Just Me and Allah – Samra Habib
Just Me and Allah is an ongoing project that aims to examine what it means to be Muslim when you’re queer through photography and interviews. The body of work aims to bring light to the struggles and often complicated experiences of queer Muslims by documenting visual history and narratives. Historically, photography has been forbidden in Islam so there’s very little photo archival evidence of the existence of queer Muslims. Understanding how Islam shapes their personal identity is critical in differentiating between lives that are lived and the ones that are represented.
Islam is an important part of the subjects’ DNA yet often times, their queerness excludes them from Muslim rituals and traditions that they associate with comfort and belonging. Some subjects’ lives are threatened daily because they are queer. This results in many creating their own reinterpretations of Muslim teachings that make sense in their lives. These individuals are re-imagining what it means to be Muslim in the 21st century.
Who: Raissa, Brussels
Photography and interview by Samra Habib
My family knew that I was transgender since I was a child in Mali. They had forbidden me from doing things associated with being a girl like playing with dolls. Growing up, I was kept hidden by my family so that no one would know that I’m trans. When guests would ask about me, my parents would lie and say they didn’t know where I was. I got really good at school because I couldn’t have a social life. My teachers loved me because I was really good at school. They actually really respected me and didn’t mind that I’m trans. I was one of the top students. I studied economics and statistics in Cameroon. The LGBT movement in Cameroon was really powerful and it inspired me to become an activist when I went back to Mali. I started working as a statistician for the government. During my transition, I was researching hormones that were the best for me. My doctor and almost all the pharmacies refused to help me. Finally, I found a pharmacy right by my house that gave me all the hormones I needed to help me with my transition. At this point, I was still working for the Mali government. I started feeling more and more comfortable with my body. I loved wearing dresses and accessories when going out. That’s when the police started harassing me. One night, more than 20 people started beating me in a club because I’m trans. I thought I was going to die. An older guy saved me by putting me in a taxi. I was too afraid to stay in Mali so I fled to Brussels where I’m currently seeking asylum. I can’t imagine going back to Mali.
When I was young, I went to Quran school. I thought it was strange when the imam said that LGBT people would go to hell. I thought, “why would I go to a place that doesn’t welcome me?” so I started praying by myself at home where I felt safe. I still pray to Allah and recite prayers from the Quran privately, but I just want to feel like I’m accepted in Islam as a trans woman. In my heart, I’m still Muslim. My regular reading of the Quran brings me peace.
Who: Leila, Berlin
Photography and interview by Samra Habib
I was born and raised in Paris, France with two sisters and two brothers. I just moved back after living in London, England for a few years. I am a blackarab, meaning that my mum is North African from Algeria and my dad is Caribbean. I didn’t grow up Muslim, as we were practicing Buddhism with my dad. My mum used to fast during the month of Ramadan and it’s the only time we practiced Islam. Even though my mum was born in a Muslim family, a politics of assimilation in France was running the life of people with a Muslim background while she was growing up.
I have always been a spiritual person and the first time I got to know a bit more about Islam was when I was 16. I was in the library and picked up the Quran and read the French translation. I read it in three weeks. I talked to my Muslim aunty about it and she gave me some books about the life of our beloved Prophet Mohammad. I started reading more and more about Islam and fell in love with it. When I was 20, I decided to become a Muslimah. I started wearing the hijab when I was 25. That was a big decision, especially in an Islamophobic country like France. I am a social worker and a special needs educator and it became a struggle to find a job in Paris. My life in France became hell on earth.
As time passed, my hijab was more than a symbol of faith, it became a symbol of resistance and a political symbol. My hijab is political, my hijab is resistance. I am covered in tattoos so when people see me with a hijab, they’re always shocked. Some non-Muslims like to tell me that I shouldn’t have tattoos or dress this way. They’re becoming the Mufti of Paris. I just want to say “it’s between me and Allah!”
I never wear my hijab the same way, just because my mood changes all the time. I love the turban, I love the Arab style hijab, I love wearing a simple woolly hat and I love wearing a nice Panama hat. Covering my head is a part of me. And just to disturb the Islamophobic system I would keep doing it. I also decided to shave my head. You wanna see what’s under that hijab? Sorry boo, no long black hair soft and shiny like you may imagine in your 1001 Nights fantasy. I’m not Jasmine from Aladdin.
