The AFA is pleased to award this year’s Dissertation Award to Asli Zengin at the University of Toronto, in the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology and the collaborative program for Women and Gender Studies, for her dissertation entitled, “Sexual Plays of Intimate Power: The State, Violence and Trans Women’s Subjectivities in Istanbul.” Zengin’s dissertation is supervised by Holly Wardlow and Naisargi Dave. The following is her statement of contribution to the field of feminist anthropology:
Engaging with the everyday lives of trans women that are materially and symbolically shaped by the institutional practices, regulations and discourses of the Turkish state, my project aims to contribute to feminist anthropology both theoretically and politically in the following ways.
To begin with, a closer look at the Turkish state’s relationship with the trans body allows me to scrutinize how the corporeal is set as an official stage for “materialization” of sex by the state’s medico-legal discourses and practices, and how these discourse and practices produce institutional definitions of the conflated categories of sex and gender. An analysis of the construction of these institutional definitions further provides a feminist analysis of the masculine and heteronormative construction of the state in relation to the trans body.
Trans women are not passive recipients of these definitions. On the contrary, they contest, shape, as well as change the state sponsored definitions of sex and gender in their everyday lives through phenomenological experience of their bodies. A closer look at them draws attention to the remarkable gulf between the mediation of transsexuality and the trans body in medico-legal discourses, and the practices of the Turkish state, and how trans people sense their bodies and live singular forms of bodily reality. For example, a trans woman without sex reassignment surgery (hence with a penis) might announce her sex as female by emphasizing her lived and felt experience of her body. So, as opposed to the state definition of sex, which necessitates reconfiguration of the body surface according to a certain definition of gender, trans women can define a “male” body surface in accordance with the “female” sex based on how they feel and live their bodies. In that sense, my thesis contributes to the feminist understandings of the body by theorizing it not as something fixed, passive and stable, but something fluid, active and unstable instead. It thereby always exceeds the limits or boundaries that are determined to restrict it to the sites of particular inscriptions and representations. In that sense, my project can also be read as an account of bodily capacities, as well as the complex relationship between sex, gender and sexuality.
To realize such a theoretical task, my dissertation benefits from intersections between feminist and queer theory. Queer theory’s deconstructionist understanding of gender identities as fluid, fragmented and instable, along with its emphasis on the plurality of gendered subjects, opens up fruitful ways to analyze myriad ways of “doing gender”; the complex and diverse meanings that are affiliated with the “trans woman” identity; and trans women’s diverse investments in their bodies and gendering processes. On the other hand, combining queer theory with feminist anthropology does not necessarily mean abandoning or destroying the category of gender altogether as a useful object of analysis. My research, on the contrary, also shows the deployment of gender categories to establish a space for political action as well as frameworks by which trans women become intelligible to themselves and others. In other words, the objective of using queer theory is to understand and problematize particular normative constructions of gender that assume certain relations between sex, gender and sexuality (Martin 1994).
In short, my dissertation intends to develop effective critiques of normative assumptions about sex, sexuality and gender, problematize universalizing renditions of the relationship between sexuality and gender, and theorize the complex intersections between them by contributing to the ongoing dialog between feminist and queer anthropology.
Nia Parson is assistant professor of anthropology at SMU. Her forthcoming book is entitled Traumatic States: Gendered Violence, Suffering and Care in Chile (Vanderbilt University Press, 2013). She is currently researching mental health issues of undocumented individuals in the US.