Reading Notes for “the turban is not a hat”: queer diaspora and practices of profiling

About the Author:

  • Puar is a US based queer theorist and core faculty member in the department of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University
  • Has two works out “Queer Times, Queer Assemblages” (2005) and “Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times” (2007)
  • Her research interests are in critical ethnic studies, cultural studies, feminist globalization studies, immigration and diasporas, queer studies, sexualities studies
  • She is a 2013-14 Society for the Humanities Fellow at Cornell University, where she will be working on her third book, titled Inhumanist Occupation: Sex, Affect, and Palestine/Israel.

Working Definitions:

Queer Diaspora: “Emerges as a concept providing new methods of contesting traditional family and kinship structures-of reorganizing national and transnational communities based not on origin, filation, and genetics but on destination, affliction, and the assumption of a common set of social practices or political commitments

Brief Summary (or at least what I interpreted):

The turban and the attacks on the turbans present an interesting and complex problem of “mistaken identity” as well as what exactly that means.  With the 9/11 attacks, many were “mistakenly” attacked as terrorists, and to compensate for this mistaken identity many Sikhs would work hard to demonstrate that they were exceptional citizens the “heteronormative model minority ideals”, separate from the other perverse of the terrorist.  Puar relies on several other theorists to build up her argument and make several points. She employs Axel as a way to discuss homeland as an affective process rather than a place, shifting from origin to affective to homeland to contagions, where these queer diasporic subjects are under duress to naturalize their exceptional US-ness or Americanness. The turban becomes several things under this duress to Americanize, it also becomes a signifier of the other masculinity.  Like the veil that marks the other type of femininity, the turban does this for masculinity. Then there is also the discussion of what it means to see, which leads to the discussion of how certain bodies are “marked” with fear. This then leads to the concept of stickiness which we briefly discussed last seminar. Feared bodies are both sticky and contagious. This then leads us to the question of how sticky bodies come to be, for this Puar calls upon Saldanha to argue that “bodies gradually become sticky and cluster into aggregates’ because of how ‘certain bodies stick to certain spaces” (p. 190). Towards the end of the chapter, Puar brings up on the advocacy groups who provided documents on how to navigate through airport security were providing a form of surveillance of the turban and the body it is attached to.

Detailed Summary: (disclaimer: while I may include a lot of points made, I found it hard to try to simplify the arguments)


  • “the turban is not a hat” became a slogan after 9/11 due to several assaults (turban clawing, unraveling, and grabbing incidents) where Sikhs were “mistaken” as Muslim terrorists
  • many took assimilative measures and self preservation tactics to further demonstrate American citizenry, by various methods including the display of heteronormative model minority ideals
  • efforts of damage control for the “mistaken” identity were taken by Sikh lobbyists and lawyers
  • documents were released to instruct Sikhs how to navigate airport security as well as “educate ignorant Americans” (this comes up later in the chapter)
  • the unraveling of the turban/hair signaled a humiliating and intimate submission, hinting at homosocial undertones
  • these efforts of self preservation were driven by a desire to inhabit proper Sikh American heteromasculinity, one of significant remove from the perverse sexualities ascribed to terrorist bodies (p. 167) but also that these efforts rely on the premise that the viewer (assumed to be white) would be willing to care for the differences between difference
  • yet with these political tactics is the acknowledgment of the perverse masculinities encrypted in Sikh bodies via the rescripting of masculinities via an enactment of anti-Muslin sentiment
  • Sikhs were working to remove themselves from the perverse queerness attached to Muslim terrorists as a way to assimilate into us heteronormative citizenship
  • Puar brings up that during this time following 9/11, she was working with SALGA and encountered an issue that other mainstream queer anti violence organizations were not addressing: the relationship between queer bashing and racist hate crimes
  • Queer South Asian communities, particularly those with visible traits of gender non normativity, working class, and working poor backgrounds, were targets of hate crimes
  • As part of working to provide materials/resources for queer South Asians, the material recognized that queer perversity of terrorist bodies was being both read from their bodies as well as endowed onto their bodies
  • The relationship between the brown queer subject who is hailed as a terrorist and the terrorist who is already pathologically queer surfaced as a complex activist issue that challenged the bounds of our work” (p 169)
  • Ironically, South Asians queer diasporic subjects were and continue to be under even grater duress to product themselves as exceptional American subjects, not necessarily as heteronormative but as homonormative, even as the queernesses of these very bodies are simultaneously used to pathologize populations configured as terrorist
  • Under this idea of being exceptional American subjects, they are to participate and reproduce narratives of US queer exceptionalism in contradiction to perverse and repressed sexualities of the East, reclaiming the perversities of the brown terrorist implicit in the queering of terrorist populations
  • Yet beyond the subjects are the turbans and the bodies they sit upon and its attachments to hyper masculinity “Its historical attachments to hyper masculinity, perverse heterosexuality, and warrior militancy rendered these turbaned bodies neither within the bounds of respectable queer subject hood nor worthy of a queer intervention that would stage a reclamation of sexual racial perversity, suggesting that it is a body almost too perverse to be read as queer” (p. 169)
  • The male turbaned body is problematic for they are read as patriarchal by queer diasporic logic because they challenge the limits of queer diasporic identity
  • The author notes that in both the queer diaspora and GSSA’s response to the hate crimes are the hopes that transferring correct information will make a difference, that the turban is worthy of queer intervention and that the misrecognition can be solved

