Africa: Impact of Shariah On Gender and Sexual Minorities

The Inner Circle
Over the last decade The Inner Circle (TIC) has discovered that Muslims who are queer struggle to make peace with their sexuality and their faith. They often trade in the one at the expense of the other and find it difficult to accept both identities.
Through various interventions, TIC has made some inroads and empowered quite a number of Muslims who are queer and imparted tools that help them to retain both identities and resolve related conflicts. However these individuals still have to go to their orthodox, often very conservative, communities at the end of the day and they are not empowered to deal with the residing homophobia in their communities.
From 2003, as one of its interventions, TIC has hosted annual retreats to provide Muslims who are queer with the space and opportunity to come to terms with their sexual diversity. Since its conception it has been growing and becoming bigger and better as the journey continued. This year it was one of the biggest and it really exceeded the set expectations. It was also the first retreat that drew Muslim allies that are new to the queer sector.

This year’s Annual International Retreat (AIR) was held from Friday, 24 April 2009 until Monday, 27 April 2009 at Monkey Valley Beach Nature Resort. The retreat was entitled “The Impact of Shariah on Gender and Sexual Minorities in Africa”. It was inspired by a rise in queer related incidences in Africa such as the fact that homosexuality is illegal and carries a death sentence in 12 Northern African states that impose Shariah law.

There is also a rise in hate crimes in South Africa where 31 lesbians have been attacked since 1998. Furthermore, between 11 and 13 February 2009 the United Nations Universal Periodic review in Geneva saw a lot of homophobia from African states such as Senegal and Nigeria. Provisions of the penal code in Senegal states that, “whoever commits an improper or unnatural act with a person of the same sex will be punished by imprisonment of between one and five years”.

This AIR was the first retreat of this nature as it sought to bring together individuals from all walks of life to discuss gender and sexual diversity in relation to Shariah. Thus the focus was not solely on personal development, but also looking at ways and means of engaging Africa. The literal translation of the word Shariah is "the path to a watering hole". Hence it symbolises life and sustenance. It is a set of man-interpreted laws as based on the scripture of the Quran, Hadith, Consensus and Analytical Reasoning by scholars of Islam. It also denotes an Islamic way of life that is more than a system of criminal justice.

Shariah is a religious code for living for Muslims, in the same way that the Bible offers a moral system for Christians. Hence, although Shariah is supposed to be divine law as per guidance from Quranic scripture, it is today man-made laws, which are often oppressive. It should also be noted that scholars are mainly men who hail from a hetro-normative society, which is based on a patriarchal system. Many Muslims adopt Shariah as a matter of personal conscience, but in Islamic states it is formally instituted as law and enforced by its criminal systems and the courts. Some countries have adopted certain elements of Shariah law in areas such as inheritance, banking and contract law. The Shariah also provides a code for living that governs all elements of life, from prayers to fasting to donations to the poor.

In Shariah law, there is a group of offences called hadd offences. Punishments of these crimes are horrid and severe and set penalties are instrumented, such as stoning, lashing or the severing of a hand. These are not universal in nature and are not adopted as law in all Islamic countries. Saudi Arabia claims to use pure Shariah law and enforce the penalties for hadd offences and they believe it is set by the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Examples of hadd laws include: unlawful sexual intercourse (fornication and adultery), false accusation of unlawful intercourse, drinking of alcohol, theft, and highway robbery.

Sexual offences carry a penalty of stoning to death or flogging while theft is punished by cutting off a hand. The main objectives of the retreat were to: Provide spiritual upliftment and educational empowerment, especially for queer Muslims. Discuss the impact of Shariah on Muslims who are queer and on gender in various Islamic contexts, focusing specifically on Africa. Provide a progressive Islamic perspective on violence against women in Africa. Network & mainstream the queer issue – creating a platform for dialogue, synergy and collaboration with existing structures and progressive Muslim allies. Develop an ijtihadic (independent and analytical) approach to queer issues. Produce post-retreat publications to raise consciousness, empower individuals and create dialogue. Discuss strategies on how TIC could be instrumental in affecting change in Africa.

You can read the full report of TIC's Annual International Retreat here: