Gay Muslims, Victims of 'A Jihad for Love'

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 5, 2008

The relationship of Ferda and Kiymet is one of the few light moments in "A Jihad for Love," Parvez Sharma's documentary about homosexuality in the Muslim world. The two Turkish women laugh and touch in public, and in a poignant scene, Kiymet meets Ferda's 80-year-old mother. The introduction goes well, and the three women sit together and joke about life and love.

This kind of normality is absent in the lives of Sharma's other characters, most of whom have had to make wrenching choices between pursuing love and remaining within the embrace of traditional societies. Payam, a gay man who fled persecution in Iran, calls his mother from a phone booth in Turkey to update her on his hope of political asylum in Canada. He can hear her weeping -- which makes him break down.

"She said she was cutting onions but I could tell she was crying," he tells his friends, who try to comfort him.

Payam shows his face in the film, which was produced by Sandi Simcha DuBowski, the director of "Trembling Before G-d," a 2001 documentary that focused on homosexuality among Orthodox Jews. Amir, another young man who fled Iran, keeps his face hidden, but we do see his lacerated back, covered in red stripes after he was lashed for being gay.

"When I took off my shirt, she cried," he says of his mother, whom he has left behind.

Sharma's film also includes chapters devoted to two lesbians caught between Paris and Cairo, a gay imam in South Africa who is attempting to educate fellow Muslims about homosexuality, and Mazen, a young Egyptian man arrested in the infamous "Queen Boat" raid of 2001, in which Egyptian authorities rounded up gay men at a popular disco along the Nile. The case made international headlines when the men were paraded before cameras before being sentenced to prison terms. Mazen served a year before moving to France, where he is now a refugee. When he recalls the beatings and the rape he suffered in prison, he weeps. And he, too, left his mother behind in Egypt.

You get a good sense of the challenges the director faced by visiting the film's Web site, which helps flesh out some of the detail left out of the 81-minute film. Anyone with even a glancing knowledge of the Muslim world will wonder: Where is the rest of the picture? Why is there nothing about the thriving subculture of sexual hookups -- not hard to find on the Internet -- in even some of the most repressive Islamic countries, including the Persian Gulf states? Or more discussion of countries such as Indonesia (with the world's largest Muslim population), where there is relative tolerance? And what about the history of sexual permissiveness that many Westerners (men such as André Gide, Oscar Wilde or Paul Bowles, who might well be labeled sex tourists today) discovered in Muslim North Africa?

These aren't trivial asides, given the deeper cultural issues they raise. The conflict between homosexuality and Islam is often depicted by Muslims as a conflict between Western decadence and authentic religion. But Islam has many subcultures of homosexuality -- which the West may sometimes exploit, but certainly didn't invent. And the Internet hasn't just reframed the issue as a conflict between globalized modernity and traditional society, it's facilitated rapid access to new ideas (not just about sex) that threaten religious dogmatism.

But Sharma is right to keep his focus tight. He is interested in the faithful, and their conflicts, not the broader cultural issues surrounding sex and Islamic society -- though he can't help but show the second-class status that women generally suffer in many Islamic countries. His focus on religion -- and this particular religion's almost universal hostility to same-sex love -- means that there can be no answers to the spiritual searching of many of his characters. Which leads to a strange division of sympathy in the viewer. Sharma's characters want acceptance from people who refuse to give it, and at some point, you want to tell them: Leave. Get out. Be done with the madness that oppresses you.

Mazen, the Egyptian man, has perhaps made some progress to that end. As he watches his own trial on television, he spits at the screen. But others, including Muhsin Hendricks, the imam from South Africa, are determined to stay within Islam and fight for reform. He raises the idea of "ijtihad," which he describes as a long-lost tradition of independent reasoning, as a way "to find space for us within Islam." This is a popular idea among liberal Muslims. It's not yet clear that it's an idea with much traction in the majority of the Arab Muslim world.

One telling detail is worth noting: The little blur that obscures faces of people too terrified to be open about their sexuality is also used to add humor or provoke. In one instance, a penguin in South Africa is given the obscured identity treatment -- a sly reference to the species' predilection to homosexuality? In another, more powerful scene, the Koran is obscured as Mazen, who suffered so much in prison, shows his face directly to the camera. And thus the director raises the question that haunts the whole film: Who should feel shame, gay Muslims, or the Muslims that oppress them?

A Jihad for Love (81 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated, and contains sexual content.

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