Being Queer and Muslim
As part of Mardi Gras Queer Thinking, lawyer and social justice activist Alyena Mohummadally will talk about how she reconciles her religious identity with her sexual identity. She spoke to CHERRIE about the challenges and realities of being Muslim and queer.
Can you tell us a bit about your background?
I identify as Pakistani Australian – both the ‘P’ and the ‘A’ are equally important to me. Both of my parents are Pakistani, but have lived in Australia for many years and came here as skilled immigrants when I was three. I also identify as Muslim and in particular I use, when appropriate, queer Muslim when asked. I am also a mum, a lawyer, a partner, a daughter, a sister and an activist!
Are you out in terms of your family? If so, what were some of the fears you had about coming out, if any?
Yes, I am out to my parents, but it wasn’t an overnight coming out acceptance moment for my parents, but a long process which at one point had me ‘go back in’ to please my family. However, for all the tears and fears, they never rejected me and even though it has been hard, they love my partner and accept our 21-month-old child as their grandson – yes – this is big.
Can you tell us about your journey with reconciling being Muslim and queer?
It wasn’t easy, I have always had strong faith beliefs and this is mainly because of being raised in a progressive Muslim household where we were encouraged to ask questions and seek answers. All I knew about sexuality and Islam was that heterosexuality was celebrated once married, which is a civil contract in Islam – not a sacrament, and that homosexuality in the use of the word to describe men who have sex with men – was forbidden. And lesbians didn’t even get a look in. In fact, most people would quote the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah and expect me to just accept that. However, even Sodom and Gomorrah has been re-interpreted to mean not homosexuals are punished, but people who abuse people and animals should be punished – namely those who rape and assault and condone and create violence, which is what my and others’ reading of the story is about. I want to stress here that being Muslim to me is about spirituality – having someone to thank, having someone to get angry with! It is not about rituals and uncontested faith. This is my Islam.
Was there a time when you thought you couldn’t be a practising Muslim and queer?
Yes. I had countless people tell me I couldn’t be queer and Muslim and I believed it. At one point I decided I didn’t need spirituality, but I wasn’t happy to reject it, I became quite lost in fact. And denying my sexuality didn’t work either – especially since I have always been an advocate in the queer community. This is a dark place of my life that I cannot re-visit, especially since I had no other queer Muslims around me when I came out very publicly in 2004.
What sort of challenges do you face from the more conservative aspects of the Muslim community?
I have had people say to me, “You cannot be gay” – their word – “and Muslim, it doesn’t exist in Islam.” To which I have had to reply, “Well, I do exist so it must be possible.” And no, this isn’t me attempting humour, people do challenge my very usage of the words ‘queer Muslim’.
What do you do to combat this?
It depends on who is challenging me. I pick my battles, and now the older I get and the fact I have a young family, I am more careful with who I decide to take on. I have learnt to walk away – which doesn’t come naturally to me.
What are the reactions and feedback you get when talk about reconciling your sexuality with your religion?
I have had non-Muslims question my existence as they believe they can tell me that my religion is so “evil” and “wrong” therefore it isn’t possible for me to have any sort of connection with Islam if I say I am queer. This has happened more than a few times, I put it down to Islamophobia or ignorance at times, and again try and deal with it the best I can. However, I have also had many, many wonderful people come up to me and thank me for sharing my story and for everyone who does that – it gives me a little bit more strength to go on.
I once interviewed two Lebanese Muslim sisters, who were queer and who had fled Sydney and were in “hiding” in Melbourne as they believed their father had ordered their brother to kill them. Obviously this is an extreme case and not the situation for all Muslim families with queer children, but do you still hear of stories like this? And what can be done to change these attitudes?
Unfortunately, I am not surprised. There is still a lot of ignorance in the Muslim community that being queer is so much of a shame or sin that to protect ‘family honour’, the unthinkable should happen – you should hurt one’s own family. But I still put this down to yes, extreme and uneducated families. Why would a family hurt itself? One of the most memorable and saddest moments for me when I came out – for the millionth time to my mother – had myself and her crying. Me, because she was, and she because she had said to me, “I am sad because your life will be so much harder now. As a parent you want to protect your children and I can’t if you choose this world to live in.” I cannot begin to explain how far they have come, yes they didn’t ever threaten violence but they have had to deal with a community gossiping and judging them as “failed parents” because of my sexuality. They have had scorn, derision, pity from people but also love, support and an embracing of difference from their world as well.
There are lot of misconceptions around being Muslim, what are some of the main ones for you?
