Photo project

Just Them and Allah: Queer Muslims in Samra Habib’s Project

Toronto-based journalist Samra Habib photographs queer Muslims who try to balance their religion, sexuality, and ethnicity.
Samra Habib Age 35

Journalist and photographer from Pakistan. Lives and works in Toronto. Graduated from Ryerson University. Her first photo project called Just Me and Allah: A Queer Muslim Photo Project has caught the attention of Vanity Fair, PBS, Dazed and Confused, Vice, Advocate, BuzzFeed, GLAAD, Vox, and many other media outlets. Photographs from the series have been exhibited in Toronto, New York City, Munich, Berlin, and are planned to be exhibited in Brussels.

Being queer. Being Muslim.

I am queer and I am Muslim. Working for decades in photographic journalism I’ve learned how much you can move a person by taking a photo, how photography gives a way to start a dialog. So I decided that this project will be a great way to start a talk about Muslims in general because most of the images of Muslims are one-sided, picturing them as super religious or as terrorists. This other world of Muslims doesn’t really exist in the mainstream media. These people were not like most of those whom I knew, not like my friends, queers I was seeing, just cool kids with tattoos.

And what I found during this project – it’s often more about spirituality than about religion. It is not about how queer Muslims want to pray five times a day and fast during Ramadan, it’s more about how they want to keep in touch with their roots, culture, traditions, and families, things they know and are used to since their childhood.

There is a new phase in Islam that’s emerging and it is being led by young people. If we take old school thinking, one being Muslim from birth and finding queerness by living eventually faces big problems and often has to choose, being religious or being queer. My project is about the new way of thinking – about people composing their identity with their sexuality. The younger generation cannot practice their religion the same way their parents did but they don’t want to quit it.

That Issue Again

European LGBT community is mainly white and closed. As I was taking photos of queer black Muslim Christelle in Paris, I was shocked by the reaction of her presence in a café. We don’t have this in Toronto, but queer Muslims in Europe I met and talked to spoke about how long it took them to find the community of queers that were not all white. Europe is like decades behind North America when it comes to race, it doesn’t mean we don’t have it Canada, but at least we face it, talk about it, our politicians talk about it.

Most of the people I talked to just want to be accepted by society and live their life have all those things that queer, Muslim and people of color don’t take for granted. What’s interesting – most of them are into creative fields, work in social projects or non-profit organizations. And they really believe this can create the new movement in society.

What's interesting – most of them are into creative fields, work in social projects or non-profit organizations.

The Creation and the Show

When it comes to the exhibitions people in Toronto look at the photos in a more academic way, like “so that’s the part of the society”. But in Boston and Berlin it was totally different – people were reacting more emotionally, telling me how happy they were to see people just like them sharing their stories, showing their faces.

I don’t do this project just because I want to take nice images. Photos help in exploring themes that are important, that inspire and affect me. When I meet new people I don’t photograph them right away: we usually communicate for months before I come to their cities, then we hang out and talk and often I don’t photograph them the same day. I am super open about myself, and I wait for people to feel comfortable. Then I take a photo, the one that will illustrate the story and speak for itself.

It will take a lot of time to see the world changed for queer people, people of color, and Muslims. But it is young people who will bring it and projects like mine will speak for them. It will come from a virtual society first – the media will only come after, because mainstream themes are brought by opinion makers. But with people talking in social networks these issues will be raised.

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