Sunday, March 29, 2009

Queer Theory, Queer Praxis

For many years, I have been actively involved in queer politics, queer theory, queer communities, and queer sex.

For the purposes of this blog, "queer" does not denote a "sexual orientation" but rather this term alludes to a critical and political project that emerged in a particular cultural and historical moment. When I take up the word "queer," I do so in solidarity with activist projects such as Queer Nation, ACT UP!, the Lesbian Avengers, Transsexual Menace, Gay Shame, and numerous other grassroots and scholarly efforts to make cultural space for marginalized sexualities and genders.

(Someone emailed me about this blog and basically called into question my lesbian bona fides. Just to be clear: My queer practice doesn't consist only in writing words and marching in the street; for the past 12 years I've lived as an "out lesbian"--though I prefer to problematize that identity category--and I've had queer sex with queer women.)

I see my sexual praxis as part of a critical project to engage what Michel Foucault describes as a "great surface network" of sexuality "in which the stimulation of bodies, the intensification of pleasures, the incitement to discourse, the formation of special knowledges, the strengthening of controls and resistances are linked to one another in accordance with a few major strategies of knowledge and power."

My project is to break patterns, fragment wholeness, and disrupt continuity—to disrupt the normative sequences that produce the familiar and the normal. I thus have a predilection for the queer, the monstrous, the grotesque, the non-normative.

My involvement with BDSM began as a performative engagement of critical theories of gender, sexuality, the body, and subjectivity. Foucault and other theorists of sexuality have seen in various sadomasochistic practices technologies for unseating the genitals as the singular or primary site of sexual pleasure. If a technique of pleasure is completely non-genital, the gendered implications are that people of any gender or sexual "orientation" could engage in that activity with each other. Neither genital configuration nor legal sex would determine or limit sexual role/position/experience. In some of my BDSM relations, I felt that I had achieved this goal of degenitalizing sexuality through a variety of practices, at least on the part of my embodied subjectivity (and not necessarily that of other bodies/subjects involved).

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Questions and Questioning

I have been spending much of my free time listening to lectures on

In one such lecture, Nouman Ali Khan preaches that, according to Surat-al-Baqarah, questioning in Islam constitutes unbelief. <>

“Questioning,” in Khan’s view, consists of asking too many questions or too fundamental questions about Islam—and could come from either Muslims or non-Muslims. The only permissible questions, according to Khan, are ones that ask about applications of Islamic principles to specific situations. Khan's view disallows virtually any “why” question. He belittles critical interpretation while furthering the hegemony of a groveling attitude towards the text.

I found this lecture incredibly disheartening. Since I started reading about Islam, I have kept a little notebook (several notebooks, at this point) in which I maintained a running list of questions that have occurred to me as I have read the Quran and books about Islam. When I get an opportunity to ask someone one of these questions, I welcome and cherish that interaction and their responses. Questioning—and especially the asking of open-ended questions—is a rhetorical strategy that opens up potentials and ways of meaning. Questioning incites commentary and dialogue. Questioning inspires and insences and instigates. Questioning can ensure continuous renewal and reevaluation of purpose, as articulating a response to the question can reaffirm positions or lead to new areas of questioning.

As a student and a critic, I doubt that I could be part of any institution or knowledge community that closes off the possibility for questioning.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Not the only one

I recently received an email in response to my posts about struggling to reconcile kink and Islam. This person wrote to me that he was from a Muslim family and involved in kink and that he had thought that he "was the only one out, and super deviated".

In my reply to him, I recounted an anecdote that I would like also to post here:

A few weeks ago, I attended my first "munch"--a low-key community gathering for kinky folks at a local coffee shop. It was time for Maghrib prayer and I saw one of the guys at the munch get out his little prayer kit and excuse himself to go make wudu and pray. I asked if I could join him, so I put on my hijab (actually, a big floppy hat that covers my hair, ears, and neck) and we went outside and prayed together in a courtyard. He said that he has been going to these munches for a few years, and no one had ever joined him to pray before; it was quite a surprise and a curiosity for him. My point is, there are Muslims (plural!) everywhere, even in the kink scene.

