1. Can you be a LGBTQ+ person and a Muslim?
2. Can you wear the Hijab and pray 5 times a day like other practicing Muslims?
3. How does being a LGBTQ Muslim feel like?
Like an invisible apologist
Everyone has the same question for Leila. The magazine people, the NGO folks, new friends, and sometimes, the person across the mirror. I met Leila at a mosque where she was the sermon preacher on Friday. I knew nothing about her, except that she wanted to belong. To a place, to people and to God, whoever he or she was. Her Algerian roots were as alien to me as her British accent. I did not know that she had been evicted from home, because a friend tipped off her parents about a certain Saturday night job, I did not know that she fights a battle that most will not identify with but I did know that she was brave. As our khateeb that day, she read from Hadiths stories of the Prophet (PBUH) and his company of Mukhannathuns (classical Arabic term to mean men who resemble women). It has historically been argued that the Mukhannathuns were a group of people who could be homosexuals, often mischaracterized as effeminate men or eunuchs. Either way, the Prophet (PBUH) offered them his respect and protection, irrespective of what they identified as sexually. Leila spoke with a strange emotion, a mix of despair and pride in the same blend. I did not know, I did not quite understand.
Am I friends with Leila? I am not. Do I know Leila? I do, much like an amateur author, collecting papers and circling newspaper articles for a book I might write one day. A quick visit to an unknown archive, a subtle interview with someone who knows her. I wanted to create a scrapbook of images, in an attempt to understand a life very different from mine. For, I did not know, I did not quite understand. Leila’s story is a collection of snapshots that was gathered over time, narrated by different people and her inner struggles documented over conversations meant to be forgotten before they were over.
Leila Belkis Saheen was a student of media studies and produced documentaries on the themes of gender and sexuality. She held a British passport and spoke English with a strong northern accent. She was a quiet girl who spoke little and apologized a lot. She carried with herself a little colour coded Quran that she read with a rapt sense of attention, scribbling on the margins and sometimes speaking to it, nodding in approval or grunting a bit to express displeasure. I was told that she was a pious Muslim who spent a fair amount of time in prayer and observed the five pillars of Islam rather religiously. She would often switch to vegetarian meals in gatherings and parties because she could not risk touching meat that is not halal.
But the Leila I dined with was a different person. Oh, I had an unhealthy halal obsession at a point, you know! I apologized way too much, something I still do, I don’t know why. I lived in the mortal fear of committing an act, which was haram. I abstained from alcohol. Pepperoni pizza was worse than pure poison. I never lent money, so forget about charging riba (excess interest), she said breaking into a laugh. What do you do when one fine day, someone tells you, all that is fine, but your existence itself is haram! Aap hi haram ho! A part of you wants to deny, another part wants to purge the self and yet another, tiny little part, wants to remain. Remain who they were, proud and devout!
For the longest time in life, I did not know that my affinity to women was an aberration. I was raised in a conservative African-British Muslim household, where patriarchy and notions of hyper-masculinity were ruling norms. I was expected to cover my hair, stay away from boys and spend time with womenfolk. And that is what I did. I was told that Allah disliked intermingling of the two sexes. And I obliged. The same folks today tell me, that my act of obligation is a sin. I have read the Quran you know, the way a lost traveller reads a map. There are 114 chapters, 6236 verses, 77943 words and 323620 letters. You know how many mention homosexuality or condemn it? None. But they would not listen to me. For I am sure, they knew Allah more than I did.
Leila did not tell me what happened between then and now. She did not tell me how life for her changed after heading to college. She read a fair amount of “rebel” literature and toyed with the idea, that perhaps, she was just different. Sometimes, you are neither right, nor wrong. You just are who you are. She had her first club visit, first drink and first love. Yes, she fell in love, exactly one year and three days before the incident that changed her life took place.
I wont paint the world with the same brush, Niya. The world for me back then was my immediate family. My mother, who was born in England, saw everything in broad daylight and pretended like nothing was going on. I tried telling her, of course I did. This was when following Samra Habib on Twitter and reading Irshad Manji had made me 20 units braver! But she heard nothing. ‘Okay now, Laali. Don’t hang out with these khabees ki aulads the whole day. Sab theek ho jayega, Inshallah!’ As if I was someone in need of a corrective measure. My father? Lets not go there. But the world expands, as you move out of your house, navigating from one phase of life to another. I found support in organisations like Imaan and Safra Project, who not only re- assured me for who I was, but also helped reconcile my inner battle with faith. By then I started believing that I was a cursed semi human of sorts! During one of our discussions, we looked back at the Quranic (and Biblical) story of Lut and the destruction of the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah, which is used to justify the anti LGBT crusade of these faiths. They say that no one interpretation exists of the words ‘to know’ in Hebrew which is what causes this misrepresentation. I ask something entirely different. How is it possible that the God, who is compassionate, merciful and just, like no other, destroys two towns, including their women and children just because their men folk are gay?
