Gay Muslims: Parvez Sharma and Jihad for Love


By: Tinaz Nooshian
Date: 2009-08-01

After inviting death penalty for his film on gay Muslims, Parvez Sharma tells Tinaz Nooshian he’s unsure how long peace will last after it’s screened today.

Parvez Sharma asks if the photographs he has mailed are good enough. “Hi-res, shot professionally?” And that’s not because he’s vain, he quickly clarifies.

“When you are gay, making a film about them, and stressing on identity, showing your face is important,” he says.

Face To Face: Qasim, a homosexual from Lucknow discusses homosexuality with Syed Kalbe Jawad, one of the most prominent clerics and authorities on Shia Islam outside Iran

Being unapologetic about who he is, always came easily to the gay Muslim filmmaker.

As a 17-year-old broadcast journalist in Delhi, he came out when being gay wasn’t hip.

He says his mother died angry, his father is still upset. Reactions back home are sweeping, he admits.

And that’s possibly the reason why he’s anxiously waiting to see how India’s Muslims perceive A Jihad for Love, a documentary that unravels stories of the most unlikely storytellers: lesbian and gay Muslims in India, Pakistan, Turkey, Egypt and Iran.

Being gay wasn’t a problem in New York where he taught at an American university, but after 9/11, being Muslim became a problem.

The film stemmed from the desire to give a voice to Muslims like him, those with a deep faith in a religion that outwardly rejected them.

Filmed in 12 countries over six years, his film pits clerics who claim, “Homosexuality is punishable in Islam by death.

The only difference between the jurists is how the person (offender) must be killed”, against middle-aged Arab lesbian lovers, as one of them introduces the other to her mother.

And then there is an openly gay Imam from Johannesburg in love with a Hindu from India all individuals most of us don’t believe exist, like the organisations and online support groups Sharma networked through, including a community of LBTQ women in Lebanon, and Bint el Nas, a site for gay Arab women, whose latest edit reads: “There are so many forces working against us seeing our own beauty, so many voices saying that we don’t exist, that we’re ugly. But we are so f**king beautiful.”

You’ve said you were careful about making a film that reflected a positive attitude towards your faith.
It draws from the love and positivity of the people who feature in it. It’s not about Qasab’s jihad or his variety of Islam. And so, it’s important that Muslims in India watch it.

Renouncing your religion to stand by your sexual identity would be the easier option. How tough is it to stay in a faith that you deeply love, but one that condemns what you deeply desire?
It’s not easy. I have managed to make peace with myself, but I have the economic and intellectual advantage. It’s tough to leave Islam. It’s community based. Leaving it means leaving your food, music. It’s easier being a secular Hindu than being a secular Muslim.

How tough was it to get people to talk on camera about religion and sexuality?
It was very tough. That’s why the film took six years to make. Most of the time was spent talking, sharing. The filming came at the very end. That I was a Muslim, and was willing to spend time to win their trust, helped. It took me five years before I could get Ferda and Kiymet, lesbian lovers and devout Muslims, to agree to let me even switch on the camera.

Shooting in Egypt was the toughest, you’ve said.
Yes. I shot guerrilla style, in Iran, Egypt and Pakistan. I didn’t take necessary permissions. I never used a tripod, the camera was a small one and I had to behave like a tourist. In the local policemen busted me, but I got away with bribing. Bribing works there just as well as it does in India.

How much does homosexuality have to do with class?
A lot of activists in India and Pakistan would be angry but yes, class plays a huge part. Homosexuals from impoverished homes aren’t going to get co-opted in the gay pride agenda. Most people who speak on behalf of homosexuals, have access to an English education.

There is an attempt to bring the hardliners in dialogue with homosexuals, like you did with Qasim and Shia cleric Syed Kalbe Jawad.
Yes. Qasim, who’d always been grappling with questions, wanted to meet Syed Kalbe Jawad, one of the most prominent clerics of Shia Islam outside Iran. Qasim was terrified, and wouldn’t have managed access to him. Jawad said homosexuality was wrong, but unlike another Sunni clerics we interviewed, he didn’t talk of a death punishment. He asked Qasim to go see a doctor. He used the word “marz”, Urdu for “disease”.

What does the Quran say about homosexuality?
The Quran doesn’t speak about homosexuality the way we understand it in 2009. But there is the story about the Nation of Lut. Lut was a prophet, and nephew of Ibrahim (Abraham) who was commanded by God to go to the land of Sodom and Gomorrah to preach monotheism and stop them from their lustful acts. They indulged in homosexuality, and when Lut asked them to abandon their transgression against Allah, they ridiculed him. So, Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed.

Scholars will say the story is not about homosexuality, but I’m afraid, most Muslims believe it is. Scholars may argue that we need to engage with the Quran in a contemporary fashion, but Muslims believe you can’t mess with the Quran, and there lies the conflict.

What then is the way out?
When I started on the film, I was trying to find answers to questions within the Quran. Now, I feel that’s futile. The issue is specific to every family, every community.

There is a view that homophobia has risen in Islam only since the 1880s, perhaps influenced by European colonialism. Do you agree?
Of course. Look at India, the Mughal era. Sufi poetry makes references to homosexuality. There was a definite tolerance, even if there wasn’t always an open celebration. With colonisation, we were saddled with Section 377.

It clubbed every possible impermissible behaviour. While freeing ourselves from colonial rule, on one hand, we were saddled with outdated British laws, and on the other, we had the Mullahs in India and Pakistan, dragging the discussion from legitimate forums to Friday mosque discussion.

Is it tougher being gay, Muslim and female, than being a gay Muslim male?
Yes, because like most religions, Islam is patriarchal. Women’s sexuality is controlled by men. They aren’t supposed to be sexual beings.

“Parvez Sharma is going to die such a bad death, one that will startle those that dared to support him…” says one hate mail on your blog. Do you ignore, react or reply?
Ignore. But for most part, I’m fatwa-fine. In South Africa, a judgment was passing calling me an apostate. Technically, that calls for a death penalty. I think I’m still alive is because the film does not attack Islam like Salman Rushdie did.

Have you faced screening issues?
The Singapore government banned the film last year. Dubai refused to screen it at their film fest. But I managed to screen it in Turkey, and want to take it to Jordan and Beirut. People tell me the film’s DVDs are selling in black on the streets of Karachi and Lahore, and private screenings are bring organised in Iran. There’s been no widespread violence. I don’t know what’s in store after Saturday’s India screening, though.

>>Watch A Jihad for Love on NDTV 24X7 at 1 pm and 3 pm today.

>>To watch the trailer, log on to http://www.youtube.com

>>Follow Parvez’s blog on www.ajihadforlove.blogspot.com

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