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Boys Like Scattered Pearls: Moroccan Homosexuality in Multicultural Amsterdam

“I will always be the daughter who ran away from my family” says Jihan. Her gestures indicate resignation, but her voice is determined: “I had to give up my family … I had to leave them behind …so that I could be myself...” Jihan, who lives in Amsterdam, is both Moroccan and a lesbian. 

Like many other homosexual Muslims, she has been trying to negotiate between two worlds that most would see as incompatible. Like their stories, hers too is filled with cultivated misperceptions, rejections and attempts to discover and empower herself. She tells us about a complex conflict that involves her family as well as the community around her, and it starts with the basic clash in the understanding of the term and practice of homosexuality between her Dutch and Moroccan cultures.    

Eastern and Western Perceptions of Homosexuality

Scholars have written about numerous Western travelers of the 19th century who, fueled by literature and distant images of sexual freedom among men and boys, eagerly visited Northern Africa, Turkey and the Balkans. At that time, the image of the Arab world, consumed and nurtured in western societies, was one of a paradise for sexual deviance and careless indulgence. 

Nowadays, for numerous Muslims, homosexuality is symbolic for those aspects of Western societies that are deemed sinful and dangerous. In discussions, homosexuality is often framed as an exclusively sexual activity; void of emotion; an instance of indulgence in perversion and decadence. Even beyond the practice itself, the concept of a homosexual partnership is strictly linked to a liberal Western way of living and thus considered foreign to a Muslim culture.

For instance, it is not uncommon to come across comments by first and second generation Moroccans confidently establishing that such conduct does not exist in their home communities.   

The point is that the once sexualized image of the dark Other who transgressed sexual boundaries has been transformed into the image of the backward Muslims who are intolerant of alternative life-styles in the West. (see Hekma, 2002). In both cases, sexuality is always referred to in function to other signifiers such as race, nationality or religion and has served as a means of excluding and stigmatizing the Other. 

Against this complex historical backdrop, Moroccan men and women living in Amsterdam attempt to negotiate between their Muslim and homosexual identities. An example is Youssef, a 20 year old Moroccan born in Amsterdam. During our conversation, he explains how it is like to live in different societies (as a Moroccan homosexual) and comes to the conclusion that it would actually be easier to be gay in the large cities of Morocco, rather than in Amsterdam.  

Curious, we ask him to explain.  

What makes Amsterdam particularly unattractive is the presence of one’s family. “I can always run into a family member here,” he states, and adds: “Did you actually know that there are more lesbian clubs in Agadir than in Amsterdam?” Turkey is another good example where, up until 1984, an Istanbul gay neighborhood was home of some 5.000 homosexual men and women, who lived there until the government decided to intervene. 

Gani, a 27 years old banker of Turkish descent now living in Amsterdam, vividly describes all the gay clubs in Izmir and Marrakech. “You can do anything you want there... they [the police] will not stop you … unless you do something really bad.” “It is true,” he confesses when he observes some slight sign of disbelief. “It is full of tourists there who go for sex,” confirming once more that the image of the Arab and Turkish world as a homosexual heaven is still a compelling one for a western audience.

Reconciliation & Rejection

While Arab literature has always reserved space for expressions of homosexual love and intimacy, there is a general consensus among Islamic scholars, as far as religious writings are concerned, that homosexuality is against nature, an abnormal and sinful activity.  They repeatedly point to the Qur’an verses, referring to the people of Lut (7:80-81) and the act of seducing men instead of the women that God created (26:165). 

According to Omar Nahas, researcher at the Yoesuf Foundation in Utrecht, the stigmatization of Muslim homosexuals is partly rooted in the powerful parallel that is established between Western homosexuality and the Islamic notion of liwat (anal penetration between males). Another widespread idea that reinforces and intensifies the social stigma is that which considers homosexuality to be a disease. 

To establish whether the Qu’ran approves or disapproves homosexuals is beyond the scope of this investigation, but it is essential to recognize the ways in which this contentious question fuels the conflict between sentiments of acceptance and rejection in the daily lives of young Moroccan homosexuals living in Amsterdam. 

