Asifa Lahore – Censored by Free Speech

Outside of her role as Vada Agony Aunt, Asifa Lahore has been busy setting the world alight through her pioneering presence as the UK’s first LGBT Muslim drag queen. Through DJ and performance slots at Disco Rani and Club Urban Desi, as well as a growing presence in the social media sphere through her YouTube releases, Asifa’s work has provided a much needed visibility to LGBT individuals of South Asian descent, and has promoted and fostered queer spaces which encourage a diversity beyond the usual restrictive cornerstones of the scene.

On Wednesday night Asifa looked set to take this role to a new level through levying the question “When will it be accepted to be Muslim and gay?” on the BBC3 discussion programme Free Speech. In a brave move, Asifa looked to take the often divisive issue of the co-existence of Islam and homosexuality to a public forum for debate, using her own life as a launch-point for discussion. As Asifa states, “someone’s got to speak up [because] apparently people like me are either invisible or don’t ‘exist’.”

However, in contravention of the programme’s very title, Asifa’s free speech was cut short as her introductory tape was immediately followed by host Rick Edwards stating “We were going to debate that question, but today, after speaking to the mosque, they have expressed deep concerns with having this discussion here […] so we’ll move on to our next question”.

It is a sad, self-fulfilling indictment of attitudes towards homosexuality in Islam that this censorship of the debate occurred. Whilst the discussion has been postponed until the show’s next airing rather than cancelled, the reluctance to have the question of homosexuality share a stage with Islam, and the subsequent acceptance of this bigotry with a hushed silence, only serves to answer Asifa’s question of “when will it be accepted to be Muslim and gay?” with a “not now”.

The driving issue at stake here was that the Free Speech debate was hosted by the Birmingham Central Mosque. Whilst it is arguable that the religious freedom of the Mosque to exercise its judgment in stipulating the topics it provides a platform for should be enshrined, the vetoing of the debate shows an ugly and regressive attitude that would seek to keep Asifa’s lived reality of LGBT Islam a hidden secret from the world. This is not reflective of diversity in 21st century Britain, and rather shows a dangerous and discriminatory attitude towards difference and variety.

In contrast to this censorship, Asifa’s testimonial in the preliminary video spoke to the potential richness of transgressing accepted and expected norms when it comes to aligning homosexuality and religion. Asifa spoke of her mother and aunties attending one of her drag performances and the power of a Muslim woman wearing a niqab entering a queer space with an open mind. Rather than being at odds with Islam as the concerned voices of those who restricted the debate would have you believe, when you look beyond the absolutes of debate and see the person, sexuality should be an accepted facet of any individuals life, regardless of religious background.

The cancellation of the debate on homosexuality sets a worrying precedent for the BBC’s commitment to enshrining free speech, as in this instance the risk of offence was seen to outweigh the need for visibility. This appeasement of regressive attitudes towards sexuality is perhaps reflective of wider attitudes towards sexuality within Islam, but to curtail debate through this is unacceptable and provides an ironic undermining of any conception of Free Speech.

However, the reaction and support that Asifa has received from the wider world should serve to reassure that not all attitudes out there fit the regressive mould. While this instance has demonstrated that many bastions of Muslim faith are not ready to accept homosexuality, the question still needs to be asked. While it has been censored in this instance, Asifa’s continued fierceness and presence on the scene provides a vital visibility to a lived reality of LGBT Muslim life that many would rather ignore.

You can watch Asifa’s introductory video here:

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