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To The Queer Muslims Who Had To Choose Between Faith And Love

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By Amritha Zachariah:

In a world that constantly tries to define and create molds for us to fit into, we are often left muddled. We are made to conform to definitions and identities, that are far from who we truly are, for religious and socio-cultural powers that spread their tentacles over our livelihoods and our true being. In a country like India where religious differences are many, a commonality exists in each religious community’s attitude towards gender and sexuality. Leaders from most religions have united in creating a homophobic stance that destroys and destabilizes the lives of many. The world today speaks a rhetoric of Islamophobia where the Muslim community has been strategically targeted in the name of fear. In such situations, daring to express and live as we truly are is our greatest form of dissent.

On May 13, Bangalore witnessed a gathering of people who dared to be different. The Queer Muslim Project, in collaboration with Aneka, organized a one-day consultation titled “Being Queer and Muslim in India”. This consultation brought an array of individuals from various walks of life who actively contest and fight to create unique spaces for themselves while fighting the dominant, prejudiced diktats of our time. The day long consultation aimed to fight against the three-fold issues of patriarchy, Islamophobia and homophobia that hamper the lives of Queer Muslims. The gathering saw a total of 30 individuals from various parts of India who together strove to listen to each other’s voices and develop contingency plans and strategies to create safe spaces and further acceptance.

When the consultation was first announced, the organizers were faced with a lot of conflicting responses; some believed that this program was against religious dogmas and would try to destabilize notions that are ‘set in stone’, on the other hand there were individuals who felt empowered by such an initiative. There were also individuals who were driven to attend this consultation out of their sheer curiosity as an initiative like this seemed unfathomable.

The day began with an introduction by the organizers who asserted that initiatives like this primarily focused on safe spaces of active collaborations and learnings. They stressed on the need for such conversations as ‘life becomes better once we start talking.’ The organizers stressed on passionate yet tolerant voices to create conversations that brings different voices together.The consultation had three panel discussions with eminent voices from within the community and allies of the movement.

The first panel “Queer and Muslim: Identities, Practices, Affiliations” had individuals sharing their experiences emerging out of their converged Queer Muslim identity. This converged identity often left them having to choose one or the other. Their religious affiliations many a time squashed their sexuality and their freedom to be and love who they truly are. These panelists shared their stories of pain and annihilation with the gathering.

My family was forced to move from our ancestral home and my young sister had to change schools is the middle of the academic year as news of my sexuality became public,” shared Aamir.* Others shared their experiences of being sent for psychiatric therapy to help them get out of their ‘phase’. Another panelist, Ayesha*, shared her experience of being sent out from her family for being friends with and later falling in love with a trans man. This panel evoked feelings of empathy and a need to create avenues of changes.

Source: The Queer Muslim Project/Facebook.The second panel focused on ”Legal/Faiths/Feminist Perspectives”, where the panelists spoke of parallels from other religious communities and the actions that are taken to accept and give further agency to these individuals who have been categorically oppressed. “The importance of theology cannot be understated.” The panel spoke of the need to invest time in theologizing their experiences to effectively understand and spread awareness. They spoke of the need to look at things from a context. “There is a need to reinterpret,”said one of the panelists. Fathima* another panelist addressed the ‘masculinization of Islam.’ Patriarchy was further discussed as a rampant issue that doubly marginalizes Muslim queer women.

Post lunch, there was a presentation on Homosexuality from the perspective of the Qur’an. The presenter emphasized that Qur’an is truly the word of Allah but also stated that nobody is sure of the ‘purity of the translations.’ Qur’an and Hadith are two different bodies of literature that form the primary sources of Islamic understanding of religion and the will of God. Further, these are used as the basis of Islamic law and other codes that regulate daily conduct amongst Muslims. Both these texts perceive homosexuality and non-heterosexual acts as being deviant and speaks of them in negative tone. Yet, compared to acts such as adultery, which is mentioned nine times in Qur’an alone, with specific punishment and a harsher tone, homosexuality comes across as a lesser crime.

The third panel was a platform where experiences of rejection and acceptance were shared and discussed. The panelists all shared their personal narratives. Among them, Imran* shared with the gathering how even though he has come out, he hasn’t transitioned because his family was against it. Imran spoke of how he has respected this and stayed with his family as they are dependent on him economically. “I am often ridiculed and ostracized by my friends and relatives but I do not care about them anymore’,”says Imran. Amidst all this, Imran retains that he has strong faith is Allah and that he actively participates in religious activities. Another panelist, Hashim*, spoke of the difficulties that his community faces. Burials were not allowed for trans people as they were considered ‘unnatural.’ Panelists also addressed the issue of abuse that queer individuals often face.

The consultation concluded with the gathering developing contingency plans to strategise and move forward. The gathering called for the need for dialogue between different religious communities as other religious groups have already made deliberations about these issues. The gathering also stressed on the need to provide mental health support to individuals within the community. Suggestions were made to document this consultation to use it as a powerful tool to empower and create awareness. Participants also stressed upon the need to provide legal assistance for affidavits, name change etc.

* names changed to protect identity

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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