February 29, 2012 – 9:26AM
Pakistani-born lawyer and social justice activist Alyena Mohummadally on the challenge of reconciling religion and sexuality.
I was raised in a Muslim household where we were encouraged to ask questions and seek answers. But for a long time, all I knew about sexuality and Islam was that heterosexuality was celebrated once married, and that homosexuality – a word used to describe men who have sex with men – was forbidden. Lesbians didn’t even get a look in.
I had known I was attracted to women since I was in my early teens. I remember watching German Figure Skater Katarina Witt in the Winter Olympics and thinking she was the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.
I first ‘came out’ to my parents when I was at Uni, but I went back into the closet when I saw the emotional chaos it caused for my family. My father didn’t want to speak about it and my little sister felt like I was tearing our family apart. I ended up denying my sexuality and living a double life, and hating myself for it.
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In 2000, I entered my first same-sex relationship, and then suddenly it dawned on me that maybe I was no longer Muslim. When I decided to renounce my faith, I was miserable but I couldn’t pretend I didn’t want a life with a woman. Strict interpretations say that homosexuality is forbidden in Islam. So I felt I couldn’t be queer as well as Muslim, and I was consumed by confusion. I even spent a year lying to my parents and saying I was “Women’s Officer” at Uni when I was the “Queer Officer”.
Eventually, I moved interstate and found the courage to explore both sides of my identity and discovered I could not deny my sexuality nor my spirituality. I could be both Muslim and queer since I believed Allah created me this way, and being a good person was enough for me to call myself Muslim. I am not a cleric nor religious scholar but I studied the religion and found my own way home. There are 99 names for God in Islam, and 97 of them are words like gentle, merciful, forgiver – this is the God that made me.
Until a few years ago, there were no online support groups for queer Muslims in Australia. I made a promise to myself that is I was ever comfortable enough with my reconciling faith and sexuality, then I would do something to help people find a voice when I for so long believe I had none. In 2005, I founded an online support group “Queer Muslims in Australia” to provide people like me with a safe space to connect.
We have just over 100 members so the group is small by today’s standards but I think of it as over a hundred brave people who are on a journey not dissimilar to my own. It still makes me extremely sad to read of people searching for “sham weddings” because it is not safe to come out. But I also do not think anyone should come out if there is a risk that they might be harmed or hurt – and this is a real risk for many people.
It has been a long and difficult road for my family to come to accept my sexual identity, but it’s worth it. I am now in a happy, committed and secure relationship with a non-Muslim woman, with whom I have a young son. We are raising our child to be Muslim because it just feels right. Although my parents have said that they still wonder why Allah created me differently, they accept my partner, and love her and my son. This is what matters to me.
Ultimately, I identify as a “queer Muslim”. But I am also a mother, partner, sister and daughter, a lawyer and a social justice activist. And I have found that I cannot be happy if I choose one world over the others. I’ve had countless people say to me, ‘You can’t be queer and Muslim – it just doesn’t exist in Islam.” To this, I simply say, “I exist. So it must be possible.”