So I was invited to be in this TV interview with Building Bridges [an interfaith program] and after two weeks of going back and forth, the night before I get this email canceling it because I don’t believe in tolerating LGBTQIA hate.
"Historically, some European men who came into contact with the Middle East both fantasized about and denounced the closed-door sexual lives of Middle Eastern men and women, especially homosocial spaces and same-sex relations. European women, on the other hand, sought to save their Oriental “sisters” whom they viewed as oppressed by their religion and Oriental men, as elucidated by Harvard Professor Leila Ahmed in her book, Women and Gender in Islam. These attitudes toward Middle Easterners continue to this day, an example of which can be found in the movie Circumstance whose relatively positive public reception in the West arises from this conformity to Western Orientalist imaginaries, whereas the movie Facing Mirrors disrupts and challenges the hegemonic and Orientalizing narrative of Iran’s sexual and gender minorities, and is thus ignored and excluded from the cultural and artistic public domain"
Queer and Trans Subjects in Iranian Cinema: Between Representation, Agency, and Orientalist Fantasies by BY SHIMA HOUSHYAR of the Ajam Media Collective (via Dylan Digits)
The concept of a queer Iranian cinema may sound contradictory or impossible, but that is exactly how one would describe Facing Mirrors(2011), the first movie to feature a female-to-male transgender main character that has been written, produced, and screened in Iran. Directed by Negar Azarbayjani and produced by Fereshteh Taerpour (two cisgender female filmmakers), Facing Mirrorsfeatures the storyof the unlikely friendship between the upper-class Adineh (“Eddy”), a pre-op transman in Tehran struggling to escape from the grips of his transphobic father, and Rana, a modest, devout, working class woman who ferries passengers in order to pay her imprisoned husband’s debts and secure his release.
The surprising aspect of this story, therefore, is not the positive response from both critics and ordinary moviegoers in Iran, but rather a lack of coverage by mainstream Western press of such an internationally successful movie. It would seem that a movie about transpeople in Iran would be an instant headline-grabber, especially when one considers the plethora of news reports, op-eds, and airtime devoted to criticizing the Islamic Republic of Iran’s horrid record of human rights violations, particularly when it comes to the rights of women, minorities, and lgbtq folks. Indeed, another recent movie,Circumstance (2011), written and directed by Iranian-American female filmmaker, Maryam Keshvarz, which chronicles the love story of two female Iranian teenagers – Atefeh and Shireen – trapped between a repressive government and an unaccepting society, was immediately picked up by mainstream media. It generated multiple articles, reviews, and critiques, including an interview on AfterEllen.com, a popular US-based lesbian pop culture website.
The lack of mainstream coverage of Facing Mirrors in the US stands in stark contrast to the widespread media attention given toCircumstance, which is a direct result of the Orientalizing effect of the Western gaze on Middle Eastern subjects. Historically, some European men who came into contact with the Middle East both fantasized about and denounced the closed-door sexual lives of Middle Eastern men and women, especially homosocial spaces and same-sex relations. European women, on the other hand, sought to save their Oriental “sisters” whom they viewed as oppressed by their religion and Oriental men, as elucidated by Harvard Professor Leila Ahmed in her book, Women and Gender in Islam. These attitudes toward Middle Easterners continue to this day, an example of which can be found in the movie Circumstance whose relatively positive public reception in the West arises from this conformity to Western Orientalist imaginaries, whereas the movie Facing Mirrors disrupts and challenges the hegemonic and Orientalizing narrative of Iran’s sexual and gender minorities, and is thus ignored and excluded from the cultural and artistic public domain.
Shot in Lebanon, Circumstance often appears inauthentic to an Iranian audience about whom it purports to speak. From the actors’ thick American accents when speaking Persian (for most of them grew up in the suburbs of America) to the natural and urban scenes of Iran to the characters’ costumes and house decorations, there are many instances of disconnect between what the movie portrays and the reality of Iranian life. For example, during a scene when the two girls’ car is stopped by a police search patrol, the girls scream “Comité!” – a term literally meaning “the Committee,” referring to the so-called morality police in the 1980s and early 1990s. However, comités have long ceased to exist and the so-called “morality police” is now referred to as gasht-e ershad or the “Guidance Patrol.”
