Allah Made Us: Sexual Outlaws in an Islamic African City (New Directions in Ethnography) Review

Allah Made Us: Sexual Outlaws in an Islamic African City (New Directions in Ethnography)
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Allah Made Us: Sexual Outlaws in an Islamic African City (New Directions in Ethnography) ReviewOut of the abundance of sensationalized reports circulating across international news regarding the current social and political climate of sub-Saharan Africa, one perspective seems markedly absent - genuine accounts of queer life and culture. For those only familiar with one-sided images of violent sexual oppression and rampant homophobia from African political leaders, the book Allah Made Us: Sexual Outlaws in an Islamic African City serves as a refreshing attempt to reconsider queer perspectives on Islamic Africa. With a passionate and upbeat ethnographic style, Rudolf Pell Gaudio takes his readers on a journey into the vibrant heart of Hausaland, where he paints an intimate portrait of the lives of men who rebel against normative ideals of masculine gender expression framed by expert academic analysis that tackles questions of cultural and, by extension, sexual citizenship (5). Within the pages of this book, readers quickly become attuned to Gaudio's outstanding degree of commitment to his scholarly task as he introduces his readers to the ups and downs of the lives of men in a community where play becomes a means of survival and laughter is accentuated with unforeseen significance. Allah Made Us proves its relevance to a diverse audience as it draws out the connections between the performance of identity in everyday life and the uneasy collision of public discourses about gender and sexuality with its far-reaching social and political ramifications.
Gaudio's ethnographic research in Allah Made Us centers around the lives of men in Kano, Nigeria called 'yan dauda, or "men who act like women" (10). The author's analysis of the linguistic practices of the 'yan daudu animates the central project of representations that informs the majority of the book. Gaudio infuses previous scholarship and other accounts that have inaccurately labeled the 'yan daudu as simply prostitutes, pimps, or transgendered women with a more nuanced and informed discussion of gender roles and sexual practices (9). Through this process of countering prevailing notions that erase the existence of distinctly queer spaces in Islamic Africa, Gaudio humanizes those who have solely been depicted as outcasts and victims of stringent religious codes (6). In fact, the title of the book comes from the belief among 'yan daudu that their gender-bending behavior exists as a result of their divine creation (122). Throughout his analysis, Gaudio pays special attention to the situatedness of local social dynamics in larger systems (147), the circulation of power and inequitable distribution of social capital through social hierarchies (96), the distinction between the said and the unsaid (168), as well as the revealed and the concealed in the workings of personal and communal identities (85).
Part of the appeal inherent in Allah Made Us lies in its accessibility to a wide range of audiences, but this strength does not come without its tradeoffs. One of the more impressive assets of the book is Gaudio's writing style, which expertly guides the trajectory of his communication to readers. Gaudio is very forthcoming about the fact that he intends for his book to serve as a source for two at times distinct, but often overlapping audiences: those who have been exposed to misleading media portrayals of Islamic Africa and those concerned with an identifiable gap in anthropological scholarship (13). In order to appeal to the former who may not have as extensive formal training in the methods and theory of anthropological study, he provides easy to understand overviews of the established theories that inform his analysis and invokes narratives that might be familiar to North American readers, such as coming out stories - but usually with appropriate caveats that point out the more salient differences (84). On the other hand, those more acquainted with the interpretive concepts on which Gaudio relies may find themselves wanting more in terms of both the depth and sophistication of his analysis. The most exciting part of the book is the fact that so much potential lies in the topics explored by Gaudio and the potential lenses through which to further engage them. Moreover, the repeated use of familiar traditions as points of reference for understanding the lives of 'yan daudu in situations where the comparison provides little argumentative traction at times begs the question of the effectiveness of rendering the unfamiliar easily identifiable as a way of countering the way simplistic representations have been used to perpetuate cultural misunderstandings. In other words, I wonder in what ways juxtaposing the performative politics of the 'yan daudu alongside conceptions of the universalized queer life experience now more mainstream in North America only fosters a sense of familiarity that disengages readers from the challenging questions of the broader relevance of scholarship such as that presented in Allah Made Us. For example, anthropologist Margaret Lock, who wrote her book Encounters with Aging: Mythologies of Menopause in Japan and North America advertising an explicitly comparative focus, presents her work in such a way that does not seem to place the experiences of Japanese women in the shadow of conceptions of gender in North America. Gaudio does a very good job of setting up a background for why analysis like his is important at this particular moment in history, but hopefully readers come away with a sense that there is more work to be done and more questions to be asked.
