Queer in Islam and a Theology of Dissent by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente


Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente. Queer and IslamMost of the time, when we talk about being “Queer in Islam,” we identify the term with a hermeneutics developed by or on behalf of LGTBQI Muslims in order to allow their inclusion in religious spaces and recognize their agency in matters of faith.

Is not my intention to appropriate the voice of LGTBQI Muslims in this issue, just to share my reflections about a topic that deserves a larger and deeper treatment.

Theologies, mainly monotheistic, have served to justify and reinforce the heterosexual paradigm and have thereby fed the installation of hegemonic speeches against anyone who cannot be categorized within their narrow representations; such persons have been labeled as QUEER.

Of course, it can be said that Islamic theology nowadays is strongly heterosexual. I am not referring here exclusively to what concerns sexual orientation, but about heterosexuality as a compulsory system aimed to control and discipline roles, status, relations of production, class, race, emotions, embodiment, hierarchies, attitudes and sexual behavior of people under the opposite and exclusionary categories of man and woman.

While I respect the right of individuals to name their gender identity and sexual orientation as they wish, I think it is important to remember that labels like gay, lesbian, the idea of queer itself and other categories are expressions born out of a hegemony regarding the body, sexuality, and identity about people. This hegemony results in the active “othering” of certain person; “othering” out of a position of privilege, of power, to define, for example, what is normal and what is not, who are the majority and who are the minority, how this minority must behave and the spaces where they must remain.

Marcella Althaus-Reid affirmed that heterosexuality is a sexual ideology. It does not come from God but has been used in theology in an artificial, Western, white imperialist way. There are actually many cultures who define sexuality and relationships in diverse and varying ways.

When we talk about queer in Islam as a concept limited to sexual orientation, we are parceling out a resistance that should be common, though diverse. We risk reproducing the same invisibility against groups that are already silenced and invisible in other spaces like lesbians, bisexuals, financially underprivileged Muslims, converts from the third-world, and non-Arab Muslims, for example; intersections between colonialism, privileges and androcentrism appear even in these struggles.

As can be true in mainstream Islam – regardless if it is Sunni, Shia or Sufi – a hetero-centered paradigm is presents in some narratives of Islamic feminisms, and can likewise be homophobic and oppressive. In some of them, LGTBQI are discriminated by omission. For example, such as when feminism is confused with “highlighting the contribution of women in Islam” and does not criticize embedded patriarchal systems. In other occasions, talk about “Queer in Islam” that describes the matter with tenets like “it is a minority’s issue,” “we condemn the sin but not the sinner,” “they can do whatever they want but it is haram to talk about private life,” “LGTB activism divides the struggle, we are all against racism here,” and other such expressions, reflect a double standard and slight bigotry.

While acknowledging that the Koran does not define spiritual experiences according to sex or gender, I think we need to broaden the spectrum of “Being Queer” when it comes to challenging patriarchal theology in Islam. This means being “non-heterosexual” in relation to a widening normative paradigm and committing to the developing of a theology that challenges a mainstream that not only is exclusionary against sexual diversities but against people that are being “othered” for reasons of race, origin, life styles and gender performances.

I propose using the term “Queer in Islam” as related with a theology of dissent. Dissent of all that is spiritually, physically, emotionally, intellectually, sexually, religiously and behaviorally normative. Queer as an alternative to mainstream; dissent as a response to hegemony.

Inclusive Islam is not merely adding people under a hetero-centered umbrella or giving LGTBQI the same things that hetero people have. For me, it goes beyond this. If each of us has a reason to be queer in relation to mainstream, I wonder: Is inclusion what we aim as the ultimate edge in this struggle or a theology of our own? What about a theology made from a place of dissent, where being “queer” maps out a space of resistance not just to oppose but creatively to construct, re-imagine and envision a different kind of world?

The theology of the master will never dismantle the master’s mosque.

