Do Muslim Feminists Have Too Much to Worry About Already to Think About Homophobia?

This was originally published at Cycads.

Once a week, I meet with people studying gender in the Middle East and we talk about the assigned articles we’ve read during the week. Last week, it was about sexuality and homophobia. Emerging from our discussion on LGBT rights in the Middle East (particularly in Lebanon and Palestine) is the question why many Muslim feminists have failed to include sexuality rights on their agenda. Not one, but two people answered by saying that Muslim feminists have too many issues on their hands to fight for gay rights, which suggests that LGBT rights are not really an Islamic feminist issue and that more pressing injustices (female genital cutting, polygynyy, personal status laws governed by Shariah courst)–essentially Muslim women’s issues–should always take precedence.

There was for a moment a mental jawdrop, but then I realized that this state of affairs isn’t surprising at all. Feminism has always been about picking and choosing issues that mattered most to its members who have experienced those issues first hand. White feminists have never really cared about Black feminist issues, etc., perhaps mostly because it’s nearly impossible to place oneself in another’s shoes and understand what it’s like to endure life as someone else.

In the case of Islamic feminism, to say that all its members are straight, cisgendered, and able women is a bit of a stretch, but the idea that Muslim feminism is for straight, cisgendered, and able Muslim women certainly is reflected in the movements.

Compared to the widespread violence inflicted on gay men in Iraq, female homosexuality in the Middle East in general is relatively sheltered from persecution. This is perhaps due to the practice of gender segregation in public and private spaces, restrictions on the movement of women and girls, and the fact that female sexuality and desire are very often devalued. And according to Iman al-Ghafari:

Erotic relations among women are devalued as a temporary substitute for the love of men, and are considered of no real threat to the dominant heterosexual system as long as they remain undercover, or in the closet.

The two huge obstacles to pursuing gay rights activism within the Islamic feminism framework are the apparent prohibition of same-sex relations in Islam and the deeply homophobic attitude that prevails many Muslim communities. With only the story of the prophet Lut (AS) and the morally corrupt citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah that is hyper-reduced to a story of sodomy (but not their other sins or Lut [AS] offering his daughters to the people of Sodom in lieu of his angelic guests [Surah al-Hud]) as legally- and socially-binding final word on homosexuality, self-identified gay Muslims have very little to defend themselves with from the systematic condemnation often reserved for criminals.

What is being attacked in homophobic societies here are not actually the identities “gay”, “lesbian”, or “homosexual” the way we understand them – these are terms that have been developed in and adopted from Western sexology – but really the “feminization” of men and the “masculinization” of women. Notions of masculinity/femininity and sexual identities in the Middle East are not commensurable with those constituted within Eurocentric psychological/ psychiatric/feminist jargon. To be a man and have sex with another man does not necessarily make him gay, as long as he stays “on top”. In fact, in some Muslim communities, to be the penetrator in whatever form of sexual relations often equates with a kind of hyper-masculinity. Those who do identify themselves as “gay” however gain the validation of their identities through the internet, media, and social circles. Arguably, most who do call themselves gay belong to the middle class.

It should matter a great deal to Muslim feminists to take on board other “non-traditional” issues like sexuality, not to mention transgendered and disability issues if the movement intends to take on a more holistic approach to tackling social injustices. In addition, these non-traditional issues can benefit greatly from the activism work and academic rigor that Muslim feminism is particularly strong at. Perhaps then Muslim feminism is not only about Muslim women; which is not a bad thing, but an ever-broadening movement that rises to the challenge whenever oppression and Islam intersect.

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  • http://theroomsheowns, Salma

    It’s all about human justice, we can’t have any kind of rights if others don’t have rights.

  • candice

    I think it’s a good issue for Muslim homosexuals (male and female) but not necessarily that related to Muslim feminism. I consider myself Muslim and feminist and even though I wish them all their rights, it’s not my fight. I’d be glad to help if the situation came up, but to actually prioritize their issue doesn’t make that much sense.

