse the universality of human rights and thus their arguments align with each other; however, I will argue in this paper that the implications of their arguments in fact oppose each other. Viewing it this way, I will critique the definition of homosexuality given by the Gay International and Mossad using the definition of desire given by Mahmood, yet I do not accept her definition of agency and freedom. I will use my lived experience (autoethnography) as a gay woman from Egypt in the contemporary world to elaborate in some of my points.
Mahmood opposes the definition of agency given by Butler as conceptualized in terms of resistance to social norms; “it is thought of in terms of the capacity to subvert norms”, as this implies that desire is universal (211). She argues that agency is very historically and culturally specific; hence, its meaning and sense cannot be fixed a priori (Mahmood 2001, 212). Thus, in her conclusion she proposes to understand that “desires, motivations, commitments, and aspirations of the people to whom [the practices they perform] are important” in order to judge in “a morally and politically informed way” (2001, 225). So what might appear as a “non-agentival act can be viewed as a form of agency” when contextualized (Mahmood 2001, 212). She follows some practices performed by Muslim women in the mosque movement in Egypt and argues that those practices are in fact not enactments of subordination but rather resistance. One of the practices lead to self-cultivating as developed by “synchronizing both outward behavior and inward motives until the two is dissolved” (2001, 214). Mahmood goes further in her analysis about self-realization and what is affecting the self; action or innate desire, arguing that it is action. I disregard her through analysis about this point because in defining freedom as form of actions (the part where she agrees with Butler) one would not care if desire for freedom is innate or developed through outward actions. I build my argument based on her specific and contextualized meaning of agency to address Mossad’s arguments about my queerness shaped by the West implying I am internalizing colonization.
Mossad argues that the “Gay International produces homosexuals and represses same-sex desires and practices that refuse to be assimilated into its sexual epistemology” (2002, 363). One apparent implication of this argument is that it portrays queer Egyptians, me one of them, as non-agentival, using the definition of Mahmood. His claim lacks understanding of my desires, motivations, commitments, and aspirations. Mossad argues that how sexuality is perceived in the Middle East is always related to how it is perceived in the Western world; when homosexuality was a deviant act in Europe, Europeans frowned upon Middle Eastern men who practiced it, or went for gay tourism because their country would not allow deviant acts (homosexuality). With the gay rights movement in the West, Gay International began to require Middle Eastern government to adopt gay rights agenda (Mossad 2002, 372-381). It is noticeable that in his analysis, I, as a contemporary queer person a subordinate to the West/colonization, and what I desire is not part of Mossad’s analysis. This goes in alignment with Mahmood’s analysis as liberal definition of freedom ignores the pious mosque movement women’s desire and portrays them as subordinated to patriarchy.
Mahmood argues that Muslim women in the pious movement, and although it might seem as if they are subordinated, they have “conflictual relations with a variety of structure of authority” mainly Islamic orthodoxy and norms (2001, 211). When I identify as a gay person following the Gay International agenda, and although it might seem that I am internalizing colonization, I am in fact in conflict with other power structures that are even stronger than colonialism in contemporary Egypt. Hence, we must understand “the context of discourse and structures of subordination that create the conditions of its enactment” (2001, 212). I will not examine the history of colonization but will rather critique how Mossad examines the historical and the contemporary existence of gay Egyptians in relationship to colonialism and the political regimes in Egypt.
Although it seems as if Mossad contextualizes, following the historical and cultural specificities, he ignores whatever does not support his argument calling it “Western” or “colonial” (2002, 371-375). Mossad argues that only people from the Middle Class and who live, or lived, in metropolitan cities like Cairo identify and write about their queerness (2002, 373). He uses for this an autobiography written by a Lebanese lesbian woman and essays by other queer scholars or journalists, and to prove that they are colonized and/or westernized; he comments on their Arabic as unclear or that they made mistakes with the wordings (2002; 373-380). I came from a low-income family and a small village in Upper Egypt. I lived there all my youth. A place where people could not care less about sexuality, women’s rights, and colonization. That is why I did not come to consciousness with my identity until I moved to Cairo. I started discovering my sexuality with another person who also came from a low-income family and is not from Cairo. In using Arabic, I might use the wrong wordings and it might seem as if I am using literal translation from English, but not because I am colonized or westernized, but because the class I was born into did not allow me to study Arabic that strong; social mobility meant using English efficiently. However, one might argue that achieving social mobility only through English is the effect of colonization. Yet, it is not about queer identity only. The forms of power structures I resist are more persistent in middle class Cairo; homophobia is one of their main products. Last year, Abu Trika, a well-known former football player and currently a commentator on Bein Sports in Qatar said that “sexual deviance is a Western idea” and “it is not from our [Arabic and Islamic] culture” he said that “all religions are against sexual deviance” and that gay rights are not human rights but are humiliating for humans. His claims went viral for several weeks, and my sexual identity had to hide till everything calms down. Abu Trika’s statements are the main narrative in intellectual elite Egyptians; sexual deviance is a Western agenda and is the effect of colonization.