In addition to the many technical mistakes, the movie has also been criticized by Iranian lesbians and feminists for being extremely shallow and resembling a stereotypical exotic Orientalist fantasy rather than showing the reality of lesbian life in Iran. According to Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh, an Iranian feminist activist, the film incurred the wrath of a number of Iranian feminists and lesbians, because it failed to show the realities of marginalized lesbian women in Iran. It is imperative to note that Circumstance was not meant to speak to audiences in Iran, but its main interlocutor was a Western audience in the United States specifically. Indeed, when Abbasgholizadeh claims, “squeezing sex and the government’s suppressive violence and similar subjects is intended to make the film more exciting,” she is touching upon the long history of using Middle Eastern (queer) bodies and sexualities to satisfy Orientalist fantasies of the Euro-American spectator.
Atefeh and Shireen love scene in Circumstance
Historically, many Europeans who came into contact with the Middle East have often fantasized about the “behind the veil” life in the Oriental “harem,” which has come to symbolize the hidden sexual lives of Middle Eastern women. “In Circumstance, the audience is witness to that very same gaze and objectification of women’s bodies,” writes Leila Mouri, an Iranian women’s rights activist, journalist and Ph.D. Candidate at Columbia University. It is this un-veiling of the hidden lives of queer Middle Eastern women in order to serve men’s pleasures and fantasies that reduces them to mere objects of gaze and consumption for a Euro-American audience.
The greatest weakness of Circumstance is the lack of subjectivity of the two protagonists, Atefeh and Shireen. From the portrayal of a slow-motion erotic belly-dancing scene to the alcohol, drug and sex-filled underground Tehrani parties, Atefeh and Shireen are shown as mere (queer) sexual objects as opposed to subjects of their own destiny. Indeed, the movie’s byline in the official website proudlyproclaims in bold letters: “Freedom is a Human Right.” However, in the movie, the Iranian (queer) woman’s struggle for social and political freedom is reduced to drinking, attending parties, playing loud music and cursing the “Mullahs.” Even though this desire for social freedoms is important, its shallow portrayal in the movie simplifies and overshadows the larger social, political, and economic struggles of Iranians, and renders their political agency and complex analyses of their social and political plight invisible. For the Western audience, however, the Orientals never possessed any agency to begin with, and thus, can only exist as mere victims of circumstance.
Reflections in the Mirror
The lack of subjectivity in Circumstance is contrasted by the strong and complex characters of Facing Mirrors. When the protagonist Eddy’s transphobic father discovers his intention to acquire a passport and leave the country, he tries to lock Eddy up; however, Eddy escapes with some money and a backpack on his shoulder, which puts him on the path of meeting Rana. In the movie, instead of being treated to the stereotypical images of the oppressed Oriental woman, one is confronted with scenes of defiance, resolve, compassion, and complexity. For example, when the “Guidance Patrol” stops Eddy and one of his female friends while driving, instead of screaming, Eddy defies the police officer and tries to (unsuccessfully) pass his brother’s driver’s license as his own. This scene offers a glimpse into the complexity that often marks the space for defiance and negotiation between Iranian youth and the state security apparatus. Eddy’s “tough-guy” attitude is, however, tempered by his softness and his pain and loneliness are revealed in a potent scene of crying in the bathroom.
Rana and Eddy share a meal and their dreams on the road in Facing Mirrors
Rana, who is devout and comes from modest means, has her own moments of defiance and struggle. She reveals that, as a young girl, one of her dreams was to learn to drive and be able to stand on her own feet. However, instead of being reduced to a helpless victim when her husband is sent to prison, she defies her overbearing mother-in-law (who doesn’t believe in women driving), and sets out to realize her dream by driving passengers in order to make enough money to care for her son and pay her husband’s debt. Instead of objectifying women and queer bodies to serve Orientalist fantasies, Facing Mirrors shows the resilient and resourceful nature of Iranian women and gender minorities whose struggle for freedom and survival is made possible by exercising their agency. These scenes offer a more complex depiction of what liberation means for the marginalized of society, and it flies in the face of the single narrative of helpless victims trapped under a repressive regime presented by mainstream Western media.
The fact that Circumstance has captured the imagination of straight and queer Western mainstream audiences whereas Facing Mirrorshas received little media attention in the West reveals volumes about the cultural power of the Orientalist imaginary. Additionally, the lack of mainstream coverage of Facing Mirrors in the United States is juxtaposed with the overabundance of media attention toward the film in Iran where the film has been the subject of debate and appraisal since its release.
