Calling for “A Jihad for Love”


More than 1,000 miles away in Istanbul, Ferda and Kiymet are
an openly lesbian couple that takes solace in the Sufi traditions of the 13th-century
mystic poet Rumi. Seemingly as well-adjusted as their nearly matching jackets
and sweater sets, they make an anxious first visit to Ferda’s mother, and all
three wind up joking about the lesbian prospects for her parrot, Lora, who has
not laid an egg in 10 years.

However, even in secular Turkey, Sharma suspects that their
unusual ease around him was prompted by the presence of a female
cinematographer on his production team.

“In women’s lives these lines between public and private are
clearly drawn,” he said. “It was hard for them to allow a man in their space.
It doesn’t matter that I’m a gay man.”

A more alarming obstacle to filming and casting lesbians was
the possibility of honor killings, committed against women whose candidness
about their sexuality might bring shame to their families. In general, Sharma said
he found his subjects through personal friends, the internet and the growing
network of HIV/AIDS nonprofits that provide social connection in places where
the gay and lesbian scene is not especially commercialized.

One lesbian couple contending with palpable fear and shame is Maha and Maryam,
the lovers who appear at the opening of the film. Shuttling between their
respective lives in Egypt and France for more than three years since the start
of their relationship, they seem to consider their homosexuality an affliction
that deserves a punitive response.

Together in a bookstore one day, they pore over a religious
text that says lesbianism is forbidden in Islam, but because of the types of
sexual acts it involves, the prescribed penalty is a mere scolding.

“I want to be punished,” said Maha, in a moment of
unintended irony.

In contrast to lesbians’ private indignities, public abuse
seems to be more closely associated with gay men in A Jihad for Love, a film that unflinchingly depicts welted skin,
the cramped quarters of asylum seekers, and the ease with which some believers
would cast the first stone.

In Cape Town, South Africa, where the openly gay Imam Muhsin Hendricks preaches
an inclusive Islam, one caller to a radio show on which he appeared says, “I
think Muhsin should be thrown off a mountain, or burned, or something like
that,” before her virtual Valspeak erupts into a giggle.

Later, during a car ride, Muhsin tells his young children
about his life and asks whether they believe he should be stoned for his behavior,
and what they would say or do about that possibility.

“‘Oh, don’t let my daddy feel this, and just let him die one
time with the first stone!’” suggests a tiny voice from the back seat.

As a gay Muslim filmmaker, however, Sharma seems more
concerned with sparking education and conversation than he is worried about
risks to his own life. He maintains a blog at
expressly for the constructive purpose of what he calls “digital jihad.”

“I’ve had a few death threats,” he confirmed. “They usually arrive by email,
and they usually come from people who haven’t seen the film.”

If the women in A
Jihad for Love
can offer any indication, it would seem that a more civil
dialogue begins with an expansive understanding of love.

“Love is something powerful. It’s different,” says Maryam,
in an effort to explain how her faith and sexual orientation co-exist. “To me,
love is more important than sex.”

Watch the trailer for A Jihad for Love:


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