It’s difficult to be queer in Muslim spaces and Muslim in queer spaces in India

Being queer Muslim and Indian Battling homophobia and Islamphobia together
Features Let's Talk LGBTQ+ Thursday, June 23, 2016 - 14:55

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The past five years in Delhi have made Rafiul Alom Rahman realise that where he now is is only slightly better than what he left behind in his hometown in Meghalaya. Brought up in a Muslim cultural environment, he could not understand his own discomfort with the idea of being straight but there was no one to turn to. In Delhi, he realized he could explore his sexual identity. But often, LGBTQ or queer spaces came with their own limitations.

As a Muslim, Rafiul says, a queer person is doubly stigmatized: First, because you tend to grow up in a religious and cultural environment that is homophobic, and second, because the prevalent Islamophobia views you with suspicion. Driven by the question of how Muslims negotiate their religious and sexual identities in India, Rafiul is soon to embark on a PhD on the subject with the University of Texas, Austin.

“I studied in a boarding school where there was no access to knowledge around sexual identity. I didn’t know there was something called (an) LGBTQ (community),” Rafiul says. The only reference point to a non-heteronormative person was a hijra, who was feared. “We are taught to fear anyone who is different. Hijras are visible, but they’re feared because they are seen as emasculated men who ‘can’t perform’.”

In any ordinary Muslim household, not just his own, he says, religious beliefs trickle down through the local mosque via patriarchal religious and non-religious structures. The mainstream understanding of homosexuality in Islamic texts, Rafiul says, comes from the story of the people of Lot in the Quran.

Lot was a prophet whom God sent to warn his people against robbery and rape of male travellers. Although Lot warned the people, they refused to listen and were destroyed by God. This story, Rafiul says, is used to interpret that the Quran condemns homosexuality.

“There is no question of consent here; what Lot’s people did was sexual assault. In any case, this is not how we understand homosexuality today. How can you talk of identities in such simplistic terms? Homosexuality is a complex social and psychological identity,” Rafiul says.

This reading of the story of Lot is tied to larger questions of the interpretations of Islamic texts, Rafiul says. “This one-size-fits-all interpretation is very patriarchal, and benefits patriarchy.”

Contrary to popular perception, alternative readings of homosexuality in the Quran do exist.

Academic Scott Kugle, for instance, has argued that homosexual people are simply one of the tribes that god created out of men and women. Such readings are simply dismissed as “misinterpretations”.

Thus, Islamic scholar Amina Wadud has either been shouted down, or prevented from speaking. In July 2013, University of Madras cancelled a lecture by the American scholar because of protests.

“Amina Wadud is asking radical questions and is being condemned by male scholars. She points out that scriptural translations are done by heterosexual men, and that when women do it, there’s bound to be a different reading. She also says we shouldn’t leave it to men to tell us about women.”

These debates however, do not find a place in Friday sermons at the local mosque. “What is heard, is what is sanctioned by mainstream scholarship.”

Combined with social conditioning towards masculinity, homophobia rooted in religious interpretation makes life “very difficult” for a queer Muslim child. “There is no LGBTQ vocabulary in a middle class home. We are taught that what we are feeling is wrong. If you start accepting yourself as a sexual being, as gay or lesbian, you are in conflict with your faith. But I believe there does not necessarily have to be a contradiction. I’ve had access to different readings of Islamic scriptures, but more resources need to be made available to people,” Rafiul says.

Rafiul’s reading for a research paper in 2014 led him to a find a near absolute lack of socio-anthropological work on queer Muslims in India.

The Sachar Committee report for instance, deals with gender in a very limited fashion but is completely silent on the question of queer Muslims, Rafiul says. “That’s when I became more interested in how queer Muslims articulate themselves, how they negotiate their sexual and religious identities.”

From personal experience, Rafiul says there aren’t really any queer Muslim spaces in India, given the silence and invisibility that mark LGBTQ Muslims.

Rafiul says when he applied for a passport, his landlord agreed to be listed as a local witness but when the police came for verification, he refused point blank. “He feared that the police would question him about me some day.”

Once at a queer gathering, he was asked why he wanted to “complicate matters” by talking about Dadri or similar issues. The attitude, Rafiul says, is one of “‘We don’t have basic rights. You’re asking for too much.’ It’s all about being gay and nice. It was felt that talking about Muslim issues takes away from the specificity of being queer.”

At minority rights meetings or events the standard response was: “This community is struggling to send girls to school, and you’re talking about homosexuality. There has to be a time for everything.”

“You can’t be queer in a Muslim space and Muslim in a queer space,” Rafiul says. But this sense of displacement, isn’t an easy binary. “Often, the silence imposed on a queer person in a religious space is far more overwhelming,” Rafiul says.

Making the debate a fight between the Muslim and LGBTQ communities, is missing the point, Rafiul says. “There are people who carry both these identities, and we have it harder.”

Countries such as Canada or the US do have spaces where you can be both queer and Muslim. There are initiatives such as the Unity mosque in Toronto.

“In Philadelphia, an LGBTQ Muslim retreat is organized every year, where everyone prays – practicing, non-practicing, ex-Muslims, everybody prays together. There is a home, if not a family of blood ties, that you can go to. There is, as Leela Gandhi says, an affective community; a community tied by emotion.”

Recalling the horrific shooting in Orlando, Rafiul says it is wrong to demand an apology from Muslims for Omar Mateen’s actions. “But you can’t be homophobic and condemn the killings. Questioning the Quran need not mean you detach from your faith, but that you engage with it more, and make it more inclusive to accommodate diversity. We constantly need to ask difficult questions about our faith in our homes, our community and in our mosques.”

Rafiul today runs The Queer Muslim Project, a first of its kind platform in India, working towards the empowerment of LGBTQI Muslims in India.  


Also read: Mocked and threatened: My ordeal as a gay man in the corporate world


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