Five moving stories about what it’s like to be a queer Muslim
Toronto writer Samra Habib began photographing queer Muslims in 2014. She’d heard issues about LGBT Muslims discussed in university classrooms, but knew an academic paper on the topic would never reach a queer kid in Pakistan who felt isolated from their community. But a street-style photography project might.
At the urging of her sister, 36-year-old Habib launched a Tumblr, Just Me and Allah, to showcase her subjects’ stories about the challenges of being queer and Muslim. “For a lot of my subjects, it’s difficult not only to find acceptance in traditional Muslim spaces, but to also fight against non-Muslim perceptions of what Muslim experiences are,” says Habib. “My intention was to give queer Muslims a platform to share their own stories in their own words.”
Just Me and Allah has evolved into a worldwide project, with subjects in Brooklyn, North Carolina and across Europe. In total, Habib has shot around 40 subjects, and now people contact her asking if they can take part. “It’s reaching people all over the world, especially people who really need to hear these stories,” says Habib. “Kids have reached out to me and said that the stories actually helped them come out to their parents.” Habib is currently writing a memoir about her own experiences as a queer Muslim, We’ve Always Been Here, due out in 2019.
Here, five moving stories from Habib’s series.
Assaad grew up in a Stockholm suburb and now lives in Linkoping, a city in southern Sweden. When his conservative parents wouldn’t accept his sexual orientation, he made the difficult decision to start a new life without his family.
“My relationship with Islam while growing up was quite traumatic. I never felt like I fit in, but at the same time, it was a part of my identity. So I was always, and still am, in limbo. During my high school years, I felt like an outsider because I was seen as ‘the Muslim’ in an all-white school. In my Muslim circles, I felt like an outsider because I didn’t fill the requirements of how a Muslim should act and be… My parents, who are conservative practicing Muslims, still don’t accept who I am, and my only option was to detach myself from my family and start my own life… The day I cut ties with my family, I realized that I finally could choose what Islam meant to me, and not let anyone choose that for me.”
Raissa is a transgender woman living in Brussels. She fled from her home country of Mali after being attacked at a club for being trans.
“My family knew that I was transgender since I was a child. They had forbidden me from doing things associated with being a girl like playing with dolls. Growing up, I was kept hidden by my family so that no one would know that I’m trans… I studied economics and statistics in Cameroon. The LGBT movement in Cameroon was really powerful and it inspired me to become an activist when I went back to Mali… [After I transitioned,] I started feeling more and more comfortable with my body. I loved wearing dresses and accessories when going out. That’s when the police started harassing me. One night, more than 20 people started beating me in a club. I thought I was going to die. An older guy saved me by putting me in a taxi. I was too afraid to stay in Mali so I fled to Brussels, where I’m currently seeking asylum. I can’t imagine going back to Mali… I still pray to Allah and recite prayers from the Quran privately, but I just want to feel like I’m accepted in Islam as a trans woman. In my heart, I’m still Muslim.”
Leila is a social worker who was born and raised in Paris. Her mother, a Muslim, is from Algeria and her father, a Buddhist, is Caribbean. She grew up practicing Buddhism with her father, but started learning about Islam when she was 16 and started wearing the hijab when she was 25.
“My hijab is more than a symbol of faith. It’s become a symbol of resistance and a political symbol. I am covered in tattoos, so when people see me with a hijab, they’re always shocked. Some non-Muslims like to tell me that I shouldn’t have tattoos or dress this way… I just want to say, ‘It’s between me and Allah!’… Since a young age, I knew that I was queer, and, to be honest, it never caused me any problems, maybe because I didn’t mention it… [But] when you hear things from people who share your faith that reject a part of you, it hurts.”
El-Farouk is the co-founder of Unity Mosque, a queer-friendly mosque in Toronto, and SALAAM Canada, a queer Muslim community group. He was born in Tanzania and moved to Canada in 1974.
“Six years ago, my partner Troy Jackson, [U of T professor] Laury Silvers and I decided to start a Friday mosque space…an inclusive space that’s gender-equal and queer-affirming. It’s a place that doesn’t ask you if you’re a Muslim or what kind of Muslim you are… A place like Unity Mosque is vital because there is a spiritual trauma that LGBT people suffer because we’re told we’re somehow lesser, that we don’t belong and are innately sinful because God’s love doesn’t extend to us. A place like the Unity Mosque that says ‘Nah, that ain’t true’ is extremely important.”
Shima was born and raised in Shiraz, Iran, and moved to Toronto four years ago.
“Islam is incredibly misunderstood, and the queer conversation is only just beginning. We can be rejected by both queers and Muslims… Roller derby is my favourite past time. In roller derby, I have found a community that accepts me for exactly who I am and encourages me to better myself… [It] offers the kind of queer space that isn’t focused around drinking or sex, which I am very grateful for… I hope to be able to return to Iran and help make things better for little girls who feel what I felt. I hope to help move Iran towards acceptance and support of its queer people.”