As the final event of the Queering Islam events series for 2015-2016, Tehmina Kazi, the Director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy, visited us at the University of Leicester to do a reading of her story ‘The Tulip Asylum’, a story about homosexuality in contemporary Iran. Below you can find an excerpt of her reading and a link to a fuller version of the story.
Tehmina also talked about her LGBT advocacy to the audience, and answered questions. Below are her written answers to questions inspired by her conversation with her audience.
Q.– As regards your story, ‘The Tulip Asylum’, what do you make of the tensions between gender normativity and sexual non-normativity?
A.– “The Tulip Asylum” is a dedication to all those who fall into the sexual “non-normative” bracket, while acknowledging the hierarchy of differing treatment meted out to people within it. So for example, Farzaneh’s character is heterosexual and has only had one sexual partner (following both gender and sexual norms), but as a divorced mum, she is still treated as something of a pariah in Iranian society. The drag queen, Pouya, is allowed to escape when police crash the party at Mehdi’s house, because gender reassignment surgery is legal in Iran, and there is greater acceptance for trans issues than homosexuality as a whole. Peyvand, as a practising homosexual and liberal Muslim, gets the worst treatment of the lot, and has to suffer degrading treatment in prison while his sister campaigns for his release. It is not good enough for the Iranian authorities to only recognise trans issues in a positive manner, when there are so many examples of gay people being tortured – and even killed – for engaging in sexual acts. Even as a heterosexual person, there is still not enough open and responsible discussion on sexual issues.
Q.– As a secularist and a Muslim, how do you define secularism?
A.– Britain is often described as a society which adheres to “procedural secularism”. Theoretically, this means that it enables all voices, whether religious or not, to access the public sphere equally. In Contextualising Islam in Britain, a ground-breaking research project conducted by Cambridge University that asked a diverse group of Muslim participants to answer the question “what does it mean to live faithfully as a Muslim in Britain today?” an overwhelming majority of participants affirmed their support for this model. They observed that procedural secularism provides many benefits for British Muslims, including religious freedom.
As British Muslims we are able, for the most part, to practice our faith in an atmosphere of respect and security, with recourse to established anti-discrimination provisions if this is not the case. Many public sector workplaces now have multi-faith prayer rooms, and halal food options are available in school canteens.
Contrary to much of the mainstream media discourse on Muslims, research suggests that the overwhelming majority of British Muslims feel comfortable with a procedural secular state. The Contextualising Islam in Britain report correctly identifies that the only groups who put forward arguments to the contrary are fringe groups (both Muslim and non-Muslim) that have little interest in promoting a cohesive, pluralistic society.
Within a procedural secular state such as Britain, Muslims have rights and responsibilities that are in keeping with Islamic teachings. Far from advocating withdrawal from society, mainstream Islamic scholarship regards civic engagement as highly desirable for Muslim citizens. However, a big part of this is about respecting the rights of people with other religious and non-religious worldviews, and refraining from imposing one’s beliefs on others inappropriately.
Q.– As a Muslim, have you come across any resistance from secularists?
A.– No. Most non-Muslim secularists have been extremely supportive of British Muslims for Secular Democracy’s work, and many of them are active participants in our Facebook group. We have worked with groups like the British Humanist Association, the Atheist Humanist and Secularist Students Society, and the National Secular Society. We have spoken at events for the first two (as well as helping them publicise their events), and the latter shortlisted BMSD for the Secularist of the Year Prize 2013.
I was the first speaker of faith at the Atheist, Humanist and Secularist Students Society Convention in 2014, and expected to be grilled about my religious beliefs, but it was actually one of the best receptions I’ve had in my entire career. I was then invited back to their 2016 Convention to speak on a panel on Islamic reform, alongside Dr Usama Hasan.
Q.– Do you think there is any hope for a widening of tolerance in Muslim communities?
A.– The situation is becoming much more polarised. Here are a few examples:
In 2011, I had to contact police over threats of violence I received after a CNN interview, where I defended Dr Usama Hasan’s right to speak about evolution.
In 2010, a now-defunct blog started attacking me in the most personal terms, when my organisation published an Advice for Schools on cultural and religious issues affecting Muslim pupils. Our “crime?” Encouraging compromise and open communication between teachers and parents, rather than separatism and special demands. Comments on this blog speculated, among other things, that “I must wear miniskirts” (I don’t, but so what if I did?). As usual, abuse against female activists occurs through a gendered lens, but it is even uglier when it takes on the mantle of religious fundamentalism.
More recently, my friend and associate Sara Khan, Director of the Muslim women’s group Inspire, had to close her Twitter account after receiving a barrage of abuse and harassment from fellow users. Much of the abuse wasn’t even about something she had done, but consisted of attempts to link her to (fellow reformer) Maajid Nawaz’s reported visit to a lap-dancing club – which had nothing to do with her.
It goes without saying that we are open to criticism about our work, particularly constructive criticism. However, there is a massive difference between that and criticism which is based on fabrication or exaggeration, or takes the form of personal abuse. It is alarming that hardliners in Muslim communities – who frequently make public statements that are inimical to modern equality and human rights standards – don’t even seem to get polite critiques of their words and actions. At least, not at the same level that the reformers do.
The only thing that gives me hope is the fact that there are more Muslim groups that promote inclusiveness and equality now. The Inclusive Mosque Initiative – a registered charity who I volunteer for – is a prime example.
End of Q&A
This was the last event of the Queering Islam series this year, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, which has included lectures by Dr Samar Habib and Prof Rusi Jaspal dealing with Islam and homosexuality in the diaspora and the social psychology of gay and bisexual Muslims, respectively, and a screening of the 2008 film I Can’t Think Straight, in collaboration with the University’s LGBT Staff Forum at the Equality and Diversity Team. The film explores the relationship between a British woman of Muslim heritage and a Christian Arab woman of Palestinian heritage, and the screening was followed by a Q&A with the film’s writer and director, Shamim Sarif.