This piece has been written by the co-organizers of the conference Queer Feminist Perspectives on Political Homophobia and anti-Feminism in the Middle East and Europe;a joint project by Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin(Berlin), Brown University (Providence RI), and Heinrich Böll Foundation (Berlin).
In recent years, political homophobia (Weiss and Bosia 2013) and anti-feminism (Salice 2019; Meiering, Dziri, and Foroutan 2020) have been gaining ground, increasingly shaping policy and rhetoric across theglobe. Far-right groups and authoritarian governments have been emboldened to assert their understandingsof morals forsociety, voicing judgements and supporting actions that are shaped by cis-sexist, heterosexist, misogynist, and patriarchal values. These anti-LGBTQ and anti-feminist mobilizations have also stoked prejudice, violence, and injustices at a societal level against the ‘enemies’ of far-right rhetoric. At the same time, there have been robust national and transnational responses initiated by grassroots movements, civil society organizations, activists, social workers, teachers, and academics–to name but a few. These movements have fiercely challenged political homophobia and anti-feminism locally and transnationally through policy interventions, street demonstrations, and digital activism. This is the Zeitgeist that brought us as scholars and activists together to discuss the crucial issues of political homophobia and anti-feminism.
On September 24-25, 2021, we held a two-day digital conference entitled Queer Feminist Perspectives on Political Homophobia and anti-Feminism in the Middle East and Europe. This meeting was created to offer a platform for academics, activists, journalists, and artists to discuss the growing specter of anti-LGBTQ and anti-feminist mobilization in the Middle East and Europe. As academics engaged in grassroots movements, we (Tunay, Nadje, Katy and Gökce) have all been inspired by queer feminism to seek forms of expression and political action that critique structures of cis-sexism, heterosexism, patriarchy, and misogyny. Our diverse life experiences and research initiatives spanning acrossthe Middle East and Europe were formative for our wish to create an opportunity for cross-regional dialogue. We wanted to foster an exchange of perspectives, which, as we knew from personal experience, can be very fruitful when critically analyzing the political pitfalls of both regions. Our contribution, then, is to carefully reflect on the current state of political homophobia and anti-feminism, while learning from previous research and political analysis (for analyses of feminism we refer to Kandiyoti’s seminal edited book in 1991; for earlier scholarship of political homophobia, for example, Graff 2010).
Against this backdrop, we had three objectives as we curated this conference and selected the papers to be presented: first, we wanted to situate far-right and authoritarian actors in their respective socio-historical contexts; second, we aimed to discuss how political homophobia and anti-feminism have been developed as core ideological elements in a local and transregional framework; third, we asked ourselves how we could shed light on local, transregional, and global responses to homophobia and anti-feminism in the respective regions. In pursuit of these aims, queer feminist paradigms contributed significantly to our conversation about the far right and informed our analysis of various concepts and practices across the regions.
Why queer feminism?
A queer feminist perspective is based on the recognition that gender and sexuality are not only central to any understanding of wider social and political processes, but are also always brought forth in complex intersections with other social inequalities and conditions. Our interpretation of queer feminism is informed and influenced by Black feminist thought, which foregrounds race and gender as the intersections that most significantly affect Black women’s lives in the US (Hill-Collins, 1990, Crenshaw, 1989). We expand upon this perspective to analyze power structures through the lens of intersecting social divisions, such as racialization, gender and sexuality, across diverse societies in the current political context.
Our conference took an intersectional perspective on the study of gender and sexualityas they are intertwined withracism and racialization processes, European border regimes, the legacies of colonialism, and the political projects of Europeanization and cultural imperialism, which link the Middle East and Europe. As we exchanged knowledge gained from diverse contexts, focusing on non-normative expressions, practices, identities, and desires, our investment in queer feminism guided us to imagine transformative and counter-hegemonic methods of knowledge production and politics of social justice. This invigorating experience gave us the momentum to extend the conference to the collection of essays in this blog, as well as a co-edited book on the topic.