Many of them attempt to reconcile this conflict by making their sexual identity an integral part of their Muslim-self: Allah is good and he created me like this. They use this argument to reinforce the idea that physical harassment is also unacceptable for a good Muslim. But in fact, while scholars and religious members of the community can use readings of the Qur’an to justify their rejection of homosexual behavior, they often neglect that exclusion or violence is similarly discouraged. Even when they do articulate this subtle but crucial aspect, it receives little attention. The controversial 2001 interview with the Rotterdam-based imam Khalil El Moumni is a case in point: his comments regarding the dangerous disease-like nature of homosexuality received widespread public attention but his statement condemning anti-gay violence, made during the same interview, did not make it to the final version of the television program.    

Another mechanism employed by homosexual Muslims who strive to negotiate between the two seemingly mutually exclusive identities is to place emphasis on the Islamic notion of a personal relationship with God. The Moroccan saying  “Everybody goes to his own grave” illustrates the notion that the ultimate authority to judge human behavior rests with God. It is, therefore, simply inappropriate and unacceptable to invest oneself with the power of judging others, including homosexuals. 

Despite these attempts, it is inevitable for homosexual Muslims themselves to raise troubling questions: How can God forbid something that he has created himself? Some still consider it to be a sin, but want to place an equal emphasis on the fact that adultery and sex before marriage are also punishable sins, yet they do not receive such aggressive reactions. What about other things considered to be haram (forbidden) or khamr (intoxicating) such as drugs and alcohol? They wonder if all evils are equal and if they get treated as such. They also argue that it might be possible to “compensate” for their homosexual behavior with good deeds and accomplishments in other realms of life.

In contrast to the attempt of negotiating between a Muslim/Moroccan and a homosexual identity, some attempt to solve the conflict by rejecting or disassociating from one of them. There are young Moroccans who decide to go through a “western” coming-out process and embrace the living style that comes with it by articulating a certain disjuncture between them and Islam. Like Youssef and Jihan, they have often faced the painful rejection of relatives and family members. While the level of hostility varies from case to case—Jihan having been completely rejected by her family, while Youssef still maintaining some contact, especially with his mother—the range of problems that they face is similar. 

In both cases, we are told, it is very important for Moroccan nuclear families to maintain a respectable image in their community. In this context, homosexual children pose a serious threat. To a certain extent, it is permissible to maintain separate identities in the private and public spheres, but making one’s homosexual identity visible produces conflict and often separation.               

A Muslim Coming Out?

The process of  “coming out”, as understood in the Western discourse but played out in a Moroccan context, involves the initial need to personally acknowledge one’s sexual orientation. As it becomes evident from the gripping accounts in Mijn geloof en mijn geluk (My faith and my happiness), a book that describes the problems young Islamic individuals encounter with their homosexuality, especially young Muslim men struggle with their homosexual tendencies by internalizing the idea that such behavior is abnormal. While this is comparable to other non-Muslims, what seems to distinguish the initial stage from the general queer experience in the West is the prevalent notion that homosexuality can be confined to the simple sexual act.

Further, a male engaging in intercourse can only be considered homosexual when he allows to be penetrated by another man. The act of penetrating in itself has the capacity to normalize the activity, but the transgression of seemingly gender-specific boundaries (by way of which the sexual roles of men and women are strictly defined and protected) seems to produce contention.                 

Further ahead in this process, it often becomes necessary to decide whether or not to include your family. Rudolf Steinberger, a psychotherapist working with Muslim immigrants in Amsterdam, pointed out that “coming out to one’s family” may not necessarily be a self-evident concept in a Moroccan context.  Why would one choose to involve the members of the immediate family in her private sphere? 

Gani clarified that his silence was a response to an inner urge not to hurt his family. Having had sexual experiences with men since his late teenage years and now living independently, Gani does not necessarily feel threatened from his parents and siblings. His fear is not one of rejection or punishment. Rather, it is a conscious choice to keep realms of life separate and hope that his family back in Turkey receives and comprehends his signals from Amsterdam: “I told them, already, that they should not expect a marriage …” 

While some decide to keep silent out of respect and love for their parents, others, like Jihan, choose to confront them for exactly the same reasons. “I did not want to lie to the people I love,” she says.  For some of these Moroccan youth there is also a sentiment of obligation towards their parents, who provided them with the opportunities to live and get educated in the Dutch society.   

If one has chosen to include the family, a female sibling is often the safest and closest person to approach. As with Youssef, the sister often discusses the issue with the mother. Cases vary sharply in terms how this family confrontation takes place, but it seems that the father is often the most difficult barrier for the individual “coming out.”

