10 February 2006
Islamic Feminism Revisited
by Margot Badran
Margot Badran is a senior fellow at the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University. She can be contacted on email@example.com
I gave a talk in Cairo in 2002 titled: “Islamic Feminism: What’s in a Name?” There I explored the paradigm shift in feminism occurring within the Muslim umma at various locations during the 1990s that Muslim observers led in the process of naming Islamic feminism (see Al-Ahram Weekly, 17- 23 January, 2002). Now, four years later, I would look at the current chapter in Islamic feminism.
I had offered a concise definition of Islamic feminism gleaned from the writings and work of Muslim protagonists as a feminist discourse and practice that derives its understanding and mandate from the Qur’an, seeking rights and justice within the framework of gender equality for women and men in the totality of their existence. Islamic feminism explicates the idea of gender equality as part and parcel of the Qur’anic notion of equality of all insan (human beings) and calls for the implementation of gender equality in the state, civil institutions, and everyday life. It rejects the notion of a public/private dichotomy (by the way, absent in early Islamic jurisprudence or fiqh ) conceptualising a holistic umma in which Qur’anic ideals are operative in all space.
Islamic feminism aims to recover the notion of gender equality, radical in its day, that the Qur’anic revelation introduced into 7th century (C.E) patriarchal Arabia. Insan -ic equality, from which gender equality cannot be separated, did not sit well with the patriarchal cultures into which Islam was first introduced and spread. Patriarchal thought, institutions, and behaviours largely remained resistant over time to the revolutionary Qur’anic notion of gender equality to the extent that the equation of “patriarchy and Islam” became axiomatic.
Islamic feminism has taken on the two-fold task to expose and eradicate patriarchal ideas and practices glossed as Islamic — ‘naturalised’ and perpetuated in that guise — and to recuperate Islam’s core idea of gender equality (indivisible from human equality). For this Islamic feminism has incurred enemies from within and without the Muslim community: 1) from within — men who fear the loss of patriarchal privilege and women who fear the loss of patriarchal protection, and 2) from without — those whose pleasure and politics are found in denigrating Islam as irredeemably anti-women.
The new Islamic feminist paradigm began to surface a decade and a half ago simultaneously in old Muslim societies in parts of Africa and Asia and in newer communities in Europe and North America. I give three examples.
In Iran, immediately post-Khomeini, Muslim women, along with some male clerics, associated with the then new paper Zanan, as Muslims and citizens of an Islamic Republic called, in the name of Islam, for the practice of women’s rights they found being infringed upon or rolled back, grounding their arguments in their readings of the Qur’an as the virtual constitution of the republic.
In South Africa, Muslim women and men, who had engaged as South Africans in one of history’s fiercest battles for human dignity and justice, in the immediate post- apartheid period focussed their attention upon questions of justice, and especially gender justice, within their own Muslim community. Having been shunted around and cordoned off, conscientised (to use the _expression from the Struggle) South African Muslims were sensitive to issues of access to space and the injustices and indignities attendant upon selective use of space and mandatory cordoning off of some human beings (on the basis of physical attributes) from “preferred others.” These sensitised South African Muslims fought equal access to mosque/communal space for all Muslims, women and men alike.
In North America, women in immigrant (especially the second-generation) and convert communities turned to the Qur’an as a guide to life in new complex environments in which they did not have ready-made life-templates as Muslims. Patriarchal patterns of life in the villages and cities from which first-generation Muslim immigrants had come, which they tried to re-impose on women as Islamic, jarred in their new environments. Convert women in western societies were faced with a painful contradiction between what they understood to be Qur’anic ideals of justice and equality and various patriarchal notions and practices urged upon them as novices by self-appointed custodians of Islam.
Islamic feminism is an inter-Islamic phenomenon produced by Muslims at various locations around the globe. There is no East/West fault line. We cannot speak of Islamic feminism and the West. Islamic feminism, like Islam today, is in the West as it is in the East. Muslim detractors allege that “the West” has foisted feminism, first secular and now Islamic, upon Muslims to the detriment of Islam and society. Muslim proponents, on the other hand, hold that Islamic feminism promotes the enjoyment of social justice within the umma while it will also contribute to the creation of a more pluralistic and socially just West where all insan will be treated equal whatever their ethnic, religious, and gender affiliations. The triumph of Islamic feminism will also be part of the enhancement of social justice and equality in the African and Asian societies where Muslims live….
Read the full text at http://www.countercurrents.org/gen-badran100206.htm
March 1, 2006
Gay Muslim Activist Adnan Ali is Interviewed
by Hassan Mirza
With the recent comments from the Muslim Council of Britain’s Sir Iqbal Sancranie condemning homosexuality and a Russian Muslim cleric threatening violence in regards to a Moscow pride festival, the conclusion seems clear:
Islam and gay people do not mix.
However, there is a growing resistance to the anti-gay beliefs held by some religious leaders and challenge the polarisation of religion and sexuality within the Muslim community. In recent years with the founding of the UK-based Imaan support network and international organisation Al-Fatiha the gay Muslim voice is finally being heard.
We caught up with one of Britain’s most visible gay Muslims Adnan Ali to talk about the problems faced by gay muslims in the wake of rising homophobia and Islamaphobia. Originally from Pakistan, Adnan came to the UK and with the help of Al-Fatiha and helped start Imaan. Featured on Channel 4’s documentary Gay Muslims last month, Adnan recently celebrated a civil partnership with his partner of 4 years and is currently completing a Masters Degree in Gender, Culture, Politics at the University of London.
Do you identify yourself as a Muslim?
Yes, I am a practising Muslim. Being Muslim can mean different things to different people, whether referring to a certain association with a specific culture (like being Pakistani-Muslim in my case) and/or reference to Islamic rituals and spirituality in everyday life.
Have you ever felt like you had to dismiss your religion to be gay?
In the beginning yes I did, just like I had to dismiss my sexuality to be Muslim. However, things changed and got better once I met other gay and lesbian people who culturally and/or religiously identified as Muslim.
Are you out to your family? How have they responded?
I don’t recall coming out in a certain organised fashion; perhaps it was more of being ‘found out’. As a young boy my immediate and extended family always knew of my fondness for other boys and men. The breaking point was the day I articulated my association with the word ‘gay’. Worse, I told my family I would not get married. There was no initial mention of Islam. No one said anything about Islamic condemnation of homosexuality; the concerns were more along the lines of what other people would think of me and them as family members. The realisation that I was gay was more of a blow to the traditional patriarchal notion of manhood and they were pretty hostile towards their self-assumed compromise of masculinity.
Do you feel you have additional responsibility as a gay Muslim?
Yes, responsibility as a minority within a minority. Being a gay-Muslim-Asian man there are so many varied identities to deal with it – sometimes separately and often at the same time.
Why do you think it is important for there to be gay groups with religious affiliations? What do these groups accomplish??
It is a personal choice. The secular notion of the West is still a minority concept. The majority of the people in the world are not secular. We have to accept this fact while living in the West, whether we like it or not. More and more gay people are being discriminated and treated horribly due to conservative religious interpretation of the theology. Therefore it is quite significant to question this religious banishment by actually finding out what a particular religion says about homosexuality. You will be surprised to learn that a religion can be appreciative of sexual diversity. So it is important for some of us to have religious gay groups.
However, I don’t expect everyone to have such affiliations.
These groups do strive hard to accomplish a very basic sense of integrity with and within a sexual-religious minority, whether through cultural and ritual celebrations or intellectually stimulating debates on theology.
How do you feel about the gay community here? Do you feel like you are a part of it?
For a lot of us, who come from different cultural and social backgrounds, the sense of community on the basis of our sexuality is important. Whether it is going clubbing every weekend or protesting outside Russian embassy against the ban on the Moscow pride, there is definitely a sense of support, alliance, and community. Yes, I am very much part of this community.
Do you feel comfortable going to the mosque?
The day I offer prayer at home, my home becomes a mosque for me. My mosque is in my heart. When I go to a formal mosque, I don’t go there as a gay or straight person; I am there to pray and bow, and no one can question my sexuality. So far no one has ever dared to, and if someone ever does that, I am confident enough to defend myself. A mosque is a house of Allah, and I have not given anyone that right to stop me from going there.
What are your thoughts on ‘Moderate Islam’? Does it exist?
Yes it does. Granted, not in a very visible sense. However, there is a debate going on amongst few progressive and moderate Muslims. The important issue is for it to be inclusive and accessible to all Muslims from different social, cultural, geographical and economic backgrounds.
What do you think is the best way to challenge anti-gay attitudes from Muslims in the UK?
More visibility of LGBT Muslims and dialogue with and within the mainstream Muslims on the issues surrounding Islamic instructions on homosexuality are very important. We need to dispel the invalid ideas such as the idea that being gay is a “western thing” or “a white man’s disease”. To challenge anti-gay attitudes, one must be very confident of his/her own sexuality.Imaan and Safra Project are two support groups in the UK, who are doing commendable work in providing that support to LGBT Muslims, their friends, and allies.
Do you feel like there is Islamophobia within the gay scene? What can gay Muslims to challenge that?
Yes, and there has been a rise since 9/11. In a way it is good that people are expressing their concerns about Islam, that Islamophobia is more visible; it makes it strategically easier to be challenged. More moderate Muslims have to speak out against the discriminatory remarks by the conservative Muslim leaders and similarly not let any person to generalise the image of Islam as oppressive religion.
As Muslims we also share the responsibility in the existence of Islamophobia. We have to be more political and vocal for our very basic human rights and not allow any orthodox/fanatical Muslim cleric to speak on our behalf.
To learn more about Imaan visit www.imaan.org.uk
April 07, 2006
Brian Whitaker’s book gives voice to gay Arabs: ‘Unspeakable Love–Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East
by Kaelen Wilson-Goldie Daily Star staff
Beirut: When Salim, a 20-year-old Egyptian, told his family that he was gay, they packed him off for six months of psychiatric treatment. When Ali, a teenager from Lebanon, was discovered to be gay, his father broke a chair over his head and his brother threatened to kill him for tarnishing the family honor. Ali left home and no longer has any contact with his relatives.
When the family of another young Egyptian man found out their son was gay, they beat him and then sent him to a therapist. He convinced a young woman to pose as his girlfriend for a while, but once that ruse was up, his family beat him again, this time so harshly that he fled Egypt for the United States, where he applied for political asylum.
These are just a few among the many anecdotes that Brian Whitaker, the Middle East editor for The Guardian newspaper in London, relates in his new, groundbreaking book, “Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East.”
Launched in Beirut on Wednesday night with a book signing at Zico House and a party at Walima, “Unspeakable Love” explores the experiences of young gay men and women in several countries throughout the region, including Egypt, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.Whitaker filters their stories through the multiple lenses of social norms, cultural expressions, the media, politics and religion. To his credit, Whitaker does not shy away from but rather dives into the murky questions surrounding homosexuality in the Middle East.
Is homosexuality a Western import and a sign of modernity’s moral decay? How does that square with the Orientalist fantasy of the Middle East as a lush gay paradise? How do young people today distinguish between homosexuality as a practice and homosexuality as a self-proclaimed identity? What are the various laws prohibiting homosexual behavior and how are they implemented in various parts of the region? What are the religious textsdealing with homosexuality, how have they been interpreted and – perhaps most crucially – why have they been interpreted as such?
And what, more basically, is the precise terminology at stake here in Arabic, with such expressions as shaadh (pervert or deviant), al-mithliyya al-jinsiyaa (sexual sameness) and the latter’s shorthand, mithli and mithliyya, all in circulation at once?
Whitaker, 58, was motivated to write “Unspeakable Love” by the Queen Boat incident in Egypt in 2001, when police raided a Nile River boat that functioned as a floating nightclub and attracted a mainly male clientele. Not only were numerous men arrested and jailed, but the event was also one of the very few to bring issues of gay identity and practice into the mainstream Arab media.
Three things become palpably clear from reading the book.
The first is that social attitudes are the single-most mind-crushing factor for young men and women in Arab world who are trying to deal with the fact that they are attracted to members of the same sex. More so than legal statutes or religious edicts, the pressure to marry is what pushes many of these young men and women to the breaking point.
