Published: 29th June 2018
How The Queer Muslim Project is allowing LGBTQ Muslims find inner peace and acceptance
Rahman, founder of the Queer Muslim Project speaks about LGBTQ identities within the Islamic world and the importance of embracing your identity
This June, a rainbow half moon looked down on the world as Pride Month and Ramadan decided to visit us together. Let's get something very straight: this is not a sentence I ever expected to feel brave enough to piece together. Because, like thousands of the Muslim youth across the world, I thought my gender and sexual identity had to be kept separate from my religion. As comfortable as it is to live in this careful separation of worlds, there comes a time when a person must come to terms with their identity. My conversation with Rafiul Alom Rahman was just the wake-up call I needed and hopefully one that jolts the rest of us who are complacent into action.
As a student in Delhi University, Rafiul was skin deep in the queer movement. It wasn't long before he realised there weren't many others from his community to fight alongside him. He remembers, "I realised that there were hardly any LGBTQ Muslims in positions of leadership. There was a clear lack of representation." In 2014, as he began working on a research paper about the very subject, he realised that the problem ran much deeper. There were hardly any documents available pertaining to the LGBTQ community within Islam. "You find a lot of historical and literary documents but there is hardly any contemporary documentation on the lives and experiences of LGBTQ Muslims in India. This made me very curious," he says.
Fast-paced: An interfaith iftar organised by The Queer Muslim Project
"An overarching narrative that I found in my research was: you can either be queer or Muslim, that was sort of a given understanding. People tend to think that these identities are contradictory. This compelled me to think about people who believe in their faith but are also brave enough to embrace their sexuality," says Rafiul. Following this, he decided to pursue a PhD at the University of Texas, Austin and research on the same. "I changed my mind halfway through the course, I realised that it was not the route I wanted to take. I came from the world of community organising and have always been actively involved in organising students at the university. My heart was in community building, so I decided to discontinue the programme and returned back to India," he says.
In March 2017, Rafiul founded The Queer Muslim Project, a Facebook page to address the amount of misinformation he saw around him and with the hope to spread knowledge about the lives and experiences of queer Muslims. He says, "During my time in the US, I came across a lot of LGBTQ groups. Once, I attended an interfaith LGBTQ event at a church where people spoke about their specific experiences. It was an inspiring experience. I was also inspired by numerous organisations like the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity and the Muslims of Progressive Values who have provided a lot of resources and facilities for the LGBTQ community, produced progressive interpretations of Islamic theology and facilitated inclusive mosque initiatives." In a hope to bring peace to a community in limbo, Rafiul decided to bring this fervour home.
I think that queer Muslim experiences are as numerous and diverse as there are queer Muslim people. People navigate and negotiate their sexuality in different ways. I know an individual who has completely given up on his faith because he feels that mainstream Islam is not accepting of homosexuality and has found respite in holding on to his sexual identity. I also know of someone else who is comfortably navigating both. What happens is, when he's in queer spaces, he's queer and back home, he's a conventional Muslim
Rafiul Alom Rahman, Founder, The Queer Muslim Project
"There are also people in the movement who have given up on the faith and have fully embraced their sexual and gender identities. But there are people from smaller towns with conventional Muslim backgrounds who have come to terms with their sexuality but are not able to articulate it because of the fear of being judged," Rafiul points out. "For them, there is a cost involved. It might endanger their lives or their families. This is what keeps people from speaking out and they crawl back into their cocoons and shrink, losing their self-esteem and hoping that life simply passes." Through the project, Rafiul and many like him have managed to open up a little bit of space. The response from the community has been overwhelming, to say the least. He says, "People are so glad that something of the sort exists in India and that they are happy to know that there are other people like them who have experiences they can share."
Rafiul's treasure trove of coming out stories are a delight on their own. He recounts the story of a group member, saying, "For her, coming out is constant. Even now, she has to technically come out every 3 months to her parents because they try to act like her sexuality is just a phase that she will move on from. As someone who has been involved with this community and the cause for a while, what is important to me is to bring out these narratives and experiences and say we are not a one-size-fits-all community and you can't push our experiences under the carpet and try to make us invisible." As unexpected as this tone of defiance is between his peaceful banter, it teems with a sense of hope.
Faithful Encounters: The first LGBTQ Muslim consultation was held in Bengaluru
This May, the project has spread its wings and made its way into major cities of the country. On May 13, the group conducted the first Muslim LGBTQ consultation in India in a hope to conduct an assessment of their audience before going offline. Working in partnership with Aneka Trust, an NGO working for the human rights of sexual minorities in Bangalore, they organised a one-day consultation. Following a powerful session where moving stories and experiences were shared about what people had to overcome, they learnt about the interventions that the community was desperately in need of.
This enabled the group to establish a chapter in Bangalore, an interfaith iftar and to set up a network of volunteers in Delhi. "The most amazing thing is that it was not just queer people or Muslims, it was everyone coming together as a community to discuss how we could move forward. It was honestly beautiful. We had entered the last few days of Ramadan and Pride Month was in full swing. The event managed to beautifully capture the intersection of queer Muslim lives that often get lost in the noise," says Rafiul. Currently, they are planning an LGBTQ Muslim retreat that they hope to organise by the end of the year with the idea to bring together the community.
I ask Rafiul what his dream is for the future. "I believe in a world where you can just be who you are. Where you can proudly announce that you are both queer and Muslim and no one bats an eyelid. That's what I imagine. A world where you can really be who you are where people show their values through love, compassion, inclusion and solidarity. That's the world that we would like to help create." Rafiul dreams with his eyes wide open. Here's to hoping that he speaks for the rest of us.