Islam and Homosexuality

Islam and homosexuality may strike many Muslims and even non-Muslims as an oxymoron, an impossible identity. How can one reconcile the Islamic faith with an orientation that continues to be viewed by the majority of Muslims today as a “disease” from the West, a form of cultural imperialism and the epitome of decadence and immorality? “A Jihad for Love,” a 2007 documentary by Parvez Sharma and the fifth film in the Queer Arab Film Festival, tackles this highly controversial, taboo, and thorny topic.

This film portrays the personal, social, and spiritual challenges that Muslim gays and lesbians face when trying to reconcile their faith with their sexuality.  It also tells the story of the first openly gay Imam in the world, Muhsin Hendricks from South Africa, who struggled for many years to accept his homosexuality and see it as compatible with his religious and spiritual calling. His moving story shows us that the biggest struggle of all is the struggle within the self to be the best person possible, true to one’s religion and to one’s sexuality. Through this documentary, one learns that it is indeed quite possible to be both gay and still remain a devout Muslim.

– Professor Sahar Amer
Chair, Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Sydney

This is the second video in a series promoting the Queer Arab Film Festival at the University of Sydney, curated by Professor Sahar Amer and supported by The Project A Continuing Spring: Arab and Australian views on social justice, equal economic development and cultures of freedom. The Project A Continuing Spring is sponsored by the Council for Australian Arab Relations.

Watch an interview with Parvez Sharma here.

Human Rights and Culture, guest post from Dr. Demelza Marlin

Dr. Demelza Marlin is a lecturer in sociology at UNSW. She recently invited me (Jordan) to give a short guest lecture to her second year sociology students, so we invited her to tell us about what they’re exploring in class:

How does witnessing connect us to the suffering of others?

I teach an undergraduate course on Human Rights and Culture. One of the key themes of the course is witnessing: how we bear witness to injustice, and what responsibilities this entails. Academics writing in this field describe our public spaces as theatres for the production and consumption of testimonies of suffering. Our nightly news, current affairs, political commentary, our documentaries and even our artistic culture are full of the testimonies of survivors and witnessing to atrocities, often taking place in places (conceptually and experientially, if not) geographically distant from us. [Examples]

For many of us bearing witness may be the only form of political engagement we take. But exposure to stories of suffering doesn’t necessarily translate into comprehension, compassion or even sustained engagement. Last week I asked my students to think about the forms of listening, watching and engaging that allow us to recognise the validity of someone’s claim to be heard. To help us understand this question, I asked Jordan Bryon to come in and speak to us about the ethical issues involved in the type of witnessing her work does: producing documentary films about socially marginalised and vulnerable people.

First some background. The theorists we were studying this week argued that recognising your connection with, and responsibility for, others, requires both distance and proximity: both a sense of your shared humanity, however basic that sense may be, and also, an acknowledgment that the other person is genuinely different from you. They have had experiences you cannot cognitively or even imaginatively understand. Professional witnesses (documentary filmmakers, campaigners, advocates) are often tempted to translate extreme circumstances of suffering it into more familiar terms; to make the experiences of victims comprehensible to us. This seems to be the logic behind fundraising campaigns like the 40 hour famine, or the Winter Sleep Out.

They do this because they believe that empathy requires understanding, familiarity, a sense of ‘yes, I know what you are going through’. While this can provide the basis for a connection, it will not be a connection to what really sets the other apart: the circumstances that make their suffering so different from your own experiences. In other words, we don’t see the person for who they are, or the situation for what it is, but, instead, understand their story in terms of familiar coordinates and preconceived ideas that are cognitively easier to manage (and control).

My students were interested, but not entirely convinced, by this conception of empathy and response. However, something that Jordan said about the way she chooses her projects brought the point home. Jordan had shown us parts of a film about inmates at the Junee Correction Centre, and another, about people living with schizophrenia. The students were amazed at how candid the participants in Jordan’s films were about their lives, experiences, dreams and fears. I guess they were surprised to see the humanity – vulnerable, sometimes broken, sometimes courageous – of people they had only experienced through well-worn stereotypes.

One of my students asked Jordan how she made her participants comfortable enough to open up to her, and how she decided what kinds of projects to explore. They wanted to know if her relationship to the people she filmed was based on empathy. Jordan’s response stuck with me. She said that while she did form intense and empathetic relationships with her participants, this relationship wasn’t based on knowledge or understanding. As a filmmaker she is often talking to people whose circumstances are beyond her understanding. But this lack of shared experience doesn’t prevent her from connecting, rather, it draws her into the relationship, makes her want to ask questions. And because she doesn’t presume to already know the answers to her questions, she is able to really listen to what her participants have to say, to let them reveal themselves to her.


Jordan’s approach reminded me of the dictionary definition of witnessing. A witness is someone whose       existence testifies to something. Simply being present to someone’s story, listening without judgment,         without getting distracted by your desire to ‘fix’ the problem, can be one of the most profound ways we         bear witness to others because it gives people the space to be themselves.

We were able to see this in practice when Jordan showed us Reality Check. What surprised the students      was that the film didn’t present schizophrenia as a merely disease, but also as a unique way of facing and    experiencing the world; a way of being that can be positive as well as agonising. And because the film    presented us with first-hand accounts from people living with schizophrenia, without first giving us any  background information – stats, context, the usual sorts of information we use to map out and pin down unfamiliar territory – we were forced to simply listen, without judgment and evaluation. It is a very powerful way to allow an audience to access the humanity of another; revealing both the things that we share and the experiences we have no way of fully understanding.

Some excerpts from the lecture.

Dr. Demelza Marlin

Jordan Bryon


Queer Arab Film Festival

The worlds first Queer Arab Film Festival launched in August 2014 at the University of Sydney. This festival is a safe academic forum in which to raise awareness about the Arab and Muslim LGBTIQ community in Australia and around the world.

It includes both documentaries and feature films from a range of Arab (Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Lebanon, Palestine) and Muslim-majority (Iran, India) and Muslim-minority societies (South Africa, USA, Australia). Together these give voice to the real, lived experiences of Arab and Muslim gay and lesbian individuals, and opens up a safe space for dialogue about the much-overlooked – and greatly misunderstood – subject of gay and lesbian sexualities and same-sex identities in Arab and Muslim societies today.

The festival is curated by Professor Sahar Amer from Sydney University, and is presented by the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies and The Project A Continuing Spring: Arab and Australian views on social justice, equal economic development and cultures of freedom.
The Project A Continuing Spring is sponsored by the Council for Australian Arab Relations.

Big shout out to Miriam Thompson for all her publicity efforts for the festival!

Your Thoughts On The Grey Beast

For those of you that don’t know Jordan has been in and out of jail over the past year. I should add it’s because she’s making a doco in Junee Correctional Centre. The doco is focused on the unique Cultural Centre at Junee. It offers a perspective on the positive impacts cultural and creative activities have on inmates.

A couple of weeks ago we hosted a private screening of a teaser of the doco. After watching the teaser we asked the crowd to put us on the spot and they didn’t disappoint.

There were plenty of thought provoking questions and impassioned fist pumping that you’ll have to imagine (mostly from Jordan). So if you’re wondering what prison could be like in Australia you might want to take a listen and get some answers.

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Note: Many inmates surveyed during the production of the doco said that Junee Correctional Centre is the best jail in their experience and it’s not what all jails are like. So in many ways the doco isn’t representative of typical jail life in NSW but it does offer a glimpse at what jail could and should be like if we want to reduce recidivism.

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