The second is that because not only homosexuality in particular but sexuality in general remain so stubbornly taboo in the Middle East, there is a dangerous dearth of reliable information, education and counseling available for gay men, lesbian women and their respective families.
Because sexuality is not discussed in the public domain, young people lack even the actual vocabulary – the words, the terms, the turns of phrase – to describe themselves and their actions in simultaneously civic and sexual terms.
A city like Beirut may have a thriving gay subculture, and it may even have a strong, impressive and unprecedented gay rights organization in Helem. But homophobia remains rampant – even among those who should know better – and homosexuality has yet to light the imagination of any prominent politician. Imagine what it would take to get gay marriage on the agenda of a Cabinet meeting or the current national dialogue in Lebanon. Lots of red flags waving and exclamation points popping there.
The third is that the push for gay rights in the region is very much tied to wider issues of social and political reform.
” It’s not just about gay rights,” says Whitaker. “It’s about the whole issue of reform, and reform is not just about elections.”
True reform will have to take a full range of factors into consideration, and “sexuality,” he adds, “has to be a part of it.”
Whitaker has three ideal readers in mind – Westerners interested in reform who need to look beyond voting structures, Arabs interested in reform who need to get over outmoded leftist strategies and young Arabs who are gay, ostracized and alone. For them, the book is perhaps most important because even if the names have been changed and the details have been deleted, it gives them a voice.
” I was basically trying to do a job of reporting, asking people about their lives,” Whitaker explains. “There’s no book that deals with the contemporary situation quite like this one.” He lays a hand on the cover and pats it once. “There are literary histories and anthropological studies. But there are not books that talk to people about their daily lives.”
Whitaker admits that he could spend the rest of his career researching the subject, but he says he would risk ending up being just “that guy writing those books.” In fact, he hopes he doesn’t ever have to write another book like “Unspeakable Love.” In effect, he hopes that by its publication, the book will break the taboo.
While it is entirely conceivable that “Unspeakable Love” could have attracted the attention of a major publishing house in Europe or the U.S., Whitaker chose to go with Saqi Books because of its foothold in the region. “This is where the issue matters,” he explains.
It was also important for him to launch the book in Beirut before anywhere else. “I have been apprehensive about it being seen as another Western attack.” He says he recently turned down an interview with CNN because he wanted to see how the local press would cover it first.
All of which begs the question: Will “Unspeakable Love” be translated to Arabic anytime soon? Speaking on the day before the launch, Whitaker sounded hypothetically optimistic.
” Obviously, yes,” he laughed. “It would be a major development, a breakthrough, if it were to be translated to Arabic. I think the situation with books is similar to the situation with the press. People writing in the English language have a bit more freedom. I hope people will read it in English and tell their friends about it in Arabic. It’s a pity it’s not in Arabic, but it’s a start.”
By the time the launch rolled around on Wednesday, Whitaker’s publishers were adamant. “Yes,” they said. “An Arabic translation is in the works. It will be out by the end of the year.” How’s that for progress?
Brian Whitaker’s “Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East” is out now from Saqi Books. For more information, please see www.saqibooks.com
June 22, 2006
Four-Day Conference to Highlight South Asian Gay Issues
While soccer fans worldwide have been eagerly awaiting this month’s World Cup Finals, another group with roots across the globe has been anticipating an event held even less frequently. DesiQ 2006 is a conference on South Asian lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues to be held at UCSF’s Mission Bay Campus from Wednesday, June 21 through Saturday, June 24. Planned so that it coincides with Gay Pride weekend, the conference will draw approximately 100 delegates â€” artists and activists, students and professionals alike â€” from across the country and even as far away as India and Sri Lanka, according to organizer Rakesh Modi.
“It’s a conference to bring together the queer community of South Asian origin â€¦ and to celebrate our diversity, our ethnicity and our sexuality.” The conference’s name is a coined compound of “desi,” an informal word referring to anyone of South Asian origin, and “Q,” abbreviated for “queer.” In part because of the particular difficulty for South Asians to come out, given traditional religious and cultural constraints, a Bay Area South Asian gay group called Trikone has stepped forward in organizing the conference, the first since 2000.
Although the conference intends to highlight and celebrate the growing South Asian queer community, attendees need be neither Indian nor gay, says Dr. Robert Owen, a UCSF faculty member involved in the conference planning.
By e-mail, Owen describes the impact previous conferences have had on participants: “I saw South Asian men and women moved to tears of joy as they looked around and found themselves surrounded by a couple of hundred other people with whom they shared not only cultural history but also sexual orientation.” He tells the story of meeting two medical residents who discovered that they were both members of the same small, extremely conservative Muslim sect who had lived their entire lives believing they were totally alone and the only persons with such feelings in their religion.
Organizers, using the unifying mantra “From Visions to Actions” as a conference theme, have arranged for a range of workshops, panel discussion, keynote speakers and networking opportunities throughout the event. There are educational talks on topics as diverse as sexually transmitted infections in the LGBT community to a comparison of class dynamics in Indian and LGBT cultures. Several workshops will focus on engendering activism, teaching techniques for coalition- and movement-building. Social issues are addressed in sessions such as one entitled “Domestic Violence in the Queer (Asian Pacific-Islander) Community.” On the lighter side will be events where attendees will learn Indian classical dance and attend a film night and evening gala.
At the culmination of the conference, DesiQ 2006 participants will march with a float during the Pride Parade on June 25. The conference begins with registration at the UCSF Mission Bay Genentech Hall on June 23 from 3 to 6 p.m. More information, including how to contact organizers, can be found at www.desiq.org/index.htm Alan Teo is a fourth-year medical student and former Synapse Executive Editor.
June 12, 2006
Marriage for Gay Muslims?
by Ayesha Akram
New York – What are gay and lesbian Muslims to do when their families pressure them to marry? Find a marriage of convenience. On a Web site for gay South Asians, 27-year-old Syed Mansoor uploaded the following message last summer: “Hi, I am looking for a lesbian girl for marriage. I am gay but I would like to get married because of pressure from parents and society. I would like this marriage to be a `normal’ marriage except for the sex part, please don’t expect any sexual relationship from me.
” Being an Indian gay person, I believe it is so much worth it to give up sex and have a nice otherwise normal family. We can be good friends and don’t have to repent all our life for being gay/lesbian. ” Across the globe and especially in America, hundreds of other gay Muslims have started to pursue marriages of convenience — or MOC, as they are known — in which gay Muslims seek out lesbian Muslims, and vice versa, for appearances sake.
Mansoor works as an accountant and is a devout Muslim. He strictly abstains from drinking alcohol or eating pork and is particular about offering early-morning prayers. To his friends on Wall Street, he is a financial whiz; to his parents, a devoted son. But Mansoor is also part of a burgeoning trend of gay Muslims adopting marriages of convenience. Hard statistics on the trend are hard to come by, but on a single Web site for South Asian gays and lesbians seeking such marriages, almost 400 requests had been uploaded.
They ranged from a desperate plea from Atlanta — “I just finished medical school, and the pressure for me to get married is becoming ridiculous. I can’t have a conversation with my parents without them pressuring me” — to a straightforward one from Texas: “I will not object to her having sex with other women.”
Mansoor credits the Internet for making these marriages a real possibility for gay Muslims. Gay activists agree, and say that in recent years, they have seen a rise in such marriages among Muslims. Jack Fertig, a co-coordinator for Al Fatiha, a national advocacy group for gay Muslims, says he comes across at least one such e-mail request every month. “It’s obvious that this is becoming a viable option,” he said. “People are seeking, looking and trying to make connections that could develop into such marriages.”
Other activists say gay Muslims are resorting to these unions for reasons of self-preservation. “Marriages of convenience are the result of gay Muslims wanting to avoid emotional and physical harm to themselves,” says Muhammed Ali, a board member of Homan, a Los Angeles-based support group for gay Iranians. Homosexuality is a crime punishable by death in much of the Islamic world. In Iran last year, two gay teenagers were publicly executed, while in Afghanistan, the Taliban government would torture homosexuals by collapsing walls on them.
Though gay Muslims in America don’t have such fears, they still seek out marriages of convenience as a way of staying in the closet. Many of them worry about being ostracized from their families if their secret is revealed. A marriage of convenience is the perfect solution, Mansoor said. “It’s a great option,” he said. “I get married to a lesbian, we sleep in different rooms and remain friends. Meanwhile I can have a boyfriend.”
Mansoor is also willing to throw a financial incentive into the deal. A year has passed since he posted his request on an online discussion board and as yet he has received no replies. But Mansoor continues to hope. “Now that I have a good job and earn handsomely, my family keeps asking, `Why don’t you find a wife?”‘ he said. “I plan to have a marriage of convenience just to satisfy the world.”
Muslim authorities around the world have repeatedly emphasized that homosexuality is not permissible. Muzammil Siddiqi of the Islamic Society of North America said there is no flexibility on this topic. “Homosexuality is a moral disorder. It is a moral disease, a sin and corruption … No person is born homosexual, just like no one is born a thief, a liar or murderer,” he said. “People acquire these evil habits due to a lack of proper guidance and education.” Mainstream Islamic scholars also take an unfavorable view of MOCs. The face of Imam Omar, a scholar at the Islamic Cultural Center of Manhattan, crinkled with laughter when he was asked about this phenomenon. “These people are Muslims?” he asked.
Omar receives all sorts of inquiries and is now rarely taken aback. But a query about marriages of convenience stunned him. “What kind of marriage is this?” he asked. “A nikah (marriage) in Islam needs to be consummated. There is no concept of marriage in Islam without sexual relations.” Running his hand through his salt and pepper beard, he continued: “Homosexuality is strictly forbidden in Islam. I say to these people do not circumvent marriage. Do not change the rules of religion.” Mansoor shook his head when the Imam’s proclamation was repeated to him.
With a shrug of his thin shoulders, he said: “I don’t care about what people say,” he said. “I can’t change myself. I just can’t.” Though some gay men feel a union of convenience is the best option, Rachel Sussman, a marriage counselor in New York, said they may not know what they are getting into. “It’s opening up a Pandora’s box,” she said. “What happens if his partner falls in love with someone? What happens if he falls in love with someone who is not OK with him being married?” “It’s opening up a Pandora’s box,” she said. “What happens if his partner falls in love with someone? What happens if he falls in love with someone who is not OK with him being married?”
June 15, 2006
Queer Muslims find peace
by Catherine Patch
El-Farouk Khaki founder of Salaam offers a place to retain spirituality
As a devout Muslim who is gay, El-Farouk Khaki knows what it is like to be an outsider. The Toronto lawyer and human rights activist, who founded the Salaam support group for queer Muslims, was born in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and came to Canada with his parents in 1974 at the age of 10. “I was in my mid-teens when I spoke to my parents for the first time about being gay,” says Khaki, 42. “They were wonderful, but they said it was a natural part of puberty to be questioning your sexuality and it was something I would grow out of.”
He says he first dealt with isolation as a young freshman at the University of British Columbia, but it wasn’t until law school that he became openly gay. “I think my coming out had a lot to do with the stress and pressures of law school,” he says. “I really hated law school, as a bastion of social conservatism and elitism that was predominantly white, particularly in the middle ’80s.”
Khaki moved to Ottawa in July of 1988 and came to Toronto the following year, setting up his legal practice here in ’93. “I didn’t know anyone in Vancouver who was Muslim and queer,” he says. “But when I came to Toronto, I started meeting people who were gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered – and Muslim.
“One of the difficult parts of coming out as a Muslim – or in any religious tradition – is the religious condemnation and the religious interpretations of text, which demonize same-sex relationships,” he says. “As a believer, that was a problem for me, so once I moved to Toronto and began meeting other people, I started the original Salaam in 1991.” He says the original purpose of Salaam, which means peace, was social and support, “just to know that you’re not alone.”
At this year’s Pride gala, Khaki is being honoured for his spirituality and his contribution to queer life through Salaam. “I think Salaam is very important, both locally and internationally, in terms of creating a safe place for people of Muslim tradition to be able to come together both socially and spiritually,” says Rev. Brent Hawkes of Metropolitan Toronto Community Church. “There are Jewish synagogues that are open; there are Christian places that are open, there are Buddhist places that are open. But progressive Muslims, particularly gay and lesbian Muslims, don’t have many options. The work that El-Farouk has done is to help to make sure there is an option there.”
