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LHMP #133 Traub 2008 The Past is a Foreign Country? The Times and Spaces of Islamicate Sexuality Studies

Full citation: 

Traub, Valerie. “The Past is a Foreign Country? The Times and Spaces of Islamicate Sexuality Studies” in Babayan, Kathryn and Afsaneh Najmabadi (eds.). 2008. Islamicate Sexualities: Translations Across Temporal Geographies of Desire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-03204-0

Publication summary: 


This collection of papers came out of a workshop that brought together a cross-section of scholars from various disciplines to explore aspects of same-sex practice and desire in the Islamicate world. “Islamicate” is a relatively new term coined (in parallel with “Italianate”) to describe people, cultures, and practices in regions dominated or strongly infuenced by Islam, without the implication that specific individuals are necessarily Muslim or that the cultures and practices are being considered in a religious context or that they represent “Islamic culture” in a definitional sense. The papers in this collection primarily focus on literary representation. There is no implication intended that any one study represents the Islamicate world as a whole, and the variety of representations and practices is emphasized. As is usual with a collection of this type, I have covered only those papers pertaining to women.

Traub, Valerie. 2008. “The Past is a Foreign Country? The Times and Spaces of Islamicate Sexuality Studies”

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Traub provides the theoretical groundwork for this collection, reviewing this historic problem of Orientalism and discussing some of the cultural and theoretical baggage brought to the topic by Western scholars. She also identifies the difficulties of studying same-sex practices from an internal point of view within Islamicate cultures, given the (inaccurate) modern perception that same-sex practices represent an intrusion of Western culture.

The collection is positioned as an attempt to create a new field of Islamicate sexuality studies, developed out of dialogues and collaborations that arise from studying social and historic particularities..

The political climate of this field is acknowledged in a discussion of how Western assumptions about the universality of sexual identities and categories, and therefore Western positions regarding the rights that should accrue to those categories, can become a colonialist position that demands alignment with a specifically Western framing of sexual identities. Though at the same time Traub critiques particular expressions of this position as misrepresenting some of the dynamics they critique. In particular, she notes that much recent Western sexuality scholarship emphasizes the cultural construction of identities and the polymorphous nature of desire--elements that align with the anti-colonial study of Islamicate sexuality.

Nonetheless, there is a stongly valid critique that Western sexuality studies assume a teleological and evolutionary progress that culminates in the “enlightened” modern concept of sexual identity (and that distinguishes concepts of sexual desire and gender identity). This assumption necessarily positions non-Western conceptions of sexuality as pre-modern and unenlighted.

Traub discusses in detail previous studies and collections on the topic, as well as the parallel concerns of historiographic colonialism in other fields and around other topics. There is a discussion and review of the texts that fall within the scope of this volume’s research. And as is usual in this sort of introductory chapter, Traub provides a brief summary and context for the papers to come. The discussions are fascinating but hard to summarize here.



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