I hope that this blog can foster more connections of that sort among people who are thinking through these questions and intersections.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

What’s haram about a play party?

I used to live in a house that hosted monthly play parties, which I attended and helped to hostess. I have also attended play parties at other locations. A play party is a gathering of people, usually in a private home or hotel suite, in which people engage in various kinds of consensual BDSM play. Different parties have different rules, but every party has some kind of rules to ensure the safety of the guests and the space and the enjoyability of the party. Some parties allow and encourage sex, and such parties usually require latex barriers and other such safer sex practices for sexual activities at the party. Most play parties do not serve or allow alcohol, but some of them do. Most parties have a “party safeword”, which guests can use to alert the other party guests around them that something is going wrong and they might be in need of assistance. A play party can be a place to meet new people, to flirt, to play with old and new friends, to socialize with other kinky folks, and to observe others playing.

I moved out of that house. Since moving out, I was invited back to a play party there. I decided to attend that party, but I wore hijab, chatted with friends and some new acquaintances, did not play at all, did not directly watch other people playing, of course did not drink alcohol, and left the party early after spending less than two hours there. I do not regret attending the party. Indeed, I appreciated that I could move through that space and talk to people there without doing anything that I would consider extremely haram. Wearing hijab served primarily as a reminder to myself that I should be modest and that I am trying to navigate this path of an Islamic (or at least Islam-inspired) way of life. I expect that others who are more strict Muslims would find much that was wrong about my actions that evening. However, at least for me, I think my participation in that manner was both an important intervention into that play space as well as an opportunity for me to struggle with reconciling BDSM and Islam.

So what exactly is haram about a play party? I consider a few factors.

--Gender mixing?
Well, what if it’s a play party just for women? I’ve attended several play parties that are for women only (or women & trans only) and do not allow non-trans men to attend.
Even if the party welcomes all genders, a multi-gender context is nothing special for me. I am an unmarried self-supporting woman living in the United States. I’m in multi-gender environments every day in school, at work, at cafes and other vanilla social contexts, etc. A play party is not uniquely worse in that respect than anything else in my daily life.

Many play parties are places for people to wear “fetish clothing” such as leather, latex, corsets, and extremely high heels. Many of these outfits, are very revealing and/or tight. However, even parties I know of that have dress codes for parties would allow someone to wear hijab. At the last all-genders play party I attended, I wore a headscarf, a skirt over long pants, long sleeves, and a loose shirt. My clothes were opaque, not form-fitting, and covered everything except my face and hands.
If it’s a mixed-gender space, then the standard requirements for covering the body would apply. What does that mean? I'm no scholar, but I think as long as keep my hijab on, then there is still a fair amount of play in which I could engage. Would wearing hijab limit or modify the kinds of play that would be feasible? Being covered would not physically restrict or change any kind of topping I would do. As for bottoming, wearing clothing would lessen the intensity of impact play. Bondage can occur virtually the same on a clothed person as on an unclothed person—minus the rope burns, which I could do without anyway. The visual is different of course—a clothed person looks different from an unclothed person, so it would change the body as an object of voyeurism. Of course, voyeurism of clothed people can also exist.
If it’s an all-women’s space, then a Muslim woman would be required to cover at least the area between the navel and the knees, according to most scholars:
“The Hanafis and the Shafi'is say: It is wajib for her to cover the area between the navel and the knees in their presence.
The Malikis and the Hanbalis observe: She must cover the area between the navel and the knees in front of women, and in the presence of her maharim, her whole body except the head and the arms.
Most Imamis state: It is wajib for her to cover her rear and private parts in the presence of women and her maharim; to cover other parts as well is better though not wajib, except where there is a fear of sin.” Source:
Not surprisingly, Salafis argue that there should be even greater covering among women:

According to Dr. Saalih as-Saalih, the Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) has forbidden a woman to look at the awrah (translated as “private parts”—I think this means genitals but might be more broadly construed) of another woman. Source:
That would mean that, even in all-women contexts, watching any kind of genital play is not permitted.

Most play parties don’t allow alcohol or at the very least do not provide alcohol. I do not drink alcohol.