Khaki says the original Salaam disbanded in 1993. “This was pre-Internet, and communications were much more difficult. People would say, `If you call and my mother picks up the phone, don’t tell her your name; don’t say this or don’t say that.’ “After a series of incidents, including a nasty letter from Islamic Jihad, I decided it wasn’t worth my life, it wasn’t worth the angst. So I shut it down.” Salaam was reborn in 2001 after years spent reorganizing and establishing ties with sister groups such as Al-Fateha in the United States.
“Salaam is a unique organization because we have a true diversity in gender, as well as a diversity in orientation,” Khaki says. “Our co-ordinators, as well as our membership, come from diverse racial backgrounds: We have Iranians, Indo-Pakistanis, Turks, Ismalii, Shiite, Sunni, people who are religious and people who are not, people who are believers, people who are not. We’ve also had non-Muslims or people who don’t identify as Muslim. “A lot of our members are newcomers, so a lot of what Salaam has been doing is providing support for queer refugees, as well as for the whole body of Canadian queer Muslims, a group that we have some difficulty in reaching.”
There are several reasons for the inaccessibility of queer Canadian Muslims, Khaki says. “There is the degree to which people are out to their families and communities. For example, there is a very large Somali community in Toronto, yet Salaam doesn’t have any members from the Somali community. My understanding is that a lot of them are very concerned about visibility. You won’t see them on Church St. or in other groups or organizations.
“We’re not interested in debating or challenging or confronting the larger Muslim community – that’s not our goal,” he adds. “Our goal is to provide a sense of community and safety for people who come to us. Bringing people together is the cornerstone of Salaam’s work. Every Ramadan, we host a fast-breaking dinner, called an iftar, for about 150 people. It’s an interesting event, because it’s 50 per cent Muslim, 50 per cent non-Muslim, 50 per cent queer, 50 per cent not queer. ”
I think it’s very important right now for Muslim organizations to be building bridges,” he says. “We need to recognize that there is a fringe element at the present time within the Muslim community that resorts to violence; for reasons that are multi-level. We need to isolate this element and identify what leads to this sort of alienation and this psychology of violence.”
July 6, 2006
Homosexual and ‘passionate about Islam’
Britain’s gay Muslims struggle with sexuality, religion, and discrimination
by Jennifer Carlile, Reporter
London – “Oh my god, I’m a sinner,” Ubaid said he once thought of himself.
“I kept praying and wishing I weren’t gay, hoping it was a phase, and that if I kept praying I’d be saved,” he said. Ubaid, who asked that his last name not be used, was born in London to a close-knit and devoutly Muslim Pakistani family. “I have always been passionate about Islam,” the 30-year-old said, explaining how he struggled to resolve his religion with his sexuality. Several years after deciding not to enter into a marriage arranged by his parents, he is now secretary of Imaan, the United Kingdom’s only gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender Muslim group.
Imaan’s members feel like they are targets of both a wider society that discriminates against Muslims, and a Muslim community that sees homosexuality as a Western disease. “Now we’re dealing with Islamaphobia within the gay community, and Muslims who say gays can’t be Muslims,” Ubaid said. Despite discrimination, Ubaid has found away to forge his own path and has reconciled his attraction to men with his love of Islam. ‘Not acceptable’ Imaan, which means faith in Arabic, has around 300 members, most of whom have not told their families that they are gay.
While members vary in how rigidly they keep to Islamic practices like praying five times a day and eating halal food, Ubaid said Imaan is for people who believe that they can be gay and Muslim. If they were raised in a Muslim family but have renounced the religion, Imaan probably would not appeal to them. The group was started in 1998 as a branch of the U.S. gay Muslim group, Al-Fatiha, after its American members visited London. It serves as a support network, and is a meeting place for people to pray together and celebrate Islamic holidays. Imaan hosts conferences that deal with such topics as culture, Islamaphobia, non-Muslim partners, HIV and Islam, relatives of gay Muslims, and trans-sexual Muslims. And some members take part in gay pride events.
On July 1, around 25 Imaan members rode atop a float in the EuroPride 06 parade in London. With banners reading “Gay Muslims unveiled” and flags of the United Kingdom and from across the Islamic world, they waved cheerfully at the crowd. While they didn’t hide themselves in rainbow burkhas as they did the previous year, most were still reluctant to give their names or be photographed for fear of reprisals.
Although the group’s membership is on the rise, gay Muslims are not accepted by the wider Islamic communities of any country. In fact, Iqbal Sacranie, who served as the Muslim Council of Britain’s general secretary until this June, told the BBC in January that homosexuality is not acceptable, and that Britain’s introduction of Civil Partnerships did not argue well for building the foundations of society. In 2001, a fatwa was issued against Al-Fatiha, the U.S. gay Muslim umbrella group by al-Muhajiroun, an international organization that seeks the establishment of an Islamic caliphate.
“I tried not to be a sinner all my life, and then I thought, here I am, I’m going to go to hell,” Ubaid said of when he came to terms with his homosexuality. “Looking back, I’ve always been gay, but I didn’t realize it until my mid or late teens. I’d never had a girlfriend or been attracted to the opposite sex. But, as sex is never talked about (in Muslim circles), it never really occurred to me until I got out of high school.”
Ubaid, who has always prayed regularly at the mosque, fasts for Ramadan, and does not drink alcohol, began dating men. “But, the prospect of marriage kept coming up and my family wanted me to get married,” he said. “I decided that I would get married for their sake,” he said, adding that he considered dating men on the side.
“However, when Al-Fatiha (the American Muslim group) came along and I met gay Muslims who’d been married, I realized I just couldn’t do it. Up to that time, I’d only been thinking of myself, my family, my culture. But, then I started taking into consideration that I’d be destroying someone else’s life, making a wife miserable, and possibly the children miserable if I did that,” he said.
Ubaid began rejecting his parents overtures for him to get married. They couldn’t understand his resistance and he failed to give them a reason. If they found out he was gay, “I thought they might lose it, might kick me out of the house, and although my parents have never physically hurt me I thought they might, or I’d be sent to Pakistan and forced into marriage.” After hiding his homosexuality for so long, it came to the surface in an instant.
“They found a (gay) magazine in my bag in my room and they questioned me about it,” he said. “And I came out. I didn’t bother to hide it. I said, ‘I am gay and this is who I am.'” Ubaid said his family do not accept his homosexuality and continue to ask him about marriage, but “they still keep me under their wing, and still love and nurture me as they always did before.”
‘Educating both sides’
Ubaid insisted that his words not be misused to slander Islam as a repressive or hostile religion as he feels very strongly about most aspects of the faith. However, he said he hoped that the Islamic world would become more open to discussions on sexuality and more accepting of those who are not heterosexual.
“Judaism and Christianity have moved on over the years and allow dialogue to take place, but sex isn’t talked about full stop (in the Islamic world),” he said, adding that non-Muslim gay men often ask him why he’d be part of a religion that doesn’t accept him, and noting a rise in Islamaphobia within the gay community. “It’s a case of educating both sides,” he said. “If the Quran teaches you that everything God created is beautiful, then why would he create a type of person who’s always oppressed?”
“We’re all equal in the eyes of God.”
October 2 2006
Middle East dispatch Coming out in Arabic
Brian Whitaker reports on a lesbian group’s struggle for acceptance in the Middle East
(Article historyAbout this articleClose This article was first published on guardian.co.uk on Monday October 02 2006. It was last updated at 13:46 on October 02 2006.When Rauda Morcos heard there was an emailing list for lesbian Palestinians, she couldn’t believe it at first. “I thought it was a joke,” she said. “Until then, I thought I was the only lesbian who speaks Arabic.”)
The list was certainly not a joke but, in a society where same-sex relations are still taboo, its members guarded their privacy. The only way a newcomer could join was by personal recommendation. “Eventually I got in,” Ms Morcos recalled, “and I found a lot of other [lesbian] women who couldn’t be out.” After corresponding by email for a few months, she thought it would be good to talk with some of the invisible women face to face, so, in January 2003, Ms Morcos and her flatmate called a meeting. “We had no expectations,” she said, “but eight women turned up. The meeting lasted eight hours and I don’t think anybody wanted to go home.”
That, it later turned out, marked the birth of Aswat (“Voices”) – the first openly-functioning organisation for Arab lesbians in the Middle East. “We realised we had a great responsibility towards other women in our community,” Ms Morcos continued. “We tried to contact many organisations and sent out letters but the only reply came from Kayan [“Being”], a group of feminists in Haifa … Many NGOs don’t count it as a human rights issue or want to be associated.”
Three years on, though, Aswat is firmly established with more than 70 members spread across the West Bank, Gaza and Israel (where the organisation is based). Only about 20 attend its meetings; the need to keep their sexuality secret, plus Israeli restrictions on movement, prevent others from attending but they keep in touch through email and an online discussion forum. Beyond the group itself, there are also signs of acceptance in a few places. “We do a lot of work within the community, for example with youth groups, counsellors, and so on,” Ms Morcos said. “That proves to me at least that the gay/lesbian movement has started for us as Palestinians.”
One of Aswat’s main goals is to provide information about sexuality that is widely available elsewhere but has never been published in Arabic. This is not simply a matter of translation; it’s also about developing “a ‘mother tongue’ with positive, un-derogatory and affirmative expressions of women and lesbian sexuality and gender … We are creating a language that no one spoke before”. If women are to find their voice, the language needs to be re-appropriated, Ms Morcos explains in an article on Aswat’s website. “I have forgotten my language. I don’t know how to say ‘to make love’ in Arabic without it sounding chauvinistic, aggressive and alien to the experience.” Recognition for Aswat’s work came earlier this year when Ms Morcos won the 2006 Felipa de Souza award from the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. The citation described her as “a true example of courageous and effective human rights leadership”, but Ms Morcos is quick to point out that other women are also doing a lot of work behind the scenes.
Speaking to a standing-room-only meeting of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign during a visit to London last week, she explained that necessity has made her the public face of Aswat. Many of the women involved do not want to be identified – often with good reason. “But if we don’t want to come out as persons, let’s at least come out as a movement,” she said. Ms Morcos’s own coming-out was not entirely voluntary and proved particularly unpleasant. In 2003 she gave an interview to the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronot about the poetry she writes. In passing, she mentioned her sexuality – only to find that the L-word turned up in the newspaper’s headline. An article on Aswat’s website describes what happened next:
“All of a sudden, the Arab population of her home town [in northern Israel], which she generally assumed to have no interest in the literary supplements of Hebrew newspapers, seemed to have read the article and had something to say about her. Local corner shop owners made photocopies and distributed it, because, after all, everyone knew it was about the daughter of so-and-so from their own town. The consequences of that article were far more serious than Ms Morcos had imagined: her car windows were smashed and tyres were punctured several times, she received innumerable threatening letters and phone calls, and, to top it all, ‘coincidentally’ lost her job as a school teacher, since parents of pupils complained that they did not want her as a teacher.”
Arab society today is riddled with the kind of anti-gay prejudices that were found in Britain half a century ago, and persecution is common. Muslim clerics condemn homosexuality in no uncertain terms, though similar statements can be heard from Arab Christian leaders too, such as the Coptic Pope in Egypt who once declared that “so-called human rights” for gay people were “unthinkable”. With a few exceptions here and there, this is the prevailing attitude in all the Arab countries, but in Palestinian society the issue of gay rights is further complicated – and made much more political – by the conflict with Israel. Israel legalised same-sex relations between men in 1988. Four years later, it went a step further and became the only country in the Middle East that outlaws discrimination based on sexuality. A series of court cases then put the theory into practice – for example, when El Al was forced to provide a free ticket for the partner of a gay flight attendant, as the airline already did for the partners of its straight employees.
