It’s not easy making a film about Muslim gays and lesbians. Homosexuality is forbidden and a crime in most Islamic countries. In six countries, according to Sharia religious law, homosexuality is punishable by the death penalty.
Parvez Sharma, an Indian-born print and television journalist who turned to filmmaking in the 1990s, debuted as a director is the 2007 feature documentary “A Jihad for Love.” Sharma spent six years making it.
The impetus, he said, came after September 11th, when he felt the need “to come out as a Muslim.” He said, “ I felt very conscious of my Muslim-ness, my Islam….[we} were suddenly surrounded in the media by a completely new discourse about Islam that was being controlled primarily by either George Bush or Osama Bin Laden.” As a gay Muslim himself raised in a secular environment, he needed to make a film through a “Muslim lens.”
Much of the difficulty in making the film came from winning the trust of people who would be the subjects of the documentary. Many of them had very difficult lives. Mohsin, a man in his forties who lives in South Africa, is a father of three children and comes from a conservative family. His grandfather was an Imam. Mohsin studied Islam in Pakistan, got married there, but came out to his wife a week before their marriage. His wife said she would cure him, and that his gayness would go away. When he moved back to South Africa, he taught Islam and Arabic and was highly respected. But when he came out as a gay man after fathering three children, he was ex-communicated from his small community and lost his job.
Even more horrific is the story of Mazen, an Egyptian refugee who lives in exile in France. Over the course of a year, Mazen was imprisoned, tortured, and raped as a very young man. Sharma had to be more than a filmmaker to gain his trust: He also had to be a friend. “He was a refugee living penniless in a foreign country. So many nights, he would sleep right next to me, crying all night long -- and I just had to be there for him.”
Not all the stories in “A Jihad for Love” have such negative intensity. Ferda and Kiymet are a lesbian couple living happily in Turkey; and young gay men in India are happy to be in India.
Just this year, “A Jihad for Love” had its first public showing in a Muslim country. It was screened in Beirut. Sharma’s goal was to break the silence and open dialogue. Finding a solution for the issue is more elusive. He said, “To reform religion you need to do it from within the religion. Only religious people will find a solution. Religious Muslims will find a solution but someone from outside will not.” But Sharma’s experiences over the past decade have taught him to question whether this can be achieved. He went on to say, “I don’t know if a Koranic solution is possible … I think Muslims are taught not to mess with the Koran. Secondly, there are one billion in the Muslim world. Do you think the entire umma will agree that homosexuality is okay? Muslims are too divided to agree on one thing.”
The answer, he says, may lie in more Muslims picking up their cameras to tell their stories unfiltered. So far, he says, “the discussion does not get very far away from Al Qaeda or women wearing a hijab – that’s all you see of Muslim women, for example -- and definitely does not give space to progressive voices….which, I think, constitute the majority of Muslim voices in the world.”
Sharma used the word “Jihad” in the title from the original meaning of the word, which is not “holy war” but “struggle to achieve.” “Jihad,” he says, needs to be taken back to its meaning, and away from its terrorist association.