Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Reality of Gay Muslim Marriages

WoodTurtle is a Canadian Muslim feminist currently using her extended maternity leave to explore developments of Islamic feminism in the Western and Muslim world.  As a woman who wears the hijab (owns several abayas and a niqab monogrammed with her initials in pink, sparkly sequins), she writes frequently on genderized Islamophobia. She also works toward dispelling myths and stereotypes about women in Islam for both Muslims and non.

During our professional relationship and later, even during our courtship, the Hubby and I followed what many may see as a strict adherence to Islamic gender interaction. Islam teaches that men and women should follow certain rules of decorum when interacting with the opposite sex. These rules include protecting each others' chastity by modest dress, lowering one's gaze, avoiding khalwa, or seclusion with a marriageable partner and avoiding any physical contact. The underlying reason for the maintenance of chastity is to protect people from approaching zina or pre/extra-marital sex -- one of the biggest sins in Islam.

Now, the definition of “approach” has a wide spectrum of interpretation of course – with some saying this means intercourse, heavy petting, kissing, dating, touching, talking, masturbation, looking or developing feelings for anyone that might pique your interest. Sexual urges are controlled through restraint, fasting or by getting married. Sexual exploits, ballroom dancing, intimate gazes and flirting should only ever be performed with one's spouse. There’s even reward in the sexual act, but only as long as it’s performed within the bounds of marriage.

Of course, sexual freedom with one's partner is just one reason Muslims marry. The other, most important reason is the spiritual aspect. Marriage in Islam is so important, that it is seen as fulfilling half of one's faith.

The Qur’an is often quoted as saying that marriage is a relationship of tranquility – with God placing love and mercy between the hearts of mates, and that God has created mates for everyone (30:21). Marriage partners are described as “garments” which is traditionally interpreted to mean they offer warmth, comfort, modesty, and protection.

Before marriage, the Hubby and I defined maintaining our mutual chastity as touching and beyond. Any level of intimacy beyond a few accidental public incidents of fingers brushing up against each other, a nudge here and there, maybe even some hand holding (I honestly don't remember now), was something we wanted to save for marriage. We wanted to complete half of our faith, to feel love and mercy between our hearts and to recognise each other as divinely ordained mates.

Asra and Sarah wanted the same thing.

    Asra fondly remembers the moment Sarah proposed to her.

    "After the first date, which was about an hour, Sarah casually asked me to marry her."

    Sarah interjects.

    "I think it was more like four hours, after dinner, coffee and walking. I didn't really plan it, but it just really seemed like the way it was between us, I should try and keep it as pure as possible.

    "That may sound strange being lesbians, but it felt like we should do it the most honourable way we could."

Like many couples wanting to cement their relationship in the religious aspect of marriage, Asra and Sarah decided to have a nikkah. A nikkah is essentially a marriage contract between two people – traditionally, two heterosexual people. It involves two witnesses, an agreement to marry, a dowry and a person to oversee the proceedings.

Nikkah is sometimes used by heterosexual couples to mirror the western concept of engagement. Religiously sanctioning a period of time where they can get to know each other without the burden of having a chaperon, or worrying that they may fall into sin by transgressing chastity. Those entering into polygamous marriages in countries where the practice is forbidden, can easily make their unions permissible in the eyes of God through subsequent nikkah contracts, because there is no actual requirement to have the nikkah registered by the state or led by someone in an official state capacity, like an imam. I’ve met couples in Montreal and Toronto, who even marry in secret, having only the Qur'an as their witness before God, and giving a token dowry, such as a handful of rice or a prayer mat.

So Asra and Sarah drew up a contract, agreed not to fight over the dog and both exchanged symbolic dowries and rings: “the short ceremony was conducted in Arabic, additional prayers were read and the marriage was essentially no different from the nikkahs performed for straight Muslim couples all over the world.”

Except that their marriage is unorthodox and would never be accepted by the majority of Muslims.

Asra and Sarah’s story as reported by the BBC on the emergence of gay Muslim marriages in Britain, is generating a lot of discussion within the online Muslim community. According to a tweet by 5Live Investigates, the story has been shared 6,000 times and has nearly 20,000 comments on Facebook alone. While among my associates, the reception has been positive, I’ve also come across many vitriolic threads.

Asra and Sarah recognise that their marriage was not performed under the most ideal situation -- but they did their best. Personally, I cannot imagine how it feels to be in constant fear that my life would bring persecution, or even death -- let alone that my faith, core of being and my partner would be completely rejected by the majority of Muslims, other people and by my own family.

Despite this rejection, they still wanted to get married in part to make their relationship permissible, “pure” and blessed in the sight of God by guarding their chastity with the bulwark of marriage. The alternative of a marriage of convenience, where gay and lesbian couples marry each other to project "normalcy" and fulfill religious legal requirements was not an option they wanted to take. Nor was it acceptable for them to live a life of abstinence and fasting -- missing out on completing "half of faith." And while this institution is traditionally the realm of heterosexuals, when you drill down into the levels of chastity, the legal positioning relates to any type of expression of sexuality outside of marriage. So I think it shows an amazing deepness of faith, as well as brilliance, to use this to their advantage.

What stood out to me as I sifted through several online discussions was how many people actually celebrated their story. It surprised me to see the numbers of Muslims who were willing to stand up and support the idea of gay marriage. Marriage in Islam is supposed to be simple. There shouldn’t be any barriers for those wanting to celebrate their union in a faithful manner. Marriage is a divine sanction, and a promise has been given for those wanting a mate, that one has been created for them.

In the article, Asra reflects that while homosexuality is not seen as a permissible lifestyle at the moment, she is hopeful that more people will one day gain the tolerance necessary to accept gay marriage. She puts her hope in the Muslim youth who have the support of their parents, and within the gay community itself to also recognize marriage as an option of faith. The Muslim community is just now openly discussing homosexuality in positive terms, and there are those who also help support attitudinal changes like the mainstream scholar, Sherman Jackson, and progressive Muslim blogger and activist, Pamela K. Taylor, who shared the following with hundreds on Facebook:

    I was honored to be able to officiate at the wedding of a Muslim lesbian couple some years back and it was one of the most profound spiritual experiences I've ever had as a Muslim. The women were dedicated Muslims looking for a spiritual home, for recognition that love is beautiful and a gift from Allah reflecting His Mercy and Compassion, and for acceptance from the community. We had a circle of supportive, loving Muslims who welcomed their commitment to care for one another. And it was just beautiful.

Within the emerging North American Muslim diaspora, and elsewhere in Muslim countries, heterosexual couples are applying the framework of nikkah to their specific situations. And while the subtext to gender interactions, the maintenance of chastity and the marriage contract is complete erasure of the LGBT community as well as those who eschew marriage by choice or situation – it shouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination if a same sex couple wants to also apply that framework in order to celebrate their union and reconcile their faith.

Editors Note:  This morning I published the wrong version of this post and for that I apologize to the readers of this blog and to Woodturtle.  The post that you are now reading is the correct version.  Once again, I apologize for any inconvenience or hurt feelings that were caused because of my carelessness.