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 homosexuality 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 homosexuality rights is not really an Islamic feminist issue and that more pressing injustices – FGM, polygamy, personal status laws governed by the Sharia court – Muslim women’s issues essentially, should always take precedence.
There was for a moment a mental jawdrop, but then I realised 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 are never really going to care about Black feminists, and perhaps mostly because it’s nearly impossible to place oneself in another’s shoes and understand what it’s like to endure life as a Black woman.
In the case of Muslim feminism, to say that all its members are straight, cis and able women is a bit of a stretch, but this certainly is reflected in their movement – that Muslim feminism is for straight, cis and able Muslim women. Compared to the widespread violence implicated 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 perhaps 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 sodomites (but not their other sins and the dubious doings of Lut (AS) himself) as legally/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 but really the ‘feminisation’ of men and the ‘masculinisation’ 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, as long as he stays ‘on top’, does not necessarily make him gay. In fact, in some Muslim communities, to be the penetrator in whatever form of sexual relations often equates with a kind of hypermasculinity. 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 transgender and disability. These non-traditional issues can benefit greatly from the activism work and academic rigour 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.