  • Rochelle

    There are already a lot of Muslim feminist organizations that work on this. I remember going to a particularly inspirational panel on this issue at the association for women’s rights in development forum last november. Will try to look up the names of the organizations…

  • Safa

    Everyone deserves to live their life according to their own beliefs.

    Although Candice, I’d like to point out that what you’ve said reminds me of what many white suffragettes said of their black women counterparts AND black mens right to vote. They prioritized to get themselves whatever rights they wanted and were willing to compromise or even overlook the rights of black men and women. And the situation is always up, homosexual muslims are persecuted everyday for their own beliefs and although we straight muslim women are also trying to get our voices heard, we tend to not acknowledge the privilege we do have.

    However I do have to agree that if we’re fighting for so many rights we’ll get lost along the way; there should be a focus. But that focus shouldn’t overshadow or trivialize other issues.

  • Sobia

    @ Candice:

    What about Muslim lesbians then?

  • Safia

    Cosign Safa. It’s a difficult question… when we say “Muslim feminism,” are we talking about women who articulate a feminism within an Islamic framework? Or women who are organizing on a secular level against gender oppression, where being Muslim is incidental? I think the answer depends on what type of Muslim feminist we’re talking about… I can understand why it’s hard to think about homophobia when so many see their feminism as rooted in and adhering to religious principles.

  • Rochelle

    @ Safa:

    I agree with your basic point, but I was confused by your analogy: Are you talking about the US? Because Black American men got the vote 60 years before white (or black) women.

    The whole USA feminist movement as an analogy just irks me a little bit because there’s a lot of misinformation out there. Yes, a lot of 2nd wave feminists had a lot of race issues and ignored the plight of their black and poor sisters, but it’s not like these movements were completely antagonistic. They overlapped in a lot of ways and third wave feminists as well as sectors of the suffragists are/were very involved in anti-racism fights.

    Rights movements aren’t versions of spoils systems like they used to be, or at least they shouldn’t be. Basic issues such as bodily autonomy cut across all sectors of Muslim women’s movements.

  • ned

    Candice, did you miss this part?

    ‘What is being attacked in homophobic societies here are not actually the identities “gay”, “lesbian”, or “homosexual” the way we understand them – these are terms that have been developed in and adopted from Western sexology – but really the “feminization” of men and the “masculinization” of women.’

    How is this not your fight also, if you are a feminist? Same-sex attraction/relationships are threatening to traditionalists precisely because they highlight the fluidity of gender.

  • Laury

    In my experience in the Progressive Muslim movement, it has everything to do with discomfort about male/female homosexuality. I found many of my compadres saying things like ‘We must affirm their common humanity’. Common humanity was pretty much all they could muster. They would privately, and sometimes publicly, admit that they were not sure homosexuality is “permissible” or “okay.” But they did feel that homosexuals should be treated as human beings. Might white of them. It is utterly pathetic when all one can muster is the affirmation of someone’s humanity. As if for a Progressive (for anyone for God’s sake!) a person’s humanity should need affirmation (or affirming it thought of as a generous position to take). It is a given!

    Some Progressives also selectively forget that the Muslim gay community has been on the forefront of women’s rights issues in Islam. GLBTQ Muslims were willing to fight for us when we are not specifically their “issue.” But most Progs will not even mention their ground-breaking work (for our sake) or only give a simple not to it when discussing the history of gender justice here in North America.

    I fully believe that Muslim Feminists have good hearts and good intentions on the whole, but somehow their hearts and intentions stop short of GLBTQ rights.

    All this gets me soundly angry (as you can tell). Alicia, I want to thank you with all of my heart and mind for bringing this issue up and speaking to it with some justice.

  • Said

    As a Muslim queer woman i find the title of this article homophobic and distressing. I like other queer Muslims, our children, our partners cannot opt out of thinking of homophobia. Furthermore being queer has never allowed me to opt out of the discrimination I receive as a Muslim woman. See what I’m dealing with here?

