An identity in flux

When news of Saudi Prince Saud Abdulaiziz Bin Nasir Al Saud being found guilty of murdering his aide and possibly being gay made headlines, I figured then that the discussion of homosexuality in the Muslim world had unofficially shifted from the private realm to the public one. Knowing the silent and largely hostile attitude towards homosexuality, I actually felt uncomfortable for the Muslim world, as well as Saudi Arabia, for being squarely placed in the spotlight for a taboo topic.
According to Prosecutor Jonathon Laidlaw QC with regards to the murder trial in London, when Saudi Prince Saud Abdulaiziz Bin Nasir Al Saud “…denied being a homosexual to try to hide the ‘abusive undertone'” of a relationship between the prince and the victim, Bandar Abdulaziz, it is possible that he genuinely did not consider himself to be a homosexual.

Laidlaw said, “The bare fact of his [the prince’s] sexuality would ordinarily be of absolutely no relevance to a criminal trial, but in this case it is clear that the defendant’s abuse of Bandar was not confined simply to physical beatings.” In other words, a history of sexual abuse in the relationship between the Prince and his servant, inevitably led to an assumption of the accused’s sexual orientation.

While doctrine, scripture, and negative social stigmas have led to public condemnations of homosexuality and homosexual relationships, with punishments ranging from fines to execution depending on the country, the fact remains that the locals in every town know exactly where the gay districts are thriving. These underground hangouts are not only “making-do” with the legal status quo of the country, but their existence implies there is no problem in remaining tucked away in the Middle Eastern/Muslim closet.

Michael Lungo, author of Gay Travels in the Muslim World, discussed his impressions in an interview with the Jerusalem Post, “…identity can be nebulous and fluid, more so in Muslim countries than in the West. Things are not defined in the East as they are in the West: Some gays and men who have sex with men within Muslim countries might not readily accept the label of homosexual.”

Civil rights narratives are defined by the presence or absence of words like “freedom” and “choice,” but homosexuals in the Middle East appear to find such freedom without the government or the legal system protecting their sexuality. In fact, the cloak of invisibility works to their advantage because they are engaged in behavioral acts, not identity politics. In an NPR interview John Bradley, author of Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside a Kingdom in Crisis cautioned against using western terminology in trying to understand the homosexual landscape in the Middle East; he explained that there is an existing paradox when it comes to societal movements, where “the more you push political agenda, the more you risk creating a backlash.”

Parvez Sharma, director of the film Jihad for Love, also participated in the interview, pointing out an even deeper dimension of invisibility amongst homosexuals in predominantly Muslim countries – gay Muslim women. His documentary largely featured men because women are further cast off into the shadows due to gender segregation policies. These policies keep them from joining those underground hubs or functioning in some sort of camouflage in street life because they often remain in the domestic sphere.

So according to Sharma and Bradley, when Ahmedinejad told the audience at Columbia University that, “We don’t have homosexuals like in your country,” it may not have been a denial of the existence of homosexuals in Iran, but rather a comparison of the gay communities in the West against those in the East; meaning, that they differ. Still, the former possibility makes sense when we come to understand what existence and visibility mean for homosexuals in the Muslim world.

Herein lies a profound paradox: while people like American Parvez Sharma decided to come out after 9/11 to represent a diverse Muslim population, the gay population in countries like Morocco was being told to “remember their place in the shadows” of society. This dichotomy has created a peculiar twist in the greater Muslim community’s mission to make known the Muslim identity to the West- by being as candid, visible and engaged as possible from the individual to the community. Gays in the Muslim world are in one sense “coming out of the closet” for the recognition of their religious identities (in other words, now more aware and assertive their Muslim identities as a result of addressing stereotypes after 9/11) but still remaining undercover when it comes to their gay “un-identities.”

