Listening to interfaith feminists in Southeast Asia

The discourse of faith and feminism in Southeast Asia is exciting and prolific, but often overlooked.

Listening to interfaith feminists in Southeast Asia
Photo by sirasit gullasu / Unsplash

I recently celebrated 2020’s International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia at a Southeast Asian webinar titled “Bringing progressive faith voices towards diverse genders and sexualities." In discussion were:

  • Pastor Kakay Paraman, a Bible teacher and gender justice advocate in the Philippines
  • amina wadud, the Lady Imam, a specialist in textual analysis from a gender and sexuality inclusive perspective
  • Dede Oetomo, activist, independent scholar and founder of GAYa NUSANTARA, an Indonesian organisation founded in 1987 to uphold the dignity and wellbeing of LGBTQ and all sexually diverse people.
  • moderator Rima Athar, human rights activist and feminist organiser, as well as coordinator for the Coalition for Sexual and Bodily Rights in Muslim Societies (CSBR) 


The session was presented by GAYa NUSANTARA with CSBR and the Global Interfaith Network (GIN). Here’s what came up for me from the discussion:

The discourse of faith and feminism in this region is exciting and prolific, but often overlooked.

Rima began the conversation by sharing her excitement to do this work with organisers, “especially in Asia and Asia Pacific, where I feel these voices are marginalised.” I recall a recent example of this in a journal call for papers on Islamic feminism(s), which only listed the Middle East, North Africa, Southwest Asia, and the Muslim diaspora as relevant sites of discourse. The call was rectified once amina wadud pointed out that "there are more Islamic feminists in Indonesia than in all the Arabic-speaking MENA region." The revised call for papers now includes recognition of not only Malaysia and Indonesia, but also the work of Islamic feminist organisations Sisters in Islam and Musawah.

When it comes to queer communities, the dominant discourse is that it’s the gays vs. God. But queers of faith are shifting that antagonism with an eye on social justice and community healing.

Queer Muslims are often expected to talk about our struggles with reconciling our faith and sexuality, detail the trauma we faced from religion and how we overcame them, and make a case for the role of faith in both queer movement-building and in feminist social justice movements. Rima says: “There’s often an entrypoint for us: talking about how the situation is bland, bleak, how hard it’s been to find strength. But when I think about queer Muslim movement building, it’s been coming back to a long history and lineage of multiplicity, of intellectual traditions and faith perspectives that collectively uplift the inherent dignity of all humans.” After a long history working on challenging fundamentalism, Rima has noticed a shift, “an evolution in how feminist and social justice and queer movements have finally begun to come to this question and the seeming contradiction between faith and sexuality from a different lens.”

The audience question ‘why do we call a more accepting form of Islam as progressive, and not the true Islam?’ led to amina wadud discussing the democratisation of authority.

“The idea that there is only one true interpretation is problematic. We should be aware of it, because it was a mindset that penalised us. We are seeing a rise in education unprecedented in Abrahamic traditions, where only elites had access before. As a consequence, we are trying to raise the bar for who has the right to be able to speak, to include more voices. We can only offer more perspectives, and that is the way we work towards pluralism. Whether we call ourselves progressive, or reformist, or inclusive, or tawhidic— it is just to resist a hegemonic, binary, patriarchal, homophobic, conservative version of faith that has come down the road as ‘true.’ It’s a label to distinguish ourselves from the mainstream. No matter how much power or authority they have, we’re saying we are a part of the conversation.” Although amina agreed with Dede that the strategy of getting senior scholars to speak out on these issues is important, they added an important caveat: “We need to deconstruct the idea that the only ones with the authority to interpret texts are senior people. It is still necessary to train, study, and learn. But we the people have the right to interpret anything that is going to be used in our lives.” Pastor Kakay added to that sentiment, saying that we should demystify the readings of sacred texts, to allow and affirm more people to have access to it. “The Global Interfaith Network has many programs and conversations with faith leaders around this. Plurality is a gift. No one has inclusive rights to interpreting any kind of sacred text. To insist on a singular truth ruins the Divine design.”

Queers of faith have been reclaiming their authority for a long time, and this connected generation is only getting more creative.

Dede said “As an older activist I have the advantage of looking back, but we still have a long way to go.” He credited the work of Indonesian Muslim feminists like Lies Markoes towards that development.

“In the last twenty years, I’ve seen a growth crossing over from a few local collectives to national, regional, and global liaison… A community that affirms possible identities is evolving,” observed amina, who pointed out that LGBTQ communities and allies take advantage of the internet (“when they have it”) to form spiritual support resources like women reciting adhan in the UK, and inclusive mosques broadcasting their Friday jumaah online.