These are undisputed achievements but they have also become a propaganda tool, reinforcing Israel’s claim to be the only liberal, democratic society in the Middle East. At the same time, highlighting Israel’s association with gay rights has made life more difficult for gay Arabs, adding grist to the popular notion that homosexuality is a “disease” spread by foreigners.Linking the twin enemies of Israel and homosexuality provides a double whammy for Arab propagandists, as can be seen from sections of the Egyptian press. In an article to mark the 30th anniversary of the October war, a headline in the Egyptian paper Sabah al-Kheir announced: “Golda Meir was a lesbian.” In 2001, following the mass arrest of more than 50 allegedly gay men, al-Musawwar magazine published a doctored photograph of the supposed ringleader, showing him in an Israeli army helmet and sitting at a desk with an Israeli flag.
Israel, however, is not quite the gay paradise that many imagine. There is still hostility from conservative Jews, and some of their blood-curdling statements are not very different from the more widely publicised remarks of Muslim clerics. In Jerusalem last year, the ultra-Orthodox mayor banned a pride march, though an Israeli court promptly overturned his decision. As the parade took place, a Jewish religious fanatic attacked three marchers with a knife and reportedly told the police he had come “to kill in the name of God”. The gay rights movement in Israel also has a questionable history. Lee Walzer, author of Between Sodom and Eden, explains in an article that the first Israeli activists pursued “a very mainstream strategy” that “reinforced the perception that gay rights was a non-partisan issue, unconnected to the major fissure in Israeli politics, the Arab-Israeli conflict and how to resolve it.Embracing gay rights,” he continues, “enabled Israelis to pat themselves on the back for being open-minded, even as Israeli society wrestled less successfully with other social inequalities.”
As part of their strategy, activists sought “to convince the wider public that gay Israelis were good patriotic citizens who just happened to be attracted to the same sex”. As a general principle this may be valid, but in the context of war and occupation it leads into murky territory. Should it really be a matter of pride that openly gay members of the Israeli armed forces are just as capable of wreaking havoc on neighbouring Lebanon as the next person? The question here is whether gay rights – in Israel or elsewhere – can really be divorced from politics or treated in isolation from other human rights. Helem, the Lebanese gay and lesbian organisation, thinks not, arguing that gay rights are an inseparable part of human rights – as does Ms Morcos.
For Ms Morcos, there’s a connection between nationality, gender and sexuality. She has a triple identity, as a lesbian, a woman and a Palestinian (despite having an Israeli passport) – “a minority within a minority within a minority”, as she puts it. Her first concern, though, is to end the Israeli occupation, and she sees no prospect of achieving gay rights for Palestinians while it continues. Nowadays, the more radical Israeli activists also acknowledge a linkage. In 2001, Walzer recalls, “Tel Aviv’s pride parade, typically a celebratory, hedonistic affair, got a dose of politics when a contingent called ‘Gays in Black’ marched with a banner proclaiming, ‘There’s No Pride In Occupation’.” Later, a group called Kvisa Sh’chora (“Dirty Laundry”) sprang up and began drawing parallels between the oppression of sexual minorities and Israeli oppression of the Palestinians. The issue was further highlighted in 2002 when Ariel Sharon became the first Israeli prime minister to formally meet a gay delegation. Activist Hagai El-Ad asked: “Is this an achievement for our community, or an example of a lack of feeling, callousness and loss of direction?”
He continued: “It would be unbearable to simply sit with the prime minister and, on behalf of our minority, ignore the human rights of others, including what’s been happening here in relation to Palestine for the past year: roadblocks, prevention of access to medical care, assassinations, and implementation of an apartheid policy in the territories and in Israel. The struggle for our rights is worthless if it’s indifferent to what’s happening to people a kilometre from here. All we get by holding the meeting with the prime minister,” he concluded, “is symbolic legitimacy for the community. What he gets for sitting down with us is the mantle of enlightenment and pluralism.”
This mantle of enlightenment and pluralism does not, however, extend to Israel’s treatment of gay Palestinians. For those who face persecution in the West Bank and Gaza, the most obvious escape route is to Israel, but this often leaves them trapped in an administrative no-man’s-land with little hope of getting a proper job in Israel and constantly at risk of arrest and deportation. Meanwhile, as far as the average Palestinian is concerned, fleeing into Israel is a betrayal of the cause, and gay men who remain in the Palestinian territories also come under suspicion – not always without good reason. There have been various reports of gay Palestinians being targeted or pressurised by Israeli intelligence to act as informers. Whether or not they actually succumb to the pressure, all inevitably come under suspicion.
“Gays in Palestine are seen as collaborators immediately,” said Ms Morcos.
October 20, 2006
Love, Lust and Passion: Sex and Taboos in the Islamic World
by Amira El Ahl and Daniel Steinvorth
Sex is a taboo in conservative Islamic countries. Young, unmarried couples are forced to seek out secret erotic oases. Books and play that are devoted to the all too human topic of sex incur the wrath of conservative religious officials and are promptly banned.
Rabat, Morocco. Every evening Amal the octopus vendor looks on as sin returns to his beach. It arrives in the form of handholding couples who hide behind the tall, castle-like quay walls in the city’s harbor district to steal a few clandestine kisses. Some perform balancing acts on slippery rocks and seaweed to secure a spot close to the Atlantic Ocean and cuddle in the dim evening light. The air tastes of salt and hashish. On some mornings, when Amal finds used condoms on the beach, he wishes that these depraved, shameless sinners — who aren’t even married, he says — would roast in hell.
Cairo, Egypt. A hidden little dead-end street in Samalik, a posh residential neighborhood, with a view of the Nile. Those who live here can stand on their balconies at night and see things that no one is meant to see. The cars begin arriving well before sunset, some evenings bringing as many as a hundred amorous couples. Almost all the girls wear headscarves, but that doesn’t prevent them from wearing skin-tight, long-sleeved tops. The boys are like boys everywhere, nonchalantly placing their arms around their girlfriends’ shoulders and even more nonchalantly sliding their hands into their blouses. The locals call this place “Shari al-Hubb,” or “Street of Love.” The gossips say that children have been conceived here and couples have been spotted engaging in oral sex.
Beirut, Lebanon. As techno music blares from the loudspeakers in the dim light, patrons shout their drink orders across the bar. Boys in tight jeans and unbuttoned, white shirts, their hair perfectly styled, jostle their way onto the dance floor. The men shake their hips, clap their hands and embrace — but without touching all too obviously. After all, those who go too far could end up being thrown out of “Acid,” Beirut’s most popular gay disco. Officially, “Acid” is nothing more than a nightclub in an out-of-the-way industrial neighborhood. As liberal as Lebanon is, flaunting one’s homosexuality is verboten. Gays are tolerated, but only as long as they remain under the radar and conceal their activities from public scrutiny. For many in the Arab world, discretion is the only option when it comes to experiencing lust and passion. There are secret spots everywhere, and they are often the only place to go for those forced to live with the contradictions of the modern Islamic world. In countries whose governments are increasingly touting strict morals and chastity, prohibitions have been unsuccessful at suppressing everyday sexuality. Religious censors are desperately trying to put a stop to what they view as declining morals in their countries, but there is little they can do to stop satellite TV, the Internet and text messaging.
A counterforce to Western excesses?
Do the stealthy violations of taboos and moral precepts foreshadow a sexual revolution in the Arab world? Or is the pressure being applied by the moralists creating a new prudishness, a counterforce to the perceived excesses of the West? For now, everything seems possible, including the idea that a man can end up spending a night in jail for being caught with a condom in his shirt pocket. Ali al-Gundi, an Egyptian journalist, was driving his girlfriend home when he was stopped at a police checkpoint. He didn’t have his driver’s license with him, but it was 4 a.m. and he was in the company of an attractive woman. For the police, this was reason enough to handcuff Gundi and his girlfriend and take them to the police station. “On the way there, they threatened to beat us,” says the 30-year-old. At the station, they took away his mobile phone and wallet and found an unused condom in his shirt pocket. “They were already convinced that my girlfriend was a whore,” says Gundi. The couple ended up behind bars, even after telling the police that they planned to get married in a few months. Only after the woman notified her father the next day were the two released from jail. For Gundi, one thing is certain: “If the officer who stopped us hadn’t been so sexually frustrated, he would have let us go.”
The sexual frustration of many young Arabs has countless causes, most of them economic. Jobs are scarce and low-paying, and most young men are unable to afford and furnish their own apartments — a prerequisite to being able to marry in most Arab countries. At the same time, premarital sex is an absolute taboo in Islam. As a result, cities across the Arab world — Algiers, Alexandria, Sana’a and Damascus — are filled with “boy-men” between 18 and 35 who are forced to live with their parents for the foreseeable future. There is one exception, and it’s even sanctioned by the Islamic faith: the “temporary marriage” or “pleasure marriage” — not a bond for life but one designed for intimate sins. Such agreements, presided over by imams, are not regulated by the state. They can be concluded for only a few hours or they can be open-ended. But particularly romantic they are not.
Separating the sexes
Another frustrating development for young Islamic men is the growing separation of the sexes. More and more women are wearing modest clothing. Some choose to wear headscarves or cover their entire bodies, and some even wear black gloves to cover the last remaining bit of exposed skin on their bodies. A porn site on the Internet: 56 percent of young men in the Mahgreb region admit to watching porn on a regular basis. Nowadays a woman walking along a Cairo street without a veil stands a good chance of being stared at as if she were from another planet. Journalist Gundi is convinced that “oppression brings out perversion in people.” The men want their women to be covered and veiled because they are afraid of women — “afraid of the feelings women provoke.”
Most Egyptian women now wear a headscarf, but for varying reasons.
Ula Shahba, 27, sees the trend toward covering one’s head as an expression of a new female self-confidence, not as a symbol of oppression. For the past two years, Shahba has worn the headscarf voluntarily — out of conviction, as she emphasizes, insisting that no one forces her to do so. But, she adds, the decision wasn’t easy. “I love my hair,” she says, “but it shouldn’t be visible to everyone.” Shahba doesn’t believe that the headscarf is a sign of religious devoutness. “It’s more of a trend,” she says.
A Moroccan study published in early 2006 in L’Economiste, a Moroccan business publication, shows how paradoxical young Arabs’ attitudes toward religion and sexuality can be. According to the study, young Muslims in the Maghreb region are increasingly ignoring the clearly defined rules of their religion. Premarital sex is not unusual, and 56 percent of young men admit to watching porn on a regular basis. But the respondents also said that it was just as important to them to pray, observe the one-month Ramadan fast and marry a fellow Muslim. When seen in this light, young Muslims’ approach to Islam seems as hedonistic as it is variable, almost arbitrary.
Betraying the message of Muhammad
Muslim novelist “Nedjma” (“Star”), the author of “The Almond,” a successful erotic novel, describes Moroccan society as divided and bigoted. Despite progressive family and marriage laws, she says, the country is still controlled by patriarchal traditions in which men continue to sleep around and treat women as subordinates. It is a society in which prudishness and sexual obsession, ignorance and desire, “sperm and prayer” coexist. “The more repressive a society is, the more desperately it seeks an outlet,” says Nedjma, who conceals her real name because she has already been vilified on the Internet as a “whore” and an “insult to Islam.”
Men like Samir, 36, a bald waiter who wears a formal, black and white uniform to work, could be straight out of Nedjma’s novel. Samir grins at the prospect of catching a glimpse of unveiled girls in his café in Rabat. But in the same breath, he admits that he would never spend a significant amount of time in the same room with a woman he doesn’t know. “No man and no woman can be together without being accompanied by the devil,” he believes, adding that he is quoting the Prophet Muhammad. But most sources paint a completely different picture of the religious leader, describing him as a hedonist and womanizer who loved and worshipped women. Indeed, he married 12 women, including a businesswoman 15 years his senior, to whom he remained faithful until her death. Author Nedjma says that Muslim men today are “betraying the message of Muhammad,” whom she describes as a delicate, gallant man. She doubts that the prophet was afraid of female sexuality, as many of the men in her social circle are today.
Even conservative theologians emphasize the compatibility of pleasure and faith — but only after marriage. They can even evoke the Prophet Mohammed, who said: “In this world, I loved women, pleasant scents and prayer.”
