Discussing LGBTQ Issues in Islam: Shifts, or More of the Same?

Media coverage of LGTBQ issues in Islam is largely influenced by the political contexts in which it is discussed. LGTBQ Muslims are often categorized and talked about in all sorts of weird ways (as this post demonstrates). In the media, this gets expressed in different ways. Sometimes, coverage focuses on the theological debates surrounding homosexuality. In some other instances, Western media discusses LGTBQ rights in Islam as if they were a novelty and an import from the “LGTBQ-friendly West” that must be supported (here) against the “stubborn” Muslim opinions (here). In others, coverage becomes even more politicized; for example, Jasbir Puar talks about “Pinkwashing” in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (using the LGTBQ community to make a political statement on the dangers of other society, often when the excuse of “for the women” has failed, and deflecting attention from other policy issues).

Yet, recently some coverage of a topic that has become more common in the media and that may be familiar for Muslims and non-Muslims in most societies: LGTBQ marriage. Earlier this week, mambaonline.com reported on a lesbian couple getting married through Muslim rites in South Africa. Sadia Kruger and Zukayna Leonard have been together for long time and they had a civil ceremony in South Africa five years ago. The couple now is planning to have a Muslim wedding, which is being supported by The Inner Circle, an organization that supports the Muslim LGTBQ community. Imam Muhsin Hendricks, one of the leading figures of The Inner Circle, will perform the ceremony.

The shift is somehow prominent in much of the Western media. In the last couple of weeks, there has been a lot of discussion on LGTBQ rights in Muslim and non-Muslim countries and on Muslims activism for or against LGTBQ rights. Some of the headlines that dealt with these issues included a Gay News Network interview with Alyena Mohummadally on being queer and Muslim and an Economist article discussing homosexuality in Islam titled Straight but Narrow.  A BBC article from last year looked at British Muslims seeking the right to marry.

Reading the comments in any of the above articles can be an emotional roller coaster due to the variety of opinions and reactions that articles like this cause. We do not only get those who think that Islam, which is inherently patriarchal, can never support LGTBQ rights, but we also get those Muslims that write paragraphs justifying discrimination against LGBTQ Muslims.

Interestingly enough, some of these articles (like here, here and here) highlight the experiences of LGBTQ Muslim women, as opposed to the Muslim gay male experience. While some argue that it is often men the ones that are depicted as representing the LGTBQ community and more likely to be featured in the media as “heroes” (here), Muslim women, at least lately, seem to be making headlines in relation to LGBTQ rights and same-sex marriage. Similarly, comments tend to reflect a different attitude towards lesbians (who are sometimes accused of being confused and emotional) than towards men (who are sometimes depicted as “shameless” and as a threat to masculinity).

In some cases, the Muslim women that are featured as defenders of LGTBQ rights are also depicted or self identify as feminists. However, that has also its paradoxes. On one hand, some Muslim feminists have failed to include LGTBQ rights within their agendas. On the other, sometimes feminism and homosexuality are conflated resulting on the flawed idea that all Muslim feminists are lesbians and all Muslim lesbians are feminists.

The now common portrayals of LGBTQ Muslim women in Western media is somehow puzzling considering common depictions of Muslim women as oppressed by their religion, silent members of their communities and keepers of “Islamic culture”. Yet, it may be exactly this stereotype that seems appealing to Western media when it comes to Muslim women, their sexuality, and their sexual orientation (whatever that may be).

Yet, even when recognition of this experience in the media is important, I wonder to what degree this can an open discussion on LGBTQ rights for women in Islam when Muslim women are depicted as victims of Islam, as “secretly” sexualized beings, as girls trying to overcome a religious establishment or as women pursuing a fairy tales usually in the forms of marriage? Is it perhaps a politicized change in media coverage? What will be the next shifts that we can expect to see?

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