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To be Muslim and queer

  • Rafiul Alom Rahman is the founder of The Queer Muslim Project, which has close to 14000 followers on Instagram
  • The Project seeks to counter queerphobia and Muslim hate

Rafiul Alom Rahman has a track record of driving change.
Rafiul Alom Rahman has a track record of driving change. (Pradeep Gaur/Mint)

Growing up, Rafiul Alom Rahman had a very clear idea of what it meant to be a boy. Boys didn’t cry, they didn’t grow their hair long, they didn’t talk “like girls". In Dhubri, Assam, schoolteachers took their jobs seriously —and that included inculcating in children unambiguous notions of masculinity. So, fearful of being reprimanded by his teachers and bullied by his classmates, Rahman learnt the art of silence.

It was a silence he broke only when he moved to Delhi as an undergraduate to study literature. Suddenly, a whole new world unfolded. Female sexuality, desire and ideas of masculinity leapt out of the pages of Ismat Chughtai’s Lihaaf. For the first time, it hit him: This world too is real.

Living in Delhi proved to be transformative in providing opportunities—a human rights conference here, a film festival there—and he lapped them all up. “Delhi changed my ideas about gender and sexuality," he says about his growing involvement with the LGBTQ+ community.

But Delhi was not immune to the chill of prejudice and homophobia. This became a double burden for men of Rahman’s faith, for whom being queer and Muslim was a “double burden". “An expression of faith and an expression of being queer is seen as incompatible," he says.

The stories he heard were frightening. One man who came out to his parents was taken to a psychiatrist and made to undergo electric shock therapy. Another was made to undergo exorcism since his parents were convinced he was under the spell of a djinn. A third found acceptance for being gay but faced questions about being Muslim. Didn’t his religion say being queer is haraam?

“Where were the role models?" asks Rahman. “How do we tell our stories? Who are we and what does it mean to be Muslim and queer?"

The Queer Muslim Project, founded by Rahman in 2017, was born out of first-person testimonials. With 14,000 followers on Instagram, the project seeks to counter “queerphobia and Muslim hate one story at a time". How do you view pleasure? How do you square faith with being queer? And what does it mean to be a Muslim queer person in an age of rising religious fundamentalism?

“Colonialism has fed us to believe that queerness was separated from Islam for its ‘wrongdoings’, and now I know that this is simply not true," writes a Palestinian who grew up queer and non binary in Qatar. Adds an intersex queer Muslim from India: “I am able to perform Salah and I am able to be queer here and not disappear."

Dressed in a cotton kurta, Rahman is chatting with me on the sidelines of the Beijing+25 Review in Bangkok. This conference on the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action takes stock of the promises made on gender equality in Beijing in 1995. He is the only Indian among the 30 members of a youth task force chosen to represent the diversity of young people from the Asia-Pacific. Rahman was selected for his track record in driving change, says a UN Women spokesperson. A press release says he is here to “be in the driving seat of these galvanizing moments and contribute to all stages of the global review process and the generation equality campaign".

It is disappointing, he says, to note that LGBTQ+ issues have so far remained muted. Australia has raised them, Indonesia has mentioned the transgender community and New Zealand has been vocal about sexual and reproductive health rights. While an intervention from India at the inaugural of the conference on 27 November had a long list of gender achievements, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Beti Bachao and Ujjwala campaigns, it was silent on the scrapping of Section 377, which had criminalized “sex against the order of nature".

“It’s unfortunate that we are still talking about issues in silos," says Rahman. “In today’s world, you can’t talk about gender without taking into account the experiences of trans people, intersex people, gay people. Women’s issues are very much men’s issues, because the stereotypes limit us as well."

Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based journalist who writes on gender issues.

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