By Inna Lazareva
CAPE TOWN, Feb 5 (Openly) - Neatly laid out and facing Mecca, it is the colourful prayer mats arranged in a rainbow pattern that offer the first clue that the Masjid Ul-Umam mosque in Cape Town, South Africa, is not a typical place of worship.
Nearby, Tahir, a softly spoken man in his late 20s, sits between a gay imam from Zambia, a straight sheikh from Liberia and opposite a lesbian student from Ghana.
In the only African country to have legalised gay marriage, this modest-sized building is home to Africa's first and most public LGBT-friendly mosque.
Frequented by the local community, it also hosts persecuted activists from all over the continent, providing a safe haven as well as training in human rights activism.
The mosque grew from an LGBT+ rights group, Al-Fitrah Foundation (previously known as The Inner Circle), which was set up 23 years ago as a safe space for weekly meetings.
With funding from private foundation Atlantic Philanthropies, today it is part of a global network of human rights organisations working with the Muslim communities and focusing on sexual orientation and gender identity.
In South Africa, groups such as this one can thrive more easily than in other African countries where same-sex relationships are taboo.
The continent has some of the world's most prohibitive laws against homosexuality. Gay people are routinely blackmailed, assaulted and or raped, with criminal punishments ranging from imprisonment to death.
A 2017 report by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) found 33 African countries out of a total of 54 nations criminalise same-sex relations.
South Africa's constitution was the first in the world to protect people from discrimination because of their sexual orientation.
But still today, cultural norms, particularly within Islamic communities, have yet to catch up, said Haji Mohamed Dawjee, a columnist and a Muslim queer woman who, along with co-author Rebecca Davis, has researched LGBT+ Muslim South African communities.
"There is a lot missing in the form of explorative literature on the subject, especially where Islam is concerned," she said, citing articles, academic studies and analyses of religious texts.
"We cannot educate communities without this," Dawjee said.
The first time he was arrested, Tahir explained, was for attending an LGBT+ party at a friend's house in his native Nigeria.
"We were tortured, we were undressed and beaten with whips," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, describing the three days he spent behind bars. This he describes as "lucky"; others were detained for almost a month.
"From then on, I became an activist," he said.
He was subsequently arrested two more times and arbitrarily jailed for his activism, usually for about a week.
"In 2012, I heard about a mass arrest on an LGBT group and I went to find out what really happened," he said.
"The police said: 'Who are you to ask about these animals?' And then they arrested me, too."
Tahir and the rest of his group have been in South Africa for three months, following a training course for Muslim religious figures and LGBT+ activists in human rights advocacy.
The most important element, Tahir said, was learning more about Islam and homosexuality.
"Our society is being preached by patriarchy. People misinterpret the Quran to give judgements," added Yusuf from Zambia.
"Most of the time they use the story of Sodom and Gomorrah to underline the illegality of homosexuality. That's what every Muslim will tell you. But if you analyse the stories in the Quran critically, they don't talk about sexual orientation," he said.
LGBT+ Muslims all over the world are frequently required to make a stark choice between their sexuality and their religion.
Yet it is not just members of Muslim gay and trans communities in South Africa who are experiencing difficulties.
More than half of LGBT+ South Africans surveyed said they feared discrimination due to the sexual orientation or gender identity, according to a 2016 report by OUT LGBT Wellbeing, a non-profit organisation.
A further report by the Hate Crimes Working Group found hate crimes against lesbians, gays and bisexuals amounted to 36 percent of the overall number reported between 2013 and 2017.
At the mosque, Riedwan, chair of the board of the Al Fitrah Foundation that runs the mosque, said working with other Africans from countries where LGBT+ communities face widespread discrimination is both empowering and instructive.
"It's very humbling sometimes that in an absence of a legal protection space, how creative and innovative they can be," he said, citing the use of tools such as encrypted messaging apps and virtual private networks (VPNs) to help avoid detection.
Even secret code languages have developed among communities in repressive regimes.
"Yes, we're the only one (liberal country) in 54 states, and we can provide them with a space on the African continent but learning is a two-way process."
TROUBLE IN PARADISE?
Yet many of those who arrived in South Africa in search of a safe haven are surprised to find local South African gay and trans Muslims leading secret, closeted lives, fearful of coming out and still fighting for the right to be accepted.
Kiera, a Cape Town native in her mid-20s, shows off a glittering engagement ring from her fiancee, a woman she has been in love with for almost 10 years.
"But I haven't been able to tell my family yet," she said, explaining that she feared violent consequences or even being ostracised from her own community.
Even Riedwan, one of the mosque's founding members, said he cannot reveal his surname for fears of his own safety.
"I live in a neighbourhood that is over 80 percent Muslim," he said.
"There have been cases of gay men and lesbian women being 'caught out'," he added, describing a case of a young man and his lover who were violently beaten by thugs who described themselves as "upholders of the faith".
"He was banned from ever entering the area again. His parents also had to disown him," Riedwan said.
Working in and attending an LGBT-friendly mosque also carries a high price, he said, remembering a wedding of two women he attended at the mosque in 2011.
Just before the ceremony began, three cars skidded to a halt outside the mosque, and groups of men stormed inside.
"They had pieces of wood the size of baseball bats," Riedwan said. After a tipoff from a relative, the men arrived to break up the wedding by holding everyone present hostage for several hours. Eventually, one of the brides relented.
"She pleaded and said, 'let me go back with my family'. It was the only way to diffuse it," he said, explaining that later on, the woman was married off to a man.
"It's something I have never forgotten – it's stuck in my head."
Though this has proved to be the worst moment in the mosque's history so far, the establishment still receives occasional threats, Riedwan said, as well as disapproval from parts of the Muslim community.
"It's almost as if you don't exist, but you're still going to hell," he said, describing attitudes from other Muslims who are hostile to the values of the mosque. "It's very, very subversive, unhealthy disapproval."
Despite this, the mosque has held more than 40 weddings since it opened.
"We also do straight marriages – Muslims marrying Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus and others," Riedwan said, adding that the mosque aims to provide an alternative to strict religious or political orthodoxy.
"The scriptures gives us space for everyone to exist and coexist," he said. (Reporting by Inna Lazareva @InnaLaz; Editing by Jason Fields and Hugo Greenhalgh. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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