two more days until the first sa- laam Canada and fourth Al-Fatiha International Conference for gay and lesbian Muslims and I can't even find out where it is. You'd think they'd put the bloody address of the bloody conference on the Web site. An exasperated e-mail to Salaam Toronto founder and lawyer El-Farouk Khaki finally generated this equable response. "We didn't list the address for security reasons. It's at the 519 Church Street Community Centre."
Security. Of course. Could any group be more of a target from more sources than a progressive gay Muslim group? If anybody needs serious spiritual healing and hope, it's Muslims struggling with sexual identity. Many young gays are killing themselves, ostracized by their families and cut off from their God. Forget that a UN resolution against sexual discrimination was turned down by five Muslim countries. Forget that Egypt jailed several men on charges of "lewd" behaviour. The intolerance is just as harsh in North America.
"You cannot be a good Muslim and be homosexual" pronounced a Toronto Muslim leader recently. Al-Fatiha has already earned a fatwa (a religious ruling) against them. "We are really quite proud of it," says the American founder, Faisal Alam.
So on a beautiful Friday morning (prayer day) in a bright cheery upstairs room at the 519, about a hundred brave delegates gather. Registration is by first name only, guards stand outside the door and participants are assured that their faces will not be photographed. In spite of all this, the atmosphere is peaceful and calm.
As a straight feminist Canadian of Christian Palestinian background, I admit to a certain trepidation at immersing myself in any Muslim environment. I always get into a fight. I have often not only butted heads with Muslim men and women on the topic of women's rights, but with my Christian Arab relatives as well. These attitudes are culturally identical even if their doctrines differ.
I am especially curious about how bi and lesbian Muslim women reconcile themselves to the many verses in the Koran restricting women - the sanction of polygamy, purdah and wife-beating, to name a few, although clearly the Bible is no bed of roses for the ladies either. Only one passage in the Koran, the story of Lut in Sodom and Gomorrah, makes passing negative reference to homosexual men, and it looks like it won't be too difficult for gay Muslim scholars to re-interpret or circumvent its implications. In fact, scholar Suraj Kugle gives a talk on that very topic on Saturday .
Still, the cultural stigma against homosexuality will remain. If Muslims are making such excruciatingly slow progress toward simply freeing themselves from prejudice against women, how are they going to help their gay, lesbian, bi and transgender communities? With two of the basic tenets of Islam - tolerance and compassion - that's how, and these are beautifully prevalent in almost every aspect of this conference.
A cool breeze tickles the large Palestinian flag hanging in a window, and my fears are allayed. There are lots of frizzy brown heads like my own, and the men seem accepting and inclusive of the women. People murmur in soft tones as they gather their coffee donated by a local Timothy's. Black markers squeak on bristol board outlining that morning's topics. An Introduction To The Contemporary Queer Muslim Movement, Thematic And Contextual Readings Of The Story Of Lut....
The diverse audience exchange shy smiles. Besides the smattering of young gay Muslims of both genders, there's a 50-year-old American lesbian who embraced Islam after 9/11, a huge African-American man in white skullcap and robe, South Asian dykes gleaming in their saris, and non-Muslim gay supporters of the event. No one is in a hijab.
Raven Rowanchilde, a bisexual Muslim woman and one of the organizers, welcomes the delegates with a copy of Xtra in her hand. She's on the cover, together with Khaki and fellow member Negar Farjadnia, and she's showing cleavage. "This photo has sparked both fan clubs and hate groups devoted to my cleavage," she chuckles, then sobers. "Women's bodies have been the battleground for political, economic, religious and ideological control. It's a tired old script. Let's throw it out!" Applause.
Khaki then firmly announces that a woman, Dr. Ghazala Anwar, will lead the prayer. Anwar, of the University of Canterbury, is one of the first academics to support Salaam. She's a small, pious woman with a muted voice. Her seminar is the only one addressing feminism and is a bit of a letdown.
The topic is Progressive Islam: The Queer Imperative For A Feminist Agenda. But she clarifies her position. "I do not have the identity of being feminist," says Anwar, referring to what she sees as the problem of unbecoming, unfeminine anger. "The more angry they are," she says of feminists, "the more they mirror the society they are trying to escape." The message seems to be "Be free but don't be unladylike about it."
After the seminars everyone is gently invited to pray. "Some if them hadn't prayed in 10, 20 years," says Khaki the next day. "Quite a few people had tears in their eyes because it was so healing and cathartic."
If Friday and Saturday are days for absorbing history and analysis, Saturday night is the time to party. The banquet held at the Bright Pearl restaurant opens with about 15 heart-stopping drummers and a belly dancer. Again the crowd is staggering in its diversity: trannies in their finest; newly married gay couples; and next to Olivia Chow's table, the most touching sight, two tables of bemused older couples from PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). Keynote speaker MP Svend Robinson tells the gathering, "We are witnessing history and making history."
By Sunday, when seminars are held at the Winchester Hotel, the love-fest vibe has shifted a little. Time is running out and not everyone has had a say. One young woman, the kind who talks in questions? To soften the sting of her words? Feels that issues of appropriation should be on everyone's mind in every caucus? Many of the delegates are Muslim neither culturally nor originally. There is some bristling from the crowd. I think if I were an East Asian Muslim girl who had grown up despised for my identity, I would not have the same issues as a white woman who converted at 40.
Later, I talk to Khaki outside in the shade of a tree that drops tiny green specks on us. On his way to meet me, he speaks quickly to several people, calmly fixing small problems and unruffling feathers. "When you look at Islamic history," he tells me. "there was always diversity. I think the larger Muslim community needs to understand we're not a threat to them."