A transnational lens: the Middle East and Europe
Far-right politics in Europe and the Middle East are rooted in very different histories. The political parties and groups to the far right of the ideological spectrum in the Middle East often preach conservatism, militarism, anti-globalism, nationalism, and political Islamism (Heper and İnce 2006; Meiering, Dziri, and Foroutan 2020; Hintz 2016; Al-Ali 2020). Along these lines, the past decade has seen a gradual shift in the region toward a neoliberal Islamist-rooted nationalism which has core ideological parallels with the anti-globalist discourses of radical groups, while promoting isolationist politics and the top-down control and restriction of fundamental rights and freedoms. In Europe, study of the far right has undergone a resurgence in recent years in response to the increasing prominence of white supremacist and separatist nationalist politics (Russell 2019; Fielitz and Thurston 2019). Far-right parties in Europe often call for borders to be closed to any types of immigrants, the deportation of ‘illegal immigrants’, cultural assimilation, and jus sanguinis understandings of citizenship – policies which, if not fully realized, have nonetheless shaped political and popular discourse, leading to increased discrimination and violence against ethnic, racial, and religious minorities in Europe (Salice 2019). In both Europe and the Middle East, increasing political polarization between left and right, globalists and patriots, has been accompanied by instrumentalization of the topics of sex, sexuality, gender, and intimacy as core ideological elements of contested discourses.
Despite the gaping differences that characterize their respective sociopolitical contexts, far-right parties and movements in the Middle East and in Europe are shaped by common issuessuchas immigration, globalism, digital media, and the legacies of colonialism. During the first post-Mubarak vote in Egypt in 2011, we saw how political homophobia was instrumentalized by the Muslim Brotherhood to create moral panic about the prospect ofa secularized and therefore ‘immoral’ Egypt, in order to intimidate supporters of anti-authoritarian and secular parties (Bosia 2014). Only recently, Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party has called for withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention – a human rights treaty of the Council of Europe that protects the rights of women and LGBTQ people – with a campaign that identified the LGBTQ community as ‘evil’ and as part of a Western conspiracy against Turkey’s moral values (Tar 2020). In Europe, Poland’s conservative government recently introduced a near-total abortion ban, while Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban has proposed restrictions on adoption that would prevent LGBTQ people from adopting children. While Hungary and Poland notoriously and openly promote political homophobia and anti-feminism, Germany’s Alternative for Germany party (AfD) has appropriated the language of rights for women and sexual minorities in order to cast Muslim homophobia as a national enemy (El-Tayeb 2011) and promote a nationalist and anti-Muslim agenda in Germany (see Wielowiejski 2020). These examples, and many more, testify to a web of relations between the ideological elements and the sociohistorical factors that interlinks the Middle East and Europe, emphasizing their interdependence – there is no one-way street.
Our conference successfully brought together a group of academics, researchers, and activists who are interested in exploring similar issues in different regional settings, ranging from Turkey to Lebanon; Germany to Ukraine. The discussions during the conference, sparked by the thought-provoking analyses presented, helped us to further our understandings of the challenges of political homophobia and anti-feminism, as perspectives were shared among intellectual activists, including social activists, scholars, writers and artists. This blog is a first attempt to build upon the connections made and to foster further exchanges between and across countries, regions, and disciplines. Beyond the blog, we intend to publish a co-edited volume featuring selected papers presented at the conference as well as additional work by pioneering writers who are working on analyzing the current context. Through these attempts to critically discuss and carefully analyze political homophobia and anti-feminism from different perspectives, we contribute to dismantling those movements’ tools. We hope to continue our critical discussions in person in 2023 at the Brown University, Center for Middle Eastern Studies.
We would like to thank our student assistant Frankie Elsey for her continuous efforts and dedication to the project. We would also like to thank the Heinrich-Böll-Foundation, and more specifically Jana Prosinger and Joanna Barelkowska for their support and cooperation. We would also like to thank all our conference speakers and the audience for their contributions.