They spoke about Semantic and Thematic Readings of the Quran as opposed to the Literal ones. They quoted the famous scholar Al Kisa (Ibn Abdallah Al Kisa) who narrated a version with context. The people of Sodom had apparently taken to showing their city’s dominance by raping strangers. They were showing that they could take what they wanted from others. In that way, people became afraid to raid the city. This showed aggression, stinginess and greed—all things that would justify their punishment. When the men threatened to rape angels who appeared as male travellers, god punished them for these ‘transgressions,’ The word transgression meaning a lot of things sexual or otherwise.
Frankly, it didn’t matter to me. All I knew is the God, I have bowed before for the last 22 years of my life, was above hate, stigma, and exclusion. For a religion that seeks submission before a sexless and gender less God, a relation formed upon love, devotion and respect cannot be branded as evil. Isn’t the Islamic God, neither male nor female? Yes, they use the male pronoun for Allah in the Quran, but that is more a grammatical choice than an ontological one. And who exactly passed these down? The Hadiths and the Parables? Weren’t they all men anyway? Why would Allah ever prefer one gender to the other or denounce his/her children who feel a certain way? I have grown up visiting the graves of our Sufi masters, Niya. The people who attained salvation through love. Who worshipped love and believed that you attain divinity through proximity to God. There are ample references to homosexual relations in Sufi literature. It didn’t make them any less intimate to God, did it? Lets’ talk about South Asia. The Baburnama as a text is full of homosexual references, in a pre-colonial world of course. It’s funny when you point me to my religion, culture and roots to justify a regime brought in by our “civilized” colonizers.
I am a great lover of Persian Poetry and ghazals, and ironically, so is my father. It still surprises me how he hummed along Persian ghazals where homoeroticism formed (almost) the only amatory subject. I still remember the tune of “Ey pesar nik ze ḥadd mibebari kār-e jamāl / Bā čonin ḥosn ze to ṣabr konam? In’t moḥāl; Natáanzi” (O boy, you carry the business of beauty beyond all limits / With such beauty you expect me to bide my time? Impossible!)
Leila did not speak much of her father. Out of the multiple times where we have broken into chats, this was the only time she mentioned him. It was not until much later when I was to find out about the night, when a friend who wished her well, but scorned her apparent ‘righteousness’, walked to her doorsteps to have a conversation with Mr and Mrs Saheen. Leila had snubbed Hannah that morning for holding a certain political position. The conversation albeit heated saw a natural end. Except , that Leila was greeted by a weeping mother and a furious father who refused to see her face. Her life was out in the open, scrutinized and shamed by the people who formed her most intimate circle as she grew from a child to a woman. Her family was also told of the past few weeks, where she participated in Drag Events in a central London club. And that night, saw the end of Leila’s residence under the roof of her family home. I do not know if they forced her out, or she left on her own. I know it marked the end.
The same night Leila knocked on the door of the only person who loved her unconditionally. She loved Kim with all her heart and knew she had to contain the tears and the lump in her throat till she found herself safe with her lover. Kim was a sweet girl who was always around Leila. She sported a bob and smoked a cigarette once in a while. She wanted Leila around. She just was not sure that she wanted, a Muslim woman of colour in her house for an unforeseen period, in a post 7/7 world, in the city of London. Leila had apologized. She had apologized to her parents for loving a girl. She had apologized to Kim for being Muslim. But apparently, it did not matter.
Kim loved Leila. Kim was also a woman of the world. I was told that the world had won that day.
My conversations with Leila were always on a thematic plane where she spoke of her views on the world and its ways. She spoke amply of her childhood days and discussed issues of religion and race, but she never ventured across to talk about the people she loved and lost. And I pretended to know no more. We laughed and frowned. I listened as she quoted Hafiz:
It happens all the time in heaven, And some day
It will begin to happen
Again on earth –
That men and women who are married,
And men and men who are
And women and women
Who give each other Light,
Often get down on their knees
And while so tenderly
Holding their lovers hand,
With tears in their eyes
Will sincerely speak, saying,
How can I be more loving to you;
How can I be more kind?
I was and continue to be immensely in awe of a person whose world now moves on her own terms. Her roof now houses a cat apart from her books and filming equipment and her life is carefully wrapped with the gentle strings of compassion, faith and love.
Leila is an amateur film maker and a postgraduate student in Media Studies at a South London University. Her original name has not been used in the interest of privacy.