Queer Muslim women are making salaam with who they are
“The day I left for Mecca, I told myself and God that if, by the time I came back to Cape Town, I still feel this way towards women — still attracted to them — then so be it. I would make peace with it. But it won’t stop me from being a Muslim, because I am a Muslim first.”
So says Fatima Ahmed of the pilgrimage she undertook to Mecca many years ago.
“In the six weeks I was there, I stood on Mount Arafat asking God for forgiveness; I cried, asking Allah to take this feeling away from me. When I did tawaf [the spiritual walk around the Kaaba, Islam’s most sacred site], there wasn’t a minute I didn’t ask Allah — beg him, in fact — to take this feeling away from me.”
Still a practising Muslim and together with her partner for the past 13 years, Ahmed, who did not want to have her real name used, says: “I have been living a double life for 20 years now.”
For many queer Muslim women, the disjuncture between their sexuality or gender-nonconformity and the prescripts of their religion sees them having to do this.
A devout Muslim, Layla Adams* (who chose to use a pseudonym) decided to devote her life to spreading the teachings of Islam. After completing her religious studies qualification, Adams became an alimah (a woman with a formal qualification in Islamic education). “It’s basically the equivalent of being a nun in Christianity,” she says with pride.
But she did not experience the reverence usually afforded this high position. “Because I am a religious teacher, a Muslim person who might know I am gay would not take advice from me. Their thinking is along the lines of: ‘Hell is waiting for you, so why would I want to ask you anything?’ or ‘You’re living in sin already, so what good could come out of your mouth?’ ”
Adams says: “Initially, when I discovered my attraction to women, I prayed that God take it away from me.
“Sometimes it still haunts me, because all your life you have been indoctrinated that being gay is a sin. It weighed on me. It affected every aspect of my life. I questioned my faith. I was scared because, if you’re gay, you’re going to go to jahannam [hell]. At one stage of my life, I asked God: ‘If me being gay displeases you, please take it away.’”
Although in a relationship now for the past 10 years, Adams says: “I can’t be affectionate or loving with my partner in public. Only my very close friends know — and those who do know keep it to themselves.”
Muslim pilgrims pray on Mount Mercy on the plains of Arafat during the annual Hajj pilgrimage, outside the holy city of Mecca on November 5 2011. (Ammar Awad, Reuters)
Muhsin Hendricks is South Africa’s first openly gay imam and the founder of The Inner Circle, the Cape Town-based organisation focused on helping queer Muslims to reconcile with their Islamic identity, sexual orientation and gender identity.
“The main problem Muslim women face is patriarchy, which is inexpungible from Islam. Orthodox Islam has always taught that women should be in the back row when they pray and their roles confined to the home.
“With queer women, they already feel marginalised because of that, and then still opening themselves up to more abuse by openly stating that they are lesbian. It’s a double discrimination for them.
“Whereas with gay men, they still have the privilege of being men. So it’s easier for them. Many lesbians feel uncomfortable even in gay men’s spaces because, even then, it is still very patriarchal.”
In the hopes of creating a safe space for queer Muslim women — albeit a virtual one — queer rights activist Midi Achmat has created a Facebook page, Unveiling the Hijab.
Although no longer a practising Muslim, Achmat — who has had no contact with her family for nearly 30 years after being rejected because of her sexual orientation — conducted research into the difficulties queer Muslim women face in coming out as part of her honours degree thesis.
“What I found was that people are going through exceptionally difficult times. Many are married in heterosexual relationships but have lesbian relationships on the side.”
After being approached by the University of the Western Cape to continue her research into the subject, Achmat refused.
“I didn’t do it because, after interviewing so many people and hearing the things they went through and were going through, I was too depressed. It was heartbreaking.
“With one of the people I interviewed, for example, rumours of her being gay had got to her mother. Her mother then approached her, asking if she wants to be a man. She told me how she then got undressed in front of her mother, looked her straight in the eye, and asked: ‘Who am I? Did you not give birth to me?’
“She wanted her mother to see her as what she was — her child. Her story really broke me, because, even after that, her family still completely rejected her.
“Another subject, a trans woman, spoke of how she was serving women at a tea party and it was discovered that she was a trans woman.
“The women started mocking her but, when a well-known sheik came in and saw what they were doing, he asked them to stop, asking them: ‘Wie het haar ru in haar geblaas?’ [‘Who blew her soul into her?] God has blown her soul into her — the same God that has blown your soul into you. So why are you making fun of God’s creation?’
“This was very surprising because our religious leaders tend to endorse homophobia, transphobia and queerphobia.”
