Calling for “A Jihad for Love”

 
 

You know that director Parvez Sharma is serious about
focusing on women in Islam when he opens his debut documentary, A Jihad for Love, with a lesbian couple
at prayer. Kneeling in a mosque with their faces obscured on-screen, the pair
implores Allah to “Protect us from committing acts you won’t forgive. Help us
remove this desire and replace it with love.”

Neither utterly frustrated nor hopelessly conflicted, the
women embody the timeless and universal question at the heart of A Jihad for Love: Why do humans long for
acceptance from faiths, institutions and communities that reject them? In
positing an answer as it relates to devout Muslims, director Sharma delivers a
refreshingly lesbian-inclusive film that holds instructive value for anyone seeking
a richer understanding of Islam, the world’s second largest and fastest growing
religion.

Like other major belief systems, Islam exhibits a spectrum
of views on homosexuality, from more widely acknowledged condemnation based on
a few verses of the Qur’an and the Hadith, or sayings of the Prophet Mohammed,
to lesser-known interpretations that allow space for same-sex love. Both
perspectives drive A Jihad for Love,
where ultimately, the glimmers of independent reasoning, or ijtihad, outshine the persistence of
orthodoxy and make the film a hopeful viewing experience rather than a bleak
exercise.

Billed as the first-ever feature documentary to explore the
complex global intersections between Islam and homosexuality, the film took
over five years and cost $2 million to complete. Sharma, an out gay Muslim,
produced A Jihad for Love with Sandi
Simcha DuBowski, director of Trembling
Before G-d
, the acclaimed 2001 documentary about gay and lesbian Orthodox
Jews attempting to navigate their faith and sexuality.

A Jihad for Love
is primarily a film about Islam created in response to the suspicion and
outright hostility toward Muslims following Sept. 11, 2001. Even the title
reflects a pointed effort to reclaim the word jihad, which in contrast to its inflammatory connotation in
mainstream American media, for ordinary Muslims means the religious duty to
“struggle” or “strive,” in a peaceful sense, toward improvement.

“There is a profound battle for the soul of Islam,” Sharma,
35, explained over the telephone from his home in New York City. “I was really
concerned to make a film that would set the record straight about Islam. I took
Islam’s most unlikely storytellers.”

Filmmaker Parvez Sharma

The cast of unusual suspects includes more than 10 gay and
lesbian Muslims filmed in 12 countries and nine languages as they try to
reconcile their religion and sexual orientation, with varying results and
different degrees of disclosure. Notably, about half the film traverses lesbian
landscapes, which the Indian-born Sharma covered as a print journalist for The Statesman in 1994, marking the first
major newspaper presentation of lesbians within India. He remains committed to
lesbian visibility now in his career as a filmmaker.

“I find that gay cinema has been in decline ever since the
great films of the ’80s like The Times of
Harvey Milk
,” Sharma observed. “After that, the majority of gay cinema was
focused on trash. I have been troubled by the inordinate focus on the sexual
lives of gay men.”

As a screen remedy, Sharma unveils a diverse range of
practicing Muslim women at different stages of acceptance with their sexual
orientation. What they share is the struggle to accommodate both Islam and
homosexuality in their lives.

Sana, a fiery 20-something survivor of female genital
mutilation from Yemen, lives in Paris among the refugee diaspora, where she
articulates feminist viewpoints, such as the observation that Mohammed approved
women for political roles in the sixth century. Dressed in a black T-shirt with
silver lettering that reads, “Au nom d’Allah J’aime les Femmes,” and with her
face concealed, she finds a resolution for religious lesbians in
the Muslim belief about the nature of God.

“If we know that God is benevolent, merciful and great,” she offers, “then God
must have created us this way.”

 

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