“Hijabi ladies who like ladies are not uncommon”


The recent homophobic law introduced in Brunei bore a wave of fascinating debate about homosexuality and Islam. In traditional conservative Muslim societies such as Malaysia or even the United Arab Emirates, families are more accepting of lesbian relationships than they are of gay male ones. In their world where homosexuality is condemned, how do they do it?

While it is easier to come out as a lesbian or bisexual woman in such societies, there is a specific cloaking mechanism in place, a new language. In many ways, one is reminded of queer lady-companions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. “This is my companion, my friend, my roommate…” These are applied today as well albeit within the context of the queer Muslimah (female Muslim) world. Hijabi ladies who like ladies are not uncommon. They navigate their lives in the same way as their Western counterparts. They keep their religion, but they also keep the women they love. The Quran is amazingly silent on homosexual love. Indeed, homosexual female acts carry a lesser punishment in countries where there are homophobic laws in place. So perversely, these women, while not protected by law, are not as affected as their gay/bi brothers. It’s nuts, but it is their smallest glimmer of hope in such a society: “Oh yes, but at least I won’t get stoned.”

In Malaysia, Queer Muslim women live as a community: doing everything together, from travelling trips to prayer circles. They celebrate Eid as much as they would Pride. And yet, despite the anti-homosexuality laws in their societies, they live their lives. Often, they would have left their family homes, establishing houses for themselves and their “roommates.”

Some even seek having children, through adoption (it is legal for a single woman to do so). These families run under the radar most of the time, working as a family unit, with all the joys that comes with birthdays and school runs. A woman and her (female) friend raising a child is not as curious as one might think in Southeast Asian Muslim societies. In their traditional family structure, it is not uncommon for aunts and female relatives to care for children together. It is not a far jump to include “friends” in doing so. As such, the traditional outlook of the society plays some role in the freedom to be a queer woman.

There is a more difficult path of such societies: and that is, the pressure to marry. Some do. Some find it a way to justify their relationships. It also gives a sense of borrowed time. Many women express this. “I’m with her until I have to marry.” After a while, Muslim queer women feel that they have to abandon their partners and seek a path of marriage to a man. It is not uncommon for them to keep their lesbian relationships even after the wedding, sometimes with the knowledge of their husbands. It is another way in which they navigate the intrinsic demands of such a society. It is not ideal, but it works for some.

Queer Muslim women are on the fringes of the LGTBQI movement. To understand where they come from and how they live reminds us that we are part of a global community. The struggle comes in a variety of ways and is fought differently in different places but ultimately, we just want to love who we love.

Opinions expressed by contributors do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors of DIVA magazine or its publishers.

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