This presents an odd contradiction to the puritanical present, which represents a fundamental departure from Islam’s more open-minded past and has instead made way for a humorless and rigorous Islamism. Journalist Ali al-Gundi believes that Muslim men have a troubled relationship with their own sexuality. “Most men only want to marry a virgin,” he says. “What for? Isn’t it much nicer to be with a partner who has experience?” Gundi talks about his girlfriends who have done everything but actually have sex, so as not to damage their hymens. That would mean social death. Egyptian filmmaker Ahmed Khalid devoted his first short film, “The Fifth Pound,” to the topic of taboo. The film tells the story of a young couple who use a bus ride to be together and exchange more than just a few innocent, tender words. Every Friday morning, when everyone else is at the mosque for prayers, they meet on the third-to-the-last bench on the bus, a spot where none of the other passengers can see what they are doing. As they sit there, shoulder-to-shoulder, staring straight ahead, they stroke each other’s bodies. Their only fear is that the bus driver will see what they are doing through the rear view mirror. He watches the couple, fully aware of what they are doing, all the while indulging in his own fantasies.
In his imagination, the driver sits down next to the girl, carefully removes her headscarf and unbuttons her blouse. She closes her eyes and presses her fingers into the armrest. The headscarf slowly slides off the seat. Both reach climax, the girl in the bus driver’s fantasy and the boy through his girlfriend’s hand. In the end, the couple pays the driver four pounds for the tickets and a fifth for his silence. Of course, Khalid was unable to find a distributor for his scandalous, 14-minute short film, and even Cairo’s liberal cultural centers refused to run “The Fifth Pound” without it being censored first. Even though, or perhaps precisely because the film does not depict any actual sexual activity, it excites the viewer’s fantasy — an especially odious offense in the eyes of religious censors. The Internet is a refuge for hidden desires, even though it offers only virtual relief. Google Trends, a new service offered by the search engine, provides a way to demonstrate how difficult it is to banish forbidden yearnings from the heads of Muslims. By entering the term “sex” into Google Trends, one obtains a ranked list of cities, countries and languages in which the term was entered most frequently.
According to Google Trends, the Pakistanis search for “sex” most often, followed by the Egyptians. Iran and Morocco are in fourth and fifth, Indonesia is in seventh and Saudi Arabia in eighth place. The top city for “sex” searches is Cairo. When the terms “boy sex”
or “man boy sex” are entered (many Internet filters catch the word “gay”), Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are the first four countries listed. Homosexuality is more than just a taboo in the Islamic world. In fact it is considered a crime, punishable by imprisonment or even the death penalty.
Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an imam who lives in Qatar and has a television show on Arab network Al Jazeera, considers homosexuality as an especially decadent monster created by the West. It is against the “divine order,” says the religious scholar, citing verses in the Koran that describe homosexuality as a common practice in pre-Islamic Arabia. Homosexuals are referred to in Arabic as “Luti,” or people from the city of the Lut, which is mentioned in the Koran and the Bible and is described as having been destroyed by God’s wrath. The sources seem to clearly support this notion. As a result, very few gay Muslims even attempt to reconcile their faith with their sexual orientation. Most, says George Assi, a spokesman of Helem, the only gay and lesbian organization in the Arab world, are in despair over the fact that they cannot be as virtuous as their religion prescribes.
Helem, a Lebanese organization that is neither completely legal nor prohibited, has its office in an Islamic business district in Beirut, a city that offers greater political and sexual freedom than any other place in the Arab world. But even here the organization faces protests and threatening phone calls, especially from the Gulf states. “Many talk about us as if we were sick people who must either be healed or abandoned,” says Assi.
“Shocking, sad” stories
Unlike Lebanon, Egypt is a place where freedom of opinion is always in jeopardy. The country’s once-blossoming worlds of art and literature are especially affected. This makes it all the more astonishing that a play could be produced on a Cairo stage that deals exclusively with sex. Even the play’s title, “Bussy,” is a provocation. It resembles the English word “pussy,” but it is also a slang term Egyptian men use to tell a woman to “look here.” And this is precisely what the directors wanted: to attract attention — to discrimination, lack of respect and mental immaturity. “We had no intention of being daring or of provoking anyone. We merely wanted to tell the truth,” says director Naas Chan. The performance was created as an analogue to the famous New York play, “The Vagina Monologues.” When the American production was performed at the American University in Cairo, it was met with disgust, indignation and — enthusiastic applause. But because it had little to do with the problems of Egyptian women, a group of students decided to stage a sort of “Islamic Vagina Monologue” with amateur actors.
Ordinary women were asked to talk about love and sex. “Their stories were so shocking, so touching, sad and amusing that they needed no editing,” says Chan. And that was how “Bussy” was created. In one scene, a girl, her voice choking with tears, talks about the day her mother took her to the doctor, without telling her that he was going to circumcise her. “When I woke up I felt the pain. Something was missing … the flesh that they had stolen belonged to me!” Another woman describes her experience with an imam who, when she was 10, forced her into a closet and raped her. “When I told my mother about it, she said that I was making it up.”
“I was surprised that almost all the stories we got were serious,” says director Chan. The women talked about their experiences with abortions, rapes, female circumcision and plain, everyday discrimination. Each of the 50 stories submitted reflects a slice of Egyptian reality. Telling the stories required a great deal of courage, says Chan. The mere knowledge that one’s own story will be performed in front of an audience represents a break with tradition. Sexual abuse, says Chan, is considered a family matter, and if it is disclosed to outsiders, the family feels dishonored and believes the woman has been deprived of her value.
Abir embodies yet another archetype in Arab-Islamic moral society. She is 32 years old, petite, dark-skinned and wears an expensive, long black wig. She lives alone in a small but tidy apartment. Images from the days of the Pharaohs hang on her walls next to large, white pencils — souvenirs from a trip to Germany’s Rügen Island. Abir sits on a white wooden couch with pink upholstery. She wears shorts and a pink T-shirt. A tattoo of the sun adorns her right upper arm and she has a nicotine patch stuck to her left arm. Abir married for the first time when she was 23. Her mother was dead, her father bedridden and she had been making a meager living as a maid. The marriage was a nightmare. Her husband beat her, and on one occasion her mother-in-law cut off her long black hair and hung it on the wall — as a warning. Abir obtained a divorce and took a job in a bar, where she met wealthy foreigners.
Abir spreads out a series of photos on her coffee table. They show two happy people, swimming in the ocean, sitting on a park bench, shopping in Germany. But when the man in the photograph, a German named Ingo, still didn’t want to marry her after three years, Abir broke off the relationship — on the phone. “Why should I waste my life?” she asks. She also has photos of her and Luis, an American, with whom she had a relationship for a year. Luis wanted to take her home to the United States. “A wonderful man, he spoiled me,” she says. But then they had a falling out and Luis left without her. He married another woman and Abir was beside herself. By the time she had come to her senses, she had lost her job as a waitress and decided to do what she had done in the past. She sold her body.
“Egyptians pay 200 pounds (about €28), and Saudis pay 1,000 pounds or sometimes even more,” says Abir. “Foreigners pay me $200. Condoms are required.” She shows us the results of her most recent AIDS test, which was negative. Without the test she would not have been granted a German visa. Today she is afraid of being alone, says prostitute Abir. Almost all of her siblings are married. The police give you a hard time, sometimes for no reason at all. It’s enough for them to see an unmarried woman sitting alone in a bar.” Prison terms and beatings are the minimum. If a couple is caught in the act, the woman is the one who suffers.
Abir wants to get married as soon as possible. She says that she has just met another American. She wants to take him to the mosque. As a Muslim woman, she can only marry a Muslim man. And she says the American is going to convert soon and learn more about her religion. When that happens, she says, the first thing she will do is get out of Egypt.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
12 March, 2007
Gay Arabs organising in Israel
Associated Press – A rare gathering of openly gay Arab activists is slated to be held in Israel this month, drawing the ire of religious conservatives. Headlined “Home and Exile,” the March 28 meeting is meant to spark discussion of homosexuality among Israel’s 1 million Arab citizens, said Roula Deeb, a prominent Arab feminist and one of the scheduled speakers. The conference is being organized by Aswat, an Arab lesbian group based in Haifa, a coastal city home to both Jews and Arabs. Around 100 to 150 people are expected to show up, Deeb said. With homosexuality a taboo topic in much of the Arab world, the meeting is important simply because it is taking place.
Israel is generally tolerant of homosexuality, and the country’s secular metropolis, Tel Aviv, is home to a thriving gay community. But Israel’s Arabs, who make up 20 percent of the population, live mostly in separate communities and homosexuality is still considered out of bounds. When news of the conference, which was advertised on Aswat’s Web site, reached the Islamic Movement in Israel, it sparked a war of words between Arab liberals and Muslim conservatives. “Lesbians … need treatment, they don’t need to spread their strange ideas in the Arab community,” said Mohammed Zbidat, a spokesman for the Islamic Movement, a conservative force that has grown increasingly influential in the Arab Israeli community in recent years.
Homosexuality is strictly forbidden by Islam, and an earlier statement issued by the Movement described it as a “cancer” in the Arab community. The conference draws its supporters mostly from the ranks of secular and educated Arabs. It is sponsored by two Haifa cafes popular among Arab intellectuals and artists, and an Arab women’s rap group is scheduled to perform. “This is a political issue,” said Raja Zaatry, a journalist at the left-leaning Ittihad (Unity) newspaper, who condemned the Islamic Movement’s stance in an editorial last week. Today, they are attacking gays and women — tomorrow, who else?” he said in an interview. “We shouldn’t compromise. We have to challenge this fundamentalist stream in our society.”
In Lebanon, perhaps the Arab world’s most liberal state, homosexuals have held news conferences and run a magazine called “Barra” — meaning “out” — the only publication of its kind. But nearly everywhere in the Arab world, individuals face persecution if they come out openly. Still, violence against participants in the Haifa conference is not expected. “We’ve called on people to fight this in all legal means. We don’t condone violence,” said the Islamic Movement’s Zbidat. The conference’s organizers did not want to respond to the controversy. “We are focusing all our energies on the conference right now,” a spokeswoman said.
March 28, 2007
Arab Lesbians Hold Rare Public Meeting in Haifa, Defying Islamist Ban
Haifa, Israel – Arab lesbians gathered in the northern Israeli city of Haifa at a rare public event, quietly defying protests from Islamists and a taboo in their own society. So strong is the antipathy toward homosexuality in their communities that only few of the Arab women in the crowd of about 250 at the Wednesday meeting were gay — a sign of how much Arab women feared being identified as lesbians, said Samira, 31, a conference organizer, who came with her Jewish Israeli girlfriend.
“We’d like all women to come out of the closet that’s our role. We work for them,” said Samira, who battled her own family when they found out she was a lesbian. Israel’s Jewish majority is generally tolerant of homosexuality, and the country’s secular metropolis, Tel Aviv, is home to a thriving gay community. On the other hand, Jerusalem, with its large proportion of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews, is strongly anti-gay. And among Israel’s Arab citizens, who make up 20 percent of the country’s population, homosexuality is taboo to most.
Homosexuality is strictly forbidden by Islam, and a statement issued by a large Muslim group in Israel described it as a “cancer” in the Arab community. Driven deep underground for the most part, only 10 to 20 Arab lesbians attended the conference, organizers said, and most blended in with their Israeli counterparts and Arab backers without making their presence known. Poetry readings, music and Arab women rappers entertained the conference, called “Home and Exile in Queer Experience,” organized by Aswat, an organization for Arab lesbians, with members in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
“We are here to say they (Arab lesbians) are not alone,” said Rawda Morcos, Aswat’s spokeswoman, one of a tiny minority of Arab women who are openly gay.
Some related painful experiences.
Samira, who has a dozen brothers and sisters, said she told a sibling she was gay two years ago. The news quickly spread among the family, and her 70-year-old mother fell into a depression, begging her daughter to change her ways. But she eventually accepted her daughter’s homosexuality “in her own way,” by packing large boxes of food for Samira whenever she came to visit.
“My mother said, ‘take the food, for you and your girlfriend’,” Samira recalled, agreeing to be identified only by her first name for fear of reprisals. Some of her family never came around. A pregnant sister told Samira she would “never touch her children.” Morcos said she had her car smashed up regularly for months and received threatening phone calls at her family home when her village in northern Israel found out she was a lesbian. Many of the attendees said they were sad that the only place safe enough to hold a conference for gay Arab women was in a Jewish area of Haifa, which has a mixed Arab-Jewish population.
