Saadiya, Toronto © Lia Darjes
“Being queer and Muslim means to me that I can be who God intended me to be. And for me, that is an educated woman, compassionate, caring and loving other people. I used to think that it was a negative thing, but the more I learned about myself and the more I learned about queer community, I learned that we are just like everybody else. We have the same needs that other people have. We have the same right as everybody else.”
Back in the beginning of July I participated in portfolio reviews at Voies Off, Arles. My third year on the trot, I have come accustomed to the high quality of work being made by photographers across Europe (and sometimes even further afield). This year did not disappoint, with some very interesting projects being produced by some very talented people.
Berlin-based Lia Darjes was one such photographer, and her project Being Queer, Feeling Muslim has really stuck with me since our meeting. The project, which has a terrifically long alternative title (find it at the close of this post), is a piece of photographic research into the lives of individuals identifying as queer and Muslim, bringing together portraiture and interviews that reveal the personal stories of the subjects. These accounts are extremely diverse and eye opening, as are the subjects that Darjes – a non-Muslim, heterosexual woman – has worked with.
These accounts reveal the struggles encountered by LGBT Muslims, from discrimination against them from within the Islamic community, the ongoing rise of Islamophobia and their own inner turmoils, but also offer positivity and progressiveness in equal measure. We learn of openly gay Imam’s who have worked to open inclusive mosques and of peoples journeys to convert to Islam, despite their sexuality.
Ludovic, Paris © Lia Darjes
“In 2012, after I did not find one single imam in France who was willing to bury a transsexual Muslim, I founded a mosque that is open to all in Paris. The reactions were quite vehement. Being Muslim, Arabic and gay and thus a member of several minority groups opened my eyes: Minorities are being discriminated against particularly in times of economic crisis. We have to know more about Islam, and we have to understand who we actually are in order to fight homophobia.”
Darjes has travelled across Europe and the US to meet these individuals, having made contact through a variety of means. Aware that she was asking people possibly the most private questions you can ask, that of sexuality and of belief, but also that she was a complete outsider as a non-LGBT person or Muslim, she had to be considered in her approach and work to build trust with the subjects. She told me that some people were more open than others, and that some weren’t ‘out’ to their families or communities yet, so sensitivity and understanding to individual situations was key.
For me, Darjes’s work is a refreshing exploration into a side of the Islamic faith we rarely or never see in mainstream media. The rhetoric used by these media outlets does nothing to dispel or calm the very serious issue of rising levels of Islamophobia, and often contributes to unhealthy stereotypes and mindsets in the wider public with a focus on stricter practices of Islam. But here we can see a community of people within this faith who are paving the way toward a more inclusive and liberal religion that is far removed from common stereotypes. Positive and defiant, they fight against two or more levels of discrimination as LGBT people, Muslims and racial minorities, which as an outsider is very inspiring indeed.
Jason, L.A. © Lia Darjes
“When I converted to Islam a couple of years ago, it [being gay] wasn’t an issue for me. I had just realized that I wanted to be a Muslim, and being a Muslim at that moment, as a very early young Muslim, it was all about my connection with God, and getting close to God. A month later, I realized that I needed to look to what the Quran and everybody says about being gay. … And everything was extremely negative, very, very negative. And it was very disturbing to me.”
Samira, Toronto © Lia Darjes
“I am from a country where it is punishable by death to be gay. 1979, when the Islamic Revolution began, my family immigrated to Canada, where I grew up pretty secular; maybe that was why I never had that moment of a coming out with my parents, I think they always knew that I am a lesbian. When 9/11 happened, all of a sudden I became Muslim, not because I was behaving differently but because people saw me differently. Just one look at my name and people act differently. Why don’t they understand that there are so many different ways of Islam in different countries, different traditions, different shapes? Why can they accept it for Christianity and Judaism but not for Islam?”
Joey, L.A. © Lia Darjes
“I was a pretty strong atheist and then I came across a copy of Michael Muhammad Knight’s novel ‘The Taqwacores’ about a fictional Muslim punk movement that kind of became true after being published. I purchased it, read it in just a couple of days and it opened my eyes a lot more to the religion.[…] In a way, I was very orthodox in my thoughts when putting the LGBT community and Islam together. Because on first sight, it looks dark when you look in the Quran and the Hadiths, it clearly can’t be OK. But then you can read other sources, other verses of the Quran, other Hadiths, and it gets clear that it is all a question of how you decide to interpret it.”