“Online spaces have become more inclusive, and more importantly are initiated from within the queer Muslim communities themselves. I see young people in queer Muslim movements who are really tech savvy, and the projects they create… They don’t wait for anyone to give them sanction from mosques or madrasahs."

An example they shared was TheQueerMuslimProject on Instagram. “They’re making their stories known, telling them even anonymously. This creative aesthetic energy is phenomenal, and it crosses borders because it’s not limited to queer Muslims. People who are neither queer nor Muslim are engaging.” In a YouTube video on LGBT clergy five years ago, Dr Ibrahim Farajaje also noticed this energy: “They’re what I call scholartivists. They’re all subverting everything. If you think what they’re doing is traditional, you’re not catching all of it.”

The spaces these queer ‘scholartivists’ are making are also crucial to collective healing from trauma.

“I think the visceral way I have felt completely at ease and allowed to be exactly who I am in some of the spaces I have been in is powerful and moving,” said Rima, who also emphasised the importance of community:

“I think it’s great for people to hear the ways in which we unpack and relocate, and take that step to be more vocal. The healing work that then comes from being able to acknowledge what we’ve experienced— I find that personally when you do it for yourself it’s amazing, but when you do it in community? It’s another level.”

amina pointed out that it is important “to be able to make inroads in the ways we presume we understand the text, and to return the text to people who believe in it and want to follow it.”

Kakay shared that the role of LGBT clergy and religious organisations is key in making these spaces:

“Fundamentalism is everyone’s challenge… People in fear start answering from a space of fear, when we need to respond from a space of love. We can’t be fighting fire with fire, or fear with fear. These are great questions that require existential answers, and the space for these answers to form. Most of the time we are at a loss and afraid of things we do not understand. The LGBT experience is not shared by everyone, and we are othered in so many ways. We have to unpack that in church spaces and foster these conversations.”

Rima pointed out that queer movements are relatively young and underresourced, yet have to put out fires while planning strategically for the long-term.

amina believes movement-building work for queers of faith needs to move to a place where multiple levels and strategies are “put into place in a continuum, so that there won’t be so many fires to put out.” amina is also hopeful to someday see a queer Muslim international network run by queer Muslims for queer Muslims, “the global network in an old-school way hasn’t yet come about.” Frontline work by activists in social justice could be better supported with these long-term interventions.

All the panelists praised the interfaith booklet highlighted at the event as an example of long-term strategy work in movement-building for queers of faith.

The booklet, Islam-Christian Progressive Interpretations of Gender Diversity and Sexuality: A Guide to Understanding the Human Body and God, was the result of a collaboration between Indonesian Muslim and Christian study leaders, gender academics, and activists. It was translated into English from Bahasa Indonesia by popular demand. Editor Amar Alfikar hopes that the PDF “might be helpful for some of our friends who are still struggling to reconcile their sexual orientation and gender diversity with their own faith, especially our Christian and Muslim friends.”

The booklet covers nine important topics often used as the foundation for various religious arguments to justify a doctrine of hatred towards the LGBTQI community.

  1. Reexamining the sinner label
  2. Is it true that all God’s creations are binary?
  3. Homosexuality as a Reality
  4. Reinterpreting the concept of procreation
  5. Satisfying sexual needs
  6. Gender expression as fitrah
  7. Purification
  8. Reinterpreting the story of Sodom and Gomorrah or the People of Lut
  9. Depicting devotion and faith

When asked to give advice to young people who are at the beginning of their journey inspired by scripture and gender, Kakay and amina had this to say.

Said Kakay:

“Begin where it hurts. Deal with faith. Begin with your experience of trauma and ask the great faith questions. Do not be afraid to challenge God or the sacred text. Converse with the text, and converse with God.”

amina said:

“Remember Muhammad (pbuh) said to seek fatwa from your heart. How do we hear the still, small voice of God? To hear it in your heart. When we strip away all regalia and external pressures, we come back to a clear and resounding Oneness with our own self. That is our heart. And in that heart, we have to really humble ourselves and train to listen. We’re often told not to trust ourselves or we lack the confidence. This is how we can become our own worst enemies. So polish that heart until the face of the Divine shows itself to you, and when it does, it’s impossible for anyone to wipe it away. At a primordial level, we were created to hear the still small voice of God, but in the cacophony and addictions we create from pain, we forget to just stand still and listen to the voice within.”

amina also added poignantly at the end of the session:

“Actually, LGBTQ people will be the test of truth for all religions. Because if the religion cannot embrace every member of the human race, then the religion is not fulfilling its own divine universal purpose. You are the solution, so have heart.”

Liy Yusof, May 2020. More on the session here. Read the collaboratively-created interfaith queer resource from Indonesia here:
Islam-Christian Progressive Interpretations of Gender Diversity and Sexuality: A Guide to Understanding the Human Body and God