Having queer Muslim patients, clinical psychologist Soraya Nair has seen first-hand the effect religion-sanctioned queerphobia can have.
“Any person or religious doctrine that discriminates on any basis, including gender and sexual identity, presents a significant risk to the sense of self-worth of those discriminated against.”
Nair says being a woman and identifying as queer is core to one’s sense of self. “So any messaging that rejects either is devaluing of the self. Given that our psychological wellbeing is primarily dependent on a healthy sense of self, it stands to reason that those subjected to messages that say ‘you do not have value’ or ‘you are an aberration’ are at risk of psychological as well as physical illness.
“However, in families that have been both accepting and embracing of the sexual identity of their daughters, we see much more resilience in those daughters.”
Following Hendricks’s appearance in the 2007 documentary A Jihad for Love, which looked into the challenges faced by gay Muslims, the Muslim Judicial Council (MJC) issued a fatwa declaring Hendricks “out of the fold of Islam and the work I do as propaganda”.
A decade later, however, Hendricks believes there are changes afoot.
“In 2007, we hardly had any imams supporting our work. We never had the Forum for Religious Leaders, which has now grown from five imams to 20 internationally.”
Ludovic-Mohammed Zahed is an imam, author and founder of Europe’s first inclusive mosque, who has recently finished work on the soon-to-be-released documentary Islam and Homosexuality.
In his research paper, titled Feminist and Gay-Friendly Islamic Theologians, Zahed notes: “For 20 years, remarkable changes have taken place in the field of theology and interpretations of Islam.”
The paper added: “Homosexuals and transsexuals also find themselves in this reformist current that grows in the United States, Canada, South Africa, Indonesia and Europe since the 2000s.”
Following last year’s Orlando massacre — in which 49 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex people were gunned down — the imam of the Claremont Main Road mosque in Cape Town, Rashied Omar, delivered an Eid sermon in which he stated: “Homophobia is not exclusive to any religious or ethnic group. There are homophobic Jews, homophobic Christians, homophobic Hindus, homophobic Muslims, homophobic atheists, homophobic whites and homophobic blacks. So, this is not a Muslim problem, but it would be disingenuous to claim it is not also a Muslim problem.
“Our radical equality before God prohibits us from thinking of another human being as lesser merely because they are different. Moreover, from this Qur’anic perspective, protecting the dignity of all people should be the primary objective of human rights and social justice advocacy.”
Zahed says: “The patriarchal and discriminatory attitudes faced by queer Muslim women has nothing to do with Islam as a spirituality but rather with Islam as a civilisation, going through tremendous crises over the last century. My advice would be to read and create your own interpretation of the relationship between spirituality and sexuality.”
Creating their own interpretations is something younger queer Muslim women appear to be doing.
“I have no problem reconciling my spirituality and my sexuality,” says Mishka Wazar (19), a practising Muslim who identifies as pansexual.
She says: “I went to an extremely homophobic school, so always got into shit for calling people out about their homophobia and queerphobia.
“Many don’t come out because it can be a very dangerous thing to do. It is an extremely patriarchal space to inhabit, with gender roles very clearly defined, especially for women of colour.
“Stepping out of those gender roles can be very dangerous. There is the actual physical threat of violence, so many just don’t think it is worth it to come out. For me, I’m really not worried what people think of me. I’m worried about whether they have the power structure to hurt me.”
Imaan Latif is a practising Muslim, queer rights activist and conceptual artist.
“It has been quite a journey of realising what my religion is and how much of an impact it has had on my life; the depths of the indoctrination of my upbringing and cultural lens.
“I live a carefree, liberalist, spiritualist lifestyle. Choosing to study Arabic and Islamic politics and economics has led me to my own personal reconciliation of being a Muslimah [a Muslim woman]. My intention every day is to embody the dimensions of Islam and to perform each and every salaah [prayer], no matter where I am and what I am doing.”
“Initially, it was like choosing between the right life and the wrong one. But I came to the understanding that it is compatible to be all things, although there are conflicts between traditionalism and modernisation.
“It doesn’t make any sense to compare your sexuality to your religion and ask if those can exist together. Do who you pray to and who you fuck really matter to one another?”
Years after having undertaken her pilgrimage to the holy city, and despite continuing to live a double life, Ahmed might finally be at a similar place of self-acceptance.
“I don’t care what anybody says. They have no right to judge me. This journey that I am on is between God and me. I will be answerable for it — nobody else.”
Numerous attempts at contacting the MJC and religious leaders before the time of publication proved unsuccessful.
Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian.