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Gay and Lesbian in the Muslim World

By Gary Kramer

Published: August 21, 2008


Iranian refugees

The word “jihad” in the title A Jihad for Love means struggle, as one gay Muslim man explains in this important and honorable documentary about homosexuality in the Muslim world. Director Parvez Sharma provides a series of moving portraits of gay men and lesbians living in South Africa, Egypt, Turkey, Iran and India, and how they all try to reconcile their faith and sexuality. While the film deliberately does not provide answers, it presents several courageous individuals who talk openly, honestly and even painfully about their experiences on camera.



Because of their situation, faces of some of the talking heads are blurred to protect them and/or their families. However, in the case of Mazen – an Egyptian who was one of the “Cairo 52” men arrested on the “Queen Boat” gay club – he reveals his identity in his segment. This moment is as powerful as his recounting of being arrested. In another striking scene, Mazen can’t help but spit at the footage of his trial on TV.



Such testimonies make A Jihad for Love critical viewing for anyone who wants to understand how (and why) gay men and lesbians are persecuted in other countries. As the film shows, four friends from Iran who seek refuge in Turkey do readings and pray for their applications to be accepted by the UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) so they can be allowed refugee status in Canada.



As two gay Muslims, Imam Muhsin in Capetown and a man named Qasim in Northern India talk with Islamic scholars to try to find an acceptance of homosexuality in the Qur’an, they are met with opposition. Inasmuch as their own pride is apparent, their arguments do not seem to persuade the devout Muslim scholars. What does emerge from these examinations of religious law and personal behavior is that the interpretation is best left up to the individual. As someone in the film suggests, the Qur’an says that male rape is unacceptable, but nothing is written about a same-sex relationship. Similarly, a lesbian understands the Qur’an to mean that a woman penetrating a woman deserves punishment, but Sapphic love itself does not.

Significantly, not all of the stories presented in the film are heartwrenching. Some are heartwarming. A relationship between Kimyet and Ferda is sweet, as is a scene depicting Kimyet meeting Ferda’s mother for the first time. The women are first seen hugging and kissing outside a mosque without consequence and later, there is amusing banter about the sexual identity of Ferda’s mother’s parrot. But such moments in the film are few and far between.



Mostly, A Jihad for Love provides a powerful voice for a marginalized population of the GLBT community. When Maryam, a lesbian says that wearing the hijab (headscarf) makes her free, it is as moving as watching Mazen dress up and bellydance to celebrate his culture. These individuals still want to be involved with their heritage and in the process reconcile their feelings for their homelands. Even as they are forced to live in a new environment – like Mazen in Paris, or the Iranians in Turkey – they long for the comforts and rituals of home. When the Iranian friends call home and cry, it is an extremely poignant moment.



If Sharma’s film lacks a central narrative, and if some of the vignettes feel unformed, or even unfocused, he is still to be commended for gaining the trust and getting the participation of the subjects. The filmmaker touches on issues of coming out, gay marriage, and emigration without much detail, and viewers may want a more nuanced picture of what daily life is like for some of the film’s subjects. Yet the political stories (of threats, arrests or lashings) are more forceful than the personal tales. This is, in part because Sharma shows that in some of the countries featured in the film, homosexuality is still illegal. 



One common theme among many of the stories told is how marriage is seen as a possible solution for overcoming same sex longings. Several of the film’s talking heads describe their marriages or discuss being told to get married as a way of curbing their desires. Of course, all these people emphasize how wrongheaded this thinking is (or was), even if some unions produced children they love.



Ultimately, watching A Jihad for Love there is something exciting about seeing a face of gay and lesbian Muslims, and learning about their experience – be it the guilt and shame they have felt, or the courage of being out and talking openly about their lives.

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