In 2018, I was walking along Kurfürstendamm, West Berlin’s famed shopping district with a friend. We hadn’t seen each other in ages and so were giggling and talking animatedly, catching each other up on the events in our lives. My friend is 6 feet tall and was sporting a largish beard at the time. A man who was walking towards us, jostled my friend’s shoulder as he walked past us. “What the f**” my friend exclaimed loudly, the man turned to us shouting a slew of cusses, my friend shouted back, the next insult the man had started to twist out was the T word. He got as far as TERROR, but the IST stuck in his throat as a look of confusion spread across his face. His eyes had fallen on my friend’s perfectly manicured hands and brightly painted nails. Apparently, terrorists did not paint their nails.
What does it mean when we embody multiple identities that inscribe contradictory meaning onto our bodies? I am a migrant from the Global South, living in the Global North. I am a person of mixed (south-south) ethnicity. I am a Muslim. I am also queer. I am finally a woman. These are the large motifs that have shaped my life, both in South Asia and in Europe. The way these identities collide and the ways in which I have been read and cataloged in the social sphere has produced various forms of scrutiny. Nowhere is this scrutiny more keenly felt than on my body. Social categories need not be antagonistic or oppositional; they can and do encompass a broad range of possibilities. Unfortunately, we live in a word where binaries reign supreme. Where implicit biases reign supreme. When you belong to one category, it often means you cannot belong to another, especially if these categories are deemed by the dominant discourse to be in conflict.
Those of us with complex histories and non-conforming bodies bear the burden of the violence of these constructs, which render us incoherent at multiple levels. There are racist tautologies that operate, there are Islamophobic ideas layered onto bodies, there are cis centric standards of gender and beauty, and there is rampant Queerphobia that operationalizes race, religion, caste, and class in specific ways. For example, the position of Muslim women is often Schrodinger like, where we are simultaneously hyper sexualized as deviants in contrast to the dominant majority and also are de-sexualized as passive and oppressed by gendered Islamic relations. A queer Muslim woman is in the unenviable position of being chastised by the majoritarian voice on both sides of the spectrum, and often seen as absurd and incoherent.
A major trope in Queer circles is to code the “West” as racist and the “East” as homophobic. I would like to challenge this by pointing out that dominant discourses of our age like patriarchy, classism, homophobia, racism, etc., operate across the borders of nation states and across such dichotomies, albeit in different forms. The very notion of an East West binary is problematic on several levels; there isn’t space in this piece to get into the nuances of why this is so. However, keeping in mind that this construct is premised on several fault lines, the East West binary in this specific regard can be decimated when even a small amount of scrutiny is applied. To put it bluntly, the East is racist and xenophobic too, just as the West is both homophobic and transphobic. The fixation on bodily difference via a caste and colour nexus in the context of the South Asian subcontinent is well documented and flourished in varied forms historically. There is also the ugly fetishization and coding of Muslim bodies as being built for domination in an Indian context in the contemporary period. These ideas from the subcontinent migrate to the West via the diaspora, even as they combine here to produce new and ugly variants, building on the anti-black histories of Western Europe’s race discourse and orientalist tropes about Muslims and Islam. Similarly, much is known now regarding the creation of the gender binary and how it was used by Europeans as a tool to catalogue and control populations in the regions they colonized. There is also much scholarship on the export of specific forms of homophobia and transphobia and their codification into law under the auspices of the European civilizing mission. Without reifying the pre-colonial as a queer paradise as some decolonial scholars annoyingly do, we can proportion blame where blame is due, and situate the ways in which Victorian morality, fundamentally restructured and fractured gender and sexual relations in the Global South. Further, even by today’s standards, homophobia and transphobia are rife in the West, as is evidenced by the persecution of queer folks in a variety of interpersonal and institutionalized settings. We also know that Transwomen are being murdered at alarming rates across the Western world. It should be emphasized that almost 80% of the Transwomen murdered in the USA are women of colour, specifically Black and Latina, and in Europe 50% of the Trans people murdered were migrants.
We know that gender is both classed and raced, as are all identarian categories premised on broader notions of dominant social constructs. Nate Hawthorne in his politically minded blog sums this up succinctly, saying: “The history of class positions as hierarchical positions in the distribution of surplus labor is a raced and gendered history.” The closer one is to the margins across intersecting identities, the closer our bodies are to precarity. This is true wherever one lives. De linking race, class, religion, and caste from Queerness has been the project of Bougie queers in the Global North and Global South alike.
Ronald L. Jackson II theorizes how race is “enacted at the moment of the gaze” and he discusses the impact this “spectatorial surveillance” has on social relations in the context of Black masculine bodies. I would like to focus for a moment here on the way this ‘outer’ surveillance structures ‘inner’ surveillance, i.e., the inner policing and violence generated and enacted upon us, by ourselves, not just in the context of race, but also gender, religion, and so on. Considering the work of Foucault, central is the relationship between power and knowledge. In Discipline and Punish (1979), he illustrates how the idea of punishment is historically situated and how it changes over time, moving away from the physicality of spectacle and torture to one where the body is scrutinized, organized, and disciplined. The chapter on ‘Docile Bodies’ expands on this theme, where the human body is the focused sight of regulation, and is subjected to certain processes that explore, transform, and re-arrange it. Bodily regulation then becomes the general mode of domination.
