With all the terrifying news about transphobia and homophobia around the world, I found joy in reading about the Queer Muslim Project, in this Gay Times article by Deena al-Aqsa. This project started in India and has built a global presence, with a remarkably wide set of initiatives and efforts.
The group works with youth on challenging stigma and misconceptions, and also with artists on self-representation. Here’s group founder Rafiul Alom Rahman on a couple of their art programs.
We have Language is a Queer Thing, an India-UK poetry exchange programme. Last year’s cohort of poets performed at the BBC Contains Strong Language Festival in Birmingham. This year, our second cohort will be performing for the same festival, this time in Leeds for the Year of Culture programme.
Another programme we’ve recently launched in partnership with Netflix is called the QueerFrames Screenwriting Lab. We’re looking to select 10 queer screenwriters from across India, from diverse communities, who can create new frames of reference for us to see queer stories on the screen.
We also have the Queer Writers’ Room, for South Asian writers aged 18-25. We finished the first run of that programme in June and we are now preparing for next year. There’s a common thread of stories, really working with storytellers, shifting the narrative and telling our own stories in our own voice.
You begin to see the breadth and depth of their work; many organizations would struggle to get even one of these ambitious efforts off the ground.
In response to a question about coming out, Maniza Khalid, the organization’s Programmes and Innovations Officer, gets really nuanced and thoughtful:
We can’t think of it in a binaristic way of being “out” versus being closeted. It implies you can only be one or the other. But especially for queer Muslims, there are spaces where you are selective about what part of your identity you put out there.
Visibility can be a double-edged sword. There are pros and cons to it. When you’re visible, I feel like it’s very freeing because you’ve already crossed a certain threshold, but you also hold so much social responsibility. Because how many queer Muslims are out there, who owns that? How many of them are publicly, visibly presenting their narratives to the world?
We play with visibility and we try to use it very frugally because there are consequences to think of, in different contexts. We’d never pressure anyone or any community to be out because we don’t think it’s inherently advantageous.
Coming out is often portrayed as a simple issue: the courageous come out, so the folks who don’t come out are by definition not brave. Khalid’s analysis is much richer and more honest.
Rafi Rahman is equally thoughtful about the Muslim aspect of the work:
I think we need to be open to more diverse interpretations of the Quran and Islamic scriptures. There’s so much time, effort and labour that queer feminist Islamic scholars are putting into this. There is a new discourse that is allowing us to see Islam from a more queer-affirming lens.
We can do our bit in educating and informing people about the alternative perspectives that are available. There are groups like Muslims for Progressive Values who have collated a bunch of queer Muslim resources on their website.
It’s this kind of grass-roots, community-driven, ambitious work that keeps the haters at bay, and affirms self-acceptance and self-representation for a wide range of people. You don’t have to be queer or Muslim to appreciate these activists and the change they will continue to make. Here’s Rafiul Rahman to close:
Faith cuts through all of our work, and we have a lot of nuanced conversations on faith and identity. We are also looking at possibilities of empowering artists and creating pathways for them in the creative industry. We hope that in doing so, we can really enable them to find that kind of leadership and space and voice.
Thanks to Mona Eltahawy at Feminist Giant, and her colleague Samiha Hossain, who writes many of their global round-ups.
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