“This conference is being held, somehow, in exile, even though it’s our country … but it’s not being held in Nazareth or Umm el-Fahm (two large Israeli Arab towns),” said Yussef Abu Warda, a playwright. Outside the conference hall, 20 women protesters in headscarves and long, loose robes held up signs reading, “God, we ask you to guide these lesbians to the true path.” Khadijeh Daher, 35, described lesbianism as a “sickness.”
Security was tight. Attendance was by invitation only, and reporters were not allowed to take photographs, use tape recorders or identify people. Even rapper Nahwa Abdul Aal, who performed for the gathering, didn’t support the gays. “Being at this conference hasn’t changed my mind,” she said. “I still think it’s wrong.
March 29, 2007
Gay, Muslim lawyer bucks stereotypes–El-Farouk Khaki says human rights abuses call for a `jihad,’ a struggle against injustice
by Nicholas Keung
If you want to understand El-Farouk Khaki’s approach to fighting stereotyping and injustice, you can catch a glimpse of it in his vintage attire and unorthodox demeanour in court. His perspectives are largely the product of his own struggle – and ultimate triumph – to reconcile a multi-layered identity as a gay, visible-minority, Muslim, immigrant lawyer.
“No matter how you slice it, the denial of human rights and dignity (call for) a jihad, a struggle against oppression and injustice,” explains the immigration lawyer from his small office on the fringe of Toronto’s gay village, at Yonge and Alexander Sts. “Our biggest enemy is our perpetuating invisibility. By being invisible, your existence is denied. “There are many taboo issues around us, but people choose not to acknowledge them. To create a just society, we need to talk about the dirty and dark secrets among us.”
Khaki has raised awareness of racial discrimination in the gay community and homophobia in the Muslim community, and pushed the boundaries of Canada’s immigration and refugee system to extend equality rights to gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people. His dedication to promoting understanding of the LGBT community has earned him the 2007 Steinert and Ferreiro Award from the Lesbian and Gay Community Appeal Foundation. He was honoured Tuesday at a reception at the Fuzion Lounge on Church St. Born in Tanzania, Khaki and his political activist parents, Aziz and Gul, of Indo-Persian-Arab blood, fled to England in 1971 before moving to Vancouver three years later.
Khaki sensed his attraction to men at 11. But growing up among the few Muslims then living on the West Coast, he found it difficult to find friends who could relate to his experience as a minority in every circle – gay or straight, Muslim or not. On the rare occasions he came across a gay Muslim, they tended to ignore each other, fearing being “outted” in a close-knit,
“It’s always a challenge for a gay person to come to terms with any faith. My parents are very religious; they pray five times a day and there’s no alcohol allowed at home, but their practice of Islam preaches God as a merciful and embracing creator,” says Khaki. “The one thing taught by my parents is God’s forgiveness,” he says. “Why would God create gay men to be second-class citizens? Why did he create them only to have them condemned?” Khaki strikes an unmistakable figure, in court or walking through the Church St. village: faux-Mohawk hairstyle and ring-studded ears and hands.
“El-Farouk has a reputation of being a quirky, unorthodox lawyer because he doesn’t fit into the stereotypes. He’s just a walking anti-stereotype,” says friend and colleague Andrew Hwang. While his wardrobe may draw the occasional double-take from judges and Crown attorneys, Hwang says Khaki is highly regarded, especially as a pioneer in the movement to extend asylum to refugees facing persecution as a result of gender or sexual orientation.
“He’s a high-profile, out-and-proud gay man who is also Muslim and a visible minority. His ability to successfully reconcile three distinct identities into one cohesive and adjusted whole, combined with his outspoken advocacy and activism, makes him a great role model.” In 1991, Khaki founded Salaam, a social support group for gay Muslims. Three years later, he helped set a new tone in the Immigration and Refugee Board, spending eight sittings educating adjudicators about a gay refugee’s claim. The case led to sensitivity training for IRB members. He also fought – successfully – for the claim lodged by an incest victim, a dual British/U.S. citizen who had fled both countries with his mother because neither offered protection against his abusive father.
“There is still a mentality out there that if you remained discreet about your sexuality, you wouldn’t be persecuted. But people wouldn’t ask you to stop practising your religion or (political) belief so you wouldn’t face persecution,” notes Khaki. A graduate of the University of British Columbia law school, Khaki, 43, was called to the bar in 1988 and worked as a legal adviser at the refugee board and later was a political staffer at Queen’s Park until 1993, when he started his own practice.
He plans to dedicate the award to his late partner of 15 years, Guy Lahaie, who helped inspire his love for life and commitment to social justice. “The award recognizes the work I do. It recognizes all the (sexual, religious, cultural and racial) identities that exist. It recognizes all these invisible lives out there and gives them hope and a future – that they don’t have to be invisible any more,” he adds He plans to spend the $10,000 prize to realize his dream of becoming a father with the help of a surrogate mother. “The money from the award,” he says with a smile, “will be my *seed* money.”
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20th July 2007
Website for Arab and Asian gays launched
by Tony Grew
A new online meeting place for the Asian and Arab LGBT people and their friends has opened for business. MySalaam.com features content for both men and women including features, articles, blogs, message boards, community news and listings.
“I chose the name salaam because it is a word of greetings, peace and love that is shared by many peoples of Middle Eastern and Asian heritage,” says Simran, MySalaam.com’s founder and coordinator. I wanted to bring together these different, inter-connected communities.MySalaam.com is the first fully interactive, non-religious based UK website for Asian and Arab LGBTs. We needed a space that isn’t just about dating and sex. I wanted to create an environment where we could share experiences and unite against the Islamophobia and racism that creeps its way into the LGBT community,” said Simran.
MySalaam.com aims to fill the current void in the online experience of people from the Asian and Arab LGBT communities. It provides an up-to-date, safe environment for users to interact, and get information. The site wants to be a place to visit for Arab and Asian people seeking support and advice around their sexuality, health and social issues.
To visit the site click here.
July 31, 2007
Changing Hearts and Reading Minds
by Brendan Bernhard
In a departure from the usual Middle Eastern diet of tabbouleh, rampaging mobs, and suicide bombs, tonight PBS presents “Dishing Democracy,” a one-hour edition of the globetrotting documentary series “Wide Angle.” The program’s subject is “Kalam Nawaem” (Sweet Talk), an Arabic talk show modeled on ABC’s “The View,” only with prettier hosts and more stylish sets. The show is carried on the privately owned Arab satellite channel MBC, whose motto is charmingly upbeat, “We See Hope Everywhere.” If our own media had to serve up a motto in reply, I think it would be, “Really? We See Only Despair.” But then, the last few years have been hard on American morale. It was once believed that the presence of hundreds of thousands of American soldiers might transform the Arab world, but PBS’s press release hints that they arrived too late, and with the wrong mission. “While the United States has been striving to promote democracy in the Arab world, a homegrown revolution is already taking place. Every Sunday night in living rooms throughout the Middle East, tens of millions of viewers are tuning in to a fearless all-female talk show whose four hosts discuss controversial subjects, shatter stereotypes, and provoke debate.”
The four hosts of “Kalam Nawaem” are certainly willing to tackle subjects head-on. “The subject of this show is masturbation,” announces Fawzia Salama, introducing a particularly controversial edition of the program. A woman calling in anonymously admits that she began masturbating when she was 15. “Nobody taught me how to do it, my body asked for it,” she says with a touch of lyricism. “When we talked about, excuse me, the female masturbation,” says the show’s male producer, “Oh, my God! We made a big, big split in the media. But at the end, simply it was a success. When you make a controversy, this is the true success. And life is a controversy, it is a duality.” The presenters of “Kalam Nawaem” are united by their willingness to discuss hot-button topics (sexual equality, homosexuality — “a super-taboo” — wife-beating, sexual abuse, infidelity, and child sex education, to name a few). They also share a certain rootlessness. The striking Palestinian actress Farah Bseiso was born in the Gaza Strip but grew up in Syria and Kuwait. Ms. Salama, the oldest of the bunch (she looks about 60), is an Egyptian journalist based in London. Rania Barghout is a Lebanese who once lived in London, now lives in Beirut, and is considering a return to London. Lastly there’s Muna AbuSulayman, a divorced Saudi from a prominent religious family. Ms. AbuSulayman is the only host to wear the hijab, and the only one who could be called a conservative.
“Dishing Democracy” shows the women’s lives off-air as well as on, but the background is often more revealing than the foreground. When Ms. AbuSulayman visits a Saudi shopping mall, you don’t learn much about her, but you do get a pretty good sense of the eeriness of Saudi shopping malls: The men in white gowns with red-and-white headdresses, the women like floating black pillars. Only their heavily made-up eyes are visible, and they’re the busiest, most flirtatious eyes you’ll ever see. My favorite moment in “Dishing Democracy” comes when the Dutch director, Bregtje van der Haak, cuts away from the television studio to gauge the reaction in a Cairo cafe, where an unshaven, unemployed, all-male ensemble is sitting around sucking on water pipes and occasionally glancing at the TV. An episode of “Kalam Nawaem” is on, and it’s about sex education. “We’re uptight because we try to hide from children what’s natural,” says Ms. Salama, who probably imported the idea from London. The men in the cafÃ© are unimpressed by the sex talk: “That’s not okay, we’re Muslims,” says one, a T-shirt-worthy line in the tradition of “No Sex Please, We’re British.”
Another man in the cafe — mustachioed, quite young, looking distinctly peeved — isn’t taking the bait either. “They want to tell us what to think,” he says indignantly, referring to the women on the show, “and now they’re getting satellite TV to tell us about it.
You know what? Next, they’ll teach it in primary schools.” My dear sir, I’m afraid you’re right. These media boors, with their grotesque salaries and inflatable smiles, have ideas, opinions, theories about how you should live, and they broadcast them all day long! It’s just the way it is. As for sex education in primary schools, you don’t know the half of it: Try kindergarten. “Dishing Democracy” provokes mixed feelings. Of course you side with the four women encouraging greater openness in the Arab world. On the other hand, you also pray they don’t end up replicating every dumb bit of therapy-speak we’ve ever come up with.
Additional URLs for the show:
From: Mithly.com website
Mithly.com is a website dedicated to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities of the Arab world.
We believe that a record of the experiences acquired through the daily challenges, joys, and fears of individuals belonging to these communities is invaluable to understanding how we identify with each other as individuals as well as what we aim for as a pressure group living in the most socially and politically turbulent area on the globe. We find true value in self-actualization and self-expression, whatever the form, and we hope Mithly.com will be both a guide and a listener to all those who visit. With our articles being circulated in several languages, we wish to leave no one out of this evolution.
Fear is often derived from a lack of knowledge. Homophobia then stems from a fear of a certain unknown. Along with providing an online home for the LGBT community we feel that it is also our duty that our pages provide a glimpse, however brief, into the lives and thoughts of our community. If we are understood, if our expressions are honest and uninhibited, then we may be recognized, accepted, included for who we truly are.
Together, the dream may one day become reality
13th September 2007
New documentary film features gay Muslim experiences in Asia, Africa and France
A number of movies set in the Middle East have been shown during this week’s Toronto International Film Festival, but only one of them focuses on gay Muslims. That film, A Jihad For Love, is a documentary Indian filmmaker Parvez Sharma drafted in the six years following the September 11th 2001 attacks in New York. In that time, Sharma followed the experiences of gay Muslims in 12 countries, including India, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, South Africa and France. “We are presenting Islam’s most unlikely storytellers,” Sharma told the Hollywood Reporter.
A Jihad For Love faces some stiff competition at the 10-day-long Toronto event, during which 300-400 films are shown at approximately 23 screens in downtown venues. More than a handful of those hundreds of films focus on the Middle East this year, including Nick Broomfield’s Battle for Haditha, Brian DePalma’s Redacted and Paul Haggis’ In The Valley of Elah.
Not that Sharma is worried. “Hollywood and the mainstream film industry are jumping on the Muslim bandwagon and making films around Islam because of the U.S.. involvement in Iraq,” he told the Hollywood Reporter. “But I feel that a lot of films that are made about Muslims are mediated through Western eyes.” Sharma’s film, on the other hand, aims to empower “a community that has been silenced, allowing them to tell the story about Islam.”
