Posts Tagged LGBTQ Muslims
Sitting in a meeting at work. There’s a chairperson, an agenda, and the promise that we should all be out of here within an hour. Most of the others there have a lot more experience dealing with the stuff that is being discussed than I do, so I basically keep quiet and listen.
Among the issues that comes up is gender balance in our clientele and how this is going to be recorded in a report. I quickly realize that by “gender balance” what they mean is the number of females as compared to the number of males. There is no room in either the discussion or the relevant section of the report for people who don’t identify as either “male” or “female.”
I sit there, feeling more and more uneasy. It’s not just this meeting and this report—most of the forms I have seen in use here ask for gender (even when there doesn’t seem to be any particular reason why the gender of the person filling the form would be relevant), and only allow for “male” and “female” options. As though there are no other gender identities out there.
As though people who aren’t either “male” or “female” don’t exist.
“She may not deny herself to her husband, for the Qur’an speaks of husband and wife as a comfort to one another.”
[Trigger warning for rape and domestic violence survivors]
When I was a conservative Muslim, I used to read voraciously. Everything that I could get my hands on about Islam, and especially, about what was expected of us as Muslim women. I don’t recall where I read this particular sentence, but I know that I encountered it in some Muslim book or pamphlet-or-other fairly early on.
And it puzzled me. Because if husbands and wives are supposed to be a comfort to one another, that sounded to me then like a, well, mutually supportive and fulfilling relationship. So how did this then come to mean a hierarchical relationship, in which wives are obliged to service their husbands’ sexual demands, and aren’t allowed to say “no”? Where is the “comfort” for the wife in that relationship, then?
This sort of sentence ought to have sent me running far, far away in the other direction, of course. Because the red flags were all there, waving right in my face.
But it hadn’t.
And now, here I was, driving along a lonely country road with many miles to go before I would reach my destination, and as if from nowhere, that sentence popped into my head. And with it, the nauseating feeling of guilt… and then the flash-backs came.
Never again, I said aloud. Never again. Never again will I allow myself to be put in any position in which anyone can possibly think that they have the “right” to lay a single finger on me.
The flash-backs receded, as I reaffirmed to myself that I will never, ever be in this position again. Never ever will I have to bargain over access to my own body. Never ever will I fear divine displeasure, or angelic curses, or condemnation on the Day of Judgment because I wanted a decent night’s sleep or couldn’t bear to have this or that part of my body touched tonight. Never again would I be put in the position of being held responsible before God and the community for another person’s sexual “morality.”
And as they receded, I realized that this can’t be right. Why would marital sex leave any woman feeling as though she had finally managed to run trespassers off her land? As though she had finally gotten her body back, and would never, ever let anyone anywhere near its boundaries again? Isn’t that how a… well… a rape victim might be expected to feel?? But this had been marriage!
In Islam as I was taught it, following the sunna in the literal, mimetic sense was the goal. Belief wasn’t separate from physical practice. Sure, our intentions, as well as having sound belief (aqida) were seen as absolutely essential, or one’s actions wouldn’t be accepted or rewarded by God. But it was the physical practice was the focus, really.
And the sunna as it was presented to us was all about the body. Molding our daily physical habits—how we slept, woke up, used the toilet, bathed, ate, drank, dressed, left the house….
But this focus on our bodies worked out differently for men and women and genderqueer folks: Men were to follow the life-example of the Prophet. Women were to follow his example too, except when it came to the (numerous) points when gender affects the law, and then they were to follow the example of the Prophet’s wives and female Companions. Genderqueer people… didn’t have a pattern to follow at all, because their existence wasn’t even acknowledged. The bodiliness of the practice of the sunna effectively erased their very existence, forcing them to lie daily to themselves as they attempted to live a gendered pattern that wasn’t their own.
Some time ago, I stumbled upon a fascinating discussion on Stephanie’s now-defunct blog, about Muslim identity among Muslim converts—who were mostly either fairly liberal, or had deconverted. It’s in the comments of one post, as well as in another entire post on this topic (plus the comments).
One comment from Signy outlines a view that I have often encountered on Muslim identity as it pertains to converts in particular:
“It is interesting to think about what labels we apply to us, and what meanings they hold and what a community or society at large says we are or aren’t, and what meaning that holds. There are people who call themselves “Muslim” who would not be considered thus by the mainstream sunni or shia or even some progressives. Are they still Muslims? Is a Muslim one who says he or she is? And my question always has been, if one rejects some of the core tenets of the faith, then why bother with the label unless it is for nostalgia or heritage? I think a lot of us – not all of us – go through a “still Muslim, but not like that…” phase. And then we get past it.”
Yes, what’s the point of identifying as a Muslim if most “mainstream” Muslims don’t think that you are one?
For converts, this opens up a lot of difficult questions, because in my experience at least, even believing and doing the right things to the best of one’s ability doesn’t necessarily mean that born Muslims will really accept you as one of them. Quite the contrary.
The other night when I was over at No Longer Quivering, I saw a post by a white American woman from an evangelical/fundamentalist Christian background who is carrying out what she calls a “burqa experiment.” (Insert groan here.)
Well, it’s not as though that hasn’t already been done to death by white women. It’s hard to see what she thinks she can add to the “findings” that are out there. Not to belabor the obvious, but when a white non-Muslim woman puts on hijab, she can only experience… what it’s like to be a white non-Muslim woman wearing hijab.
