Sexual Identity in the Arab World

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The ways in which regimes of law, cultural identity and state governance shape understandings of Muslim or Arab sexualities are many. In his article “Re-Orienting Desire: The Gay International and the Arab World” Joseph Massad outlines some of these regimes. Massad argues that western orientalists and colonialists altered the way Muslims viewed their own sexuality by bringing into consciousness the idea of gay rights and thus homosexuality where it did not previously exist.

Because of this, Massad argues that the western influence completely transformed how Muslims understood their own sexuality. In the beginning of his article Massad points out how Arab and Iranian men would engage in both gay and heterosexual practices while simultaneously rejecting the ‘Western identity’ of gayness. While this opposes the idea of Western homosexuality it reflects an Arab understanding of sexuality as being fluid and not tightly restrained by identifying as either ‘gay’ or ‘straight.’ This changed over time as Western influence became more prevalent in the Arab world through culture exchange.

Massad refers to this cultural exchange by introducing the Gay International, a sort of missionary group who aims to ‘stabilize’ the sexual instability found within Arab societies. In other words, the Gay International aims to promote its views on sexuality and liberate Arabs into the Western world of homosexuality. This highlights how sexual identities can be created and can travel between societies through the work of individual groups. The Gay International succeeded in creating and dividing Arabs into two new forms of identity -both homo and hero sexuality, where previously these were unfamiliar concepts.

As opposed to Western societies, Massad notes how the Arabic language only recently adopted words for homosexuality and heterosexuality. Further, the word for sexual deviance was only coined in the mid 19050 and is understood to refer to the Western concept of homosexuality....
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