More about ‘Jihad for Love’ from Reuters
September 12, 2007
By Janet Guttsman Toronto
It took gay Indian filmmaker Parvez Sharma six years to make “Jihad for Love,” a documentary film about gay men and women trying to live Muslim lives in Iraq, Pakistan, Egypt and South Africa.
Now he says his challenge will be to make sure the movie reaches Muslim communities, even in countries where being homosexual remains a crime that could be punishable by death. “I aim to take this film into Muslim countries as a Muslim,” Sharma told Reuters in an interview, noting that the downloading possibilities of the Internet make it far easier to distribute movies than in the past. “I am going to make sure that this film gets to every Muslim that needs to see it…and if this means I am going to have to smuggle the tapes through my underground contacts in Muslim countries and make sure that people everywhere are able to have screenings for this film, then that’s exactly what we are going to do.”
The film, which had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival this week, focuses on a few dozen men and women who seek to reconcile their sexuality with life as Muslims. The title defines jihad as personal struggle, rather than as holy war.
It’s a first movie for Sharma, who now lives in New York with his partner, an American banker, and who grumbles that he can’t marry in the United States and that he doesn’t qualify for a spouse’s green card because his partner is a man. “Islam is a way of life. It’s my life,” he said. “I think that everything in my own life being a gay Muslim, especially living in a post September 11 world, moved me toward making this film. This film found me.”
One of those shown in the movie is South African Muhsin Hendricks, a gay Imam who “came out” to a storm of protest and angry phone-ins to local radio stations, including callers calling for his death. In the film, he argues that censure of homosexuals from Islamic texts is a censure of forced male rape, rather than of loving relations between two men, and he’s had discussion sessions with a local Islamic welfare council.
Speaking in Toronto, he acknowledged it is easier for gays to live in South Africa than in many other countries, although acceptance among Muslims remains slow. “My community is still very conservative, it’s still difficult to work within the community, but it’s easier that the constitution is protecting gay rights,” he said. The story is different in Egypt, where another participant in the film, Mazen, was one of those arrested in a 2001 raid on a gay club in Cairo. He was imprisoned for two years before winning asylum in France. Mazen, whose mother still doesn’t know he has taken part “Jihad for Love,” said he had initially asked director Sharma not to show his face in the movie, but he changed his mind mid-way through the movie making. “I decided because I wanted to say a message,” he said.
Holy hatred: Homosexuality in Muslim countries
by Anissa Helie
The majority of Muslim countries outlaw same-sex relationships. The seven countries in the world that carry the death penalty for persons presumed guilty of homosexual acts, justify this punishment with the Shari’a. Culture is not, however, always “against us and there are positive examples of same-sex relationships to be found in different Muslim cultures,” she writes.
By Anissa Helie – I was born and raised in Algiers, of a French father and an Algerian mother. Having access to both cultures made me realize early on that racism as well as sexism were all-pervasive on both sides of the Mediterranean. It took me a few more years to come to the conclusion that homophobia was just as widespread.
Amnesty International counts at least 83 countries where homosexuality is explicitly condemned in the criminal code. Twenty-six of these are Muslim. This means that the majority of Muslim countries, including supposedly ‘liberal’ ones like Tunisia as well as dictatorships like Sudan, outlaw same-sex relationships. The seven countries in the world that carry the death penalty for persons presumed guilty of homosexual acts, justify this punishment with the Shari’a, or standard interpretation of Muslim jurisprudence. Though not always applied, the existence of the death penalty makes sexual minorities extremely vulnerable. The state is not alone in practising repression. Communities and families have a part to play. In Indonesia, for example, homosexuality is not illegal. But in 1998 ‘Muslim militia’ launched an anti-gay campaign on the island of Mindanao during which gay Muslims were terrorized, beaten up and ordered to leave or be castrated.
Jordan does not specifically outlaw homosexuality either. But that did not stop four Jordanians last year trying to kidnap their 23-year-old lesbian relative studying in the US, beating her and attempting to force her on to a plane bound for Jordan. The US police acted promptly and came to her rescue, but such an outcome tends to be the exception rather than the rule. Violence, harassment, persecution and extrajudicial or ‘shame’ killings are not uncommon.
Sex and tradition
In spite of such obstacles and hostility, same-sex relationships do take place, even in the most repressive countries. As one researcher from the Gulf told a Pan-Arab Conference on Sexuality held in Oxford in June 2000: “In prison same-sex sex is the norm. Saudi Arabia is just a large prison”. Sometimes, the very segregation of the sexes allows for intimacy between people of the same gender without it being considered abnormal. As long as one keeps a low profile, such behaviour may generally go unchallenged. This is true for both sexes. For women, cultural patterns may allow particular opportunities for intimacy: it’s fairly acceptable to share a bed with your female cousin, your best friend and so on. And traditional women-only ceremonies may actually enable rural lesbians to make regular contact with other women.
Culture is not, therefore, always against us and there are positive examples of same-sex relationships to be found in different Muslim cultures. Nor is invisibility necessarily required. For example, in some traditional travelling theatres and musical groups in Pakistan, the younger men who play female roles sometimes live as a couple with the group leader. Among such communities, male couples may live out love relationships quite openly. There is also an entire body of poetry in local and Urdu literature that is clearly based on male love, yaari (3). Positive as they are, such examples should not make us forget that homophobia is prevalent, as well as systematically promoted by conservative forces everywhere.
The “Qur’an clearly states that homosexuality is unjust, unnatural, transgression, ignorant, criminal and corrupt”, declares the Jamaat-e-Islami, an extreme right politico-religious party in Pakistan. In fact, the Qur’an is far from clear on the issue and the controversy regarding the position of Islam and homosexuality is ongoing. For some people, homosexuality is “unlawful” in Islam; for others, the Qur’an does not clearly condemn homosexual acts. The only actual reference to homosexuality in the Qur’an can be found in the sections about Sodom and Gomorrah. While the harsh punishment inflicted on the people of Sodom and Gomorrah at the time of the prophet Lut is for some people a clear proof that Allah meant to eradicate homosexual practice, others argue that there is no specific punishment for homosexuality. The people of Sodom were punished for “doing everything excessively” and for not respecting the rules of hospitality. They insist that it is not the Qur’an itself that brings condemnation of homosexuals but rather the homophobic culture prevailing in Muslim societies.
In the vanguard of repression are so-called “religious fundamentalists”. But in the Women Living Under Muslim Laws Network to which I belong, we maintain that “fundamentalism” is not a return to the “fundamentals” of any given religion. We believe that “fundamentalists” are extreme-right political forces seeking to obtain or maintain political power through manipulation of religion and religious beliefs, as well as other ethnic, culturally-based identities. And the rise of “fundamentalism” is a global phenomenon which affects not just Islam but all major religions. There is also a strong connection between fundamentalist homophobic assaults and those directed against women who do not “behave”, who may be unmarried or living alone. Extremist religious leaders and their followers target sexual minorities and women. They focus their offensive against homosexuals as well as others who transgress boundaries of “acceptable” behaviour. The very same rhetoric is used to justify repression against homosexuals, feminists or “different” women – who all are systematically denounced as non-Muslim, non-indigenous and so forth. It is always through manipulation of religious, national or cultural identities that violence is legitimized.
Both extremist religious leaders and state officials are likely to demonize sexual minorities, often as a means to distract from economic crisis or political controversy. Indeed, incitement to hatred and manifestations of homophobia increase in places where the local political agenda is most affected by growing fundamentalist forces. For example, one of the very first victims of Algerian fundamentalists was Jean Senac, a gay poet assassinated in the early 1980s. Also in Algeria, Oum Ali, an unmarried woman living alone with her children in the Southern town of Ouargla, was stoned and her house burned down in 1989, killing her youngest son. These two incidents occurred long before the “official” beginning of the conflict; they reveal the untruth of Algerian fundamentalists’ claims that they only resorted to violence in 1992 after being robbed of victory by the Government’s cancellation of elections. In fact they targeted both homosexuals and women earlier on – but there was hardly anyone to stand up for such “second-class victims”.
Why is sexuality and sexual conformity the focus of so much attention by fundamentalist forces? A possible answer is that when people exercise individual choice it appears as a challenge: autonomy – especially for women – is seen as a threat. It is interesting to note that in past centuries Arabs attributed homosexual behaviour to the bad influence of Persians. Today, it’s much the same story, though the characters may change – homosexuality is currently denounced as a “Western disease”. In June 2000, Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar stated that homosexuality was “against nature” and – following a call by Human Rights Watch to ban Malaysia’s sodomy law – insisted that: “We can’t amend the country’s laws merely due to calls by outsiders”.
Not just a local or national phenomenon, fundamentalism has taken on a global dimension. Extremist religious leaders from various faiths are coming together to oppose Sexual rights. By “closing ranks”, coalitions of Christians, Muslims and other fundamentalists affect the international agenda. We saw the effect of such alliances on women’s reproductive rights at the Cairo Conference on Population and Development in 1994. Such alliances also blocked the recognition of the rights of lesbians at both the 1995 World Conference on Women held in Beijing and the review of the Beijing Platform for Action in June 2000. Of course, similar coalitions influence local political agendas. Take Britain, a secular country with a very vocal extremist Muslim minority. A Muslim-Christian alliance was recently formed to oppose the repeal of Section 28 – a law introduced in 1988 which forbids the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools as “a pretended family relationship”. At a conference in May 2000, religious spokesperson Dr Majid Katme stated that “lesbianism is spreading like ire in society. We must vaccinate our children against this curse”. He is supported in this view by Sheikh Sharkhawy – a senior cleric at the prestigious Regent’s Park mosque in central London – who publicly advocates the execution of gay males over the age of ten and life imprisonment for lesbians.
At least as worrying is the support for fundamentalist politics by the so-called “free West”. The help extended by states pretending to defend democracy is not a new phenomenon. Imam Khomeini was resident in France for several months in 1978, just before going back to Iran to lead the “Islamic” revolution. In Afghanistan, the CIA not only trained the Taliban but has also “admitted bringing 25,000 Arab volunteers to fight against the Red Army”. Incidentally, both those countries – Iran and Afghanistan currently sentence homosexuals to death. What does that teach us? First, that the hypocrisy of most political leaders knows no limit: their ever-changing definition of “fundamentalism” allows them to turn against allies of yesterday with whom they should never have got involved in the first place. Second, it is obvious that economic and geo-strategic concerns always prevail. We can only regret that there are so few allies at the international level who are ready to compromise their interests in order to defend the rights of women and sexual minorities.
Strategies of resistance
Despite a threatening environment, sexual minorities are organizing and becoming more visible in Muslim countries and communities. For example, much research is being carried out to interpret religious texts. The Qur’an is being re-examined by gay, or gay-friendly, theologians and believers in order to break the monopoly of male homophobic interpretation. To counter the stereotype of homosexuality as foreign, others are engaged in reclaiming homoerotic literature. Another positive example is found in Lebanon, where homosexuality is illegal, but a popular weekly TV programme (Al Shater Yahki) has been focusing on sexuality since 1997 and includes gay voices. The fact that they speak from behind masks gives a measure of the risks involved.
Nevertheless, new solidarity associations are being set up (see above). These organizations are, for obvious security reasons, often located outside Muslim countries. Most of them, however, connect with either individuals or groups within Muslim countries. Whether mainly political, social or religious in their motivation, these organizations all aim at breaking the isolation faced by sexual minorities. In Muslim countries and communities, sexual minorities have only just begun speaking out. Threats of violence and accusations of betraying one’s culture and religion have discouraged many from taking a public stand. However, more and more people are rejecting the idea that violence against sexual diversity is “divinely sanctioned
November 7, 2007
Gay Muslims Find Freedom, of a Sort, in the U.S.
by Neil Macfarquhar
San Francisco – About 15 people marched alongside the Muslim float in this city’s notoriously fleshy Gay Pride Parade earlier this year, with various men carrying the flags of Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine and Turkey and even Iran’s old imperial banner. While other floats featured men dancing in leather Speedos or women with scant duct tape over their nipples, many Muslims were disguised behind big sunglasses, fezzes or kaffiyehs wrapped around their heads. Even as they reveled in newfound freedom compared with the Muslim world, they remained closeted, worried about being ostracized at the mosque or at their local falafel stand. “They’re afraid of the rest of the community here,” said Ayman, a stocky 31-year-old from Jordan, who won asylum in the United States last year on the basis of his sexuality. “It’s such a big wrong in the Koran that it is impossible to be accepted.”