I am bored with being asked why I don’t cover my hair. Really? Get on Google, people, and learn a bit about the history of covering one’s hair. If I sound harsh it is because I do not believe one symbol determines your identity, any more than you can work me out based on one aspect of my life.
How far reaching is the lack of understanding of Muslim culture in the mainstream gay community? How big an issue is this for queer Muslims?
The queer Muslim yahoogroup [Queer Muslims in Australia] I facilitate is a closed, moderated group and we still get emails from men “looking for Muslim cock”. That kind of fetishism doesn’t have a place in a yahoogroup, where most of the members aren’t even out and terrified that people will find them. Islam is not completely homogenous in that culture can and does influence it. Indonesian Muslims may have cultural practices very different to Pakistani Muslims. I recently met an Albanian Muslim who, obviously due to the conflict in her homeland, had a very different interpretation to cultural Islam as well. The basic tenets of Islam are the same world over, but approach differs. On the yahoogroup we have Lebanese Muslims who can have a very different view to Turkish Muslims and so on. I always say that no one is “right” but everyone should express their opinion, with respect, and I welcome dissent!
In this online forum, what are the main topics of conversation within that group, concerns, etcetera?
Every time a new member signs up we hear the same words, “Oh wow, I didn’t think this group existed, I thought I was the only one!” We have debates on ‘coming out’. For some, it isn’t safe and sometime we have people looking for sham marriages, this saddens me greatly, but I do not judge nor tell them. For some they have come out and have lost community and family support. And for some, they feel connected with people who can reconcile their faith/spirituality with their sexual and/or gender identity and this affirms that they are not alone in Australia. We have just over 100 members on our little yahoogroup, but I always say that is 100 brave people who have decided to find and make their own community.
Do you think there has been any change in terms of tolerance of Muslims in this country? Are we moving forward in this regard yet?
My partner and I were talking about that with the Aussie flags being oversold at the moment for January 26 and we still feel that there is still much to be done. Neither of us can reclaim the flag for our little boy who needed a towel at the beach one day and we hunted to buy one that had the least Australian flags on it. The flag reminds us of the Cronulla riots – and I will say that it was not one-sided and all parties deserve censure, but the association with violence and jingoism is not the Australia I grew up with in the 80s. No one cared that we were Muslim then, in fact my sister and I went to Anglican schools! On the other hand, Australians, and I use this terms for all Australians regardless of ethnicity, are a far more tolerant and accepting lot – looking world over, we do not have the issues that continue to simmer in other first world countries. Whether that is because we are less interested in addressing and acknowledging internal issues, or that we really are the ‘lucky country’ is a debate I won’t have enough time for in this magazine.
Are you in contact with queer groups in Pakistan or other Muslim countries? If so, what are some of the strategies activists are using to address queer rights in their countries?
I do chat with Faisal Alam – the founder of Al-fatiha in the USA – occasionally, but because the QMs in Australia group is specifically for Australians, we do not work outside of Australia. The truth is I am the only person on the yahoogroup who is willing to be publicly out and I have to conserve my energies. I have a co-facilitator to help with answering questions but it is me who is walking the streets announcing that I am a queer Muslim. We do try and work with anyone who wants to, though – the QMs in Australia has been approached by the Sydney based group Muslims Against Homophobia, which is made up of allies and friends to work on projects together.
How much can we do in Australia to help queer Muslims in less tolerant places? What should we be doing?
Recently, I have been approached by a filmmaker to make a documentary on me as the founder of the QMs in Australia yahoogroup and my story. I would not consider this, but for the fact that I am well aware that there have been stories of self-harm and suicide on the yahoogroup and every time I speak publicly I might assist someone to find us and join us before it is too late. We rely on word-of-mouth publicity and we do the best we can. If you know of anyone who might be on the journey of attempting reconciliation between faith and sexuality and/or gender identity – please tell them that they are not alone.
Alyena will be speaking at the Queer Thinking conference as part of Mardi Gras. February 25, 12.00pm, Everest Theatre - cnr City Road & Cleveland Street, University of Sydney
QUEER MUSLIMS IN AUSTRALIA
QMs (Queer Muslims in Australia) is a yahoogroup based in Australia for and by Muslims who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Questioning, Queer or/and Qurious (LGBTIQ) and wish to engage in a safe space online. We welcome and accept all Muslims and encourage involvement and participation as per the individual. Our vision is of a progressive and supportive forum that allows for and celebrates our diversity.
WITH EDUCATION THERE COMES LIBERATION...