Sex between a man and a woman outside of marriage would of course be zina and very much haram.
I’m guessing that public sex even between married people is also prohibited, but I don’t know what scholars have written on that matter.
Lesbian sex seems slightly more open to debate, as it is not addressed explicitly in the Quran or in any cases from the time of the Prophet Muhammed (pbuh). However, following the clothing restrictions (covering navel to knee among women) seems de facto to rule out genital contact among women. I’ll address this issue in more detail in a subsequent post.

--Dry play
“Dry play” (non-genital BDSM play, such as bondage or impact play like spanking and flogging) is arguably permissible , if done clothed. I am no scholar, but I do not see anything in the Quran to indicate that consensually hitting someone else (of the same sex) in the context of BDSM is any more haram than, say, wrestling or other contact sports. Indeed, I have read many places that activities not explicitly prohibited by Allah are permissible.

Therefore, I think that attending a play party could be permitted as long as I keep my clothes on.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

"Islam 101"

Over the past several months, I've been reading about Islam on my own and talking online about Islam with a few Muslims.

I have also been taking an “Islam 101” class at the local masjid that is geared towards new Muslims (i.e. recent converts) and potential converts.

I go every week to this Islam class, and I try to appreciate it for what it is.

It is not a class run by scholars or for people with theological/philosophical interests.

It often feels like an Islam-based support group, a place in which people share anecdotes about their everyday lives and the class leader responds with a comforting hadith or Quranic passage. There is no clear structure to the class. Plenty of room for a 10-minute tangent conversation about different brands of turkey bacon or how to best place hijab pins.

For the most part, the class has veered away from interesting and challenging theological questions. I gather that the teacher does not want to confuse us newbies, overwhelm us with information, or make us think very hard. She wants to make the conversion process easier for the members of the class, and part of that project involves boiling down Islam to some basics.

The attitude of the teacher of the Islam 101 class is very open and forgiving of mistakes. She encourages students in the class to maintain views and practices that are “close enough” to halal even if they are not necessarily totally halal and correct by Islamic standards. The emphasis is not on precision, just on making the right niyya and "doing your best".

The group is for women only and takes place on the sisters’ floor (i.e. the basement) of the local mosque. The big room in which the class meets is the room of the masjid in which sisters pray, study, talk with each other, and care for children. It is also the room in which extra chairs and other such supplies are kept. As a result, there is a lot of traffic of sisters through the space and many of these women join in our discussions even though they are not converts themselves. I greatly appreciate the participation of these sisters, especially because I can then get differing perspectives from knowledgeable “born” Muslims, and see that Islam includes diverse opinions and experiences and not a singular unitary perspective.

The class is scheduled such that the group can do both Asr and Maghrib prayers together. My favorite aspect of taking part in this class is praying together in the mosque. Often times there is a brief talk by a brother following the prayers, and I have appreciated hearing those speeches, which can be an informative and thought-provoking complement to what I hear in the "Islam 101" class.

I recently learned that Muslims are required (according to many scholars anyway) to talk with non-Muslims who ask them about Islam. That knowledge made me feel very guilty about asking questions of a woman at the masjid. She is a born Muslim and a brilliant legal scholar and a wonderful resource—I appreciated her comments in/to the group. I asked her if I could ask her some questions about the Quran, and she then must felt obligated to meet with me; she could not say no because I was a non-Muslim asking about Islam. Now that I have that information, I would not so carelessly and greedily ask a Muslim to talk with me about Islam.

I also read recently that there is a big "reward" for Muslims who manage to convert other people to Islam. That gives me an uneasy feeling about certain interactions I have had with Muslims, particularly some very friendly and zealous Muslims who are active in teaching about Islam to recent converts and non-Muslims. This knowledge of the “reward” for dawah makes me wonder if the only reason these Muslims have helped me and talked with me was because they hoped to lead to my conversion and thus I wonder whether they would continue to engage in such conversations with me if I do convert--or if their task would then have been accomplished already and their reward assured. I want to think of these sisters as my friends, not as people who are just using me for their own spiritual benefit.

