Arooj Zahra is a journalist and a documentary filmmaker from Pakistan. She was 2015 Daniel Pearl Fellow in the U.S. As part of her fellowship, she worked with The Washington Post and The Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.
Sitting comfortably in their living room, heads covered with white scarves, Iman and Dulce, both 27, have agreed to talk with me via Skype. They live in Florida with their 9-year-old son and they are one of the few married gay Muslim couples in the United States. I wanted to ask them about the historic June 26, 2015 Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriages in all 50 states.
''The Supreme Court's decision is a good thing, but a lot needs to be done before gay Muslims can fully enjoy this lifestyle,” said Iman. "So many are still afraid of revealing themselves as their families and friends do not accept them the way they are.''
In the gay community and in much of America, the Supreme Court decision was celebrated as a triumph of love over intolerance. But many of the largest U.S. religious institutions have remained firmly against allowing same-sex marriage, including the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Jewish movement, the Southern Baptist Convention and other evangelical Protestant denominations as well as the Mormon Church. A majority of the Muslim religious leaders in the U.S. also weighed in against same-sex marriages.
But for Iman, "the biggest opposition came from my own family."
“I had to go through a lot,” she said. “I have lost so much, but now when I look at my home, my wife and son, I think it was all worth it."
'My mother hates me'
Being gay and growing up in a large Muslim family with 16 siblings was not easy. Iman's family immigrated to the U.S. from Lebanon 40 years ago. Her mother took her back to Lebanon when she was 15 years old. During that trip she was hurriedly married off to a local man. She returned to the U.S. but would visit her husband every now and then in order to consummate the marriage. She had a son with him.
"I was different from the beginning. I liked girls even when I was 5 years old. After three years of marriage I was unable to continue. I told my mother that I feel disgusted, I cannot sleep with my husband. But she wouldn't understand or maybe she didn't want to understand. Eventually I got divorce and was free. It was then when I met Dulce, at a friend's place. I liked her at once," said Iman with a smile.
Meanwhile, her son Meeno, now 9, was visiting his grandmother’s house on weekends. On these visits the family attempted to turn him against his mother, telling him that she was a sinner and a bad person.
"I told them clearly not to fill my boy's mind with hatred or else I will not let them meet him. Things have gotten better since then. He visits them after every week or two," she said.
“Before we got married, Dulce asked him about us getting married and he suggested that she take me as her wife. He was very comfortable and happy with it," said Iman.
They got married in 2012 in an Islamic ceremony and said their vows legally in early 2015 when gay marriages were permitted in the state of Florida.
"A week before the wedding my mother stormed our house and hurled abuses at me. She said I was a disgrace to the family and because of me people questioned her and the way she brought me up. She looked at me as if something is wrong with me. She hates me and I haven't met her in years," said Iman, a paramedic by profession.
Iman says her mother is like many Muslim parents who believe they did something wrong and that God has punished them by making their children gay.
"I am proud of myself. I am not afraid of what I am -- God has made me this way," said Iman. She misses her family but is hopeful that one day they will understand and accept her.
'You don't play with God'
As of 2010, there were 1.6 billion Muslims, nearly a quarter of the world’s population. This makes Islam the second-largest religion after Christianity. The number of Muslims around the world is projected to increase rapidly in the decades ahead, growing to nearly 2.8 billion in 2050.
When it comes to same-sex marriage, Muslims are surprisingly tolerant. According to a survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, 42 percent of Muslims in the U.S. support same-sex marriages. By comparison, only 29 percent of Evangelic Christians say they support the right of gay people to marry.
Dulce is from a Catholic family but converted to Islam before she married Iman. Her family, from Honduras, is not very religious. Her sister studies different religions and Dulce said she used to have long discussions with her about Islam. Eventually she decided to convert. Her family was fine with it.
"My mother told me one thing -- that God is something you don't play with so be careful," said Dulce. Her father often goes to mosque with her and accepts her the way she is. It was her friends who did not like the idea of her being gay and getting married to Iman.
"Your friends don't say anything but you get a feeling that they are not happy with you. One of my friends would post something on Facebook regarding gays and that would upset me," she said.
Dulce's family already accepts Meeno as their grandson. "My mother wants me to have more babies. We have a friend in New York who can be a potential donor -- we are still thinking about it," Dulce said.
Iman wants her to have a baby of her own: "I want her to experience motherhood. I just don’t want her to regret something later on in her life."
America's first openly gay Imam
Daiyee Abdullah is America's first openly gay Imam. Born and raised in Detroit, now living in Washington, DC, Abdullah knew from an early age that he was somehow different because he was attracted to boys. He is one of the few who had full family support when he revealed that he is a gay.
He performs marriage ceremonies and funeral prayers for gay Muslims in the U.S. He flew to Florida to preside over the Nikkah (the Muslim way of exchanging vows) of Iman and Dulce.
Abdullah believes gay Muslims face more problems from their families than the society. "I know a lot of people who come to me and ask if I can talk sense to their gay children,'' he said.
Due to this pressure from the family, many gay Muslims feel forced to live a secret life. They do not reveal their true self to their families.
"American society by and large accepts you the way you are -- it’s the families that do not," said one gay Muslim who asked not to be named. He had to hide himself from his family for the fear of a severe backlash. "I discussed the issue of Muslims gay couples with my family one day. I didn't tell them about me. I was just testing the waters. They were so furious that I could not gather enough courage to tell them about me. They'll abandon me if they ever find out. [The Supreme Court] decision doesn't make any difference until the Muslim families accept their gay children."
Abdullah is hopeful that things will get better with the passage of time. These days he is working on his online school called Mecca Institute that he hopes will provide modern academic research and inclusive Islamic theological training to men, women and sexual minorities.
Meanwhile, couples like Iman and Dulce want gay Muslims to accept the way they are.
"We are proud of ourselves, we overcame all the difficulties. Although we have lost so much but we found new love and new relations too. We don’t want to hide our identity and want to share our story so that nobody else had to suffer the way we had," said Iman.