Queer Muslims claim their space in the East Bay

Mosque Qalbu Maryam, a safe space for Queer Muslims in Berkeley.

Mosque Qalbu Maryam, a safe space for Queer Muslims in Berkeley.

“Choose discomfort over resentment” reads the tattoo on Shenaaz Janmohamed’s right arm. The Oakland-based psychotherapist, who has Muslim South Asian origins, defines herself as a “queer femme mama.” She became a mother two years ago, and said that change gave her “clarity” to devote her time to healing her community: queer Muslims.

Janmohamed is a minority within a minority. She identifies as a Shia queer, and is in a relationship with a genderqueer partner (a person who identifies with neither, both, or a combination of male and female genders). “I felt like a misfit. I am Shia, which is a minority in Islam. I have always felt in the outskirts,” she said.

Now she is claiming a space for the queer and trans Muslims, challenging traditional interpretations of Islam that portray homosexuality as a sin. Being gay and Muslim in this part of the world can be challenging. Janmohamed said that many queer Muslims feel lonely and “doubly isolated,” because they feel that in queer spaces they can’t be Muslims, and in Muslim spaces they have to hide their queer side.

But instead of making herself “small” and trying to move away from her community, she choose the “discomfort” of making more space for herself to “create more consciousness about the experience of difference.” So last October she set up the Queer Muslim Support Group, so that people can get together to embrace their identities. They are funded by the Akonadi Foundation, a non-profit that seeks to create a racially just society. A few weeks ago, she quit her job as a therapist in a high school to devote her time to the support group. The idea is to create a safe space “where people can come together, listen to each other, support each other, witness each other,” she said. “We have the tools and the power within us to heal ourselves.”

Twice per month, around ten trans and queer Muslim meet at Qulture Collective—a queer space in Oakland. Some people go to every workshop; others just attend one. “It’s up to what they need,” Janmohamed said.

The participants are mostly young people from the East Bay or San Francisco, but some have travelled all the way from Sacramento. The group’s doors are open to people who are born into any branch of Islam—Sunni, Shia, Sufis—as well as those who have converted, people who identify politically or culturally as Muslim, or people who are multi-faith.

The idea of the support group is “to simultaneously honour and be proud of our Muslim-ness and claim, ‘Yes, we are queer Muslims, but that doesn’t make us any less Muslim,’” she said. The Muslim community, she said, is “like a chorus. It is like different sounds and experiences, but we are all Muslim.”

Together they try to create a space to “celebrate each other instead of focusing on the negative, the hardship and depression,” Janmohamed said. But sometimes, participants need to vent. In one of the workshops, a girl shared with the group how she had been harassed on BART for wearing a hijab. “Then we brainstorm how can we support her to feel safe. We told her, ‘That’s fucked up, there’s nothing wrong [with your hijab]ou didn’t do anything,’” Janmohamed recalled. To avoid such Islamophobic aggressions, they have created a buddy system in case someone needs to be accompanied, for instance on public transit. They plan to do a self-defense course, too.

The support group isn’t the only organization in the Bay Area that is challenging traditional ideas about sexuality within the Muslim community. Mosque Qalbu Maryam, located in Berkeley, is a LGTBQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning) friendly mosque, which means that everybody is welcomed. “The mosque itself has no gender,” said Rabi’a Keeble, the mosque’s founder.

Keeble sees a parallel between their progressive approach to Islam and the civil rights movement. “It is about ‘othering’ people,” she said, referring to the practice of placing a group outside what is considered the norm. “With the civil rights movement, we had it in black and white, but now we have it in black, white and rainbow,” she said. She points the aversion of some Muslims towards minorities like the Shia, the Ahmadiyya (a Islamic movement based in Punjab) or the LGTBQ community. “Somehow Islam has become this ‘I am against people’ religion, rather than gathering people in,” she said.

This inclusive approach is what prompted Tuli to join this mosque. Tuli, an 18-year-old who prefers to be identified only by her first name, recently moved to Berkeley to study molecular cell biology. “I am gay and I am Muslim and I am very out about that in my life,” said Tuli.

“I was raised being taught that you should speak your truth and that you should never be ashamed of who you are,” continued Tuli. Raised in a non-Muslim family, she said that her mother is not happy with her being Muslim and gay. “But I really internalised those values in my own way,” she said said with a smile. “I love myself. I am doing well.”

Coming out hadn’t been really hard, Tuli said. “I went into it knowing that I will lose some people or lose the kind of relationship that I had with them,” she said. “I have made the decision to express who I am wherever I am, and a lot of times that means people treat me differently, or I am not included in the spaces that I was before.”

Tuli is now a regular visitor at the mosque, where sometimes she even leads prayer. “We pretty much hang out on Fridays, and talk, and talk,” she said.

“This is the way the traditional mosque was. The Prophet, peace be upon him, spent hours talking to people and teaching and sharing,” added Keeble. “But we formalized everything, and by formalizing things we become restrictive. We become burdened down with these ideas about what is proper and what is not proper.”

On a sunny Friday, Keeble prepared carpets for the Dhuhr prayer for the two of them, as well as a third worshipper, Sandra Juanita. They situated themselves facing Mecca and Tuli led the prayer, her voice getting mixed with the sound of the little fountain of the backyard. After the prayer faded out, the mosque became a space of dialogue as the three of them drank tea.

As they talked, Keeble mentioned a person she knows who “doesn’t have a sexuality.”

Tuli and Juanita looked at each other. “Asexual?” asked Tuli.

“No, I think they call themselves … gender fluid?” said Keeble.