Queer Diasporas:

  • Axel- “The Diasporic Imagery” is a study of Sikh diasporas, argues that “rather than conceiving of the homeland as something that creates diasporas it may be the more productive to consider the diaspora as something that creates the homeland” (p 170).  He is discussing the economic and symbolic importance of the non resident Indian
  • “The homeland…must be understood as an affective and temporal process rather than a place” (171)
  • The temporalizing and affective subjectivity involved in creating the homeland pulls processes and images of different bodies, historical formations of sexuality, gender, and violence
  • Axel’s formation goes beyond location, but to connectivity of forms of diasporic afflictive and cathartic entities which is especially critical for Sikhs whose homeland is a perpetual fantasy
  • The author states that while Axel is primarily interested in images of tortured Sikh male body, she argues that a focus on affect reveals “How actual bodies can be in multiple places and temporalities simultaneously…” (p 171)
  • She makes the point that homeland is formulated in multiple ways, not only as a demographic, but on contingent temporalities, and networks
  • Shifting focus to affect, the question changes from “What does this body mean?” to “What and who does this body affect? What does this body do?”
  • Leading to the concept of contagion, where the body is capable of infecting other bodies (infection, transmission)
  • The shift is from origin to affective to homeland to contagions. The shift…is that these queer diasporic subjects are under duress to naturalize their exceptional US-ness or Americanness, both through hetero normative mandates but through homo normativity
  • “South Asian queer diasporic communities in the US are disproportionately impacted by the production of terrorist corporealities, navigating the figures of the Muslim terrorist, the turbaned Sikh man so often mistaken for him, and the woman in hijab who must be rescued from them ( p173)
  • Puar’s aim is to “rethink turbaned terrorist bodies and terrorist populations in relation to and beyond the ocular (visual, that is, affective and affected entities that create fear but also feel the feat they create, an assemblage of contagions… “ (p 174)
  • “this rereading of turbaned bodies offers a critical counter narrative to queer subjects that regulate the terms of queerness “in this case, hinting at the foreclosure o a queer diasporic turbaned Sikh, male of female, a subject that is distinct from the queerness that have often been attributed to Sikh masculinities” and the pathological queerness endowed upon terrorist populations that Sikh communities seek to evade (p.174)
  • her reading thus elaborates the biopolitics of population that racializes and sexualities bodies not entirely through their visual and affective qualities but rather through the data they assemble
  • asks the questions of how the visual is influential in the profiling