Since a young age I knew that I was queer and to be honest it never caused me any problems, maybe because I didn’t mention it and it was not even necessary. I started asking myself questions growing up in my Muslim community. When you hear things from people that you share the same faith with who reject a part of you, it hurts.
Being queer and Muslim is not a disease. We are lacking a safe space. We are meeting up a lot in really small groups but it’s still not enough. Some of us are scared and it’s not easy.
I have three kids and they know Islam, the same way they know about the oppressive system that we are living in. They know the queer community, the anti-racist community. They come to all the protests with me and their dad, who is my ex-husband and is the best ally that I could dream of. He knows about my queerness and has always been supportive and protective.
I am a health advisor and a sport instructor. I love sports, fashion, art, dancing (especially kizomba) and food. My life is full.
My dream would be to create a space for young queer people of color. A space where they can be themselves and grow up feeling proud with no guilt or crap like that.
Who: El-Farouk Khaki, founder of SALAAM Canada and co-founder of Unity Mosque
Photography and interview by Samra Habib
I was born in Tanzania. We fled because of my father’s rabble-rousing political profile. We lived in England for three years and came to Canada in March of 1974. My mum (who is my best friend) did not like the snow or the concrete of Toronto, preferring the blooming flowers that greeted us in Vancouver, BC. My father was a committed humanist and activist. The Islam they taught me was one of justice and love that embraced diversity and liberation. It was an Islam heavily influenced by a variety of Muslim traditions especially Sufism.
One of the things that’s happened in Islam, especially post-oil and post Iranian revolution is that Islam has been reduced on many levels to a simple list of dos and don’ts. It’s devoid of any spirituality or any intimacy with the creator. LGBT people have always been around. The fact is that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender folks have always been accepted into Muslim societies. It wasn’t a question of whether they were Muslim, it was more about whether they were transgressive. Today, people’s Muslim identities are being denied and robbed, taken away from them.
I practice refugee and immigration law. These days, my clients are mostly refugees. The majority of my clients are LGBTIQ people fleeing persecution. I also represent many women fleeing gender and domestic violence. About 20 percent of my clients are HIV positive and fear stigma and discrimination in their countries of citizenship as a result.
Underlying my legal advocacy and my spiritual activism is the thread of human dignity and globalized justice. By globalized I mean not only justice for POCs (people of colour), or Muslims, or Queers, or women, but also for the planet, the environment and animals.
When I started Salaam (Queer Muslim community of Canada) back in 1991, it was about trying to create a community space. In those days, I don’t think I was ready to reclaim a religious space but it became apparent to me that there was a need for it. Six years ago, my partner Troy Jackson, Laury Silvers and I decided to start a Friday mosque space with the intention that it would become more than a Friday space and it would be beyond Toronto. Which is what’s happening, we have seven active communities. What’s really significant is the fact that we have triggered people’s imagination with the notion of an inclusive mosque space that’s gender equal and queer affirming. It’s a place that doesn’t ask you if you’re a Muslim or what kind of Muslim you are, where everybody is welcome. People are embraced in the fullness of their authenticity.
A place like Toronto Unity Mosque is vital because there is a spiritual trauma that LGBTIQ people suffer because we’re told we’re somehow lesser and that we don’t belong and are innately sinful because God’s love doesn’t extend to us. A place like the Unity Mosque that says “nah, that ain’t true” is extremely important.
Unity mosque is celebrating its sixth year anniversary. Click here for more info.
More photos from Just Me and Allah
Samra Habib is the founder, editor and photographer of Just Me and Allah: a Queer Muslim Photo Project. The project has received praise from many international media outlets. It is also part of Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives’ permanent collection and has exhibited at the CLGA and Videofag in Toronto and in Brooklyn, North Carolina, Munich, Berlin, Sweden and Brussels. I’ve been invited to speak about Islam, gender and sexuality by Columbia University, Harvard, Wellesley College, University of North Carolina and the World Social Forum. I continue to work with various LGBTQIA organizations internationally to raise awareness about issues that impact queer Muslims in different parts of the world. Working on this project has given me unique insight about different issues that shape the lives of LGBTQIA Muslims in different countries and how race, class, age, war, gender and sexuality come into play. When I’m not photographing queer Muslims around the world and sharing their stories, I’m a writer and a creative collaborator. Through my writing and art, I aim to highlight the personal narratives and individual stories behind global crisis and injustices. http://www.justmeandallah.com/blog/