Even though Facing Mirrors did not receive its official permit to be screened in Iranian theaters until October 24th, 2012 – almost a year-and-a-half after release in international film festivals – film critics, journalists, bloggers, and state-sponsored news agencies in Iran began commenting and reporting on its laudable success worldwide almost immediately. It has also been the subject of much debate in Iran’s online blogs and news sites where many young Iranians discuss social, cultural and political issues of the day. This film was even screened at Mofid University in Qom, an extremely religious Iranian city known for its seminaries and education of clerics. After a panel discussion with the producers and actors of the film, the Islamic seminary students and professors praised the movie for portraying therealities of transpeople’s lives in Iran. This is a testament to the fact that despite restrictions and problems of censorship in Iran, the public sphere is still open to debate and discussion of a variety of topics, including those pertaining to sex and gender.
Shayesteh Irani (Eddy), Ghazal Shakeri (Rana), Fereshteh Taerpour, Negar Azarbayjani, and Dr. Kariminia, a professor at Qom Mofid University and an expert on trans laws at a panel discussion on Facing Mirrors and issues facing transpeople in Iran.
The greatest success of the movie, however, is in the fact that it has forever entered Iran’s social, cultural, and political public space where it has inserted a thought-provoking and relatable narrative of queerness in the public imaginary, and addressing a social taboo in consequential ways that Circumstance could never have done. With its humanistic and yet complex storytelling, Facing Mirrors is able to not only touch the hearts of its audience, but it also manages to explore the viewers’ own preconceived notions about transgender people in a manner that is not moralistic or heavy-handed, while truthfully portraying the reality of being trans in the context of Iran’s society and culture. Unlike Circumstance, Facing Mirrors has the power to confront, challenge and continue the process of uprooting prejudice in Iranian culture, and potentially open up the public space for discussing other taboo socio-cultural topics in the future. Facing Mirrors is, in fact, queering the exotic image of the Oriental subject for a Western audience, as it humanizes Iranians and contextualizes their struggles.
Unfortunately, the mainstream Western culture considers such complexity as antithetical to its Orientalist narrative of oppressed Muslim women and queers in need of saving. Therefore, a movie such as Facing Mirrors finds itself as an oddity in the Western cultural and public space where such nuances are rendered invisible or, at best, ignored. Indeed, Facing Mirrors not only sheds light on Iranian social issues, but it also holds up a mirror of reflection that exposes and disrupts Western Orientalist imaginaries, and paves the path for a new and complex understanding of the Middle East.
It’s cool when non-Muslims are totally supportive of Muslim queerness, but please, you gotta realise saying things like “if Allah was gonna do that to you and make it wrong, He’s an asshole” is so not helpful or supportive.
Like, show me support but don’t insult my deity or my prophet or my faith.
Queer Muslims are policed and construed as illegal citizens not only in the Arab-Muslim world, but also in Western societies. They are seen as terrorists or dangers to the homonational and moral values of both the “East” and the “West.” This paper consists of two parts: the theorizing of Queer Muslims as intersectionality and a Queer Ijtihad (close reading and interpretation) of Islamic texts, the Qur’an and Hadith, with the goal of developing futurities that are inclusive of Queer Muslims.
In his April 11 show, “The Arab Underground,” conservative political activist Ezra Levantinterviewed a former Israeli army officer to highlight the imparting of homophobia in the government funded Edmonton Islamic Academy.
He aired a video clip, which showed the Imam of the Al Rashid Mosque expressing his discomfort in associating with queer people and equating them with those suffering from diabetes, cancer or AIDS.
Levant expressed concern on gay-straight alliances being “illegally” forced on Catholic schools and also stated that anti-bullying was “over the top” and that “people should be allowed to have stern religious views.”
Where Levant is concerned with Islam-bashing rather than the welfare of gay youth, the Imam emphasizes social ostracism rather than tolerance and as such both seem to have ignored human dignity, a notion central to both Judaism and Islam.
Students of Islamic law are familiar with the limitations of analogical reasoning. Several pious Muslims elders suffer from diabetes and cancer. By imparting the lesson on social ostracism of queer people, does the Imam wish to imply the same for Muslim elders through his analogy?
While, conservative Muslims have the right to abide by norms generated within a classical Muslim framework, there is no place for homophobia in Islam. Conservative Muslim leaders have the right to not bless same-sex couples; however, they cannot impugn Islamic teachings on compassion based on personal feelings of disgust.
