The theme of this issue, “Gendered and Sexual Mobilities,” opens onto several possibilities regarding the significance of mobility for our understanding of difference—gendered and sexual difference, to be sure, but also questions of race, class, religion, and ethnicity. Drawing on the articles in this issue, I will discuss three tacks one can take in approaching questions of mobility and difference. This is not an exhaustive typology of approaches to mobility and difference, of course, but a heuristic for understanding the ways that these four articles contribute to this field.
First, mobility can call subjects into question, can mark them as different and dangerous and therefore potential objects of surveillance and regulatory intervention. As Tim Cresswell (2006) argues, mobile peoples (such as nomads, Roma, Jews, traveling performers, migrants, and refugees) have historically been cast as threatening to the established social, economic, political, and moral orders of a place. In this issue Seçil Yılmaz’s work on “itinerant men as vectors of syphilis who challenged public health and order” in the late Ottoman period traces how mobility came to constitute not only a medical but also a moral threat. She argues that the spread of syphilis was linked to a class of men considered dangerously mobile: unmoored by mass conscription for the Crimean War, by economic changes leading to the increasing mobility of workers, and by the Russo-Ottoman War, which resulted in refugees and migrants arriving in Ottoman Anatolia. Yılmaz’s article demonstrates how the health and moral danger associated with these itinerant men led to the establishment of broad systems of surveillance and certification that aimed to regulate the travel of military conscripts and workers.
Second, attention to mobility can illuminate spatial differentiation, whether within the intimate geographies of everyday life or, more broadly, in terms of city or regional spaces. In this vein, an attention to questions of mobility may help us recognize how different performances of gendered, sexual, and other identities are called forth in different places due to the unevenness of formal and informal regulatory regimes. In this issue Haktan Ural and Fatma Umut Beşpınar’s study of gay men in Ankara, Turkey, provides such an analysis insofar as it brings to our attention the highly class-dependent, spatially differentiated aspects of performances of masculinity, family, and gay identity. Ural and Beşpınar argue that lower-class men and those from traditionally conservative segments of the middle class tend to live lives of greater spatial constraint, often residing and working in family spaces. Men in this situation, they argue, tend to render gayness imperceptible while projecting the image of the “family guy” to maintain access to the resources, care, and support provided through these kinship networks. On the other hand, Ural and Beşpınar find that professional, middle-class gay men have the capacity to establish more autonomous spaces and thereby are more able to sustain a double life in which they can, at least in some places, live a visible gay identity and lifestyle. Ural and Beşpınar’s study thus demonstrates how class affects men’s mobility—that is, their ability to put material distance between themselves and their families—which in turn constrains the performances of masculinity, respectability, and gay identity available to them.
Third, mobility can be a way for subaltern subjects to evade and challenge territorially ordered oppression, surveillance, and regulation. The articles by Diya Abdo on Miral al-Tahawy’s first novel, The Tent, and by Camila Pastor de Maria Campos on the circulation and regulation of women performers and sex workers in French Mandate Syria and Lebanon (1921–46) both contribute to our understanding of mobility as a kind of spatially enacted resistance. Abdo’s analysis of al-Tahawy’s autobiographical novel recasts the imaginative capacities of the protagonist, Fatimah, not as madness but as the enactment of a challenge to oppressive structures. Fatimah’s struggle is manifested spatially. The home is characterized by “suffocating architecture: the windows are covered with iron grilles,” “the house gate is immovable,” and “the surrounding prairies are inhospitable to humans.” In contrast, Fatimah’s “authority of imagination” is expressed in the ambiguous underground oasis where she both creates a more positive existence and “encodes her suppressed painful experiences.” It is thus through mobility that what Abdo argues is Fatimah’s central drama—that of subversive authorship—comes into being. By entering the underground world, Diya argues, Fatimah descends into a space of resistance, where women’s voices can be heard.
While Abdo traces a literary portrayal of female mobility pitched in opposition to gendered oppression, Pastor de Maria Campos describes how French Mandate regulations cast foreign women engaged in performance or sex work as artistes while local women were regulated as prostitutes. However, she argues, women actively destabilized these distinctions though regional and transnational mobility. Unlike the artistes’, the bodies of registered prostitutes were constructed as sites of moral and medical infection, subject to “policing, fines, incarceration, and medical surveillance.” Subverting these categories, women’s mobility enabled them to use the contradictions inherent in the territorial underpinnings of these regulations to escape being constituted as prostitutes. Pastor de Maria Campos’s article thus exemplifies the role that mobility can play in resistance to regimes of surveillance and regulation.
Read together, these four articles speak to the centrality of visibility and surveillance when it comes to understanding the ways in which mobility can both enable and subvert the oppression of subaltern subjects. Many of the gendered and sexual subjects in these works find themselves inscribed in fields of visibility that fix and frame them as morally dangerous bodies. The grids of representational possibilities—as gay men or family men, as medically and morally suspect bodies, or as domestically bound women—that these subjects navigate are overwhelmingly characterized by surveillance and regulation. Michel Foucault’s (1995) analysis of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon provides us with one example of how spatial arrangement is used to enable surveillance and exercise control with the goal of producing certain kinds of behaviors and subjects—but there are others. Today questions of “how and why populations are tracked, profiled, policed, and governed” are at the heart of surveillance studies (Browne 2015, 13). Engaging with questions of mobility and difference enables us to illuminate how difference is fixed and framed through regimes of visibility, certification, and regulation—and how subjects recast, resist, and undermine these practices.