El-Farouk and his husband Troy, Toronto © Lia Darjes
“People don’t often speak of spiritual violence. I think, it is a very real thing for a lot of people. For women, religion is used to tell them that maybe they are not equal to men or that they are somehow limited. Religion often tells people that there is something profoundly sinful about them. So when you are a queer kid and particularly if you come from a Christian, a Muslim or a Jewish background that holds this particular interpretation, then that is a lot of spiritual violence where you are being told that there is something profoundly and deeply wrong with you. As a result, a lot of queer people end up leaving religion or stepping out of religion or having a very unhealthy relationship with religion. Where I am at today is not necessarily where I started. And I could tell you where I am now and it would sound rather a happy place. But the journey to that place has not been an easy one. I started with the notion that it was sinful [to be gay] and that those who practiced it were problematic at best. But that didn’t quite sort of seem right in the larger construct of the Quran and the Prophet that I believed to be true and actually had been taught. I don’t believe that homosexuality is a sin because sexuality in Islam is not a sin. Sexuality is something that God has given. And in verse 49.13. Allah says, ‘I created you to different nations and tribes and you may know and learn from each other.’ I just see queer folk as one of those nations or tribes. The contribution of queer folk to human history as thinkers, innovators, shamans, healers, artists, dancers, musicians and politicians is profound. We occupied shamanistic spaces and healing spaces in many cultures. Well, human history would be rather sucky, bleak and uninteresting without us. I describe my Islam as organic: Something that speaks to the heart and that continues to grow, with different manifestations through history and time. I know that is not everybody’s definition of Islam, but Allah in the Quran speaks of growth and change in all created things – nothing is permanent except God. The essential message of Islam is Twahid, and that for me speaks to the Oneness of God and the unity and interconnectedness of all created things.”
Hassan, Paris © Lia Darjes
“I still consider myself cultural Muslim, but I am not a believer anymore. In a certain period in my life, my friends may have called me an on-off Muslim. During this time, I was not really believing anymore but still wanted to experience a more moderate and contemporary Islam – an Islam of today. I wanted to meet people who manage to be queer and Muslim at the same time. But I still think it is better for homosexual people not to believe in a God in any way. If you do, it is very difficult. It creates a lot of problems – psychological problems. The main reason why I quit Islam is because I am homosexual. I don’t manage to be both. It was very difficult for me not to believe that there is a God and that Mohammed is his prophet, hard not to believe in a lot of things that are comfortable. Not believing in destiny. Not believing that anything that happens to you is not already planned by God for you. Not believing that there is a judge that judges what happens on earth. I needed a lot of time to really consider myself an unbeliever. I don’t miss my faith – not believing is more comfortable for me than believing.”
Amin, L.A. © Lia Darjes
“I find myself in the middle of two fronts – sometimes fighting within the Muslim community for more tolerance of LGBT people, and at other times fighting queer people and non-Muslims against the rampant Islamophobia in this country. I feel like I’m obligated to educate people on both sides. At the same time, I don’t feel the need to be validated by anyone. I don’t feel any great inner turmoil because of the various components of my identity. Like, I don’t necessarily feel excited by the prospect of a mosque for gay people. If there was a big mosque and people went and prayed together, I would still feel uncomfortable – gay or not. But I feel like people should have the right to do that. Is that weird? It sounds like I am in denial, doesn’t it?”
Sara, New York © Lia Darjes
“For me, it has never been about reconciling. I feel both identities – being queer and Muslim – complete each other. And that I am able to be my best self when I embrace a 100% of what I represent. I celebrate my queerness and I celebrate my Islam. For me, there has never been a problem with me being queer in my Muslim community. Many people think that the Muslim community is one big thing, but it is not. We each create our own community. I don’t know all of the almost two billion other Muslims. I know only those that I see every day as a part of my local community, who love me and who are there for me knowing my full self. For me, what has often been a problem is when I go to certain queer spaces where I experience a lot of Islamophobia. There, they usually think it is not possible to be Muslim and queer. I have to prove, then: It is possible, because I am here and I know many more people like me. Islam has never been a part of my life that I felt limited by, it has always been a source of strength. I feel that I come out as Muslim rather than coming out as queer. Many people have a very strong preconception of what a Muslim woman looks like and how she behaves. And though, when I actually share this with people as something that is really important to me, they are often very confused.”
A. with her Partner in London © Lia Darjes
“God is merciful, God is loving; she is beautiful and is everywhere and is magnificent. […] don’t think there is any part of me that feels I am not a good Muslim. Only God can judge me, and I know that I am consciously trying to live a life that God expects us to live and wants us to live. Being available for others but also being available for you, as well. Giving, but also attending to your own needs. Being good in your heart. Your heart has to be clean and has to be pure and has to be willing to go to different limits.”“The details of how we practice is not what God is concerned about, for instance what you wear, how you hold your hands and which gender you stand beside. It is about how pure our heart is in how we treat others and how we live our life in this world. Simple things: living a life of integrity and authenticity doing good by others and serving others. That is my Islam.”
Lia Darjes’s Being Queer, Feeling Muslim
or A Photographic Research about the Struggles and Joys in Life of Individuals Identifying as Queer and Muslim, Living in the Occident during the Beginning of the 21. century of Christianity (by a non-muslim heterosexual photographer)
was nominated for the Voies Off Prize in 2016.
All images © Lia Darjes