Reel Review: Love Thy Neighbour- Georgina Maddox

A review of Jihad for Love
Parvez Sharma / 9 languages with English subtitles
81 minutes
Produced by Sandi DuBowski

Reinventing Jihad as a struggle of love over war and reclaiming the identity of queer Muslims, Parvez Sharma takes a leap of faith.

It was with baited breath and a few niggling doubts that a segment of the city’s queer population and those ‘cool’ individuals who consider themselves queer-friendly, gathered at the National Centre for Performing Arts, Mumbai, to watch Parvez Sharma’s directorial venture Jihad for Love, in January 2008. After all, such a daring film on the Muslim gay and lesbian population had never been screened in India and it was with a little trepidation that people trooped in to watch the film.

Sharma and DuBowski had kept the event low profile, and the press was kept out of it, a strategy that seemed to have worked well, since there were no interruptions during or after the screenings. Sharma’s five and a half year’s labour of love, and personal Jihad went off without a hitch. After the screening, Sharma made himself available for a chat with his audience and there were both brickbats and bouquets. While almost everyone loved Sharma’s brave endeavour to tackle a subject as wide and difficult as this, some felt that in his attempt to encapsulate several viewpoints he did not give the viewers a chance to get into any one story in-depth and they were left with a cursory understanding with the dilemmas of being a religious Muslim who is also a homosexual. Others were happy to see the inclusion of lesbian voices, despite the fact that in the film, most of the women were not comfortable facing the camera, while most of the men were. Usually this inability to show faces leads to a total exclusion of a woman’s point of view, but Sharma’s dogged pursuit to include them shows up well in the film. ‘I spent a lot of time with the women till they got comfortable to speak on camera and it was a friendship that lasted well beyond the film’, said Sharma.

The film moves across twelve countries, engages with nine languages and has its fair share of cinematic moments, it is an attempt in Sharma’s voice, to ‘look beyond a hostile and war-torn present, the film se eks to reclaim the Islamic concept of a greater Jihad, which can mean ‘an inner struggle’ or ‘to strive in the path of God’. In doing so the film and its remarkable subjects move beyond the narrow concept of Jihad as holy war.’

We meet a young Mazen, who was beaten and arrested when the police stormed the floating gay nightclub on the Nile. We see his courage and defiance that overcomes the public shaming at a trial on ‘habitual debauchery’, and after four years in jail, he continues to embrace Islam and live and love as a gay man, albeit in Paris away from his mother and family.

At the very onset of the film we are introduced to the radical and resilient Mushin Hendricks an Imam who was cast out from his community and divorced by his wife when he came out as gay. His little girls are, however, supportive and loving and it is during this short visit of his life that we learn that embracing Allah does not mean one cannot be queer. In fact Hendricks has started a group that discusses the possibilities of interpreting the holy texts differently. ‘All the people in my film are coming out as Muslims,’ says the 34-year-old filmmaker who took a conscious decision to not speak to atheists since the focus of the film was on believers. ‘Islam is the heart of this film. They are proud to be gay, but fundamentally they’re coming out as Muslims and saying they’re as Muslim as anybody else, and their Islam is as true as anybody else’s’. He also found that being Muslim post 9/11 had very different connotations and to see Islam depicted as a faith of violence was very difficult for Sharma. The struggle is to follow the dictates of love and not war.

We see that while the struggle for the men in the film has been fraught with violence and hyper-visibility, the lesbians have a harder time dealing with internalised homophobia and invisibility. Maryam a Moroccan lesbian in Paris whose partner lives in Egypt finds that she still feels the need to be ‘punished’ for her sexuality and it was only till recently she was able to use the term lesbian for the first time.

A contrasting voice comes through another couple of older women who are out and visiting one of the women’s mothers for dinner. There are others who proclaim their love for God and their same sex partner in one breath, but the indication that there is pressure and guilt underlying these bold acts in some cases is brought out well through not just the voices of the protagonists but the manner in which these sections have been portrayed.

The India section is, however, disappointing. It begins with a celebration of two Sufi saints who were openly involved in a love relationship. It proceeds to show several drag-queens getting ready for a mujra night and has a few camera bites from some kothi boys who lead a dual life of being married to women and continuing to have sexual relations with other men. On the surface, India comes off as a liberated and seemingly cool place to be gay. This, we know is far from true. Indians are constantly encountering homophobia, and the kind of violence and oppression that occur as a result of being out, and this oversimplified film segment does more damage than good to a film that is otherwise quite comprehensive.

It is perhaps because Sharma himself had a secular upbringing in India, where ‘Islam was all around me’. As a gay man, he was acutely aware of his country’s stance on homosexuality. But he chose not to march around proclaiming his sexuality which is why things were fine. ‘India is a culture that tolerates same-sex behaviour in men and women, but it can’t be in-your-face,’ says Sharma. Perhaps that is yet another Jihad and yet another film.

Georgina Maddox is a creative writer, artist, musician and maker of short films. She is currently working with the Indian Express newspaper in Mumbai. Her art work has appeared in queer magazines and she has performed as a singer/musician in several cities in India. Her short film, Bombay Longing has been screened all over India and the US. No Fixed Address was screened at the World Social Forum in Mumbai.