Jun 05, 2020 Last Updated 5:56 AM, Jun 2, 2020

Queering piety

Published: Jan 26, 2020
Versi Bh. Indonesia

Ferdiansyah Thajib

It is often assumed in Indonesia that people who are both Muslim and queer constantly experience konflik batin (inner conflict). It is further assumed that Muslim queers are prone to negative and unhealthy feelings, such as self-loathing and the desire to self-harm. As with any assumptions, this does not tell the whole story. Every person’s experience is different and while life is hard for Muslims with alternative sexualities and expressions of gender, there are ways of living positively despite these challenges. Stories I have heard convey people’s processes of negotiation and readjustment on their journeys, helping them live and redefine everyday piety.

Reclaiming brotherly love

When I first met Rizky in Jakarta he was in his mid-30s. Despite a series of intimate relationships with men, Rizky does not identify as gay. He feels the label gay would dictate who he is and who he is supposed to be attracted to. It is important for Rizky to remain open to the possibility that he may become attracted to women. Rizky is also a staunch Muslim. He became Muslim through a process of self-discovery rather than via family or peer pressure.

One of the tensions Rizky faces with his growing attachment to Islam is that the Qur’an is usually thought to forbid homosexuality. While for some people, wanting to be a better Muslim would mean stopping homosexual practices, Rizky wants to find a way to merge the two.

Rizky has been in a relationship with his lover Donny for seven years. While ending his relationship with Donny is an option, Rizky can’t do this because he worries about who would look after Donny as he has no family. In order to align his relationship with Donny and his religious beliefs, Rizky has sought to draw on the Muslim concept of brotherly love. Rizky refers to a hadith (a saying of Prophet Muhammad) that states Muslims must love their fellow ummah (believers). For Rizky, homosocial practices of care and affection can thus be framed not as a sexual or romantic relationship but as a closeness and intimacy among brothers. Rizky’s personal journey toward becoming a better Muslim suggests a way of melding competing notions of love, compassion, care, intimacy and faith.

Spirituality instead

If Rizky’s story represents how homosexuality complicates practices of becoming a better Muslim, Anna’s tells of how being queer can force one to leave Islam. Anna is a queer-identifying woman I met in Yogyakarta just as she was detaching herself from Islam. Anna grew up wearing the veil in a religious household in West Sumatra. Now 30, Anna believes being Muslim and being queer cannot not be reconciled.

Anna no longer performs Islamic duties, partly because of her frustration at seeing how Islam is used to justify discrimination again sexual and gender minorities. But Anna also gave up Islam for more personal reasons. She recalled one time when she was praying to be reunited with her girlfriend after they broke up. But when they were reunited, Anna felt a pang of discomfort at the thought that the God of a religion used to persecute sexual minorities would grant her prayer: ‘I really wondered why God had listened to my prayer. It didn’t feel right at all.’ Anna says that now she has stopped practicing Islam she is ‘nyaman dengan diri sendiri’ (comfortable with herself).

While Anna moved away from Islam, she did not become an atheist. Rather, she maintains a spiritual connection with what she describes as a ‘divine energy’. She maintains this connection by going to different religious spaces, such as Javanese Christian churches and Hindu temples. For Anna, navigating inner conflict has been about cultivating spiritual personal wellbeing, not following strict religious doctrine.

As pious as possible

While Rizky’s and Anna’s stories reveal differences in Islamic queer entanglements, I turn now to the story of Maya to consider another way religion and non-heteronormative practices mix. When I met Maya, a 28-year-old waria (roughly translated as trans woman) from Aceh, she welcomed my idea of holding a focus group discussion on religiosity with her friends. She said: ‘I am always curious about how my friends view Islam. For me, I don’t really know why, but every time religion is brought up my body feels weak.’

On a slightly rainy evening, Maya and I met in the hair salon of her friend Mami Yana. We were joined by 12 other waria, leaving little room in the salon which was only around four-square metres. The discussion opened with a statement by Mami Yana explaining that Islam is central to waria in her community. She continued: ‘All of us here uphold religious norms and aspire to be pious the best way we can, despite what people say about us.’ The other waria nodded in agreement. Shortly after, though, the discussion became heated when the topic of proper prayer attire came up.

Maya stated that as waria one can shalat (pray) in any attire that’s comfortable. One can either pray wearing a man’s sarong and peci cap or woman’s mukena (full body covering cloak). But another participant said: ‘No, it is a sin [for waria] to wear female clothing [while praying]! You must be humble facing God.’ Another participant exclaimed: ‘[If you don’t wear the correct attire] it’s like making fun of religion!’

Maya remained unswayed by these replies and said: ‘This is the problem. We complain when someone labels us sinners, but among ourselves, we also call each other sinners. Why are we doing this to each other?’ The debate ended without consensus regarding proper prayer attire. This lively exchange exemplifies that even within a like-minded community, there is no singular understanding of moral piety.

These stories of being Muslim and queer shared by Rizky, Anna, and Maya and her friends, are fraught with moral ambivalence. These experiences of moral ambivalence are familiar to many Muslims, regardless of sexuality and gender, but are particularly salient to queer Indonesians given the centrality of homosocial love, quests for spirituality, and the habits of religious practice. For Indonesian Muslim queers, engaging with inner conflict around sexuality and gender contributes to the making, unmaking and remaking of individual and communal piety.

Ferdiansyah Thajib (f.thajib@fu-berlin.de) is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Social and Cultural Anthropology, Freie Universität Berlin.

Inside Indonesia 139: Jan-Mar 2020

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