I’m not seeking to engulf the struggle of LGTBQI brothers and sisters; universalist activism always favors those who are already privileged while silences those who are already invisible. I am talking about encouraging an Indecent Theology in Islam: A theology of no scholars, no authorities of any kind; that is not given from above, but starts from the grounds and the basements, with people’s lives and critical experiences without censorship. A theology that invites people to come as they are, and to come out of all the closets they are living in. A theology of liberation made from subjectivities and the stories of individual, that results from our personal agency to build a paradise according to our social class, race, language, gender, identity, lifestyle and particular quirks. If Islamic feminisms declare themselves a movement and a perspective of dissent from patriarchy in Islam, then Islamic feminisms must be a Queer Feminism based in an Indecent Theology without hesitations.

From this queer perspective as a Muslim and Feminist I have no gender, no sex, no color, no race and there’s no struggle for social justice out of my league. Because I am queer I am all sexes, all races, all gender, all colors, all emotions and all struggles. As Brandon Wint says:

“Not queer like gay. Queer like escaping definition. Queer like some sort of fluidity and limitlessness at once. Queer like a freedom too strong to be conquered. Queer like the fearlessness to imagine what love can look like… and pursue it”.

Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente is a Writer, Mentor and Community Educator in Capacity Building for Grass Roots Female Leaders and Advocates. A Muslim Feminist who is an Independent Researcher of Gender and Islam in Latin America on Feminist Hermeneutics, Muslim Women Representations, Queer Identities and Movement Building. She blogs in Spanish at Mezquita de Mujeres, a site dedicated to explore the links between Gender, Religion and Feminism as well to Women from the Global South as Change Makers in their communities.

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Categories: Feminism and Religion, Feminist Theology, Islam, LGBTQ, Muslim Spirituality, Patriarchy, Qur'an

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20 replies

  1. Love the Brandon Wint quote.

    I suspect that all religions attempt to regulate reciprocity(ex. sexuality, trade) in order to bond non-family members into one large community. That is our origin, other things (ex. imperialism) get tacked onto it.

    I like the idea of a grassroots, Indecent Theology, but I think it would have to start small, as in how many people fit around my dining room table. The next step would be how to connect all the small groups into a larger organization. Can a community of dissenters ever agree on anything?

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    • Hi nmr: I advocate for an individual agency. Sometimes you find common grounds, sometimes not. That’s why I talk about a theology of dissent: A liberation built from the individual and his or her particularities where being part or attaching to a concept of Umma is not a an issue.

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  2. Greatly enjoyed your theology of dissent, thanks so much, Vanessa!!

    One big reason I read FAR is because there is a different voice, a different perspective here every day. “Queer in Islam,” for instance, is radically different. Hooray!! But even if 20 feminists agreed (which they never would of course) on what “feminism” is, it’s how that liberation uniquely plays out in each person’s life that interests me, not how we can all team up and think the same way.

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    • Hi Sarah: Exactly. Only the individual and his or her spirituality. I dont think we need to team up but maybe agree or at least respect that every person’s spiritual experience is unique and can’t and must not be dragged TO a normative concept of Umma , instead recognizing in each one the agency to organize a Umma of our own if we decided. For example, I am not part of any Islamic Umma but I have my own group of people and networks and we join together in the mutual celebration of our “Queerness” : Some of them are LGTB others not, there are atheists and any kind of people. Even we are not a group, because people can go and come back whenever they want. A theology of dissent includes the right to dissent from any category imposed from religion framework, including those related about compulsory gathering. Warms regards

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    • I know I don’t say this enough, but I would especially like to thank the organizers and administrators of the FAR blog. You have given the contrarians a space to discuss and exchange ideas and this has enriched my life tremendously. Thank you, you are awesome!!! :) Just :):):):):):):):):):):)

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      • I’m so glad to hear it nmr! I can say that us FAR co-weavers are grateful for everyone that is willing to engage and participate in these conversations. Collectively we make FAR what it is – in all its complexity :)

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      • I think too this community is awesome. I am very blessed for being part of it and I, without vanity or proud, I humbly congratulate myself for having written all those emails requesting Gina Messyna an opportunity. I have grown and learned a lot from all people here and I also felt the sisterhood. I only can explain this with a verse of argentinian poet Alejandra Pizarnik