Steinberger sees it as quite possible not to include one’s family in this negotiation of identities. If one is able to “feel comfortable on both sides,” a certain level of stability is attained. He argues that it is not necessarily the case that all internal conflicts need to be resolved in order for the process of identity-formation to occur. Individuals are indeed able to handle different social roles and integrate several identities. The problem is, however, that it seems to make a difference whether some of these categories appear to be mutually exclusive, that is to say, there exists a strict denial of homosexuality within the Moroccan community. Even if one is to resolve the inner conflict, then, there exists an external conflict in which the idea of the absolute disconnect between Islam and homosexuality is still oppressive. Whenever the internal balance between the two identifications is not achieved, there is a greater chance of psychological disturbances that the individual may encounter such as depression, eating disorders, etc.

Women face an even greater challenge since it is extremely difficult for them to maintain their private sphere in a community that grants far more individual freedom to males. Thus, while it may be possible for a male to allow himself the liberty of discovering homosexual activities outside and away from his Moroccan family, women lack the opportunity to do so.  After countless “birthday parties” to which she was constantly invited to, Jihan finally found herself exhausted: “At some point, it becomes enough … you have to constantly keep up with the lies … remember what lie you told them the last time … ”.           

Talking Sex

The attitude that exists towards homosexuals in general, and Muslim ones in particular, is linked to the limited knowledge about homosexuality at all levels of education. According to Jacobijn de Vries, who conducted research (Verschillen Verkend, 1998) among 16 parents, 21 teachers (8 of them being gay or lesbian) and 83 Turkish, Moroccan and Surinam high school students, this is a direct consequence of the lack of information about homosexuality in the sexual education programs. Of the 83 students that were interviewed for the research, 18% indicated that they never had any form of sexual education at all. Moreover, the majority of the students (71% of the Turkish and 85% of the Moroccan students) indicated never to speak about (hetero) sex with their parents. The students ascribed this to their cultural background, saying that it is not accepted to discuss these topics at home. Others argued that Islam does not allow it. 

Another interesting finding was related to the attitudes towards homosexual teachers in comparison with homosexual family members.  While the majority of the students said that they could accept Dutch homosexual teachers, Moroccan male students in particular said that they would most likely reject a gay family member. 

An encouraging finding is that 89% of the students indicated interest in sexual education in general, and 61% had a positive stand towards education about homosexuality in particular. Also, the far majority of the parents who were interviewed was in favor of sexual education and indicated that they would want to get involved or at least be informed about the progress of such program. Education about homosexuality was considered to be a more complicated issue but was generally accepted, provided that it would be given in a neutral manner. (de Vries:1998)

This brings us to the question: How to reform the high school sexual education program in order to be able to include more sexual and cultural diversity? Mr. Gert Hekma at the Department of Gay and Lesbian Studies at the University of Amsterdam proposes a broad-based approach of the topic. He argues that information about (homo) sexuality should not solely focus on physiology, venereal diseases and sexual harassment, but should also include topics such as seduction, self-stimulation, sexual variations, different forms of love, or the language, literature, geography and history of eroticism and sexuality. Instead of concentrating on a single religious or cultural identity, the program should open to different approaches and pay attention to all varieties of sexual identifications.

Until now, however, developments in this direction are limited and even seem to go in the opposite direction: the demand for information sessions carried out by the national gay and lesbian organization (COC) has decreased. This results in a lack of proper understanding. As an example, during the showing of a recent video-project dealing with gay discrimination, high school students thought that it addressed issues related to ethnic discrimination instead of the actual theme. In this context and given the current political climate, Hekma remains skeptical about the possibility for significant changes in the near future. 

Institutional Challenges 

Although many homosexual Muslims, for various of the reasons discussed so far, are still invisible in the Netherlands—within the Muslim community as well as within the gay scene and within assistance programs—there is a trend towards a more pluralistic and multicultural gay-scene. More and more young Muslims are seen in Amsterdam’s gay districts and an increasing number of Arab and oriental nights are being organized at Habibi Ana, the first bar catering the homosexual Arab community of Amsterdam, and other clubs. The Dutch gay community views these young Moroccan gay men with great curiosity and intrigue: “Sometimes instead of clubbing, I am lecturing,” joked Youssef referring to his experiences with non-Muslims who get introduced to him for the first time.  They express feelings of surprise, at times even disbelief, when meeting someone who identifies as both Moroccan and gay. 

