Volume 92, #4

Summer 2019


Institutions, Infrastructures, and Religious Sociality


phone: 202-994-3215  e-mail: ifer@gwu.edu


Volume 92, #4 • Fall 2019




Institutionalizing an Ambiguous Category: “Khwaja Sira” Activism, the State, and Sex/Gender Regulation in Pakistan

Faris A. Khan, SUNY Potsdam

ABSTRACT—Between 2009 and 2012, the Pakistani Supreme Court granted rights to a category of gender and sexually nonnormative citizens now commonly known as the khwaja sira (a title given to the chief eunuch of the Mughal seraglio in medieval South Asia). The activities surrounding the Court’s deliberations highlight the term’s complicated journey of being institutionalized for representation, legal, and regulatory purposes. By focusing on the appropriation of “khwaja sira” by activists and the state, this article deepens an understanding of the role of ambiguity in struggles for rights, recognition, and judicial policy-making. Examining the emergence of khwaja sira, I demonstrate that both activist organizations and state entities were involved in the generation of ambiguity. On the one hand, activists engaged in a politics of ambiguity by adopting and deploying the polysemous category “khwaja sira” to not only perpetuate uncertainties regarding the term’s meanings but also to utilize it as a mode of social respectability, national inclusion, and resistance. On the other hand, the actions of state institutions indicate a shift from wanting to eliminate the ambiguity associated with khwaja sira for regulatory purposes to simultaneously permitting its subtle propagation as a means to mitigate the repercussions of adjudicating on a contentious issue. Tracing the emergence and use of “khwaja sira” within social movement and state domains allows me to advance two key arguments: first, that the intentional production of ambiguity serves as a valuable mechanism for activism and governance, and second, that the potentiality of ambiguous constructs lies in their unfinalized form, which produces both fruitful and problematic possibilities as well as an orientation toward an open future. [Keywords: Ambiguity, khwaja sira, sex, gender, activism, the state, Pakistan]


“One Day I Will Tell This to My Daughter”: Serb Women, Silence, and the Politics of Victimhood in Sarajevo

Jelena Golubović, Simon Fraser University

ABSTRACT—Drawing on fieldwork with Serb women who lived through the siege of Sarajevo, this article examines how the moral economy of victimhood allows us to recognize certain classes of victims only by failing to recognize others. From 1992 to 1995, Sarajevo was held under siege by Bosnian Serb forces. In the post-war context, Sarajevan Serb women often find that their ethnic identity has become bound up with the figure of the aggressor, but this ascription goes against their subjective experiences of the war. Against the cemented narrative of collective (Serb) guilt and (Bosniak) innocence, they find their experiences of wartime suffering to be unwelcome. I argue that this silencing is symptomatic of a moral economy which demands a pure dichotomy between victims and perpetrators, in which violence committed against the perpetrator “side” is rendered ungrievable. I then discuss the gendered connotations of the figure of the aggressor, and what it means for Serb women to feel this shame. Finally, I show that personal accounts of suffering are not the only narratives being silenced; I also gained access to clandestine ethno-nationalist scripts, fueled by a sense of precarious belonging in the post-war city. [Keywords: Bosnia-Herzegovina, ethnicity, gender, nationalism, postwar, Sarajevo, silence, victimhood]


Diary or Notebook: Secular Morality and the Gendered Ambiguities of Legal Personhood in an Istanbul Family Courthouse

Seçil Daǧtaș, University of Waterloo

ABSTRACT—Unlike the majority of Muslim countries in which family disputes are resolved either through personal status laws or in the wider sphere of sharia courts, Turkey commits to a secular civil code in its conduct with the family. The daily operation of Turkish secular law, however, is just as predicated as religion-based laws upon morally charged ideas of personhood and their gendered ambivalences. Contrary to analyses that approach this phenomenon as an aberration from or an alternative to Western secular order (and its idealized bounded individualism), this article examines indeterminacies about the definition and limits of legal personhood as produced through entangled histories of secularization in Western and non-Western contexts. This process is most identifiable in family courts, which were introduced to the Turkish judiciary as a specialized tribunal by the governing Justice and Development Party in 2003 in response to increasing pressure from women’s movements, international legal obligations, and the European Union gender directives that formed part of the negotiations for Turkey’s accession. Through an ethnographic study in one such family courthouse in Istanbul, this article examines how legal actors deploy gender-based moral hierarchies and public and hidden sentiments to construct the family as an intimate realm of state intervention. I trace the contradictory ways in which familial stories and moral discourses find their way into the highly bureaucratized “impersonal” space of the courtroom and become authorized, tolerated, silenced, and typified through the extralegal involvement of psychologists and other court personnel. By simultaneously invoking privacy and public order, relational personhood in modern legal contexts disrupts secular myths of the public-private divide, self-possessed individual, and equal citizenship, with broader implications for critical secularity studies and anthropological analyses of family law and gender in Muslim majority contexts. [Keywords: Family law, secularism, morality, gender, legal personhood, Turkey]


Narrative Flight: Comics, Cartels, and Crowds Across 40 Years of Crisis in Mexico

Rihan Yeh, University of California, San Diego

ABSTRACT—In 2015, drug trafficker Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s escape from prison provoked a fan frenzy that played out in public demonstrations as well as social and mass media. In this article, I argue that this episode must be understood as symptomatic of a long-term transformation of Mexico’s public sphere. The waves of economic crisis that began in the late 1970s unmoored personal desires and aspirations from the promises of the nation-state. The public sphere filled with dispersive tendencies; fiction and fantasy began to take unpredictable directions. To grasp this unmooring, I propose the idea of crowd-texts: circulating texts that interpellate their readers as fundamentally crowd-like in their unruly flight from the narrative teleologies that had sutured the nation. The first crowd-text I examine is a 1982 issue of the comic book La Familia Burrón (The Burrón Family). Set in the year of Mexico’s most emblematic currency devaluation, the comic puts an at once ironic and utopian spin on the crisis. In the 1990s and 2000s, similar dispersive tendencies can be found in the narcocorrido, a popular ballad-form dedicated to the exploits of drug traffickers. These songs, I argue, took narrative flight into openly violent terrain, where the rising institution of the cartels could, for many, supplant the expired promises of the nation-state. By comparing comic book and narcocorridos as popular representations of Mexico’s economic and public security crises, I show how these texts interpellate their publics as dispersive crowds, thus revealing a deeper crisis in the progress-oriented temporality of the Mexican nation-state and its public sphere. [Keywords: Crowds, publics, public sphere, fiction, comics, narcocorridos, Mexico]