Depicting clearly the process of the invisibility visibility nexus, Foucault tells us that:
“Disciplinary power, on the other hand, is exercised through its invisibility; at the same time it imposes on those whom it subjects a principle of compulsory visibility. In discipline, it is the subjects who have to be seen. Their visibility assures the hold of the power that is exercised over them” – 1979.
Under scrutiny from the outside, bodies are then in perpetual need of control, containment and improvement from the inside. They become a particular target of disciplinary power we enact upon ourselves in order to fall in line with the gaze of surveillance from the outside. Rendering the body acceptable in a variety of settings is an exhaustive process, and the work can never truly be finished. This is also enhanced by the auspices of neo-liberalism, where bodies compete in a never-ending hierarchy for acceptance and to be coded as desirable.
Those with multiple marginalized identities are often rendered hyper visible in certain settings but invisibilized in others. Both can lead to violence, and one way to circumvent this violence is by self-scrutiny, which can in turn lead to attempts to annihilate perceptible difference, which in turn leads to assimilation. A violence of the self, directed at the self to circumvent the violence of the external cataloguing surveying gaze. Bell Hooks lays open this problem in Feminism Inside: Towards a Black Body Politic when she enunciates how the production of the Black man as hypermasculine was generated by Black men as a response to the effemminization and dehumanization wrought by the white supremist legacy on the Black male body. This hyper masculinization has in turn rearranged the social relations between Black men and Black women, generating specific form of patriarchal violence and also certain strains of homophobia in the Black community.
In thinking about how we can hold intersecting identities without one cancelling the other, having to choose between them, embodying the patterns generated by the dominant discourse or reacting to them, Mana Kia’s attempts to synthesize how ‘contradictions’ in identarian categories can in fact peaceably coexist, is helpful. In her book on Persianate selves she repeatedly asks, ‘Who is a Persian?’ As it turns out, a Persian was many different things, seemingly contradictory by today’s measures, where origins are inextricably tied to blood-soil ethos and ethno-nationalist construction. Using Derrida’s concept of Aporias she talks about identity that stayed coherent by “allowing equivalences between difference,” and she puts in focus the possibility of distinction that has no limit. An Aporia, according to Derrida, is something (usually a social construct) that is caused by the tension between two seemingly opposite things.
I find this concept of an Aporia most useful. Extending it to understand the ways in which so called contradictory identities can co-exist gives me hope. Perhaps this concept could help in creating a space in which bodies aren’t hierarchized, and difference does not mean discrimination. Where self-expression does not have to be mediated via the aim of deflecting social violence and gendered precarity. Where inner surveillance to deflect the violence of outer surveillance can stop and bodies can be more than sites of focused contestation.
Appiah, Kwame Anthony. 2016. “There Is No Such Thing as Western Civilisation.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media. November 9. www.theguardian.com/world/2016/nov/09/western-civilisation-appiah-reith-lecture.
Derrida, Jacques. 1993. Aporias. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Hawthorne, Nate. 2006. “… Is the Relationship between Race, Gender, and Class?” Who in the Hell…? November 30. crashcourse666.wordpress.com/2006/11/30/356/.
Hooks, Bell. 1995. Art on My Mind : Visual Politics. New York: New York Press, W. W. Norton & Company.
“Implicit Bias.” 2021. National Institutes of Health. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Accessed April 3. diversity.nih.gov/sociocultural-factors/implicit-bias.
Imaizzle. 2016. “Colonial Imposition of the Gender Binary.” The Politics of Language. December 8. politicsoflanguage.wordpress.com/2016/12/08/colonial-imposition-of-the-gender-binary/.
Jackson II, Ronald L. 2006. “Scripting the Black Masculine Body: Identity, Discourse, and Racial Politics in Popular Media”. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Kia, Mana. 2020. Essay. In Persianate Selves: Memories of Place and Origin before Nationalism. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Lugones, Maria. n.d. “The Coloniality of Gender.” Essay. In The Palgrave Handbook of Gender and Development, 1st ed., 13–33. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
“Murders of Transgender People in 2020 Surpasses Total for Last Year In Just Seven Months.” 2020. National Center for Transgender Equality. September 15. transequality.org/blog/murders-of-transgender-people-in-2020-surpasses-total-for-last-year-in-just-seven-months.
“TMM Update: Trans Day of Remembrance 2020.” 2020. TvT. November 20. transrespect.org/en/tmm-update-tdor-2020/.
 According to the National center for Transgender equality in Washington D.C., the murders of Transgender People in 2020 surpassed the total for previous year in just seven months.
 Persianate Selves: Memories of Place and Origin Before Nationalism by Mana Kia
 Aporias by Jacques Derrida, translated by Thomas Dutoit.
Zulaika Mirzazadeh is a PhD scholar in the Global North, and her research interests are diasporas, migration, and identity formation.