To me, a system of ethics and values rooted only in "reward" and "punishment" seems crass and simplistic. Such a carrot/stick approach sidesteps the need for rationale, moral reasoning, or debate. That language suggests that every person is their own individual subject with an insular relationship between Allah and the self, while other people are merely tests or means of reward/punishment.

I have very mixed feelings about this class. Still, I continue to attend, because I feel that I owe it to myself and to Allah to make at least that minimal effort.

On Conversion

My attitude towards conversion (or, as it’s often called “reversion”) has shifted over the course of these past months in which I have been learning about Islam. At first, conversion was not even on my radar as a possibility. I saw myself a non-Muslim, period. Converting to any religion, and perhaps particularly to Islam, was simply unthinkable to me at that time.

As I began to read about Islam, and especially as I read the Quran, I experienced moments of being overwhelmingly compelled by the poetry of the Quran. I began to toy with the idea of conversion as possibility, if only a remote one.

I was thinking in terms of "if I convert" -- I was engaged in an open process of learning about Islam, which might face conversion as one of many possible outcomes but certainly not the most likely one. For some of that time, I was staying in another city with some friends who are now adamantly secular atheist “born” Muslims and who productively challenged and questioned my evolving views. One of them told me, “If you convert, you better be sure, because if you convert and then leave Islam, they’ll kill you.” Obviously, that is a ridiculous prospect—no one would kill me for apostasy here in the contemporary United States—but his warning highlighted the high stakes of choosing Islam. For many people, choosing Islam means a matter of life and death—or at least paradise vs. the fire.

After I returned to my home town, I started taking the Islam 101 course at the local masjid, and began to think in terms of "when and how I will convert". Conversion seemed a likely, if not imminent, possibility. The "Islam 101" course is also known as the "New Muslims" course, and most of the other sisters in the class are recent converts who expect me to join them soon as a fellow new Muslim.

Most recently, though, I have wavered between intense moments of wanting to convert and moments of thinking that Islam is definitely not for me, all centering around the question of "why I would convert". I do not want to end up converting simply because it is expected of me—or because I feel that I owe it to the fine people who have been giving me Dawah. I want to feel that it is the right thing for me. If someone asks me why I am converting, I should be able to articulate a coherent and theoretically sophisticated response, as I would to explain any of my political or ethical positions. I am asking myself if my reasons for finding meaning in Islam are good reasons, insufficient reasons, or symptomatic of other issues.

Conversion in Islam consists of taking Shahadah—saying two basic sentences in Arabic in front of witnesses. That conversion process is, on face, simple and easy. However, speaking those words, knowing their meaning, and believing that meaning do not make for a simple matter and I do not wish to take that matter lightly.

Shahadah means “witnessing”—a strong public affirmation of unwavering belief. To witness does not mean “this idea seems most plausible to me at this moment” or “I believe some of this but the rest I’m not sure of or haven’t even learned about yet”. I feel that I need to learn more before I can be a viable witness.

These questions of “if” “when” “how” and “why” are questions that surface and submerge in the daily reconfiguration of my thinking about conversion in particular and my relationship to Islam in general.

Monday, March 23, 2009

What I find attractive about Islam

Most of my friends, when I have told them that I’m considering converting to Islam, have been very surprised and curious. They have wondered, “Why? What would a highly educated queer feminist Jew find appealing in Islam? Isn’t Islam against everything she stands for???”

Well, here is a brief list of the major factors that draw me to Islam:

1.) The basic monotheism, the Oneness of Allah. “There is no god but God."

2.) The abstract unseen power that is Allah. A phrase repeated frequently in the Muslim ritual prayer is “Allahu akhbar” = God is greater. So, what is God? That which is greater! Anything we can sense or imagine as divine can only approximate the greatness of Allah, who is always beyond and exceeding human capacities and worldiness. Allah is the Lord of the Worlds – plural – meaning there are other worlds in which Allah not only exists but also creates and rules. According to the tradition of al-Farabi’s theorizing on negative theology, Allah has no affirmative characteristics. The Quran includes 99 most beautiful names of Allah, and no other qualities can be attributed to Allah. Even the most beautiful names in the Quran are metaphorical/inadequate to describe the greatness of Allah to the extent that these words are in a human language and intended for human comprehension. That is, the Quran says that Allah is All-Seeing, but that does not mean that Allah has eyes or vision like that of humans or other animals. Allah is unlike Allah’s creation. Similarly, the use of “he” as a pronoun referring to Allah does not indicate that Allah is a man or a male creature. Again, Allah is unlike Allah’s creation. Rather the “he” pronoun could be considered a kind of compromise, as there was no adequate pronoun for Allah in Arabic, and the Quran is to be message intelligible to humanity.