In the arguments that eventually reached the verdict this past Tuesday proclaiming Prince Saud guilty for murder, Prosecutor Laidlaw made it a point to highlight the bite marks on Abdulaziz’s body that had an “obvious sexual connotation,” although this information was “not a factor in his [the victim’s] death.” The mention of this irrelevant piece of information demonstrates Western society’s need to isolate and draw a solid line around a person’s identify–be it his/her economic, political or sexual identity– all in an effort for it to make sense in the public arena, whereas Middle Eastern culture prefers, for better or for worse, to leave such matters in a state of flux without pinning a permanent label on the person.
Shazia Kamal is a contributing writer to Altmuslimah. This article previously appeared in the Newsweek/Washington Post religion blog, On Faith.


  • Sister Jannah says:

    So gays and lesbians in Islam are expected to stay in the closet for the good of society, and pretend to be heterosexual when marrying. Regardless of the harm done and lives destroyed by closeting. And they should shut up and be happy with that, since they can always go to the gay club. As long as they’re male, that is. Women get nothing. Hide who you are, hide the way you love, or you die. What a great deal, Shazia! Who wouldn’t sign up for that?

    America was a society like that too, but it had to change. The only way for change to come, to correct these injustices in society, is to organize. But of course you can’t organize without coming out! See how neatly the closet works to keep them under control? Don’t let them have an identity, don’t let them have a name, and then you can pretend that these aren’t real human beings deprived of real human rights in the real world.

  • katseye says:

    The United States is probably the furthest from acceptablity of gay lifestyles in comparison to other countries. It’s no secret that there are many “less industrialized” countries that have a much more inclusive agenda of human beings than the US.

    In the early days of Islam, homosexuality wasn’t shunned as much as it is now. Death sentences evolved by scholars/expansion of the Islam empire. Yet history tells us that lesbians were shunned more so than gay men, especially by scholars who blamed it on a woman’s extreme libidinous nature. Look at the writings of the poet/writer Abu Nawas. He was a gay man who absolutely hated lesbians. He was also imprisoned every once in a while when the Caliph was mocked.

    In the West, particularly America, we always want to define someone, stereotype them, and slap a label on them. I don’t call for anyone to stay snuggle burried in the closet. It’s torture for anyone to have to deny who they are regardless of what we’re talking about. But is it fair to force everyone who has a sexual relationship with someone of the same gender at some point in time to be called “gay”? Isn’t that the opposite of justice?

    What is the most reasonable action to take?

  • Sister Jannah says:

    Not sure what your point is. Right here in America, there are tons of men who do it with men and women who do it with women, all the while saying “I’m not gay. Nope, not me, definitely not gay.” And everybody’s reaction is “Yeah, whatever.” I don’t see any of this “forcing” people to identify as gay, regardless of who they like to do it with. I just don’t see it happening. It is really weird, though, when those of the dominant straight identity lecture LGBT people about “forcing.”  If one really wanted to go into the subject, the record of straight people’s uses of force against LGBT people throughout history doesn’t give them a lot of room to talk on the subject of force.

    The only exception I’d make to “yeah, whatever” about non-gay people who do it on the down low is when they use their positions of power in politics or influence in the church to preach hatred and oppression of LGBT people. They deserve to be outed as the hypocrites they are, because they’re using their closet to do harm to whole classes of people. As for private citizens on the down low, who cares? If they feel called to sign up with gay liberation, great. If not, that’s their business. Why would we want half-hearted or unwilling draftees in our cause? We only want people to come work with us because they really mean it, because their heart is in it.

    As for non-gay men on the down low with other men, if they want to say they’re not gay we could care less, as long as they take responsibility about not spreading HIV, because public health is everybody’s business. In the gay community there is a lot of health activism and plenty of networks and resources encouraging gay people to stay healthy. Big bowls of free condoms set out for the taking.

    For the down-low guys, since they’re not gay, what resources and motivations do they have for taking responsibility for healthy behaviors? I don’t care what, as long as they come up with something. The problem is that denial leads to death in many cases. Accordingly, community health workers have adopted the term MSM (“men having sex with men”) to be able to cover this non-gay population. Far from forcing them to identify as anything, their non-gayness is being affirmed. We just want everyone to adopt practices that are safe for public health.

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