Oppression works in strategic ways. When we think of who is the oppressor and who is the oppressed, as Muslim women in “the West” we often automatically think about the white liberal feminist who speaks on the behalf of “Third World” women, women of colour and Muslim women. However, what about the level of social hierarchy within Muslim communities themselves?
Last year, Chelby Marie Daigle wrote a post with the title “Black History Month, a challenge to my fellow Muslims” where she pointed out that:
“Anti-Black racism, which includes beliefs that Blacks are inherently less intelligent, more violent, lazier, dirtier, uglier and more sexually promiscuous than other races, is just as prevalent within Muslim societies as it is in the West, if not more so, because there have not been similar movements, such as the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement, aimed at combating these prejudices, within Muslim societies.”
Within the idea of “whiteness” as the standard that is measured by white, male, heterosexual and able-bodied norms, the black woman is often at the bottom of the social hierarchy—add being lesbian, bisexual, trans, or any other sexual “perversion” and you are further dehumanized and degenerated. Speaking within our diverse Muslim community that spans across the globe, to be queer can mean having a death sentence on your head, whether physical or spiritual death. To be a black woman who is queer is to have the multiple forms of oppression slap you over your head, not just by those who are the very opposite of who you are (white, Christian, hetero, male). Often it also means being shunned by your spiritual community (some black Muslims already experience this without adding the discrimination of their sexuality). Yet, to be shunned by those who are supposed to treat you as brother or sister under the community and unity of Islam can leave a black queer women isolated, feeling that she has to compromise all the parts that make her unique and valuable. It can lead to a woman thinking that she is the only one and that her multiple identities cannot live together, because the society and community in which she is surrounded by tells her it’s not possible.
However, resistance is always happening. People find creative ways to survive and to thrive and to build their own communities where they can bring their full selves to the table, uncompromised.
Red Summer, a documentary filmmaker, community organizer, spoken word artist and activist originally from Chicago, Illinois thought of the idea of bringing black Muslim lesbians together to talk about their experiences. One of the first questions that came to her was, “where are they?” Eventually after finding some women through networking with friends, using Facebook and online threads, she began to work on the documentary Al-Nisa: Muslim Women in Atlanta’s Gay Mecca. I caught up with Red to discuss what prompted her to do a documentary on one of the most invisibilized groups in the Muslim community and society in general, showing that women in Atlanta are coming together, they are sharing their stories and they are making themselves visible.
Here is the interview that I had with Red in a two part series. Her humour and insight on the film and on the project of building community will hopefully spread to other black queer women in the Muslim community and help further a broader conversation. Because, as she says, “a community broadens, once their scope broadens.”
Red Summer: One of the main things, during the interviews, we had just kind of a thank you brunch at my house, and I think that’s on the 10 minute trailer, us sitting around the table. So one of the women said that she was excited that I gave her an address, and I was there at the address and I opened the door. What!? [laughs] So many times she was seeking community, and when it came down to it, people were so afraid to come together to have the conversation, to be together. So I was seeking a community that had never had community, had never met at each other at each other homes, never met together, all of that was radical community building. Yeah. Still there are some spaces, there is an Association for Progressive Values, I think is the organization here, but specifically for black women, there was no set place for them, because when they are in the Progressive Muslim Space there is still a cultural differences. You know, …when people converted to Islam and they didn’t know Arabic, and people are speaking to them and they are expected to know particular things, and they don’t, because of cultural differences, they are still on the outside.
Sharrae: […] It’s amazing that this community is being created.
RS: We just kind of started as a Facebook group and we continued having monthly get-togethers and started getting together at each other’s houses. Another thing that had started happening, and when we study communal feminism, co-chairing, resource sharing. So one of the women has a farm, and she said, “I want you to all come to the farm sometime and pick some eggs. YES! Totally. That has been eye-opening, it was something that was missing.
S: And this started before you filmed?
RS: The Facebook [group] started after the first brunch. But staying in contact with each other after the brunch, saying we are here now together we don’t want this to be the last time. Because I was not in contact before and folks who had similar subject matter said that it was a work in progress when I was in New York. We sought out interviews, but we never came together as part of the project. So we were you know, we understood each other as community, but we had not been in community in that way, we weren’t needing, we weren’t bonding or sharing anything in that way. Outside individually, I’d hang out with one girl, and another girl, but we weren’t hanging out together. What that means when we are together, when we share group space and bring all of us to the table. That’s been powerful for me.
Women are starting to bring their friends with them and other people they met online, and people who are also in their life so these people are filling up so we started with 5 of us total and now there are 11. So there are even more now and there were more in our last one in April.
