When Rafiul Alom Rahman began his Ph.D. in Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin to pursue an ethnographic research on queer Muslims in India, he was faced with very little information. There was hardly any contemporary sociological work focused on this area. Realising that his interest in community development would not be fulfilled through this route, Rafiul decided to discontinue his Ph.D.
Contrastingly, in the West, especially in the US and Canada, he observed vibrant queer Muslim movements such as the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity (MASGD). Another group called Muslims for Progressive Values does inclusive readings of Islamic scriptures to provide a more accepting and pluralistic view of the religion.
Even in the new body of work of Islamic theology, Rafiul noticed that there is an inclusive reading of the religion. Inspired by these movements, he decided to come back to India and start an online platform that can act as a safe space for queer Muslims. This was the start of the Facebook page – The Queer Muslim Project.
Need for a safe space
Rafiul believes that the discourse regarding sexuality has been very linear with the primary focus being on law and queer rights. Faith and sexuality have not been explored as interwoven aspects of social life. This, according to him, is a problem as the mainstream idea about what faith says regarding the LGBTQ community is that their actions are sinful and punishable.
“I always say that being a queer Muslim is a double bind. That is because of the understanding that Islam prohibits homosexuality. So people either let go of their religious identity or they repress their natural sexual orientation because they believe both of them cannot go together,” says Rafiul, who also started the Delhi University Queer Collective when he studied there.
The reason for these beliefs is the dearth of information available in India regarding these two subjects. Therefore, through The Queer Muslim Project he took a baby step in creating a safe space for the queer Muslim community where they can engage in conversation, share different experiences and even share resources. Rafiul, through this page, has created an inclusive community.
“Even in the queer community, if you are too articulate about your identity as a Muslim you are scorned,” he adds, speaking about the need for this movement.
Rafiul’s aim is to provide a free online space where people can talk about their experiences and dilemmas. He says that since homophobia stems from ignorance, sharing resources from Western academia and practices happening in the West, we can create a more accepting society. Though these practices are not replicable as such, the information is helpful in increasing awareness, he believes.
“I started an online page before going into ground-level advocacy as many may not be comfortable coming out openly. Also, a lot of the youth and the queer community are online so I decided it was a good platform to begin the movement,” he said.
“When I say Muslim, I use the word in its widest sense. One may not be a practising Muslim but may identify with the term in the political context of being a minority in the country. Even they are welcome here,” he said.
What started as an open Facebook page soon evolved to closed groups on WhatsApp and Facebook where people who felt that they needed a safe platform to talk about their experiences and voice doubts without judgments being passed interacted.
First offline event
“Last year, many reached out from Bengaluru saying they wanted to create a chapter in the city dedicated to offline advocacy. They wanted to meet informally, share experiences and conduct book readings and movie screenings. They met a few times. Around that time Anshi Zachariah from the NGO Aneka and I started talking. These discussions inspired us to host the first offline consultation which is scheduled to take place on May 13 in Bengaluru,” he said.
The response to their announcement of the consultation was surprising even for Rafiul as the RSVPs exceeded the limit very soon with people from across south India registering. The event will feature a diverse line-up of speakers, all of who are interested in queer Muslim issues.
Right now the project is moderated by a group of 10 people and Rafiul thinks it is a work in progress. “It is a voluntary community initiative and anybody from any city can take the lead and start a chapter there,” he said about expanding the project.
Being a sensitive topic, the project receives a lot of hate from conservatives. “We are trolled constantly through messages and comments on our posts. I use my best weapon to tackle it – humour. I deliberately write a sweet and sarcastic reply,” Rafiul laughs.
Another challenge is that a lot of misconceptions and ignorant questions are thrown at them due to the lack of awareness.
On encountering people who are conditioned that being queer is a sin, he deals with them with empathy. “I try to explain that faith is a very personal experience. Who gets to judge you? If you believe in your god and think he is merciful and beneficent then why do you think god would punish you for something as natural as sexual orientation? Empathy is my tool. I explain to them that one doesn’t have to justify who they are.”
People from the community often feel discriminated due to the prevalent social bias and conditioning. They are discriminated against by society and people who follow the same faith as them, leaving them with fears and doubts, in turn forcing them to repress their natural identity.
“The discrimination comes from the position of not knowing. This is why I keep sharing videos, pictures and posts regarding this topic on the Facebook page to increase awareness and help people accept them as they are. Seeing that there are Muslims who are queer just like them has helped many people. Apart from that, having queer Muslim role models in all spheres of life and not just fashion designing and acting would really help people become more accepting. Fortunately, there are a lot of queer people succeeding in various spheres today,” Rafiul said.
He also believes that empathy in people both within and outside the community is very important to change the way the world works.