“This Ramadan is unlike others; it has been an affirming Ramadan where I feel seen and loved for who I am. For a very long time, I thought I do not deserve to feel the beauty of Islam, that I do not belong to the mosque or that listening to Quran made me feel guilty for who I am. Today, I listen to the Quran in healing, I feel seen by the religion and deserving of its wisdom. This healing cannot be done alone, I have been in this process of healing for a year or so now and I could not have done without the queer Muslim community,” writes “Lama” in a post on The Queer Muslim Project page on 21 May.
Scrolling through the account, you get a sense of the immense depth, sadness and acceptance each story contains—each one, on its own, could be developed into a short story or film.
Coming out is not easy in any South Asian community. Among Muslims, even though modern historians conclude that the Quran does not explicitly forbid homosexuality, attitudes towards queerness have often depended on the social and cultural context of practising Muslims. Depending on nationality, generation, family upbringing and cultural influences, Islamic individuals and institutions fall along a wide spectrum, from welcoming and inclusive to a rejection that can be marked by social sequestration and physical violence, says the Islamic Society of North America (Isna), a non-profit body that aims to create a better understanding of Islam and Muslims in the US. Islamic scholars, mainly in the West, have begun a re-examination of Islamic texts, and questioning any blanket condemnation of LGBTQ+ people based on a narrow understanding of these texts.
And yet, in South Asia and among the South Asian Muslim diaspora, such organised support is rare; all you sometimes have is community. This is the role that the Queer Muslim Project, a digital advocacy platform focused on creating visibility and awareness of LGBTQ+ Muslim issues in India and South Asia, plays. Through an association with Instagram to celebrate the recently concluded Digital Pride Festival 2.0, it’s is hoping to reach more people who need that community, says Rafiul Alom Rahman, founder and executive director, The Queer Muslim Project.
The messaging from the collective is non-structured, imbued with open-ness and encouragement. A post on the group’s Instagram page, A Queer Muslim Guide to Radical Loving and Self-Care, illustrates this beautifully through broad suggestions that encourage self-acceptance and the importance of community, especially during the pandemic. “‘Community’ is a feeling that all of us contribute to, in many ways. Social distancing does not imply psychological distance. In times like these, many of us use the internet to create emotional safety through creative expression, shared experiences and collaboration,” says the post, before making points such as “there’s no one way to be queer, Muslim and proud”, “revise Concepts of ‘Sin’ and ‘Shame’” and “embrace uncertainty.” “We don’t have a prescriptive approach. We don’t tell anyone how to be queer enough or Muslim enough. We just convey the message that the words are expansive,” says Rahman.
“The stories of marginalised communities are often told in limited, diminishing ways. The project is a way for us to take control of the narrative and give space to real voices that emerge from the queer Muslim community and also look at the community through an intersectional lens,” says Rahman, an India representative of the Generation Equality Youth Task Force by UN Women.
A strong area of focus, especially during the pandemic, is mental health, says Rahman. Many queer Indians have been confined to the home with family that may not be supportive of their sexuality or sexual identity, without the opportunity to embrace these identities with peers. The organisation has been trying to make sure these individuals get the support they require. “Often, in India you don’t have access to therapists and counsellors who are culturally competent to understand what you are going through. We help them connect to such resources. It has been a very tough time for mental health in the community,” says Rahman.
Along with offline activities like conferences and seminars, the organisation also conducts a four-month online course every year on gender, sexuality and Islam, as well as workshops like the “Do-It-Yourself (DIY) Islam” workshop it held in Delhi in August 2018, a safe space to help individuals exchange stories, opinion and experiences, “a fearless space to discuss gender identities and faith in Islam”, as Rahman puts it.