She can’t experience what it like wearing it as a white convert, even, much less what wearing it as a Muslim woman of color would be like. There are multiple North American Muslim experiences of wearing hijab. Even among my white convert friends, women who were very obviously white even when they wore hijab (due to their height, eye color, skin tone, mannerisms…) had different experiences from those whose whiteness was less evident to the casual eye.
Her post seems to suggest that her “experiment” is motivated in part by wondering how much discrimination hijab-wearing Muslim women face—in other words, what it is like to be “othered” in America. It should be unnecessary to say again what has been said before by many others, and a lot more eloquently: You can’t experience being an Other in this way, because any time you like you can remove that hijab and resume your “normal” unmarked existence with few or no problems.
As white converts, we both had and didn’t quite have that privilege, which makes our experiences of hijab much different from those of Muslim women of color. Those of us who did end up dehijabing were able to blend back into white society to varying but significant extents, which is an option that women of color simply don’t have. Yet, for many years, a lot of us honestly didn’t believe that we ever could or would remove our hijab, because that would be so grave a sin that it would be unthinkable. We wore it even in situations when we really should have seriously considered modifying it if not completely taking it off. I ended up being pretty much compelled to dehijab, and I had to make the decision much more quickly than I was comfortable doing, due to economic necessity. I found the process really difficult, and very guilt- and shame-inducing, for a number of reasons. The after-effects of that still haven’t left me.
So, it’s National Coming Out Day. The day that marks the importance of coming out for LGBTQ folks.
In the insular, conservative Muslim communities that I have been involved with in the ’80’s and early ’90’s, coming out was unacceptable. It was so far from acceptable that it was rarely even acknowledged as a possibility.
Coming out—or more often, being found out—was usually equated with having supposedly made the choice to be a sinner, and to sin openly.
This myth—that being LGBTQ is a choice which people willfully make because they want to indulge in sin—was believable to so many for so long in part because almost no one came out.
Oh, some brothers dodged marriage for years, claiming poverty or studies or “they just hadn’t found the right woman yet.” There were those women who put off getting married—or once divorced, didn’t seek to marry again—or who stayed in loveless marriages and poured their emotional energies into very close friendships with other women. Some people might suspect, or even whisper about them. But they didn’t speak openly about their experiences and lives, so the community didn’t have to deal with the reality of LGBTQ Muslims in their midst.
On May 17 in 1990, the World Health Organization finally took homosexuality off their list of mental illnesses. Today, which is the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO), this milestone is commemorated.
As I was reading a statement issued by a number of Arab LGBTQ groups about IDAHO, I began thinking about the complex relationships that gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, transgendered, genderqueer, and asexual converts often have to Islam and Muslim communities. And more specifically, the toll that conversion often tends to exact, depending on when, why, and under what circumstances people convert.
Some convert before they really realize that their sexual orientation or their gender identity (which are two very different things, BTW) are outside the heterosexual or cisgendered “norm.” This is especially likely to happen when people convert in their teens, particularly if they come from fairly sheltered or religiously conservative backgrounds.
Some converts report that they only found out after converting (sometimes, a good while after) what Islamic law has to say about certain same-sex sexual acts, or encountered Muslim homophobia or transphobia.
In the news today: President Obama has finally endorsed same-sex marriage publicly. A rather daring thing to do, in an election year.
I thought about the long, difficult process that had to occur for things to get to the point where the president of the United States of America can make such a statement, and have a fair number of Americans applaud him for showing principled leadership—rather than having the overwhelming majority declare him crazy and demand that he be carted off to a mental institution. Anyone my age can remember a time when to be gay or lesbian meant to be socially invisible, to lack equal rights under the law, to not be taken seriously as a human being.
What brought about this major shift in the ways that lesbians and gays are perceived? LGBTQ activism, protests, and court cases played a role, of course. The tireless efforts of organizations and individuals to educate. The efforts of some religious leaders to rethink old interpretations that branded all gays and lesbians as evil sinners. But what drove all this work and activism and rethinking? And, what has made so many average Americans who aren’t particularly interested in political activism or psychology or religious debates decide that gays and lesbians deserve equal rights, including the right to marry?
Stories. The stories of people you know, as well as of people you don’t, or of fictional characters. Stories in books. In poetry. In film. In the media. On youtube. Stories from people you know. Stories about what it’s like to grow up, and begin to realize that you aren’t attracted to the so-called opposite sex. Stories about what it’s like to live in a homophobic world, and the toll it takes. Stories about what it’s like when you find out that your brother, your sister, your cousin, your child is gay. Stories about teens and adults driven to self-harm or suicide because of the prejudice they face. Stories about gay-bashings, and those who survive them—and those who do not. Love stories. Funny stories too. Human stories that make people question their prejudices, and question discriminatory social attitudes and laws.
And I wondered when or if “mainstream” North American Muslim leaders will have such an “Obama moment.” When they will come to the realization that what they teach about LGBTQ people is causing harm, and resolve not to be the cause of harm to others any more. After all, the stories of queer Muslims are increasingly being told by Muslims, in film, in books, and elsewhere.
I would like to think that queer Muslim stories will make a difference.
Thinking about this, I was drawn into a vortex of memories, about the way I was taught to see such issues. About how I believed for years that living a miserable life was far better than a “sinful” one.