        “Soy mujer. Y un entrañable calor me abriga cuando el mundo me golpea. Es el calor de otras mujeres, de aquellas que hicieron de la vida este rincón sensible, luchador, de piel suave y tierno corazón guerrero”

        “I am woman. And an endearing warmth shelter me when the world hits me. It is the heat of those other women, those who made from life this sensitive corner, striving, of soft skin and tender-hearted warrior “

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  3. I’ve been debating all day exactly how to respond to this post. I know at the beginning you say that you do not mean to appropriate the term queer, yet, to me, your post reads differently. You have defined queerness so broadly on purpose suggesting that all Muslims should practice a queer theology of Islam.

    However, where have you left room for queer individuals in their specificity and with their concerns? As a queer person (who happens to be Jewish and not Muslim), I have a problem with this because you end up losing what is particular about a certain group of people and their contributions as well as their particular gifts, struggles and perspectives within Islam (in your case) and Judaism (in mine).

    I would have a problem if everyone suggested that the way to end anti-Semitism is for everyone to somehow claim Jewishness as their own. What does acting Jewish mean? In a similar vein, what does acting queer mean? Every queer person and every Jewish person I know operates in the world differently. In other words, there is no one way to be queer, just as there is no one way to be Jewish. So how does one who is neither become either and/or both for the purpose of liberation?

    Allies are one thing; appropriation of another’s identity and calling it your own is something else entirely. Perhaps it would be better to suggest what non-queer Muslims can learn from queer theology to inform a liberated version of Islam rather than suggesting everyone practice a queerness as one’s personal theological/religious way-of-being. I’m also suggesting this because much of queer theology is and has been historically dominated by white, educated gay men and has generally ignored and trivialized the diversity (lesbian, bi and trans as well as racial, class, gender, sex, etc.) that is queer identity. In other words, it has its own issues with liberation. (Robert Gross’ “Jesus Acted Up” for example).

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    • I see you didn’t get my point. I am a queer muslim too so claims about apropiation are out of place. I dont call myself noone of the name people use to label queer identities, sadly we dont have others that can be understood widely. But talking in spanish I define myself as “dissident” a concept has been developed in latinamerica that explain my perspective that also include a rejection of white influence, capitalism and state policies. And as dissident I have been able to network and build colaboration with other dissidences.. I think I am queer in many ways and also, as a brown third world colonized person I dont want to give credit to categories that describe my particularities from a “othering” point of view and a position of hegemony. I am queer in the way Gloria Anzaldua and Marcella Althaus described it, would be nice you check their works where race, social class and position in relation to a mainstream have an influence in the definition of queer identity. I am aware, I am not equal to someone who is white, live in the first world and have privileges that comes from many tents, including a narrative in relation to her religion that favours her acceptance by heteros because is not the same to be a jewish gay than a muslim homosexual. As a queer person I dont want to be “included” but left in peace to live my spirituality and life because inclusion is another word for domestication. And saying that everyone has a reason to be queer doesnt mean that people have to become lesbian or apropiate the other stuggles, that’s the negative way to see it. I was talking only about identify with other opression in the sense of getting awareness that this system have a reason on each of us human beings for rejecting us: Some people are “queer” to the system because they dont match the beauty standars, others because of their race, etc. For me being queer and the struggle for equality goes beyond my bed and what is related to. Is about my life and dignity as human being. We have different approaches but don’t worry I am not dragging the struggle from your hands, just affirming mine.

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      • I saw this as a general call and not a reclaiming of a personal struggle and an affirmation of identity. I’m the last person to have issues with reclaiming an identity. I’m glad you’ve been able to carve your own queer Muslim space as you see fit.

        By the way, I love the work of Gloria Anzaldua and Marcella Althaus-Reid. I wish many more queer theologians wrote with their analyses in mind.