3.) Prayer. The somatic component of worship—the Muslim way of praying requires both words and bodily movements; one worships Allah not just with the tongue but with the whole body. The physical act of bowing and prostrating to God. The regularity of prayer (praying according to the prescribed prayer times). The connection of prayer times to the rotation and revolution of the Earth. The elegant simplicity (and complexity in that simplicity) of the words of prayer.

That list is not comprehensive, but it includes the primary elements that draw me to Islam.

There is much about Islam that gives me pause and that seems possibly irreconcilable with ideas and causes that I hold dear to me. However, these three factors sustain my interest in Islam and my project of learning and thinking through how to incorporate Islamic values into my life more thoroughly.


Thanks for reading my blog. I would like to briefly introduce myself to you. At least for now, I would like to be anonymous, but I do not want to be a complete stranger. This blog is, after all, something of a diary, so I have to include some details about my life.

I am 26 years old. I currently live in a mid-sized metropolitan area in the United States of America. I have lived in other cities and towns in the United States and Europe, but I have never traveled anywhere else in the world. My politics tend towards the social-democratic and the left-liberal, the non-violent, feminist and queer. I graduated from a well-known university in the U.S. and have pursued postgraduate study in the humanities. I consider myself to be a thoughtful and critical person. I like to ask questions, learn new ideas and skills, and interact with a wide variety of people. Above all else, I consider myself to be a student. My attitude towards the people I love, towards my friends and allies, is that I want to learn everything they know and teach them everything I know—an impossible and never-ending project, but a goal that drives friendships and mutually benefits the people involved.

I was raised Jewish (in the Reform movement). I had the privilege of a basic Jewish education in Biblical Hebrew, Torah and Haftarah reading, and Jewish traditions. I've never considered myself to be a very religious person. I do not strictly follow Jewish law (nor to most people in the Reform Jewish movement) and I lead a rather secularized life. I value many aspects of Jewish tradition, particularly the traditions of debate of ethical questions and critical analysis of texts. I attend synagogue on major holidays and read the parsha (weekly Torah portion) most weeks. I find modern Jewish thought to be fascinating and an invaluable part of modern European and North American intellectual history. I have long dis-identified from “identity politics”-based Jewish groups as well as from Zionist pro-occupation politics. When I was in middle school, I got into an argument with fellow members of a Jewish youth group because I took the position that it was more important that Israel be a true democracy than it be a Jewish State. Now I am a member of Jewish Voices for Peace and other such anti-occupation activist groups. What I find most meaningful and valuable for me in Judaism are the texts, the community, and the community of letters that is the history of Jewish thought. Though I think there is great value in continuing the Jewish tradition of reading and thinking about the Torah, I don’t believe that the Torah was authored directly by God or that its value is dependent on its being Divinely authored.

When I was 14 years old, I told my friends and my parents that I was queer. Since then, I have been actively involved in queer politics, queer theory, and queer communities. B y queer politics, I mean efforts to clear linguistic and material space for non-normative sexualities and genders.