S: So your first brunch. When was the first brunch, the moment of “oh my gosh you exist, oh my gosh you exist!”
RS: I think the first one could be, maybe it was in January, I want to say January. February at the latest, because I’m thinking we had 1, 2, 3, 4. So we started January, and we have one for May, and the one in May is going to be at the farm.
S: How did you hear about these women and how did you reach out to them?
RS: I was on a group on Facebook, it was a random group for women in Atlanta, and there was a conversation about being equally yoked, and the women on there predominately Christian, on how they didn’t want a partner who had different beliefs, there were faith problems and people were saying that as long as– because whatever their reasons were. And there was a woman who came on who said she will never have that experience, because she is Muslim and there are no other Muslim lesbians so we she will never have to be equally yoked in that way. So a woman came on and said, “well, hold on, I’m Muslim”, and there was a “Oh where did you come from, where do you live, like who are you!?” So seeing that excitement, we totally took over the thread and went into this conversation about what its like to just be Muslim, and none of the other women on there dated a Muslim woman and they were just talking about that, and there was some conversation about if I wanted have a Muslim wedding that would be against my partner’s beliefs.
There were so many things that were brought up that so many people don’t have to think about for the most part. And I was telling them I was really thinking about this documentary, would you be interested? Well, at the time I didn’t even ask. I just kind of thought about it, put it to the side, and when the idea came back up, I went back to the group, I went back to the thread, sent all of these messages and no one responded. Even though in the beginning they were so excited, but nobody was interested and I was just sending out inbox messages, trying to bring the thread back up to the top, you know? Just trying to garner some interest and there was none, so then I ended up going to a couple of other groups, and I was just trying to look for Muslims. I was just like, “Excuse me, are you Muslim?” “Oh no my name is just Fatima,” Oh okay sorry!” [Laughs]. Beyond that I did end up with one person from the original thread and three others that I just racially profiled [laughs]. And it was funny too, because some people did respond to the questionnaire that I sent out, but they wouldn’t be filmed. That ended up being a phenomenal point, because my cinematographer had asked at the end of one of the interviews if I wanted to put people in shadows, or blur their faces, or change their voices, so I was asking the women, like what they needed, and everyone said no. I want my face seen, I want my voice heard, I want to be present in this space, and I want to come out of silence. I am here, and I want people to know that I am here. So from then on, I couldn’t take anyone who didn’t want their face shown or their voice changed, because the project came to be about visibility at that point, and not just a story.
S: That was something that one person spoke about— the notion of invisibility and referring to the hijab and to wear the hijab you are visibly showcasing yourself as being Muslim. I don’t know how this is interpreted, but from what you are telling me, these women who decided to be a part of your film, to show who they are, they are visibly embracing their queerness, alongside their visibly being Muslim.
RS: Yeah. Another thing that came up in the conversation was safety. Very sensitive, because you know that some women are a part of the greater Muslim community in the city, some of them have children, you know, are going to these schools and are around other Muslim children, so that’s definitely a part, or a point of consideration I’ll say. But even being faced with that, and talking about it candidly, they were just like “No, we still want to do it.” Because I was worried to not put it on YouTube, or public forums, and to only show it in safe spaces or academia or something like that, but they were like “no you can put it on YouTube, go ahead.” And I’m like putting up all these boundaries, and they were like “take them down.”
S: Do you self-identify as Muslim?
RS: I was raised in Islam. I haven’t been an active Muslim [laughs] for a while. Well really, since I came out. And trying to navigate that space and because I had children also, I just hadn’t been around. I think a part of this space has given me that back. Because they are like, “ah! Let’s all go to jummah, let’s all go together.” And I’m like “Really? Okay?” [laughs].
S: There is the notion [once you come out and come to terms with one’s sexuality that there is no room to reconcile sexuality with Islam] that “I have to stop praying”, but this idea of reaching out and meeting each other and going to jummah and not caring – that is massive resistance, that’s survival that is coming from a place of love.
RS: The thing is too I didn’t understand this concept, and I kind of understand because I was a part of the women’s music festival, and exclusive spaces and shared spaces and all of that, and so I understand the power of creating space, but I don’t think I ever looked at it in a total sense before. To be having the conversation about this with women, I didn’t see myself in it, like I didn’t know I could be in queer spaces and not be Muslim. I knew I could be in Muslim spaces and not be queer, I could be in feminist spaces, but there was no real space, that all of me was invited to, and I didn’t even know I was missing that, until I was provided the opportunity to have that. [pause] Ah that’s so powerful. I just realized it now, just saying it.
Check back later today for part two of this interview!