For gay Muslims, change may come via a nascent body of scholarship in minority Muslim communities where the reassessment of sacred texts used to damn homosexuality is gaining momentum. In traditional seats of Islamic learning, like Egypt and Iran, punishment against blatant homosexual activity, not to mention against trying to establish a gay rights movement, can be severe. These governments are prone to label homosexuality a Western phenomenon, as happened in September when Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, spoke at Columbia University. But far more leeway to dissect the topic exists in places where gay rights are more protected. As a rule, gay Muslim activists lacked the scholarly grounding needed to scrutinize time-honored teachings. But that is changing, activists say, partly because no rigid clerical hierarchy exists in the West to bar such research.
Nonetheless, gaining acceptance remains such a hurdle that Muslims in the United States hesitate. Imam Daayiee Abdullah, 53, a black convert to Islam, was expelled from a Saudi-financed seminary in Virginia after the school found out he is gay. His effort to organize a gay masjid, or mosque, in Washington failed largely out of fear, he said. “You have these individuals who say that they would blow up a masjid if it was a gay masjid,” he said. Mr. Abdullah and other scholars argue that there is no uncontested record of the Prophet Muhammad addressing homosexuality and that examples of punishment would surely exist had he been hostile.
Mirroring the feminist school of Islam, gay advocates pursue a holistic interpretation that emphasizes accepting everyone as equally God’s creation. Most Koranic verses treating same-sex relations are ambiguous, said Omid Safi, an Islamic studies professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “They are talking about an ‘abomination,’” Professor Safi said, “but what an abomination is remains open to interpretation.”
Since the primary Koranic verses used to condemn homosexuality also suggest male rape, the progressive reading is that the verses revile using sex as domination, said Scott Kugle, an American convert and university professor who specializes in the topic. The arguments are not entirely modern; some are drawn from a medieval scholar in Andalusia, once a seat of enlightened Muslim governance, he said. The classical attitude toward lesbians is even murkier, Mr. Kugle added, because sex was defined as penetration.
Hostility is rooted in the Koranic story of Lot, which parallels the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah. At Al-Tawhid Mosque in San Francisco, the imam, Hassan al-Jalal, a Yemeni with a short beard, printed a sheaf of Koranic verses that he said condemned homosexuals. “This is the main sin in Islam,” Mr. Jalal said, describing how the town housing Lot’s tribe was lifted high into the sky and then dropped, killing all in the town before they were buried under what is now the Dead Sea. “He sent the flood to clean the earth from AIDS. There were no doctors at that time, but God knew they had a virus.”
All sects mandate capital punishment, he argued, although others differ. “Sunni, Shiite, they all agree that they have to be killed. But who does it? Not me or you, only by law.” Muslim clerics reject being gay as biologically coded and advise anyone with homosexual stirrings to avoid temptation. They see America as rife with it given practices like open gym showers. The hostility pushes some gay Muslims to interpret for themselves or to withdraw from the faith. For Rafique, a 56-year-old Southeast Asian Muslim in San Francisco, resolution came through a combination of medieval mystic poetry and individual spiritual efforts endorsed by Sufi Muslim traditions.
Renowned poets wrote odes glorifying handsome boys. Some were interpreted as metaphors about loving God, but some were paeans to gay sex. Rafique and others argue that homosexuality became criminalized only under European colonialism. “From the 10th to the 14th century, Muslim society used to be a far richer mix of the legal, the rational and the mystic,” said Rafique, an anthropologist. “They looked at sexuality as one aspect of life’s many possibilities, and they saw in it the hope for spiritual insight. I came across this stuff, and it helped me reconcile the two.”
Some mosques with a Sufi orientation extend a rare welcome to gay Muslims.
Ayman, the parade organizer, said his previous life in Jordan was marked by fear. Arrested at 17 after a sexual encounter in a public building, he said the police wrote “manyak,” a homosexual slur, into his file. He denied being gay, but the word resurfaced whenever the police stopped him. He worried that one day it would happen around a relative. He is convinced that a 22-year-old gay friend who died after a fall from an apartment building was the victim of an “honor” killing meant to clean the family’s reputation. “I still feel like I’m a Muslim; I don’t accept that anyone insults the faith,” said Ayman, who avoids attending mosque. “When I read what it says in the Koran, then I fear Judgment Day.”
A 26-year-old from Saudi Arabia who took the first name Liam after rejecting his faith said that as a teenager he fought his homosexuality by becoming a religious zealot. He eventually accepted his sexuality while at college in Colorado, but moved to the Bay Area because gay life in the kingdom was too depressing. But a 39-year-old burly, bearded computer consultant who left Saudi Arabia to live in the United States said the cosmopolitan city of Jidda had a thriving gay underground. In other Arab states, he said, it is rare to find men who are both religious and gay, but the high numbers in Jidda made them relax somewhat. “They don’t care about sex and alcohol, but they do avoid pork,” he said. The consultant, trying to reconcile being gay and Muslim, divides his sins into the redeemable and those warranting hellfire. “Anal sex for either a man or woman is wrong, so when I really think about it, I tell myself not to have sex,” he said, describing a failed four-year experiment with celibacy. “I live with what I am doing, but I don’t want to live in a double standard, I don’t want to go through life unhappy.”
November 29, 2007
Two Cases Shed Light on Floggings in Muslim World: British Woman Spared Flogging, but Practice of Lashings not Going Away
by Russell Goldman
A British teacher charged in Sudan with inciting religious hatred was spared the maximum sentence of 40 lashings with a bamboo cane Thursday, but will spend 15 days in jail before being deported. Gillian Bibbons was charged after she allegedly allowed her her young students to name a teddy bear Muhammad, the name of the Muslim prophet. The one-day trial came just one week after a Saudi Arabian court increased the sentence of a 19-year-old rape victim to 200 lashes and six months in prison. According to a Justice Ministry statement, the woman invited the sexual attack by seven men because she was in a parked car with a man who was not a relative. The two highly publicized cases of women facing the ancient and painful sentence of flogging have aroused an outcry in the West, but the practice is common in some parts of the world, and such sentences aren’t extreme examples, experts say.
Human rights organizations describe corporal punishment as a violation of international bans on torture and call these sentences cruel and arbitrary. But academics say the practice is deeply ingrained, particularly in Gulf states, and local support increases in parallel with Western condemnation. By Saudi standards, the sentence of 200 lashings for the 19-year-old rape victim, known in the Saudi press as the Girl From Qatif for the crime of “illegal intermingling,” is not very high, said Chris Wilcke, the Saudi Arabia researcher at Human Rights Watch. Wilcke said that flogging is almost always a component of any Saudi sentence, and some lashings can number in the thousands. Last month two gay men in the Saudi city of Al-Bahah were convicted of sodomy and sentenced to 7,000 lashes each.
Floggings in Saudi Arabia typically take place Thursday nights outside of prisons or marketplaces. The accused is shackled and sometimes permitted to wear a single layer of clothing, like the popular Saudi tunic or dishdash. A police officer administers the lashes with a bamboo whip about 7 feet long. Under his arm, the officer will typically hold a copy of the Koran in order to regulate the power with which he can whip the accused. “In the sentence a judge will specify three things: One, the amount of lashes; two, whether the flogging will be held in the prison or publicly; and third, what portions are to be administered at one time,” Wilcke said. “No more than 60 to 70 lashes are administered at any one time with usually one to two weeks between floggings. Women will get 10 to 30 lashings a week; a man might get 50 to 60 per week.”
If a complete sentence was administered at once, the accused could potentially die. Doctors in Saudi Arabia examine prisoners before each flogging to determine if they are healthy enough to withstand the lashes. In 1993, British citizen Gavin Sherrard-Smith received 50 lashes for allegedly breaking an alcohol ban in the Gulf country of Qatar. He recently recounted his punishment in the Daily Mail, saying, “The blows were raining down on my body, from the shoulder blades to the calves, then back up again. But with each blow, the skin softened and the pain grew and grew to the point that my whole back felt like it was on fire. Soon it was unbearable, but they kept coming, mostly on my left shoulder and calf. I had to summon up all my control not to move. I didn’t realize the human body could generate and tolerate such pain. I had never felt anything like it before, and I hope I will never feel anything like it again.”
Lashing is a common penalty under Wahabi interpretations of sharia law, the Islamic religious laws that underpin the legal systems in Saudi Arabia and Sudan. For some crimes, the Koran specifies the number of lashes required. But for most crimes, the sentence is at the discretion of the judge hearing the case. Not everyone agrees that the Koran condones the flogging of women, however. “There is nothing in the Koran — that is there is no Koranic justification — for sentencing the Qatif woman to flogging,” said Yvonne Haddad, an Islamic history professor at Georgetown University. Flogging has not been used in all places at all times throughout the Islamic world. In the places where it continues to exist it is steeped more in local tradition than Islam. The practice varies from place to place. Pakistan has a flogging law, as does Iran. Most of the Gulf countries, especially those influenced by Wahabiism have flogging,” she said.
Human rights advocates question the arbitrary nature of the sentences and the administration of the punishments in public. On Nov. 5 Saudi Arabia amputated the hand of a convicted thief, Amr Nasr, the first such punishment reported in the kingdom in years. “Judges have a lot of discretion. One judge may give five lashings, another might give 500,” said Curt Goering, the senior deputy director of Amnesty International. “The public nature of the flogging adds to the humiliation and torture,” Goering said. “When the woman is accused, the sentence is still often carried out by men. Women sometimes are forced to publicly bear their skin in these very conservative societies.” Polls, however, find that strict interpretations of sharia law and corporal punishment are popular in the Muslim world.
“Sharia law is generally viewed positively by people living in Muslim countries,” said Dalia Mogahed of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies. “In forming legislation in predominantly Muslim countries, the majority of people want to see sharia as a source of law, and in some countries they want it as the only source.” In Egypt, which is secular, 96 percent of men and women associate justice for women with sharia compliance, Mogahed said. “The reaction to corporal punishment is mixed,” she said, “but when international pressure takes the form of an attack on sacred law rather than specific interpretations, people tend to dig their heels in and take the pressure as an attack on the faith itself. & International pressure is not necessarily bad but has to take on the right tone so it doesn’t ignite defenses.”
Official reaction from the governments of both countries has been mixed. Tuesday, while visiting the United States for the Annapolis Conference, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said his country’s government would review the sentence, but an official statement from the Justice Ministry earlier in the week supported the court’s decision. “The Saudi justice minister expressed his regret about the media reports over the role of the women in this case, which put out false information and wrongly defended her,” the ministry said on Saturday.
By Wednesday, the government had officially decided to review the case. Also Wednesday, one day after the Sudanese government said it would drop the charges against British teacher Gibbons, Khartoum reversed its decision and decided to charge her. Sudan’s top clerics, known as the Assembly of the Ulemas, said in a statement that parents at the school had handed them a book that the teacher was assembling about the bear. “She, in a very abusive manner, used the name of Prophet Muhammad, may Allah shame her,” according to the statement.
New book 2007: Gay Travels in the Muslim World, Edited by Michael Luongo (ch. 10 by GlobalGayz owner Richard Ammon)
Gay Islam discussion groups:
More Lesbian and Gay Muslim Websites:
-Gay Middle East: http://www.gaymiddleeast.com/
-Social support group: Imaan.org.uk
-Web site aims for a broad-based reformation, social justice, gender equality, pluralism and free inquiry: www.muslimwakeup.com
-Arab Gateway–includes pages on gay Islam
-Making friends: http://www.muslimfriends.com/
-Safra Muslim Lesbian Project
Mithly.com website: http://www.mithly.com/main/mainpage.htm -“find true value in self-actualization and self-expression”
The majority of Muslim countries, including supposedly ‘liberal’ ones like Tunisia as well as dictatorships like Sudan, outlaw same-sex relationships. See full article (October 2000) at:http://www.newint.org/issue328/holy.htm
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