Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Faith and belonging for sexual minorities

While sexual minorities do not feel a sense of belonging with the community at large, their belonging lies in their faith.

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Amid the heaviness surrounding the sexual minorities community, I am reminded of Mak Muna, an aging transwoman, and her story of contemplating faith and belonging in a mosque and its congregation.

Mak Muna’s favourite chapter in the Quran is a simple one: Al-Fatihah. She is unfamiliar with the other chapters and she is not too shy to say so.

When she prays in the mosque, the recitation of Al-Fatihah brings out the child in her. Her excitement bubbles up with each passing line. As the imam verbalises the last verse of the chapter, congregants answer with a loud and long “Amin”, and Mak Muna is once again secured in the calming presence of faith within herself. She awaits this moment in each prayer, and each time, she is not disappointed.

That “Amin” tears away her doubt over her position and reminds her that she belongs in the congregation.

Mak Muna is 53 now and she would be pleased to correct anyone who guessed her age any younger. Her faint smile shone under the single bulb of her burger stall in Maluri, and her lisp as she shyly answered was constant company throughout our conversation.

She was not keen on being called “kak”, saying, “Mak sedar diri mak tua.”

Her kain pelekat was still around her waist when I met her, just as she arrived at the mosque for the isya prayer. Her femininity was the first thing I noticed as I began interacting with her, even though her hair was cut short and she wore a kopiah on her head.

She left the ritual of prayer when she was 10. Starting at the age of 16, she climbed the hierarchy of the sex workers. She can name famous places where she found clients and rubbed shoulders with famous individuals. She owned places to rent and even earned respect through the endearing title of “Mak” from other young sex workers.

Quitting her life of sex work came naturally with age. Five years ago, she decided that it was no longer a fitting life for her. She then began opening up to the teaching which she had abandoned decades ago.

It was the fasting month when she first stepped back into a mosque. Prior to that, she had woken up one day with tears in her eyes. She felt an emptiness where her contentment should be. She had built a legacy, a family, and a means of survival. What else could she ask for?

She thirsted for a spiritual belonging and she slowly worked towards piecing back together the faith she had neglected. Her journey of reclaiming herself was shared among her friends. Although some were initially sceptical, they eventually accepted Mak Muna as a new person.

The first time she placed herself among the congregation, she could not stop herself from crying. Listening to the imam’s recitation of Al-Fatihah and the eventual “amin” was something she had not been able to do for so long. She had not felt such belonging before, and in that moment, she knew she was one of these faithful individuals.

It has been deeply embedded within the lives of sexual minorities to have a heart-breaking outlook on the world and themselves. They are made to believe that they will never belong anywhere except among themselves.

When they do not feel a sense of belonging with the community at large, their belonging lies in their faith. To see their faith questioned and taken away from them is heinous.

Preachers with big names and big arguments against their community would never pray alongside Mak Muna. They would never try to understand the sexual minorities community but would simplify the complexity of their faith into a mere antithesis of their own stand.

They would never be a part of the congregation that took Mak Muna under its wing. They would not be among the imams who calmed Mak Muna’s insecurity over her position in the mosque. And they would never see that beneath the projection of sexual and gender identities lies an identity of faith.

They will continue to deny the belonging of these faithful individuals because they simply cannot see beyond the differences and the perceived misplacement of femininity and masculinity in the wrong body.

When I go to the SEED Foundation in Chow Kit, I sometimes see trans individuals praying. Some transwomen and transmen cover themselves with telekung, while others let their hair hang down their back or don a kopiah. But they pray, nonetheless. To the same god as Ahmad Marzuk Shaary, Rafidah Hanim Mokhtar, as you and I.

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