A writer of Somalian origin, living in America, Afdhere Jama has written about queer Muslims for years now. In 2002, he started Huriyah, a magazine for queer Muslims with more than 200 correspondents across 70 countries. Illegal citizens was inspired by the story of two women in Somalia. They were in love and decided to get married. So, they went to the local Islamic court, knowing what the answer would be. But, Jama isn’t sure if they knew they would be killed. He was horrified when he saw the story on the news. The Somalian government denied it, but Jama met an ex-girlfriend of one of the women who confirmed the execution to be true. It started Jama on a journey to document the lives of others like them.
You chose to focus on stories from 22 countries in particular. Why is that so?
I had written stories from over 70 countries, but I could not fit it all into one book. My publisher suggested that if I want to reach my target audience (queer Muslims in these countries), then I must make the book small and affordable enough for them to be able to buy it. So, I picked the most diverse stories. That way, the book could be a representative of all the stories I left out. The countries I chose — such as Somalia, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria — are those where executions had taken place. I also included countries like India, Morocco, Turkey, Kenya, Malaysia and Bosnia, where gay and lesbian Muslims live quiet lives without the threat of executions.
In an interview, you had talked about how you wanted to write about suffering queer Muslims, but later discovered how sometimes you were confronted with people living happy lives. How has the experience changed you?
Yes, definitely my viewpoint has changed in these past eight years. I have seen completely diverse lives first-hand. I met gay and lesbian Muslims who are in hiding, and who fear for their lives. But I have met far more who are living their lives and actually are living lives I never imagined possible in such countries. My biggest lesson was that the countries in which Muslims live are really complicated.
One story that was shocking and liberating at the same time is about a young man in Tehran. He is the son of a powerful ayatollah and he is gay. During the day, he has to appear conservative (to appease his father’s ilk). At night, he and his friends are out having fun. One night, they took me to an underground nightclub where alcohol was served, men danced with men, and sexual activities were taking place in the background, much like in clubs in New York or Paris.
Which country(ies) did you think was the most repressive and which ones, most liberal? What are the grey areas?
I thought Egypt, believe it or not, was most repressive. Queers in Egypt were more fearful than those I met in Saudi Arabia or Iran. It was an odd experience because no one gets executed in Egypt. But from a historical point of view Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and Iran are the most repressive because of their continued harrassment, arrest and execution of queers.
What are your observations about the life of queer Muslims in India? Are there support systems in place for them here? Organisations that help them reconcile their religion with their sexuality?
India was a very interesting country to cover. I wrote six stories about India, two of which made it to the book. To the world at large, India is not a Muslim country. But India has the third largest Muslim population, after Indonesia and Pakistan. So the Muslim population in India is significant in their influence. When I went there and met queer Muslims who are out, I was very pleased.
Groups like Al-fatiha on the Internet, and offline groups like the Humsafar Trust and Gay Bombay, help them voice their concerns. At Huriyah where I have been the editor since 2000, we have had an Indian managing editor between 2000 and 2007. He has helped us bring voices from India many times, some of which created a large number of responses.
Why did you start the Huriyah?
I started the magazine because when I was a teenager I was confronted with a non-Muslim queer experience. I read gay and lesbian newspapers around the world but they were all too focused on either sex and sexuality or politics. They did not deal with the demons that haunt queers. And certainly not anything related to Islam. So I thought, let us start a magazine that queer Muslims can relate to.
Can same-sex relationships be reconciled with Islam?
Yes, of course. There is a growing number of Muslims who are realising that sexuality is not a choice. In North America, for example, we have organisations like the Muslims For Progressive Values (in US) and Muslim Canadian Congress who recognise that sexuality is not a choice and welcome queer Muslims into the fold.
Organisations like Al-fatiha (US), Salaam (Canada), Imaan (UK) and the Inner Circle (South Africa) have helped queer Muslims understand that being gay, lesbian or transgendered is a natural process and part of a normal reality. And that Allah does not make mistakes. Allah creates what Allah wills.