From September to November 2021, I carried out a final stage of dissertation fieldwork with the support of an ACOR-CAORC Predoctoral Fellowship in Amman. My research uses theories and methods from linguistic anthropology to examine contemporary contestation over Arabic discourses around non-heteronormative gender and sexuality. In plain terms, I study how people talk about and express gender and sexuality toward different ends, particularly within the contexts of LGBTQ activism in Amman and humanitarian efforts to protect LGBTQ refugees in Jordan. Over a total of twelve months of on-site fieldwork, I interviewed activists, held group discussions with humanitarian professionals, and joined refugees in informal social outings to study how different actors performed and understood gendered and sexualized difference. In this blog post, I share a brief overview of my dissertation research as well as some emerging findings on Arabic terminology related to gender and sexuality as it is used in Jordan.
My dissertation project began as an endeavor to study the contentious communicative work that goes into what scholars, lawyers, and humanitarian practitioners have called sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) asylum. Since the 1990s, states in North America and Europe have granted such asylum to persons fleeing persecution on account of their non-heteronormative sexual orientations and/or gender identities. These states generally require applicants, in accord with the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, to demonstrate a “well-founded fear of persecution” in their home countries due to their claimed or imputed membership of a “particular social group,” where such a group may be defined in terms of sexual orientation and gender identity (e.g., “lesbian women in x country”). Social scientists studying these adjudicatory procedures have found them to rely upon ethnocentric stereotypes dictating what counts as credible SOGI asylum-seeker subjectivity; applicants who do not present themselves in ways congruent with dominant scripts of “coming out” and LGBTQ identity, for example, may be denied asylum. My project, building upon this critique, aimed to investigate how SOGI asylum claims get articulated and adjudicated within Jordan—a so-called transit country where more than 750,000 forced migrants reside temporarily as they pursue a durable solution to their displacement via the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. While Jordan and other transit countries across Africa, Asia, and South America host the majority of the world’s forced migrants, research on SOGI asylum has focused predominantly upon adjudication in North American and European resettlement countries. I therefore asked, if SOGI asylum procedures compel applicants to present themselves in ways consistent with Euro-American LGBTQ identities, how might this pressure shape the everyday experiences of SOGI asylum seekers in Jordan? How, I wondered, might the lives and casework of SOGI asylees living in a transit country, which they seek to leave, differ from what scholars have said about SOGI asylees living in a resettlement country, where they aim to stay?
Investigating these questions came to present various challenges, not the least of which being the difficulty of locating SOGI asylum seekers in Amman. The few organizations explicitly assisting SOGI asylum claimants in Amman follow strict confidentiality procedures that precluded me from conducting fieldwork with their beneficiaries. Moreover, from what I found, SOGI asylum seekers in Jordan tend to live in isolation from one another, some practicing forms of what sociologist and former American Center of Research fellow Rawan Arar (2015) has termed “strategic anonymity”—a deliberate, self-protective withholding of personal information, especially such potentially stigmatizing details as their status as refugees and grounds for seeking resettlement. In short, the people and practices I saw at the core of my project appeared in large part to defy investigation. Eventually, though, I met and engaged with SOGI asylum seekers from Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, who shared with me stories and personal insights that I am still thinking through.
My persistent efforts to locate SOGI refugees also led to fortuitous encounters with various actors doing work on or adjacent to SOGI asylum. Through interviews with caseworkers, attorneys, and activists in Amman, I gradually came to notice competing ways of talking and thinking about gender and sexuality; words that some uttered without hesitation, others seemed to avoid or explicitly cautioned me against using.
Most notably, I recognized contestation over what, in my dissertation, I call the mīm-‘ayn register. A register is a linguistic anthropological concept describing a repertoire of words and non-linguistic symbols that, among a given population, is associated with particular activities and the types of people who engage in them. One such repertoire, the mīm-‘ayn register takes its name from the Arabic letters mīm and ‘ayn, which make up an Arabic equivalent to the LGBT initialism. This register comprises terms and symbols that international human rights organizations, among other actors, use to identify populations marginalized on account of their sexual and gendered practices. Examples include: “mithlī,” a relative adjective derived from the Arabic noun mithl, meaning “same,” that has been used by itself over the past quarter century to mean “gay”; “al-huwiyya al-jindariyya,” an expression borrowed partly from English and used to mean “gender identity”; and rainbow colors, such as those displayed on pins and posters at organizations aiming to cultivate a safe environment for LGBTQ people (see Figs. 1 and 2).
Although once largely unfamiliar to Jordanian audiences, the mīm-‘ayn register has garnered wider usage and recognition within the past fifteen years. In fact, humanitarian work related to SOGI refugees has provided an important avenue for the register’s dissemination. Through training workshops, including one I helped to organize, Jordanian humanitarian workers have been taught to use the mīm-‘ayn register in their professional practice; doing so, the workshops implicitly suggest, is critical to performing one’s professional role competently. Yet if, for some, usage of the mīm-‘ayn register may index the figure of a competent humanitarian aid worker, for others it ranges from sounding strange to blatantly transgressing local customs and traditions. A participant at the workshop I observed, for example, made exaggerated efforts to stumble over the pronunciation of words such as “‘ābir” (“trans”) and “al-jindar” (“gender”)—terms so awkward and foreign, he intimated, that he could not even produce them. Jordanian news outlets have relayed similar messages, casting the register’s usage and the people and practices it names as antithetical to Jordanian national culture; rainbow colors—whether adorning pedestrian stairways, graffitied on public walls, or printed on soda cans—have attracted public condemnation.
What intrigues me about this contention is that it demonstrates how SOGI asylum, as a socially situated discursive practice, may shape the subjectivities of more than just those who seek it. Within humanitarian work in Jordan, usage of the mīm-‘ayn register serves to make distinctions not only among refugees but also among the aid workers charged with serving them. Scholars have long problematized the expectation that SOGI asylum seekers fit into gendered and sexualized categories that are legible to officials. Findings from my fieldwork in Amman suggest it may be just as important to question how such categories become known and used by officials to begin with.
Arar, Rawan Mazen. 2015. “How Political Migrants’ Networks Differ from Those of Economic Migrants: ‘Strategic Anonymity’ Among Iraqi Refugees in Jordan.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 42 (3): 519–535.
Keegan Terek is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Northwestern University, where he has completed certificates in Middle East and North African studies and gender and sexuality studies. In fall 2021, he received an ACOR-CAORC Predoctoral Fellowship to support his dissertation fieldwork in Amman, prior phases of which were funded by the Social Science Research Council, the Sexualities Project at Northwestern, and other internal grants from Northwestern University. He received his BA in Arabic and Spanish and Portuguese studies from Georgetown University in 2015, and then completed a year of advanced Arabic training through a Center for Arabic Study Abroad fellowship in Amman.