Although Amsterdam’s nightlife is gradually adjusting to the increasing diversity among homosexuals, the institutional structures to support young Muslims with the variety of problems that they encounter while thinking about coming out are still lacking. Even when one has made her sexuality visible, support is hard to find.

Most of the existing organizations, including the COC, are considered to be “talking too much and doing too little.” An additional problem with the present network of organizations is that they are predominantly ‘white’, which makes it difficult for migrant youth to identify with. According to one of our respondents, Moroccans have a difficult time relating to individuals who work for one of the current Dutch organizations and become suspicious of them. Instead, it would be easier to relate to a Moroccan worker who is also gay, but there are few of them who get involved. For instance, Youssef is the only one working with the high school educational programs in Amsterdam.

An organization that has a multicultural character, both in its composition and orientation, is the Yoesuf Foundation, which presents itself as a center for information and education about Islam and sexual diversity. It is an academic entity that primarily collects its information from Islamic resources, which it then applies to solve social problems. Many of our respondents indicate that Yoesuf lacks a practical approach and that they offer very limited assistance to individuals struggling with the issues of religion and homosexuality in their lives. While Yoesuf has issued several research publications and held workshops on the topic, it seems to be detached from the personal problems of young Muslims who very often hesitate to participate in public events. 

Although the development of solid organizations that cater to the Muslim/Moroccan gay community is still in the initial phase, contacts between homosexuals have been established on an individual basis. These contacts, which are mainly facilitated by the Internet, may well be the beginning of a changing attitude within the Muslim community. Websites like www.gayarab.org (info and chat room for Arab gay men), www.merhaba.be (information site for gay Arab activities and links) and maroclesbian@hotmail.com (mail address for Moroccan lesbians) enable interested individuals to exchange experiences and become more visible. 

Despite the optimism that these developments seem to foster, the prevailing attitude that Moroccan homosexuals face is one of rejection. Youssef tells us about a recent visit he made, along with his Dutch boyfriend, to the Moroccan embassy. “They did not want to talk to me because they saw that I was gay,” he clarifies. It is only one example, out of many, which  frustrates Youssef and enforces in him the idea that there is a long way to go before we can all talk about a society that is truly open to sexual and cultural varieties. 

Then, he puts on a smile: “Do you actually know that Muslims can only be gay in heaven?” We look puzzled. “It’s true,” he says, and goes on to describe the verses from the Qur’an referring to the reception of Muslims in the after-life. “They shall be attended by boys graced with eternal youth, who will seem like scattered pearls to the beholders." (SURA LXXVI:19)

References

Interviews

Youssef, personal interview, June 17, 2003

“Jihan”, real name withheld, personal interview, June 19, 2003

“Gani”, real name withheld, personal interview, June 18, 2003

Gert Hekma, university lecturer, Department of Gay and Lesbian Studies, University of Amsterdam, June 19, 2003 

Mirjam Lammers, project assistant, Islam en Burgerschap, The Hague, June 18, 2003

Rudolf Steinberger, psychotherapist and sexologist, Amsterdam, June 19, 2003

Nadir, Yoessuf Foundation, Utrecht, June 23, 2003

Literature

Bilefsky, B., 2002, In Netherlands, some Muslims work to convince voters Islam is 

tolerant. The wall street journal, May 14, 2002.

Boumans, L., 2001, Summary of Islam en homoseksualiteit written by O. Nahas.

El Kaka, I & H. Kursun, 2002, Mijn geluk en mijn geloof. Islamitische meiden en jongens over hun homoseksuele gevoelens. Amsterdam:Schorer boeken.

Hekma, G. A., 2000a, A Dutch Concert: Sexual education in multicultural schools. In Thamyris 7:: (1/2): 249-60.

Hekma, G.A., 2000, Imams and Homosexuality: A post-gay debate in the Netherlands. Sexualities: Vol 5(2):237-248[1363-4607]5:2;237-248;022949]. London: SAGE Publications.

Information leaflets of the Yoessuf Foundation.

Vries, J. de, 1998, Verschillen Verkend. Utrecht: Forum.Websites

www.tolerantescholen.net/allochtone.html

www.pscw.uva.nl/gl/concert.html 

www.fordham.edu/halsall/pwh/quran-homo.html

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Netherlands Netherlands 2003

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