Turbans Becoming Strange Attractors

  • turban marks terrorist masculinity, inhabiting space of monstrosity where it can never be civilized “the turban is not only imbued with the nationalist, religious, and cultural symbolism of the Other; it both reveals and hides the terrorist, a constant sliding between that which can be disciplining and that which must be outlawed” (175)
  • the Thind case is an example that “by invoking the everyday experience of race over the scientific an anthropological evidence presented…the decision to not consider South Asian as white Americans demonstrates that the bodies inhabit different tactile and affective economies
  • because of this, the pressure to naturalize the aspirant citizens is reflected in deturbaning
  • since 9/11 Sikhs have claimed that the attacks were because a mistaken identity
  • the deturbaning undertaken by massive numbers of Sikh men was one manifestation of the demanded domestication, where the removal functions as reorientation into masculine patriotic identity. These attacks increased since 9/11, yet it was noted that the actual turban itself was the main point of contention, where the turban was an embodiment of a metaphysical substance, the desired object of violence, much more than an appendage
  • these hate crimes are becoming normalized, an expression of a socially appropriate emotion (desire to counter terrorism) in a socially inappropriate way by the patriotic populous
  • Puar notes that the head coverings also serve as an almost identified of the different body.
  • Puar discussed how turbans and veils converge, for veils were a discussion of submission and a marker of an other femininity, turban are emerging as a signal of an “other masculinity” where the turbaned man is many masculine things but also a figure of failed masculinity in comparison to the white hegemonic masculinity
  • Puar then discusses how turbans relate to the victimology, where turbaned men exemplify an exceptional narrative of victimhood as well as wearing the turban as a form of religious and multicultural excellence, foregrounding the heterosexual mandates of national belonging, a circuitry implicating homo national subjects, model minority, heterosexuality, and perversely queered populations.  This circuit casts immigrant communities and communities of color as “more homophobic” solidifying them, ironically as simplistically heterosexual or hetero normative in an un cosmopolitan, regressive manner.  This then denies the possibility of queer color subjects
  • Puar discusses how Butler demonstrates that the visual field is not natural to race, but that “seeing’ is not an act of direct perception, but ‘the racial production of the visible, the working of racial constructs on what it means to ‘see’’’
  • That these visual differences mean nothing when the visual evidence is within the viewers understanding.
  • the completion of the circuit of white paranoia is whereby attackers initiate the projection of their own aggression an the subsequent regarding of that projection as an external threat (p 184)
  • Puar  wants to go further into why certain bodies are marked, with violence, turns to Ahmed’s exploration of hate and fear, where hate is economic and fear is because of anxiety of the impossibility of containment of the feared object. This then results is the pooling of suspicious bodies.
  • The concept of stickiness arises, where terrorist sticks to some bodies and fear slides between bodies “stickiness can draw into question almost anyone in this affective economic of fear: pools of bodies, populations…where what is being preempted is not the danger of the known subject but the danger of not knowing (p 185)
  • The fact that fear does not reside in a body, but could be materialized in any body within a particular profile range allows for the figured of the terrorist to retain its potential historical significance ambiguity while it also enables the fear to “stick” to bodies that could be terrorists (p 186)
  • The turban is thus a sticky signifier, operating as a fetish object of fear, and the ontological becoming of the turbaned Sikh is intricately tied not the temperoral logical of preempting his futurity, a deferred death… (p 187)
  • Puar says that visibility is inadequate inviting surveillance but also regimes of affect and tactility conduct vital information beyond the visual, the move from visibility to affect takes us from a frame of misrecognition to the notion of resemblance, from “looks like” to seems like (p 187)
  • The mistake itself is not a mistaken, but functions as an alibi… resemblance, indicating either that the Sikh is a fine replacement or substitution: both reflect the circulatory economy of fear proffered…feared bodies are contagious…the very campaigns by advocacy groups to educate ignorant Americans do not address affective economics that conflate resemblance in misrecognition and also the assumption that the difference among difference would matter
  • Fear is produced by signs, where Ahmed schema of stickiness to fear beings the questions of how stickiness came to be
  • Saldanha argues that ‘bodies gradually become sticky and cluster into aggregates’ because of how ‘certain bodies stick to certain spaces” 190

Turban Modernities

  • Karla says that the turban is just a cloth and that by Sikhs not recognizing this they are demonstrating an inability to be modern
  • The relationships between the body and the turban as extensions of one another
  • Puar discusses perception and then makes the argument that “what if perceiving and being perceived can no longer be separate processes, nor processes that act as extensions of each other? This would be on difference between appendage and assemblage: thinking of the turbaned man as a man with an appendage and thinking of the turbaned man as an assemblage that cuts through such easy delineations between body and thing, an assemblage that fuses but also scrambles into chaotic combinations, turban into body, cloths…destabilizing the presumed organicity of the body (p 193)
  • The turban is always a state of becoming, and eventually becoming a perverse fetish object, a point of fixation, an attractor of anxiety
  • It is this assemblage of visual, affect…and bodily disruption of organic-nonorganic divides that the not fully organic not fully nonorganic body which accounts for the queer figuration of the turban in the calculation of the hate crime (p 196)
  • Trapped by precisely these poles-tradition versus modernity-this placement enables a disavowal of turbaned sexualities by queer diasporic subjects seeking into to approximate cosmopolitan status, as well as queer diasporic subjects seeking to embrace the illegitimate and perverse sexualities ascribed to terrorist bodies (p 196)

Racial and Informational Profiles

  • Puar then discusses how the NYPD began profiling subjects, a “patrolling of affect changes the terms of what kind of person’ would be a terrorist or smuggler recognizing that the terror could look like anyone and do just like everyone else’s, but might sees something else”
  • The racial profiling and targeting of suspected terrorists in the US brings the ideas and organization of yesterdays racial oppression in line with new technologies and the contemporary eugenics movement.
  • Returning back to the beginning of the chapter and how advocacy groups would advise Sikhs on how to go through the airport security, they are demonstrating how to monitor the turban and the body to which it is attached. “the intimacy of the turban unwrapping and the intimacy of surveillance technology that x-rays the turban are bifurcated this: the first produces the violated subject of regulation, the penetration of the sacred private, similar to the queer liberal subject of Lawrence Garner, that hinges on a liberal fantasy of bodily integrity, a projection of wholeness (p 198)
  • In the economy of sight and being able to see the terrorst is not contingent upon surveying the entire body, but rather the securitization that aims t make something visible to ensure its capture relies on assemblage of the individual. Race and sex are reread not only though the regulatory queer subject, but through the regularizing of this re materialization of the body (p 200)

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