    The title assumes that there are not queer Muslim women who are feminist. There are, we are in your mosques, schools and families. We are the ones also rallying to support the rights of our communities from the violence we all expererience no matter our sexuality. What is distressing is that there is often an assumption that in order to be a part of Muslim “communiites” you have to leave your sexuality at the door.

    At the AWID conference many queer organizations such as MEEM, received homophobia from feminist organizations. Which is ridiculous homophobia and sexism are linked to the same deep rooted systems – colonalism, captailism and colonalism. You cannot end one without challenging the other.

    I hope MMMW continues to try to talk about this but am still disapointed with the overall choices in articles to write, stories to notify about and issues to focus on in this blog. It does not reflect queer Muslim women.

    Some reading:

  • candice

    @Safa: I understand what you’re saying. I definitely believe that all people should have the right to vote, and they all deserved to get it at the same time. I would have been proud to see the suffragettes fighting for white AND black women’s right to vote, and I think the least they could have done was to support the black community in their fight to get the right to vote. Afterall, it was the same cause, even though culture made it a different cause somehow.

    I don’t know that the rights of homosexuals falls under the feminist category… I guess for Muslim feminists who is homosexual, it does. It might be more of a “moderate Muslim” cause… Not all Muslim feminists necessarily agree with homosexual marriage (even though I would hope all Muslims would agree with them not being persecuted… which I know is not the case…)

    @Sobia: Muslim lesbians fit into the Muslim homosexuals category for me. Yes, they can also be Muslim feminists.

  • rawi

    In her book, Women with Mustaches and Men without Beards: Gender and Sexual Anxieties of Iranian Modernity, Afsaneh Najmabadi speaks about feminism’s “burden of birth” — linking the genealogy of feminism to a modern cultural amnesia of (male) homoerotic practices. Another of her main theses is precisely that it’s not possible to do gender without sexuality. I think the book offers an interesting and thought-provoking historical perspective that may be quite valuable to any discussion of the concerns highlighted in the post above. Strongly recommended!

  • Epochryphal


    Feminists are not certain that homosexuals “fall under their category” (unless they are also feminist).

    As Laurie says, “GLBTQ Muslims were willing to fight for us [feminists] when we are not specifically their “issue.” ”

    Homosexuals are not certain that transgendered folk “fall under their category” (unless they are also homosexual…except…hmm).

    Transpeople were at the forefront of the Stonewall Riots and the beginning of the gay (and hopefully all other kinds of queer) rights movement. Yet the Human Rights Campaign removed gender identity from its initial ENDA (Employment Non-Discrimination Act) proposal, because it wanted to ‘get sexual orientation through first.’ It’s dubitable if it would have come back for transfolk later.

    There is an historical pattern of minority B somehow ‘within’ minority/oppressed class A, where although B is on the front lines in achieving equality for A, the members of A never feel personally called to help B later and instead keep oppressing them.

    Perhaps this is because group B isn’t a perfect subset of A (gender and sexual orientation, sexual orientation and gender identity, being distinct and all). But it seems to B, being nonetheless in some ways reliant on A (since all deal with gender norms and paranoia), that A’s equality has to be achieved first (how can heterosexism be properly challenged if sexism hasn’t been?).

    No, not everyone in A agrees with the folks in B. Nevertheless – don’t those people in B, who fought so hard for A’s cause, deserve their cause to be considered? And couldn’t some people from A, if they /do/ agree with B, help them out? We’re all connected. Oppression is only good for the people on top. Once you get there, are you really going to turn around and not only ignore but help oppress those who helped you from the start? Really?

  • Arwa A

    Just a quick thanks to alicia for this great article
    it’s so great to finally hear some talking about this openly… It really is one of those issues which gets hushed up and I for one think that we need more open and honest debate about how Muslim feminists percieve this issue….pretending it doesn’t exist as an issue just doesn’t work
    Only one left to say: more please!