MY MOTHER DOESN’T UNDERSTAND IT and she’s liberal Muslim. A lot of my friends don’t understand it and they’re progressive lesbians. But I understand it and, dammit I’m gonna explain it to the world.
Being a Muslim lesbian, that is. If you don’t hear much about us it’s because in North America invisibility isn’t exactly unusual for lesbians or Muslims. Put the two together, add a pinch pride, and you’ve got something of a UFOunidentified feminist object.
Even in supposedly sisterly circles, Islam remains a cause for vocal contempt when not one of sceptical curiosity. Three years ago, a straight Muslim friend had to part ways with her roommate. Although both called themselves feminists, the roommate couldn’t accept my friend’s choice to cover her hair with a scarf in public.
“You’re afraid to show your body,” the roommate charged. “No,” answered my friend. “I wear hijah to neutralize my sexuality so that people judge me by my brains and behaviour instead of my looks. Evidently, the lesson went missing on my friend’s roommate: as a threat to the comfortable image of feminism, my friend was asked to move out.
What might have saved my space in the household is my sexual-orientation. Being a dyke, I could flash at least on conventional feminist credential. But justifying the Muslim/lesbian juxtapositionto my God as well as my roommatewould surely continue. And God might be the easier sell.
Granted, not every feminist demands an inventory of my identify. Chill out, some even advise; if I have worries about explaining myself I should save them for the day of Judgement and get on with the business of being invincible.
Problem is, every day is Judgement Day for the likes of me. The latest outburst of shock came from a young New Democrat to whom I had just been introduced. She flipped when I told her I’d be writing a column about what it means to be a fully practising lesbian and semi-practising Muslim. “Send me a copy,” she urged. “I can’t wait to see how you pull this one off.”
Okay sisters, here’s how: My Allah (God) has no problem with my lesbianism. Honest. I asked Allah point-blank. I could do that because one of the great Islamic traditions self-inquirythe duty to grow into faith by constantly revealing yourself to your creator.
“In the philosophy of Islam,” writes scholar Ali SharPati, “the relation of God and humanity is one of reciprocity, where self-knowledge and knowledge of God come to be synonymous.” Put bluntly, denying my dykehood could amount to blasphemy. Lord knows that is the last blotch I need on my record.
Nor is blasphemy the driving concern of Toronto based SALAAM, North Americans only support group for lesbian, gay; and bisexual Muslims. (One individual drove up from New Jersey to attend a recent meeting.) What SALAAM members are concerned with is finding acceptance of their whole selves, a goal that honours the philosophy of Islam.
But in organized religion, it’s not philosophy that often oppresses, it’s politics. Of this, SALAAM’S members are painfully aware. “Growing up as part of a minority has its fair share of challenges, including discrimination and alienation,” reads the group’s brochure. “For Canadian Muslims who are gay, lesbian or bisexual, the issues of discrimination and alienation are further compounded as these individuals are a minority within a minority, and are more often than not scorned by their birth community because of their sexual orientation. The fact that Islam and its adherents are stigmatized by many only compounds those challenges.” Yep, never mind the bigotry of my mullah. Western culture’s hate for both homosexuality and Islam ain’t done me much good either.
It’s hard to say which hate hurts more. It’s also useless. Acceptance of the whole person should inspire all lesbians and gays because we’re forever being prodded to compensate: “Could you introduce her as your friend?” And if we don’t introduce our partners as our pals, we’re punished by having to confess the perceived contradictions of our existence: “How can you consider yourself a queer and my daughter?”
One SALAAM member has a ready reply: “If it’s a contradiction, I can live with that. Contradiction is human, so I don’t think in absolutes.” And why should he have to? Islam’s sacred text, the Qur’an, suggests the richness of our humanity is only realized on a life-long journey. Identifying with homosexuality instead of heterosexuality, or vice versa, may be a pitstop en route to knowing the self. The point is, we are migrants. We can no more be afraid of new stations than we can be of our own shadows.
I know about changing stations. A few years ago I refused to call myself Muslim. After all, I’m a lesbian. The way I figured it, to claim both identities is to be severely deluded about the flexibility of faith. Then Omar, a founder of SALAAM, exposed the artificiality of my choices. He convinced me not to let anyone else define who can come close to Allah. The words echoed Persian poet, Bayazid Bestami: “For years I sought God and Found myself / Now that I seek myself I find God.”
Which means there’s no guarantee that I won’t renounce my lesbianism on my deathbed. If I’m true to my migrant, Muslim self, the station-change could reflect growth, not panic. Still, I’m the first to acknowledge that the timing would be a little suspect.
from Herizons, winter 1995.