Photographer and amplifier Samra Habib shines the light on queer Muslims around the world
By Abi Slone
Samra Habib, the powerhouse storyteller responsible for the groundbreaking “Just Me and Allah: A Queer Muslim
Photo Project” (http://queermuslimproject.tumblr.com) has never been one to shy away from exploration. Habib has been travelling the globe, literally, connecting with queer Muslims and documenting their stories.
IN had a chance recently to sit down with Habib and get her story.
When you started the project, there was a lack of queer Muslim representation in pretty much any media. What were you looking to capture?
I think what living a queer life looks like for many queer Muslims is often different from what it might look like for other people who don’t have that as part of their identity. My life, before I became so public as a queer person, was very typical of a queer Muslim. It’s difficult for many of us to find community; a lot of queer spaces are dominated by white folks and don’t feel very inclusive. Being a queer Muslim often carries with it a lot of trauma—we’re not accepted by our families and religious institutions, and oftentimes we find ourselves in queer spaces that are mostly white, where people don’t have the tools to understand and respect how being Muslim can shape someone’s queer identity. And that just because you’re a queer Muslim woman, it doesn’t mean that you’re oppressed and need to be rescued.
You might not feel safe being queer in a super-visible way because of all the baggage you carry. To be honest, I was searching for different kinds of narratives that resembled my own that I wasn’t seeing in queer culture in Toronto. I felt like an outsider and I had a gut feeling that I wasn’t the only one who was having that painful experience of feeling isolated, so I went on a mission to find those people, to bring their stories to the forefront and to make people understand that their voices were also crucial, and that to fight for queer rights meant including those voices. It also means talking about racism and Islamophobia within the queer community. Oftentimes, it’s difficult for people with privilege to have perspective if they’re not exposed to stories and experiences that are not similar to theirs. And that includes people
in the queer community.
Were you ever concerned that shining the light on queer Muslims in a public way would bring you the ire of both the Muslim community and Islamophobes (who don’t need anything specific to feel inspired)?
I come from ancestors who were rejected by mainstream Islam and were always fighting against different political powers to be accepted as Muslim minorities within Islam. We’re from a small Muslim sect that is not accepted by religious extremists in
Pakistan, which led to us having to leave as refugees because our lives were threatened daily. So I’m used to not being accepted by mainstream Islam because that’s all I’ve ever known. My desire to fight for people who might not have a voice comes from my grandfather and uncles doing the same in Pakistan in the ’70s.
Does the awesomeness of the folks you feature impact how you feel? Do you walk taller after you leave them? Is it amazing
to have spent time with them?
Of course! For a long time, I was struggling to find a community to call my own but after working on the project, I know that my community is not limited to geography. Through the project, I and other queer Muslims are finding family all over the world. I love it when someone I photographed in Brooklyn becomes friends with someone I’ve photographed in Paris or Berlin.
How do you find your subjects, and end up in the places you end up?
I’m close friends with some of the key figures who have been doing activism around queer Muslim rights for decades. Sometimes they put me in touch with people if I’m travelling to different countries. A lot of the times, queer Muslims reach out to me because they want me to tell their story and want to be part of the conversation that’s happening around queer Muslim representation. It’s nice to feel trusted because as Muslims, we’re used to being exploited in many ways. I think one of the major reasons for that is that our stories were being told by people who were not Muslim. It’s helpful when you’re representing someone if you’re also a part of their community. That insight definitely helps. That lived experience shapes the kind of nuanced details you can get out of your subjects and are able to capture.
Who has been your most inspiring interview and why?
El-Farouk Khaki, the founder of Unity mosque here in Canada, a queer elder and one of the founders of Salaam Canada. Without him, many of us queer Muslims wouldn’t have been able to find community here in Toronto. It was after going to Unity mosque for the first time that my faith in Islam was restored, and I wanted to capture the spirit of the mosque, where a trans woman led the prayer and where we were all embraced exactly as we are, through the project.
How do you think your experience as a writer impacted how you shoot people? Do you think the introspection or attention to details appears in your work? Do you ever consider photography an extension of writing?
Absolutely! All of that! You nailed it! For me, photography is just a form of storytelling. I think the reason my project has struck a chord with people to this extent is because I’m asking the subjects I’ve photographed the kinds of questions I feel are important to ask, and that other people haven’t asked. I’m interested in bringing out my subjects’ uniqueness through conversations. And working as a journalist for a decade definitely trained me to do that.
Why did you decide to photograph your subjects rather than write about them?
Because I think everyone has an emotional reaction to photography. A lot has been written about queer Muslims in academia, but unfortunately it’s only accessible to people who live and breathe academia. I understand the power of an image because I grew up on a diet of fashion photography and worked in fashion journalism. I like that people are drawn in because of imagery but then go down a rabbit hole of exploration. I do that, too, when I’m intrigued by an image. I want to know the story behind the subject, who photographed it, the location, everything.
Can you believe what’s happening in the world?
I can. And I do believe that racism and the kind of Islamophobia we’re seeing right now is nothing new. I’m just glad that there are more and more people who are in the places of power with a lot of privilege who are fighting the good fight for, and with, people who are in danger the most. It can’t just be folks of colour, Muslims, LGBTQI folks fighting. I see it in my conversations with people, I see it in how people are demanding justice and actually seeing things change. I think this is such an interesting time to live in, especially for my generation, who might have been politically passive growing up because we saw how corrupt governments and power structures were. It’s so empowering to know that now you can actually change things by speaking up, showing up and deciding who you give your money to.
ABI SLONE is a writer, editor and traveller. She is not a natural redhead.