One might argue that Mahmood’s analysis is based on a non-liberal movement (the mosque movement), while the Gay International is a liberal movement. However, Mahmood does not draw a clear boundary between liberal and non-liberal movements. Some of the pious movement elements, she examines in her work, follow liberal definitions. For instance, Mahmood at some point mentions that women of the mosque movement are agentival because their “outward performance” align with their “inward dispositions” (2001; 216). Parallel to that when I say I am gay, my outside aligns with how I feel, and my identity is reflected on my solidarity with other gay people. The mosque movement women reach self-cultivating, and liberals would argue that a person is always in search for their true self till they find it. Thus, the two definitions of agency and freedom given by Butler and Mahmood- both as defined by Mahmood- are not contradicting when applied to my experience as a gay woman in Egypt. “The binary between resistance and subordination is insufficiently attentive to motivations, desires, and goals that are not necessarily captured by this binary” (Mahmod, 209).
Mossad- with his work focused on Cairo Egypt- defines Gay International as an “aggressive” agenda imposed from the West to universalize gay rights starting the end of the last century. Its demands were to stop mass violence against homosexuals, mainly in Iran, but then other Middle Eastern countries. Although Mossad does not say directly how it was aggressively imposed and imposed on who, how the Egyptian government replied to the “aggression” with violence against queer Egyptians is not part of his analysis. The only reason for the government’s violent response, according to Mossad, is “aggression” from the West. His reasoning for this violence views the Egyptian government as a non-agentival nation that always reacts irrationally to what the West does.
Redefining my queerness:
Mahmood mentions that self-realization is not a Western concept, and that it existed in pre-modern traditions, like self-mastery over one’s passion in Plato’s philosophy, self-transformation in Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity (2001, 217). Self-realization is one of the main concepts discussed in the US queer communities, which I have never discussed before in Egypt. I did not care about the label or my pronouns, I did not care about how I would represent myself in my fashion or how I would talk or walk or be. I just knew I can fall in love with everybody, and I feel my sexual desire to everybody. Using words given by the Gay International as Mossad claims does not make me a colonized person. I am agent when I identify myself with “western labels,” but I also have agency to use the word deviant, shadh, I have agency to choose who to out myself too, how to look so other queer people perceive me as queer but not straight folks.
Reading Massad’s work re-orienting desire, I, as a queer Arab felt I was watching a political and theoretical conversation that is about me, yet I do not have a voice regarding it. I felt that I am not agentival. His claims deepen these feelings and make me feel mad that a straight person working for one of the US universities is arguing that queerness in Egypt is a colonial project. Thus, I wrote this to feel agentival, an essay about my queerness as an Egyptian woman. I used Mahmood’s definition of agency to prove how Mossad took my agency away from me when arguing that the Gay International produced homosexuality in Egypt. However, I also critique her definition and showed, using my autoethnography, that the boundaries between her definitions of agency and freedom and the liberal definition are not clear cut.
This is my personal experience, and academia sometimes disregards personal experiences because academics disregard personal experiences, just as Mossad did. I do not know if a person who is more politically active and engaged with the queer community in Egypt would feel differently about labeling or making use of Gay International resources, but I am sure they would also agree that Mossad’s arguments are antagonizing. As Atshan puts it “Through [my] work [with queer activist organizations] I saw how the figure of Joseph Mossad, whom I had admired and as a college student during my thesis writing, loomed over queer activists in the region. They shudder at the prospect of being called local informants of the gay international by him and his followers” (Atshan, xii).
Finally, it is absurd that instead of writing about the homophobic regime and the reproduction of homophobia in Egypt, I address an essay about colonization producing my queer identity. Yet, the narrative of “queerness is produced by colonization” reproduces homophobia in Egypt and this narrative is still used till now from different intellectuals in Egypt.
Atshan, Sa’ed. 2020. Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique. Redwood City: Stanford University Press. Accessed May 12, 2022. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Massad, J. 2002. “Re-Orienting Desire: The Gay International and the Arab World.” Duke University Press pp. 361-385
Mahmood, Saba. “Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections on the Egyptian Islamic Revival.” Cultural Anthropology 16, no. 2 (2001): 202–36. http://www.jstor.org/stable/656537.