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      • I think the beauty of being human is being able to flow, to mutate, to be free of categories and asserting oneself to embrace our quirks and our dark areas and our sorrows and doubts, without wanting to be anyone but myself and without wishing to be anywhere else than in the present moment. I’ve learned to live this way. I am a queer person for many reasons, life has shaped me as well, my history has made possible, my soul discovered one day. And I surrender to the possibilities of life, of my body, of my mind,of my soul .. In the end, all human beings are in transit, we are we are ephemeral passengers and our daily struggle is to keep traveling. There’s a book I love, the name is Queer Latinidad I want to share it with you http://es.scribd.com/doc/176215579/Queer-latinidad-juana-mari-a-rodri-guez#scribd . Regards

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  4. Thanks for this great post, Vanessa. As a Unitarian Universalist, I’m used to a community with many different spiritualities and faiths. I LOVE my community of seekers, who not only tolerate each other’s spiritual paths, but actually support each other in our diversity.

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    • Thanks for understanding my point Nancy. Embracing the queer in us is not about denying the right of people to visibilize their particular struggles but to be aware that they are not separate it from ours. I am a queer person but also latina so the opression cause for hipersexualization of latina women for white cultural industry affects me; as a woman from working class all what opress that class affects me, so my “queerness” is not only about my identity but about my life as a whole human being in relation to a hegemonic system. If people want to fight alone, they have the right to do it, If the want to defend their rights to live under heteronormative institutions, like marriage, family, cars and credit cards, they are free to do it. But my path doesn’t go that way. For me, we have to dissent of everything that opress us.

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  5. I personally cannot use the term queer as an identity no matter how it is defined by you and the amazing scholars you have mentioned because I am in that privileged position of being white, “first world,” straight, cis-gender, all of that. Unlike you, I can appropriate.

    Your call for Queer theology is important. This is the basis upon which we founded our mosques, from the ground up, no centralized power. It is incredibly hard to do. I do not believe we have succeeded. It is incredible how much privilege keeps being revealed even as we peel back every layer. Every juma is another opportunity to perceive our privilege and to make tawba for it. For me, as a privileged woman (described above), and for my partners in the mosque, as men who despite being gay take part in patriarchal privilege, that is the reality of the process. As long as one is in process, I suppose, it is working. So I guess the mosque is succeeding because we are all in process. Perhaps living queerly is about always being in process and being non-queer is about thinking you have arrived and your job is done. Just some thoughts. I would love to hear how you all deal with this practice in your women’s only mosque in Chile.

    I wonder if you’ve seen Amina Wadud’s discussion where she reads the verse “It is God who created you from one soul and from that soul its partner” as “self” and “other” rather than “male” and “female” or the reverse. I can send a version of it I have to you. It is an effort to undo the binary gendered/sexed pairing that has been assumed and become naturalized in the tradition. She thinks about self and other in dynamic terms. It’s really interesting. Maybe she’ll write about it on her new website. I believe her theology has been queering over time. Most scholars of Islamic feminism are unaware of it because they tend not to read blogs or watch talks on youtube. Because she has not published academically on it, I think it’s been overlooked. I believe that Aysha Hidayatullah is calling for a queer theology in her book Feminist Edges, but I think she missed Amina’s non-academic work and so calls her out for not doing something she actually has been doing. I think a lot of Muslim feminism happens in the world, not in books. Like what you have done here. Will it be noticed by scholars? I hope so. But maybe not. And then as the history is written, your contributions will be as if they did not exist. More papers will be written citing the book, further marginalizing and burying the thought of people doing this work on the ground in thoughtful, exciting ways. I doubt that is what feminist academics have in mind, certainly I doubt that is what Hidayatullah had in mind. But I fear it is the result when we don’t ask what our partners outside academic circles are doing. Despite that, the book is important and if you have not read it, I hope you will. Maybe you’ll write the follow up book that steps off from her critique and documents these profoundly transforming changes such as your piece here calls for. We need a queering of the academy too!

