'I Found Home': Celebrating Ramadan at an Iftar for Queer Muslims

The iftar sought to provide a welcoming space for queer Muslims who often face homophobia in traditional Muslim spaces and Islamophobia in conventional queer spaces.

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Jun 9 2018, 3:08pm

Speaker Mohamed Amin of the Caribbean Equality Project and his mother. Photos by Leila Ettachfini.

“Nowhere—and especially not in New York City—is anyone just one thing,” said Carmelyn Malalis, Chair & Commissioner of the NYC Commission on Human Rights. The audience in front of her, a crowd quite familiar with existing at the intersection of multiple identities, met her words with loud praises, snaps, and applause.

Malalis was speaking at the second ever LGBTQ Community Iftar at New York City’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center. Iftar is the Arabic word for the meal with which Muslims break their fast during the month of Ramadan. The event is among a small but growing list of efforts recognizing and supporting queer Muslims throughout the country, many of whom face homophobia in traditional Muslim spaces and Islamophobia in conventional queer spaces.

Shijuade Kadree, Senior Director of Public Policy & Advocacy at the LGBT Center, says that the Center realized the need to make a concentrated effort to support LGBTQ Muslims in the aftermath of Trump’s election as his rhetoric and attempts to instill a travel ban on majority Muslim countries emboldened Islamophobia. “The work that we do tries to be exclusively affirming and inclusive but explicitly intersectional,” she explains. “When it came to post-election and thinking about our advocacy work and showing up for the most vulnerable members within our community, it was clear that we needed to show up and let folks know that queer Muslims and allies of the space were welcome here.” Soon after that realization, the Center worked in partnership with the NYC Commission on Human Rights to plan their first ever LGBTQ iftar in June of last year. It sold out in a matter of hours.

This year, the iftar, held at the Center in Manhattan’s West Village, sold out just as quickly. Inside, amongst round tables with bottled water and trays of dates (the fruit with which Muslims traditionally break their fast), queer Muslims and allies from all backgrounds filled the large space. Rabbi Marisa Elana James from the progressive synagogue Congregation Beit Simchat Torah was in attendance wearing a rainbow kippah, founder and president of Young Feminists and Allies Jerin Arifa was there in an intricate yellow sari, and people from all ages trickled in wearing everything from keffiyehs to tank tops.

Organizers of the LGBTQ iftar pose for a photo.

The event opened with a series of speakers. Among them was Amin Dulkumoni, a software engineer and a member of Tarab NYC, an organization that fosters inclusive and safe Queer Middle Eastern and North African spaces. Dulkumani was born in Jordan to a Palestinian family, and came to the US seven years ago to finish his studies. Today, he lives in New York with his husband.

“The main reason for me being part of events like this is to bring up queer Muslims, to celebrate and feel the right to be themselves, and celebrate their heritage and religious holidays as part of who they are—they don’t have to hide their identity as queer or gay or anything but straight,” he told Broadly before his speech.

After the speakers, Barza Diaz, an organizer with Muslims for Progressive Values, gave the adhan, the Islamic call to prayer. In traditional, mainstream practices, it’s not considered permissible for women to lead prayers, though there is a modern movement of women leading Islamic prayers and even opening their own mosques. Though I grew up Muslim, it was the first time in my life that I heard a woman recite the adhan. Diaz then led the maghreb prayer in a designated gender-mixed prayer room, another first for me to witness.

For the safety and comfort of guests, some of whom were not yet out with their sexuality to their friends and family, the event had a strict photo policy.

After the prayer, Mirna Haidar, a refugee who moved to the US for asylum and a member of the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity (MASGD), spoke to me about the power of bringing together queer Muslims. “The space really is to reach people who feel like they’re the only queer Muslim in the world,” she says. “That was me about ten years ago.” Haidar believes that the discrimination and isolation she felt surrounding her identity “was really about patriarchal power dynamics in both spaces: in mainstream LGBTQ spaces and mainstream Muslim spaces.”

I asked Haidar to describe what it feels like to be in spaces where queer Muslims are welcome. “You stop fighting who you are, you stop rejecting who you are, you stop struggling with who you are for a second, and you are able to breathe feeling that you can be fully naked—figuratively, religiously, literally—and not be judged,” she told me. “I prayed more amongst my queer Muslim fellows than with my family. I stopped running away, if that makes sense. I found home.”

The iftar meal.

Once it was time to break the fast, 8:26 pm to be exact, those who weren’t fasting waited to grab food until those who were had the chance to fill their plates. Once everyone finally sat down to eat, they were treated to dances by two queer Muslim performers, including a modern take on raqs al-sharqi, a dance traditionally performed by women, by Mark Balahadia. When the performances ended, the DJ entertained the crowd, switching between Arab party classics like “Allah Allah ya Baba” and Cardi B.

Throughout the night, I spoke to and heard from members of the LGBTQ Muslim community from various places and stages in their lives. Haidar’s eyes lit up as she told me about her partner and their year-and-a-half-old twins, another woman invited me to a Muslim conference next month after telling me about her decision not to wear the hijab anymore, and someone who isn’t yet out to their family smiled as they told me that this was the first time they’d ever been around openly LGBTQ Muslims. In all of my conversations with attendees, both interviews and small talk, I was told time and time again how lucky people from the community felt to be able to attend events in spaces like this, knowing very well that there are few places in the world where people from their community can present both their queer and Muslim identities and feel safe and accepted.

Founder and Executive Director of the Caribbean Equality Project, Mohamed Amin, summarized that sentiment best as he closed his speech. “Tonight,” he said, “as we celebrate Ramadan, as we celebrate our queerness, we are also celebrating privilege.”

You can find a list of organizations that advocate for LGBTQIA+ Muslims here.