Britain’s LGBTQ+ Muslim history explored in groundbreaking exhibition

Queer Muslim Exhibition: Queer Britain

A collection of queer Muslim artefacts at the UK’s first LGBTQ+ museum hopes to change the narrative.

In July, Queer Britain opened in London with its inaugural show, We Are Queer Britain.

It’s a powerful, expansive collection of art, activist and history from across the community, including artefacts from the world’s longest-running LGBTQ+ Muslim organisation, Imaan.

The exhibition showcases three items: a rainbow khimar hijab, a south Asian camouflage shalwar khameez and a Palestinian keffiyeh. All three items were worn by members Imaan at London Pride in 2005.

PinkNews sat down with Imaan co-founder Faizan to discuss the new exhibition, the history of LGBTQ+ Muslims in Britain, and his hopes for more queer Muslim representation.

Imaan 2005 London Pride.

Imaan 2005 London Pride. (Supplied).

PinkNews: What was the process from the inception of the idea to the exhibition opening in Queer Britain?

Faizan: We founded Imaan in 1999 and I’ve been involved with them as a volunteer, a chairperson, a comms person, etc. One day it occurred to me that we had a 20th anniversary coming up so it made sense to look back at how far we’ve come. All of [the members] had got artefacts from 20-plus years of queer Muslim organising, in our cupboards, basements and attics, so that started it.

Initially we chatted with the Bishopsgate Institue, as they have a queer archive there, and through that we had a small exhibition as part of the ‘Out and About’ season at the Barbican. I realised there is so much stuff to talk about. One of the things that really drives me is that as a queer Muslim community, we don’t know that we’ve got a history in Britain. 

Twenty years ago our situation was completely different in some ways than it is for people who are coming out now. We were very necessarily undercover, didn’t publicise ourselves at all and there weren’t many people keen to be out in public. Without social media there were far fewer opportunities to talk about our lives, our histories, what we’ve been through, what challenges we’ve faced. The whole reason I got involved in Imaan in the first place is to help other people. 

The Palestinian Keffiyeh

The Palestinian keffiyeh as worn at a Pride March. (Supplied).

How have you noticed a change in queer Muslim visibility over the past 17 years, especially within the LGBTQ+ community?

Yeah, I have and it’s been really dramatic. When we first started up the organisation people were really genuinely scared. I remember the very first major conference that we organised around 2000, we were so undercover. They sent riot police to the event because we had violent threats, people saying they would throw bricks through the window. It was very dangerous for us, and very few of us wanted any kind of visibility. That changed because of two things: one, the increase of queer Muslim asylum seekers, and two, social media. 

It is really interesting actually because asylum seekers will be the people that you see at the front of the march at Pride. So there are two sides, the British-born people who want to keep quiet and safe, and then people who are desperately fleeing oppression for their gender, and sexuality, who desperately need everyone to see that they are very obviously gay. 

And then social media just changed everything completely. Things are evolving, again, it’s just getting more and more open, which is fantastic.

What went into building the exhibition at Queer Britain?

After the exhibition at the Barbican, [Queer Britain] probably saw what we had been doing and I made sure we could have a more detailed exhibit. What I really didn’t want was to have the box ticking of ‘here’s a Muslim bit and here’s another bit’ so I sat down with curator Dawn Hoskin and we had a two-hour chat about the significance behind the three outfits that are part of this new exhibition at Queer Britain. 

Faizan Imaan

Faizan at the exhibition. (Faizan)

Why did you centre it around the 2005 Pride march?

We spoke a lot about what the political landscape in Britain was in 2005. It was a few years after 9/11 – before that, Muslims were not really on the radar. There was just white people and non-white people. That was essentially the two big demographics in this country. The way that the newspapers talked about us, the way that we were represented on TV, had no nuance. Then when 9/11 happened, Islamophobia went from being a word that didn’t exist to being through the roof. Queer Muslims were getting stopped by the police and facing prejudice. Not just in straight communities, but even in gay environments like in clubs and bars, and even at Pride marches.

How does the exhibition tackle that?

When you go to see the exhibit, there’s a soundscape that replicates what happened when we marched in 2005 at London Pride. I remember other people at the march, non-Muslims, would say:  ‘Oh, didn’t know that terrorists were allowed to march.’ This whole exhibit is about a time when all Muslims were reclaiming their identity from what was being shown in the press, the prejudices that were becoming overwhelming for all of us, and turning it on its head. 

Rainbow Hijab

The rainbow hijab. (Queer Britain)

How did you choose the rainbow hijab for your exhibition?

There’s three outfits in this exhibit. One is a rainbow kimar hijab, the other one is a South Asian camouflage shalwar khameez and the final one is Palestinian keffiyeh. My mum made two of the outfits, the shalwar kameez and rainbow hijab, so there’s a bit of personal history in there. That was the first time that anyone had ever seen a rainbow hijab anywhere. My idea was to capture queer Muslim identity very quickly and very easily so people could see what was going on here. Put a rainbow flag on a hijab and bingo, we exist. We wore those on the 2005 Pride march, and then Imaan was invited to speak at Trafalgar Square. 

So I gave this speech and there was a really positive reaction from the crowd. Even today friends of mine say: ‘Oh yeah that’s where I first remember you and the first time I heard about queer Muslims.’ So from a historical and political British perspective, it’s really important. It’s really important for our community, as an LGBTQ+ Muslim community, to say you are by no means alone in this challenge that you’re facing. There are loads of us and we’ve been around for a really long time.

What about the other two items and is there scope to expand to include more?

If you Google us at Pride in 2005, you’ll see these three outfits all together. This exhibition is very much a time capsule of 2005 Pride and how that was a really big moment. 

In terms of expansion, Queer Britain is not massive, so they have a space limitation. But we have tons of stuff: programmes from various conferences over the years, flyers, tote bags, T-shirts, all sorts of things that, yes, definitely would lend themselves to a bigger exhibition. That’s something in the future that I’m hoping to build upon, not just with the stuff that we have, but also asking queer Muslims who were not part of this group to submit pieces or personal items that were important, that were significant to them as queer Muslims. It might be the outfit that they wore at their first gay club for example. There’s so many great stories out there.