To celebrate the overlap between the start of Pride month and the first day of Eid, the Muslim holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, the queer-inclusive al-Rabia mosque in Chicago sent out a “PrEid Mubarak” online greeting. It featured a drawing of two veiled women in a romantic embrace, while a supporting cast of every conceivable skin tone, gender identity and fashion sense looks set to party or to pray. Perhaps both.
Twenty years ago, the message and image would have been inconceivable. Ten years later, they would have been considered an outlier. Today, al-Rabia is part of an expanding network of progressive mosques and Islamic centres in North America, Europe and Australia that give Muslim women, trans and queer people a space not just to belong but to lead.
Changing demographics and public opinion seem to be on their side. A 2017 survey by the Pew Research Center suggested a major shift in attitudes toward homosexuality among American Muslims. When asked about it in 2007, only 25 per cent said that it should be accepted. In 10 short years, the figure rose to 52 per cent. By comparison, only 34 per cent of white evangelical Protestants said they would accept it. An Environics Institute survey of Muslim integration in Canada in 2016 revealed more mixed results but showed that about half of younger (18 to 34) and born-in-Canada Muslims don’t share their parents’ views on homosexuality.
Surveys come and go, but the above two matter because they disrupt the narrative, often pushed by the political right, that homophobia is a cornerstone of Islamic identity. On a more personal note, they reconcile worlds that I’ve often perceived as separate and unequal. As a crop of books and personal journalism pieces from younger Muslim writers suggest, however, my views on sexuality and faith belong to an earlier, less-forgiving age.
At 54, I’m part of a generation of out Arab and Muslim men who built their identity on the gay liberation movement of the 1970s. I instinctively followed and then embraced everything that (white) gay male culture exalted: clubs, camp and, despite coming out against the plague years of AIDS in the 1980s, casual sex. Religion, particularly Islam, became antithetical to everything my body and mind desired. The choice made itself: To be gay, I needed to suppress the Muslim within. I could never understand (and I still don’t, not fully) those who insist on reconciling their sexuality with religion – any religion. Why be part of something that demonizes who you are? That was my story and I stuck to it.
The grand narratives we tell about ourselves and assume about others, I learned as I got older, are meant to be interrogated, and the one touching on the queer-Muslim divide is being rewritten. Change is slow, incremental but is happening – certainly among Muslim communities in Western democracies. Conversely, the gay liberation movement has expanded to include bisexual, trans, genderfluid, two-spirited and questioning, and moved away from mostly white and male stories to a rainbow of tales. It’s not a utopian world yet, and I’m not ignoring the many fault lines – from persistent anti-trans sentiments to the now-annual and frustrating debate about uniformed police officers taking part in Pride marches that undermines the concerns and safety of black queers – but I choose to highlight the positive, the possible.
Although it gets some serious drubbing for its lack of diversity, Canadian literature has emerged as one of the most dramatic arenas for this shift from gay to queer and from singularly white and Judeo-Christian to multiethnic and multifaith. Works by trans and queer-identifying writers such as Casey Plett, Vivek Shraya, Joshua Whitehead, Lindsay Nixon, Ivan Coyote, Dionne Brand, Zoe Whittall and Trish Saleh (and many others) offer stylistic and thematic departures, rewriting and even tearing to shreds traditional coming-out narratives. In their novels, Hasan Namir, Ahmad Danny Ramadan and Farzana Doctor have created worlds in which their characters first negotiate and then affirm the unbreakable ties between their Muslim and sexual identities. Even if some of the above write from the margins, critical attention and award recognition suggest they now have prime seats at an expanding Canlit table.
Samra Habib’s emotionally wide-ranging but tightly structured We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir joins this growing list of titles. It challenges so many received wisdoms on gender, faith and sexuality that its very existence in the world is cause for celebration. By the time I read its last page, I had lost count of the closets she came out from, traditions she rebelled against and, cliché warning, silences she broke.
As a young girl in Lahore, Pakistan, Habib grew up around women who “didn’t have the blueprint for claiming their lives.” Her mother discovered that her soon-to-be husband had changed her name to one he preferred on the day the wedding invitations arrived from the printer. Her father and other male figures raised their daughters to be silent and joyless. Habib’s family belonged to the long-suffering (and, to many Sunni Muslims, heretical) Ahmadiyya Muslim sect founded in 1889 by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, whose followers believe him to be the Promised Messiah. By 1977, the government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had declared Ahmadis “non-Muslims,” turning them into targets of political and religious persecution. As the family kept their beliefs secret, Habib experienced her first taste of life in the closet.
Coming to Canada in the early 1990s as immigrants may have offered the Habibs the religious freedom they craved for decades but that didn’t translate to an equitable place for the women. The cousin who moved with them to Toronto was none other than the man the mother had arranged to be Habib’s husband. He lurked and watched as his betrothed’s body entered womanhood before claiming his prize. Whether she’s writing about bullies at school or the untenable situation at home, Habib reconstructs scenes from her early life with a restrained and detached tone. She seeks understanding, not revenge. Even if her parents seem to have contributed to her suffering and, eventually, her decision to run away from home, she avoids pointing fingers at them.
Habib’s vivid recollections of homoerotic experiences go all the way back to the time she was 5 and still living in Lahore, but acting on her same-sex desire follows a very slow burn. It takes a trip to Japan in her late 20s and an asexual marriage to (and divorce from) a high-school misfit for Habib to realize that her sexuality doesn’t track with the gay or straight binaries. She soon begins the search for a home, in a spiritual and psychological sense, for herself and finds it minutes away from the lesbian and leather bars of Toronto’s gay village in the form of Unity Mosque, a queer-centred progressive mosque. She also finds her voice in photography and gains worldwide recognition for a portrait series of queer Muslims.
Habib’s life behind the camera and as a spokesperson for the queer-Muslim community becomes her third act and takes up the final third of her chronologically narrated memoir. It also marks its weakest pages – a hybrid of an inspirational talk and a branding exercise. A short section about a fantasy home filled with books, refugees and understanding reads like a last-ditch attempt to inject lyricism into a mundane section, but struck me as emotionally manipulative. The tone seems off, and the writing lacks the grace and honesty of the first two parts of this triptych. I admit that perhaps I’ve been conditioned to seek the traumatic and ignore the celebratory in queer-Muslim stories. I called my own gay-themed memoir Intolerable, after all.
Toward the end of the book, Habib includes a touching note of reconciliation between her birth family and her chosen community that combines the unsettling and the comforting. When her parents move to one of the new condo buildings in Toronto’s gay village, the full reunion with their once-estranged daughter serves as an exorcism of the evil that once lurked there in the shape of a serial killer who operated out of the local village bars and within steps of the Unity Mosque.
As a brown gay man, I know, theoretically, that I could have been among the victims. I recall posting about the profile of missing men on social media as early as 2015. The killer preyed on immigrants who may not have felt at home within mainstream gay male culture or believed they could not be themselves with their families. Perhaps I’m still here because of divine providence, but I choose to believe that I’ve learned some valuable lessons about my self-worth from the gay liberation movement and did the right thing by tuning out the Muslim and Arab community’s hostility to my sexuality as I was coming out. I’m genuinely happy that others can straddle faith and sexuality. I’ll continue to see them as compartmentalized, even if doing so invokes the wrath of the intersectional gods in the community, of whom Habib is now a bona fide literary ambassador.
Kamal Al-Solaylee is a Toronto-based non-fiction author and university professor.
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