My first personal interest in Islam began only a few months ago. I was at a colleague's office to work on a project with a new colleague and he excused himself to go pray. I asked him about his praying and his religion we got into a fascinating discussion about the nature of God, the formation of belief, ways of approaching religious texts, etc. I enjoyed discussing such ideas with him, perhaps mainly because he was so passionately pious as well as politically progressive (at least on some issues). I learned a lot from him and heard constellations of views that I had not heard before and that often surprised me. Frequently , when he and I were discussing a particular topic, such as a news item or the way a person had reacted in a given situation, he would say “the Islamic perspective on that is…” At times, that phrasing sounded strange to me—I was used to people stating opinions as their own and not as that of their religion. I felt that in order to understand where this person was coming from, I should learn more about Islam. I also thought that any educated person should know at least some basic information about Islam, a major world religion. I had learned in a high school social studies class that there were the 5 pillars and the Prophet Mohammed, but I had never taken any interest in learning about the complexity, diversity, and meaning of Islam as a lived and practiced religion. I knew enough to dismiss the Fox News or Samuel Huntington-style portrayal of Islam or Muslims as something extra-civilizational or enemy. However, I had never before had any observant Muslim friends or close colleagues. Despite being a history buff, I knew nothing of early Islamic history or the life of the Prophet Mohammed and his companions and followers. Despite being a voracious reader of social theory and European philosophy, I had never read a work of Islamic philosophy.

I asked for recommendations of books about Islam, and read Ali Rafea’s book _The Book of Essential Islam_. I was surprised at how similar Islam seemed to Judaism (especially in contrast to Christianity). I was deeply moved by and even more curious about the spiritual aspects of Islam and the practice of the daily prayers. I eventually got up the courage to ask my one Muslim friend if I could pray with him, and he showed me how to make wudu and how to pray.

A couple months ago, I read an English version of the Quran, and I was completely fascinated. I stayed up late reading and then read it first thing in the morning. I took copious notes and wrote down many questions as well as resonant passages that I wanted to remember. I searched eagerly for places online and in my local area where I might get my questions answered. Last month, I joined a women-only “Islam 101” class at the local masjid. I met some local Muslim sisters who have been generous enough to talk with me about Islam and answer some of my questions. I am still eagerly learning about Islam and thinking about converting.

Sunday, March 22, 2009



I am writing this blog as a diaristic account of my thinking and experiences, particularly regarding religion, philosophy, theory, culture, and my recent engagement with Islam. Other related topics might include aesthetics and art, gender and sexuality, the body, subjectivity, and social and material relations.

I have titled this blog Desiring/Submitting. I have recently been struggling with two categories. I hope that my thinking through some issues relating to these categories may create a conversation with other readers in the blogosphere.

Both of these terms are complex and polysemous, inflected with numerous connotations.Desiring and desire are terms that have been in circulation in anglophone and francophone queer theory and history of sexuality academic circles. In common parlance, desire can signify any need or want or craving. Desire can connote a bodily hunger, a refined and educated taste, and a complex cultural field. The material and cultural production of desire and the history of desire are important areas of study that I wish to engage as part of this blog. I also describe some of my own interests, wishes, and desires in my everyday interactions.

"Submission" is the literal translation of the Arabic word "Islam". To be a Muslim is to be one who submits to the will of Allah. "Submission" is also a term in circulation in the BDSM (bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, sadomasochism) community and culture, in which submission virtually always means a consensual and negotiated submission to a particular person or people in an erotically charged context. Both Islam and BDSM are constellations of knowledge about which I have been learning and communities in which I have been participating in the past several months.

I do not present desiring and submitting as two poles of a binary opposition. Desire does not entail a libertarian-hedonistic worldview of "I do what I want". Submission does not require a denial or destruction of the self. Rather, desiring/submitting constitutes a troubled und unstable dialectic of sorts. Desiring and submitting are each techniques of affirming and closing off possibilities.

Both desiring and submitting are relational processes. Desire frequently invokes a desiring subject and a desired object. Submission requires a submittor and that to which the submitter submits. Paradoxically (and fabulously), in submission, the power to which the submitter submits--who may be God or some worldly power--is actually the grammatical "object".

I put these terms in the presenting progressive--"desiring" not "desire"; "submitting" not "submission"--because these are active and ongoing engagements in my life. Rather than seeing either desire or submission as a fixed momentary action, I see these as continuous practices and challenges. In that spirit, this blog is an unfolding conversation.

Islamic studies, queer theory, and Euro-Marxian critical theory are not theoretical approaches that have frequently found a comfortable home together in the blogosphere or other forums. inshaAllah this blog can be one small forum for such a critical project.

Thank you for reading. I welcome comments.