Saira Mujtaba: “I Loved My Uncle, I Mourn His Loss, I Wish He Could Have Lived a Happy Life”

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Saira Mujtaba: “I Loved My Uncle, I Mourn His Loss, I Wish He Could Have Lived a Happy Life”

A niece remembers her gay uncle’s suicide and calls upon her Muslim community to include and protect their LGBT family members    

Photos by
 

courtesy of Saira Mujtaba

Nov 10, 2020

This blog is part of a series for the Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum’s program on LGBT* and Faith. Read more here: www.salzburgglobal.org/go/LGBT/blog 

All of us have a set of memories that one often goes back to. They can be memories that bring a smile or make a tear roll down our cheeks. Whenever I close my eyes, the most dominant memory of my childhood has been of the morning of April 1, 1995. I was a girl of seven then, living with my family in Lucknow in northern India. When I woke up, I found all my neighbors in our house. I remember I became so happy to see everyone in my home. But soon my mother entered the room she looked at me and cried and said, “Your Aslam uncle is no more.” I was too young to understand the meaning of death and the pain of separation from a loved one. The only other vivid memory related to my uncle Aslam’s death was when my father showed me his face after he was bathed and shrouded, revealing only his radiant face which had a peaceful smile on it. I have never ever seen that kind of a peaceful smile on any mortal.

Years went by, but my uncle’s death had changed everything. Mohammad Aslam was the only son of my grandmother. I never saw my grandmother sleeping properly after his death. She kept the lights of her room switched on all night, engrossing herself in reading books or writing stories. My uncle worked in a different city, initially in Delhi and later Bombay, (now Mumbai) and even when he was alive, I used to see very less of him yet I was very fond of him. He used to get me all kinds of fancy toys. 
 

“This is picture of my uncle, Mohammad Aslam with his mother (my grandmother). Both of them being writers were also friends. I wish my grandmother could accept his homosexuality in front of the society too, just like she did discreetly. Both of them are finally united in heaven, I believe.” – Saira Mujtaba

But slowly I came to know more about him after his physical being left us. I got to know him through his writings, the choice of his books and of course, through his diary. For years, I was made to believe that he was murdered in Goa in western India. Only three years ago, I got hold of one of his notepads which revealed that he had taken his life. But he refused to call it a suicide. 

After perusing his diary entries all these years, I had already got to know that my uncle was gay. I had also got to know that being gay was something Indian society in general looked down upon. But what intrigued me most was that my uncle had a lot of books that spoke of homosexuality in the context of religion. I come from a family of practicing Muslims where I was always encouraged to read the Quran with meaning. I am not an expert on Islamic studies and I know that many claim that homosexuality is forbidden in Islam. But I also know that speaking lies is also forbidden in the Quran. Discrimination and exploitation is also forbidden in the Quran. And the one verse that keeps recurring most often in the Quran is that “God is most benevolent and merciful.” Quran has also laid great emphasis on human rights. In fact, a book that speaks of the rights of plants and animals can surely give an idea of the importance it gives to human rights.

But do we discuss this within our community? Do we initiate a dialogue with community leaders? As Muslims, we believe that the Quran, just like any holy book, did not only come as guidance to its followers but for the entire mankind. The Quran emphasizes the importance of dialogue with those different than us, be it on any ground of caste, color, creed or religion. 

“O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.” (49:13).

It is time to initiate a dialogue with our religious leaders on the human rights of LGBT Muslims. That is why I share the story of my family, the despair of my grandmother, the damaging secrecy in my family, and my own feeling of loss. I loved my uncle, I mourn his loss, I wish he could have lived a happy life and I could have continued to be his favorite niece. He was family, my family.

We need to acknowledge the human rights and equality of LGBT Muslims. In the light of the Quran, we cannot discriminate against anyone. And therefore, completely obliterating an entire community and not acknowledging its existence is something that is definitely un-Islamic. If God is most merciful, then how could God be discriminating? How can we think that God supports discrimination and exclusion? God surely does not like oppressors so we should be careful in not acting like one while dealing with people who are different from us in any way. 

A large number of LGBT Muslims live in fear for their very existence. To me, this should be considered unacceptable for Muslim society. I am sharing an excerpt of the last note of my uncle Mohammad Aslam that helped me to understand his pain. Having experienced how the loss of a son, of an uncle changed my family forever, I sincerely hope no more Aslams should take their lives after facing discrimination all their life.

“This is not a suicide. I had a right to live. But I was forced to die. My blood is on his [his lover who jilted him] hands as much as on the system he personifies. A system of double standards and hypocrisy, confused moral values and obsessive prejudices, righteousness and retribution. It is a system where any difference is treated as subversion; any variation as a threat; any true happiness as a transgression.

In this blinkered society which lives by its petty hypocrisy, truth is strictly no-no. The status quo has to be maintained at all costs and at any price. All dissenters and deviates from the norm will be eliminated; subtly, relentlessly, mercilessly.

In my country’s newfound sexual liberation, pre-marital sex, one-night stands, casual encounters, extra-marital affairs, spouse exchange, sexual experimentation and orgies have gained tacit social sanction, so long as its ‘normal people’ – men and women – of all ages – talk about their sex lives all the time. It is healthy and normal for boys to have girlfriends and girls to have boyfriends and the tally needn’t stop at one. The garden, movie-hall rendezvous of yore have now found respectability and acceptance in open social dating even in the most conformist of middle-class families. But all this license and liberation is for heterosexuals only – for ‘normal’ people. And these ‘normal’ people have drawn the line for me and my kind. If we don’t toe the line, we are instantly crushed down mercilessly.

All the discrimination, persecution and harassment I faced in society, out in the mean streets was based on the righteous premise and presumption that since I had transgressed the norm, I had automatically lost my rights and privileges to equality, dignity and freedom. When it came to dealing with me, society withdrew its usual code of conduct and behaviour. Social graces, civilised behaviour, friendly neighbourhood, warmth, respect, justice, fairness were all dispensed with. The rules of ‘normal’ society did not apply to me. I was singled out for special treatment.” 

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Saira Mujtaba is an English news anchor at All India Radio. She is also an independent filmmaker, storyteller and translator. When she is not doing the things mentioned above, she is either cooking or watching world cinema.


As part of our program on LGBT* and Faith, we are inviting Fellows of the Salzburg Global LGBT* Forum of different sexual orientations and gender identities and of different faith communities to address the questions of what is needed for religious communities and leaders to be instrumental in promoting the wellbeing, equality and inclusion of LGBT people in faith communities and society and how do LGBT people, today and throughout history, enrich and change the religious communities of which they are a part? 

The articles and comments represent opinions of the authors and commenters, and do not necessarily represent the views of their organization or institutions, nor of Salzburg Global Seminar. We thank our blog contributors for their generosity in sharing their personal stories.

* LGBT: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender. We are using this term as it is currently widely used in human rights conversations on sexual orientation and gender identity in many parts of the world, and we would wish it to be read as inclusive of other cultural concepts, contemporary or historical, to express sexuality and gender, intersex and gender non-conforming identities.