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    • Wow Dear Laury I am very pleased with this comment because is very thought provoking and trigger in me a lot of reflections. With the people I relate to, we plan to start producing our own books. Is something we have been talking, not aiming to become famous but to make our perspective available for people to read an have and as a way to register them. The good thing about exploring ideas is that you don’t know where they will take you.
      For me, at this moment and in the context I live the importance to network and, specially, relate or identify to, is core because we are being deceived as citizens in many ways. In this regard theology, at least that one that emerges from non traditional backgrounds must be strongly political, fearlessly critical and extremely decolonial because our inequality is based a lot on religion.
      Being queer for me is embracing my condition of “work in process” or ” a self travelling” as human being because humans are a bunch of uncertaintes, a big “Perhaps”; in my view,and I know I am not putting anything new to the table just my own opinion and I lack a lot of academical background because I am self taught, there’s where our wealth lies. I think this theology must be queer not only to give voice to LGTB but also to give authority to all those who have been seen as only receivers of theology, including LGTB. A descentralized process to build knowledge has a lot of potential to feed diversity. I know the work of Amina (but not that talk in particular so I would appreciate you share it) and I have read her as well as I have read you and other sisters that are not academic but have fierce stances on these issues ( i can think in three: Sober second look, Orbala and The fatal feminist); what it makes me sad sometimes is that I see still these important struggles and voices are seen as “others’ problems”and “outisiders” when in fact injustice must be a prior concern for all of us if we attach to islamic ethos.
      In two weeks, my colleagues, the women who participated in the mosque of women project and I will march along with feminist collectives, women theologians, trans women, lesbians, immigrant women, rural women, sex workers women, indigenous women, housemaids unions, all together to call for the early adoption and passing of the bill that legalizing abortion and ask on behalf of all women of Chile that our government hears each of our particular demands . And I’ll be there with all my identity and my hijab to leave no doubt of my many belongings. Because I do believe strongly in what Amina says and you beautifully remember in your comment: “It is God who created you (us) from one soul..” and this statement is not only theological but political. because if we comes from one soul then our differences and the inequalities resulting make still less sense than nowadays; then the calling to support and empathize with the struggles for social justice becomes stronger and more important and, perhaps, mandatory

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  6. I have been thinking about this discussion for a few days.

    It seems to me that calling oneself queer if one chooses to do so is a way of affirming the parts (or all) of oneself that do not fit into the heteronormative paradigm. In my case, though I am white and straight, I am too tall, too smart, too assertive, too strong, to bold, too flashy, too unwilling to be controlled by men to fit the heteronormative paradigm of woman as in every way a little less than an actual or potential male partner–shorter, not quite as smart, not disagreeing to much, not putting herself forward too much, not taking too many risks, not standing out in a crowd, and at least letting men think they are in charge. From this perspective, a whole lot of women are queer.

    I have also been thinking about what Ivy said about not claiming identities that are not one’s own. I completely agree with Ivy that those who are not Jewish, gay, lesbian, black, etc. should not claim those identities.

    I think it may be a bit different with the term queer, which, though it is used as a derrogative and now as a positive way of referring to homosexuals, has a broader meaning as well–something like strange or different or unusual. And if the whole point of queer theory is to demolish all binaries and norms that make some people feel out of place, then I don’t think it wrong for those who wish to do that but are not lbgti to claim the term.

    Still thinking about all of this.

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  7. As an Abya Yala-based animist I’m glad to read such a proposal. Sometimes it seems that spirituality is not for queer individuals, specially when straight, cis men reject your way as it happened to me once at a Mapuche We Tripantu meeting. A new, dissident feminist ethics may rise also in the plain of religion. Regards, Vanessa. It’s awesome to read your thoughts. :-)

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  8. [Dear moderators, I wrote my twitter wrong. Here it is fine!].

    As an Abya Yala-based animist I’m glad to read such a proposal. Sometimes it seems that spirituality is not for queer individuals, specially when straight, cis men reject your way as it happened to me once at a Mapuche We Tripantu meeting. A new, dissident feminist ethics may rise also in the plain of religion. Regards, Vanessa. It’s awesome to read your thoughts. :-)

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