It seems apparent, though, that Gaudio's choice of points of comparison is mediated by his own experiences. The fact that he infuses his work with his own personal politics imbues Allah Made Us with a very refreshing perspective that makes the book a pleasure to read. Gaudio invites the reader into conversation with him and shows an acute understanding of the ways his own identity and the ethical implications of his work govern the perspective he goes on to share as a scholar (16). The way he translates his encounters with the 'yan daudu with a charming degree of fondness and repeated references to his "friends" coaxes the reader into really caring about the topics at hand. However, Gaudio seems to have overlooked what may be the most relevant analogue in terms of North American queer subcultures, that of ballroom culture. Explored in documentaries such as Paris is Burning, the ballroom scene refers to a set of communities generally populated by young, urban, gay men of color that parallel the fictive kinship structures and narratives of psychological conflicts related to estrangement from family that Gaudio suggests are characteristic of the experiences of 'yan daudu (86).
More importantly, Allah Made Us reveals the author's sensitivity to major foundational issues in the anthropological study of sub-Saharan Africa. Sprinkled throughout the ethnography are references to the nuanced interplay between forces of "tradition" and "modernity." Guadio discusses the divide between northern Nigeria, where people espouse a "traditional preference for Islamic education," and the integration of Western schooling practices in the southern region (15). Beneath what may appear at first glance as a simple matter of differing inclinations actually reflects tensions grounded in attempts to preserve social order, a theme that, as Gaudio points out, manifests itself in a number of ways, including the spatial organization of particular neighborhoods (19). Gaudio traces these social anxieties back to colonial rule, pointing out that while the British believed that social consequences of modernization could be remedied by regulation, they "initially sought to prevent the 'natives' from becoming 'too urbanized' and 'too modern' on the grounds that they were constitutionally unsuited for the responsibilities and temptations of 'civilization'" (40). Gaudio demonstrates the process by which post-World War II nationalist movements and the outcome of the Nigerian Civil War led to a moral crusade that scapegoated 'yan daudu, noting that "'yan daudu were thus cast in the paradoxical position of being both too 'modern' and too 'traditional' at the same time" (55). Through his informed historical narratives, Gaudio exhibits an understanding of the way traditional and modern influences do not simply occupy two sides of a static dichotomy, but often converge in unexpected ways. In Allah Made Us, Gaudio presents a striking account of the impact that broader social forces can have on the lives of individuals and the ways in which they are able to leverage claims of citizenship.
The idea of the African state and the extent to which it does or does not play a role in the lives of Africans as separate from social structures also emerges as an area of focus that exemplifies Gaudio's attentiveness to the broader relevancy of his work. Gaudio addresses accusations of collusion between 'yan daudu and the significance of this displacement of political concerns in a way that reduces them to a simple social and moral issue (6). In his analysis of a popular film depicting 'yan daudu, Gaudio points out that "state corruption is linked to the sexual immorality of prostitutes and 'yan daudu" and the way these images are embedded in an ideology that "represents the state as flawed but ultimately self-policiing" (171). This erasure of politics in the matter of social problems bares striking resemblance to the mobilization of development discourses that remove the issue of political economy from a framework that seeks to address structural inequalities. Gaudio describes how these popular representations reflect the existence of a self-regulating and self-sustaining Nigerian public sphere totally isolated from the Nigerian state. Using the concept of a "counterpublic," or "a set of collective responses to the inequalities of gender, sexuality and class that 'yan...Read more›Allah Made Us: Sexual Outlaws in an Islamic African City (New Directions in Ethnography) Overview

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