“That’s gender. That’s not sexuality,” Tuli said confidently.

The conversation went on, exploring terms like gender fluid, non-binary, intersex or androgyny. They resorted to Google to clarify some concepts. Tuli pointed out that that conversation shows that despite being an LGTBQ-friendly mosque, they need to get more educated, and Keeble agreed.

To create more spaces for people to gather, next fall Tuli is planning to organize some kind of queer/trans muslim support group on the UC Berkeley campus. The idea is to create a confidential space where people can see others like them, have safe conversations, ask questions and be supported. “It is very needed,” she said. “Everyone who I talk to seems to think that they are relatively alone, and they don’t have very good resources for how to deal with their orientation or their faith.”

Both women are aware that the Bay Area may be more welcoming to queer Muslims than other places. But they won’t go as far as saying that it is easy to be a gay Muslim. “We know that San Francisco became the Mecca for gays, but the Muslim community exists outside that bubble. Even if geographically they are in the Bay Area, they operate outside that bubble that gives people so much freedom. As soon as you step into a mosque, [the bubble] is gone,” said Keeble.

Tuli has heard stories about young people telling their imams about their sexuality. “They are just told, ‘Don’t come back to the mosque. You are not welcomed here. You are not a Muslim,’” she said.

Doctor Mohamed Rajabally, former president of the Islamic Society of the East Bay, currently leads prayer in different mosques in the Bay Area. Born in Mauritius Island, he has been in the United States for 35 years. To date, he said, no worshipper at a mosque has ever come to him to tell him about their sexual orientation.

But he said that while he would treat that person with respect, his faith does not condone homosexuality. Quoting Chapter 7 of the Koran (verses 80-84), he said that Islam sees homosexuality as sinful, “as in all the scriptures belonging to the Abrahamic faith,” which include Christianity and Judaism. “What the Koran says is not different from the classical interpretation in the Bible and the Old Testament,” he said. He said that the Koran establishes that the purpose of copulation is for the preservation of the species, and “in homosexuality you can’t have that. That’s why in Islam we call it an unnatural way, because it is opposed to the divine plan.”

That said, Rajabally emphasized, each person should be treated with respect, and that their constitutional rights should be honored. He said that God “in his wisdom, love and mercy has given humankind the freedom of choice. … And we have to respect that. Everybody has the freedom to be what they want to be.”

“We don’t discriminate, we don’t harass them,” he said referring to people who are LGBTQ and Muslim. But, he added, “We don’t endorse it.”

“If they are homosexual, that’s between them and God,” he continued. “Nobody is going to stop them if they come to the mosque. But if they come to the mosque promoting or advertising homosexuality, we say, ‘Don’t come.’”

He made a parallel with the faith’s interdiction against drinking alcohol. “Islam doesn’t allow alcohol,” he said. “There are some Muslims that drink. That is between them and God. But they cannot come to the mosque with a bottle of beer—we will kick you out. In any club or organisation, there are certain disciplines that if you don’t follow, you don’t belong.”

In some countries, the treatment of LGBTQ Muslims is much more severe. According to the latest report on state-sponsored homophobia by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans And Intersex Association, 71 countries, mostly in Africa and Asia, still consider “homosexual acts” illegal. The 13 countries that punish “homosexual acts” with death are predominantly Muslim, with the exception of Nigeria, where half the population is Christian.

Janmohamed acknowledges that people often struggle with the “scriptures, written under the guides of patriarchy, that tell me that I am wrong.” So her group has turned to other authors with more progressive views, like Omid Sadi, director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center and author of Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism; the feminist Islamic scholar Amina Wadud; or Dr. Kecia Ali, a religion professor at Duke and the author of Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence.

“We sit with those interpretations and we try to queer it up. What does it mean for us queer people? When they talk about gender in a very binary way, what does it mean for people in the group that aren’t buying into that binary?” she asked. “It’s all about interpretation, so why can we not also think about our own interpretations?”

Outside the Muslim community, queer Muslims also face obstacles, Janmohamed pointed out. “The 45 presidency—these are very hard times for folks of color, for queer and trans Muslims. We are either ‘invisibilized’ or kind of fetishized,” she said. Muslims are often portrayed as inherently violent, brutal, misogynistic or unaccepting, which puts her in a tricky situation: “Muslim folks are under attack, and so I feel the need of protecting them. But at the same time as a queer Muslim I also need to speak my truth,” she said. “That’s the tension: I am protecting a community that doesn’t always protect me, and that is hard. It is very painful. It is disappointing.”

She is also concerned that she, as a queer person being rejected by the broader Muslim community, might be used by non-Muslims to portray Muslims as unaccepting. “A lot of time, queer people can be used to say, ‘Oh, these Muslim people are so backwards. Look at this queer Muslim—she had to be saved from her religion and now she is living this great life,’” she said.

So far, Janmohamed’s Queer Muslim Support Group hasn’t found a mosque to partner with—although she’s hoping to meet Keeble during Ramadan, which is coming up in mid-May. Janmohamed is putting together a program for a “Ramadan Ready: Healing Iftar series for Queer and Trans Muslims and Allies.” The events will feature community organizers and healers, and be a place for people to gather and build community.

Ramadan is the holy month for Muslims that commemorates the first revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad. Celebrating Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. People fast during the daylight hours to purify themselves. Queer Muslims also want to have those spiritual experiences, even if the broader community does not always accept them. “If they aren’t going to be handed down to us by our family or our community, we are going to claim it ourselves,” Janmohamed said.

 

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