By: Tasbeeh Harwees for good.is
Samra Habib, an editor and photographer from Toronto, has spent the past few years traveling and documenting the global community of queer Muslims, a collective bound together by identity and connected to each other through the internet. In 2014, she debuted Just Me and Allah: A Queer Muslim Photo Project, a collection of images she’s made of LGBTQ Muslims she met in Toronto, Paris, Istanbul and other cities around the world. She began posting the photos to Tumblr, along with interviews she conducted with them and, since then, her project has received worldwide attention, helping forge a digital community of queer Muslims.
How did you conceive of the Queer Muslim Project? Was it always something you wanted to do?
I started the project three or four years ago. I was working as an editor but I'm a really visual person. I like taking pictures. But I like to have a goal. So I thought, what is it that I'm really passionate and excited about? Is there a need for something that I don't see existing? And then, I thought, how cool would it be if I worked on a project about Queer Muslims?
I gave myself a deadline: I would have something ready for World Pride in Toronto. And a friend of mine, one of my close friends, a curator, used to have a queer gallery here—it doesn't exist anymore—so I had an in. He wanted to do it, so we made it happen. It was a small thing and I thought it was just going to be a little gallery show. But my sister, she's also a journalist, thought that I should have an online presence. At first, I was like, ‘No, I'm going to have a gallery show, why would I show people my project before the show?’ And now I can't even think about not having an online presence.
There's always the feeling that, as a Muslim, the only time these stories get attention is when there's a violent event, like the Orlando attacks. Is that something you grapple with at all?
I used to really struggle with that, a few years ago. I didn't want to be pigeon-holed. I'm really mindful of not caving into things that are sensationalist. I don't need media attention so I can say no. My project is online, and and I feel like I am reaching the audience that I want to reach, and that's my Tumblr audience; that's queer kids in Egypt who are really excited about it and are reblogging shit.
Tumblr is a great place for every disaffected teen kid who's feeling isolated in the world.
What I'm most excited about is how they get in touch with each other, people who follow me. Without me really doing anything, it's kind of created this community. I really like when… someone I’ve photographed in Berlin Facebook friends someone I've photographed in Brooklyn. They become friends with each other.
It's like you're creating a digital neighborhood for queer Muslims.
Yeah! It's amazing.
In recent years, there have been more spaces forged for queer Muslims—sometimes physical spaces, sometimes online forums. But queer Muslims are still underrepresented by the dominant culture. Did this project emerge out of a feeling that queer Muslim's stories were marginalized in the larger Muslim narrative?
No, I was just looking for my community. Through working on this project, I discovered that there were queer communities that were popping up all over the world. Do you know that a Queer Muslim retreat that happens in America? I learned about it while working on the project. There is Unity Mosque, and small underground mosques that have kind of popped up everywhere. It's all happened in the last couple years. I think it's really interesting the role that social media has had to play with that.
I sometimes wonder about older queer folks. I'm sure you've noticed that the project's subjects are really young. I think there's one person in the project who was over 40, El-Farouk , who started Unity Mosque. He's obviously super visible; he's a spokesperson. But I've had a really hard time getting older folks to agree to be part of the project. I've learned this from my conversations with a lot of older folks: when they were in their 20s, for example, they made the decision that they'd either have to choose to be queer and super out, or be Muslim. They didn't really have any community around them that told them, 'No, it's cool, it's ok.' But I think because of social media, you find acceptance. That's why a lot of younger kids are really excited about the project, because they find support that older folks didn't really find. I really want to focus more on older folks.
What are some of the insights you've gleaned from meeting so many Muslim queer folks around the world? Have there been any experiences that were especially meaningful to you?
People have a very different relationship to Islam in Istanbul, especially if you're queer. The attitude is like, 'What has Islam done for me? I'm queer and I'm not embraced as a queer person.' So it was really difficult to find people who were out in Istanbul and who were from Istanbul. The people I ended up photographing were actually refugees, from, for example, Iran.
When I was in Paris photographing people, I was witnessing some of the folks who I photographed Islamophobia. And I would ask them, 'How could you let this person talk to you like that?’ And they would say things like, 'Oh, I don't really know any different. That's just what I'm used to. That's just what I know.' Because Europe is especially Islamophobic and racist, the reaction is very different from the kind of reaction I get in Toronto. The criticism in Toronto is more on an aesthetic level, like, 'That's a cool photo, nice composition.'
You did a lot of interviews and got a lot of coverage for the project after the Orlando attacks, because it sat at the intersection of the two main issues: queerness and Islam. It seems like the issue becomes a "flavor of the month" after a significant news event and then there's no resolution in terms of progress. Or maybe you feel differently.
No, it totally is. And I think, having gone through the experience before, I've become better at navigating my way around what's worth it for me and what's not. CNN reached out to me and I said no. I don't want to be on a panel. I know their agenda. I hate CNN so I'm going to say no. If a queer kid is working on a zine in Sweden and wants to do an interview, I'm going to say yes. That's worth my time. I've learned to be smarter about what I should invest in.
What do you go from here? What other projects are you working on?
Talking about this queer Muslim stuff, it's an entry point to bigger stuff that I want to talk about it. Most of the stuff that exists out there is very surface-level. It's like, 'Queer Muslims: They Exist.' I want to dig deeper. There's more to it. A few years ago, I was really wary about being pigeon-holed. But I've sort of made peace with the fact that if I'm being presented with this opportunity to talk about in a smart way, then why not? I just want to be really mindful that I'm actually challenging people.
Images courtesy of Samra Habib. This interview has been edited and condensed.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Muslim World Today.