Sextarianism: Alumna Maya Mikdashi’s New Book Is a Tour de Force

Eminent scholar and anthropologist Maya Mikdashi’s first book offers a unique perspective on the relationships between sexual and political difference, the religious and the secular in Lebanon.

By Christopher Atamian

Maya Mikdashi (seated far right) at the panel discussion organized by the Arab Institute for Women at LAU.

Maya Mikdashi (BA ’00) recently spoke at LAU about her first book Sextarianism: Sovereignty, Secularism and the State in Lebanon (Stanford University Press, 2022), which theorizes the relationships between sexual and political difference, the religious and the secular. Based on lengthy archival and fieldwork research, Dr. Mikdashi offers an analysis of Lebanon from unique and groundbreaking perspectives.

Dr. Mikdashi is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Rutgers University. She holds an MA from Georgetown and a PhD in Anthropology from Columbia University. Widely published in leading academic journals, she is a co-founding editor of Jadaliyya.

Maya, congratulations on a groundbreaking book. Can you explain its genesis and what you hoped to achieve in writing it?

Thank you. I originally went to Beirut to research conversion, citizenship, secularism, and religion. When I got there, however, three things happened. First, I was granted access to the archives of the Court of Cassation. This gave me a systemic, state-centric view of personal status laws and how they are nested within other bodies of law and allowed me to circumvent some of the obstacles I faced in accessing different Christian and Muslim personal status courts. These obstacles are interesting to think about in terms of the political economy of knowledge production on personal status laws and institutions, and on sectarianism in Lebanon. 

Second, I arrived just after the 2008 clashes, and just as a broad-based social movement for civil marriage and the right to remove your sect was taking shape. I began to work closely with lawyers, activists, and social movements dedicated to this cause.

Finally, while conducting the research it became clear that sex and sexuality were inextricable from the subjects I was researching. An animating question became: How can something so obvious in law, bureaucracy, and discourse – the mutually constitutive relationship between sex and sect – be almost absent in dominant accounts of sectarianism? 

Sextarianism the book is different from my dissertation, mainly due to two ongoing events that have shaped Lebanon and the broader region since 2011: The Arab Spring, the 2019 Lebanese uprising, and their aftermath. Today, one-third of Lebanon’s residents are refugees or migrants from regional wars and/or colonial projects. I had to rethink citizenship laws and bureaucracies as a system of racialized, “sextarian” securitization. Second, Lebanon imploded politically, socially, and economically as I was writing this book. The stakes felt different.

Can you explain the term “sextarianism” and its importance?

“Sextarianism” theorizes how sexual and political difference structure each other at multiple scales, including the national, transnational, and geopolitical. It focuses on how state power manages sexual and political difference bureaucratically, ideologically, and legally. In the book, I explain that citizenship and the state are constituted and performed through the regulation of sex, sect, and sexuality. I explore sovereignty, the relationship between secularism and religion, and bureaucracy and power. There are chapters on archival research and knowledge production, religious conversion, social movements, and on the experience of the state and its violence. Lebanon is exemplary, not exceptional, in how it ties sect and sex. It represents an intensification of the foundational relationships between political and sexual difference, the religious and the secular, and sovereignty, law, and violence. The book thinks and theorizes these subjects from the vantage point of Lebanon. 

For example, Sextarianism offers a language to think about bodily rights and sexual difference in the United States, compared to the regulation of bodily rights and sexual difference in Iran, Turkey, India, France, Lebanon, and the Netherlands. It does so by focusing on technologies and ideologies of power that nation-states share regardless of location: bureaucracy, law, and the structuring, binary mythologies of the public and private on the one hand, and the religious and the secular on the other.

Non-Lebanese readers may be surprised to learn that sectarianism is so entrenched in everyday life that some people convert from one religion to another to pass their inheritances on to their children depending on their gender and citizenship. Can you comment on this?

Religious conversion was key to my conceptualization of “sextarianism” precisely because the frameworks of religion, the secular, or “sect” could not account for what I was finding in legal archives and the life histories of converts: Most people were converting to make use of different, gender-based rights within different personal status laws. The limitations of “sectarianism” as a framework became obvious when focusing on law and bureaucracy. Here sex is just as, if not more, structuring to the everyday experience of people in Lebanon. Moreover, sect and sex are mutually constitutive. For example, in Lebanon what makes me a Sunni Muslim is not my faith, or practice, or sense of community. I am a Sunni Muslim solely because my father and his before him, were identified as such in state bureaucracy – this identification is inherited bureaucratically and has legal and political ramifications. On the other hand, my mother’s religious or sectarian identification has zero effect on my own. Sectarian identification is not “natural” ­– it is organized and managed by the state and its bureaucracies.  

I “de-exceptionalize” Lebanon in my work by framing personal status law as one example of the global phenomenon of family law. I also highlight what different forms of legal pluralism have in common. For example, in the United States, companies may choose to register in a specific state according to its tax laws. People may also divorce in another state because of its laws on alimony and asset allocation. What do they have in common with people in Lebanon converting to make use of a different inheritance or divorce law? I want people to think through this question based on research, rather than assume the answer based on a preconceived idea that Lebanon and its legal and political system are inherently “different.”

On a final note, Maya, you are an LAU alumna. How did the education you received as an undergrad affect you and your career choice?

At LAU, I majored in Communication Arts, with a double emphasis in radio/television and film/theater. I was taught by professors who were also actors, writers, and directors. They were passionate about what they did both inside and outside the classroom. I spent most of my time in Gulbenkian Theater and on the fine arts building stairs, where I used to read the Al-Raida journal which, in many ways, was my introduction to feminist knowledge production. I also received a solid liberal arts education at LAU. This helped me further develop critical reading and writing skills for graduate school and a career in the academy. 

What would you tell young LAU students who are considering a teaching and research career, particularly in the social sciences, anthropology?

Ask your professors what their jobs are like. The reality of academia is often different to its image. Ultimately, it’s a job like any other. College is a crucial time to figure yourself out and your place in the world, and in some ways, what you learn outside the classroom affects you far more than what you learn inside it. I never thought I would become a professor. When I was in college it wasn’t on my radar.  However, I did know that I wanted to write and that fundamentally, I wanted to communicate with the world. So, I would say the following: Take your time, read widely and across genres, be kind to yourself, ask questions, and don’t be so sure of what your future will look like!