Initial Questions on Teaching Arabic To LGBTQIA Students

NPR is releasing a survey and a series of stories this week about trans teachers across the United States.

Recently, a transitioning nonbinary friend from my faith community was soliciting advice on social media about how to correct students mid-year on their correct pronouns. I probably tried too hard to help them. In hindsight, it’s a symptom of my cis privilege and I commit to be better.

A day later, I read this JTA article about a Jewish family in England working with their rabbi to give their nonbinary child an appropriate coming of age celebration. I was drawn to this article because of the nonbinary people in my social media universe who struggle to find acceptance in their faith communities. The article proved particularly geek-tastic for the linguistic detail it included about transforming the gendered bar and bat mitzvah experience into a gender neutral ceremony.

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It was especially geek-tastic because I’ve been pondering the gender binary in my Arabic language classroom for many months now. I don’t know much about Hebrew grammar, but the gender binary is deeply encoded in the Arabic language on every level.

“But isn’t there a gender neutral word for ‘child’ in Arabic?” asked a student last week.

“Well, in my experience, the word طِفْل (Tifl) is more widely used in Jordan for children in general, and وَلَد (walad) and بِنْت (bint) for boys and girls, but you can add a feminine ending to طِفْل (Tifl) and make طِفْلة (Tiflah), which is also widely used for girl children. There are truly no words in Arabic — except for I, we and the prepositions — that are gender neutral.” Even adverbs in Arabic have gender.

Over the last year, I find myself teaching Arabic to more and more LGB students, many of them in same-sex relationships with Arabs. They come out to me casually, as one does in New York City, and I try to represent them in the small talk one learns in elementary language classes. No student has yet come out to me as trans or nonbinary, but I know that trans and nonbinary people take Arabic classes. I’ve been saying on the first day of every new class, “Everything in Arabic is grammatically masculine or feminine. There’s no avoiding the gender binary, and we just have to learn to work with it.”

But I have so many questions.

On Pronouns. I’ve been reading and asking folks about gender neutral pronouns in Arabic. It’s not necessarily as simple as using “they” as we do in English, because there are four ways to say “they” in Arabic, each with its own gender implications: هُمّتا (hummataa) for two women, هُمّا (hummaa) for two men or a man and a woman, هُنَّ (hunna) for 3 or more women, and هُمَّ (humma) for 3 or more men or a mixed-gender group. There are a few stories floating around on the internet about attempts to create a neutral term, but a friend who advocates for trans rights in the Arab world tells me that this isn’t a widely discussed concern, as there are bigger problems to deal with.

In History. I took a translation class in graduate school that included short biographies of gender nonconforming Ottoman Syrian Sufis. The professor (I wish I could remember her name!) had written her dissertation on a particular niche in Islamic biographical encyclopedias: collected biographies of cross-dressers, intersex people, homosexuals and people with disabilities. (I know there are deep problems with including the latter in this group, but such is the historical record.) I’d be curious to find her dissertation and go back to the original sources to observe the use of pronouns in these biographical encyclopedias.

In the Arabic Classroom. I know at least one nonbinary person who has studied Arabic. I’ve been thinking a lot over the last year about, if I were to start a conversation with them about this, what questions would I ask? What do I want to know? I don’t know if I want that conversation to be a process of appreciative inquiry, an ethnographic endeavor, or a request for advice: What do you wish your instructors had done / would do?

Existing Research. Is there any? What’s out there?

I have no answers. I only have questions. So many questions. Someday, when I have a single full-time job that pays all my bills, maybe I’ll pursue them.

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