Indeed, the Muslim tradition contains numerous instances of recognizing the human dignity of all people including those deemed to have violated the Islamic law. A 9th century Muslim scholar Al Thaqafi related an eschatological anecdote in which the soul of a ‘mukhannath — feminine male’ is depicted with heavenly grace given the immense prejudice experienced by him during his earthly life as a male prostitute.
Likewise, even the 18th century founder of the Wahhabi movement had issued a ‘fatwa — religious edict’ that notwithstanding any “deviant sexual behaviour,” the ‘mukhannath’ should not be socially ostracized or policed and instead be included as part of the Muslim community.
A narrative attributed to the Prophet emphasizes the distinction between a sinner and a moral prig where the former is met by God’s mercy whereas the latter is damned for spiritual stinginess by policing the sinner. A similar narrative depicts two women instead where one is a female prostitute who is showered with mercy for giving water to a thirsty dog.
In a similar spirit, the 20th century Shaikh Taraboulsi had cautioned against judging people by stating that “dishonorable men in times of strife and hardship have stepped into the gaps honourable men deserted in despair.”
These examples emphasize that the Islamic tradition favours inclusion instead of exclusion and tolerance instead of judgment. If the Islamic tradition affirms the human dignity of sexually variant individuals as part of the Muslim community then conservative Muslim leaders need to reflect on the values they are imparting to future Muslim citizens of the Canadian society.
Conservative Muslim parents need to be concerned whether their children are being taught values of tolerance or exclusion. Do they want them to be like those Muslim students at Jarvis Collegiate who had allegedly harassed members of the queer community in Toronto or like Ridgemont High School graduate Inshar Khan who denounced homophobia in his slam poem in Ottawa?
Given that contemporary Islamic jurisprudence recognizes minority human sexual orientation, they may also wish to think about the possibility of their own son or daughter struggling with their sexuality or being married to someone else’s closeted ward. How long and what would it take for them to rise above their cultural norms to address an issue that impacts many in the community?
Conservative Muslim leaders may want to heed the hallowed sayings of the Prophet, who came as mercy for all mankind and not just the pious. Indeed, the Prophet taught that “keeping good relations with people was better than prayer, fasting and charity” and that “dearest to God are those who treat His children kindly.”
Likewise, instead of exploiting the gay issue to create fear-mongering and distrust of Muslims, Levant may want to learn about Ottawa-based Muslims for Progressive Values who provideunstinted support for LGBTQ rights.
Finally, if the Canadian government is concerned about interpretations of Islam that are consistent with Canadian democratic values, they may wish to support Muslims for Progressive Values who affirm equality, diversity, compassion, separation of state and religious authorities, universal human rights, freedom of speech, women’s rights and critical analysis and interpretation.
From the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity Facebook page: “In only 8 weeks, we will hold the 3rd annual LGBT Muslim Retreat. Individuals will come together from across the U.S., Canada, and beyond, in a vibrant gathering of LGBTQ Muslims. The Retreat will offer a weekend of spiritual and intellectual growth opportunities, social connection, and community building. Some attendees will be longtime activists, while others have never experienced being in a group of LGBTQ people who share their faith. Each year, we offer scholarships to as many applicants as we can. This year, we’re especially challenging ourselves to bring a group of young women and several trans or gender questioning people who are exceptionally isolated in their communities. Please join our efforts to make this aim a reality. If this is a time when you can support this work financially, please consider making a donation. If not, please hold our community in your thoughts, your prayers, your hopes, or your heart. (One easy way to help is to share this with others.)”
While my friends and classmates fight against heteronormativity, explore the multitudes of queer identity and focus on issues such as inclusion…. I am still attempting to justify the worthiness of my very own existence to my family and myself.
A Tumblr by & for Queer Muslims - celebrating our dual identities.
This is not a space for debate or where we will feel compelled to justify our existence. This is a place for us to express ourselves without fear, to share resources, and to connect with other queer Muslims.
Asks should keep the above in mind. We reserve the right to ignore asks, no matter how "polite", that deviate from our mission of a positive space for us. Negativity, "nasiha", name-calling, takfiring, questioning of our level of Islamic knowledge, and demands for us to justify our existence will NOT be published here or responded to. If people have personal questions/comments for the moderators that step outside the positive & affirming mission of this blog, they should go to our personal Tumblrs (though we make no promises that we will entertain you there either!)