Haneen Zreika, homophobia and the burden of representation

When I saw the headlines about footballer Haneen Zreika’s decision to sit out of the AFLW Pride round, I took a deep breath. ‘Is this going to be another Israel Folau?’

I clicked on a news link and braced myself for disappointment. I scrolled through the text with trepidation. Scrolling, scrolling, and … wait, nothing? There was nothing there. Zreika hadn’t said anything problematic at all. My sense of unease dissolved, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

Despite assumptions in the press and on social media that Zreika was homophobic, in the absence of any statement from her, I knew better than to assume that her decision to sit out of the game was motivated by prejudice. I am an openly gay man in the Muslim community and I’m no stranger to homophobia. During the marriage equality plebiscite campaign, I led the Muslims for Marriage Equality campaign group. At the time, I was in my early twenties and I had no real public profile. This did not shield me from the abuse that I received, including serious threats of violence from an aggressive minority.

I considered a hypothetical: what if Zreika, who holds leadership roles within the community, was faced with similar threats, or the fear of losing her standing as an advocate for the empowerment of Muslim women and girls? If that was the case, then how should society judge her?

This is not the first time that we have had to consider a question like this in so-called Australia. More than a decade ago, Labor Senator Penny Wong held to the party line on marriage equality. ‘[Labor’s] position is very clear that this is an institution that is between a man and a woman,’ she said. ‘I am part of a party and I support the party’s policies.’

A frontbencher at the time, and now Labor’s leader in the Senate, Senator Wong may have made these comments to preserve party unity, or out of fear for the impact on her career. She may have just changed her mind. Whatever the case—and Senator Wong can speak for herself—we understood that she is no homophobe.

What about Zreika? There are some obvious differences. Unlike Senator Wong, Zreika does not belong to the LGBTQ+ community. More importantly, whereas Senator Wong originally affirmed her support for so-called ‘traditional marriage’, Zreika has tried to avoid being seen to support any side at all.

But there is one glaring similarity: Zreika is the first, and to my knowledge, the only Muslim footballer in the AFLW. Senator Wong was the first openly gay female senator, and at the time, the only gay member of cabinet. Both women are minorities in white-dominated spaces that are not always friendly to minorities.

When you are the only representative of a particular minority group, the burden of representation often falls upon you. We all expect Zreika to play the part of a ‘good Muslim’, but what this means differs according to who you ask. For many in the Muslim community, it means adherence to religious orthodoxy. To many of the rest of us it means public allegiance to a set of liberal values. Often these expectations can be in direct conflict.

Zreika, like all of us, belongs to multiple communities. The question is which one of them does she want to disappoint: her community of faith, her club and fellow players, or those of us following the story on our screens?

As I understand it, Zreika intended to avoid any disappointment altogether. She had planned to sit out the game quietly, and not draw any attention to herself. Once she made herself invisible, others—conservatives and liberals alike—proceeded to fill in the story as they perceived it. Some called her a homophobe. Others, like Adel Salman, President of the Islamic Council of Victoria, called her brave. By Salman’s own admission in an interview with 3AW, he didn’t actually know what Zreika’s views were or why she made the decision in the first place. Nonetheless, he insisted that homosexuality was ‘not permissible in Islam’ and used the opportunity to mount a defence of Israel Folau and Margaret Court to air their ‘religious views’.

What were these views? Folau repeatedly ignored advice and warnings about his social media posts, which included statements condemning homosexuals to hell. He also gave a sermon claiming that the 2019-20 bushfire season was the result of same-sex marriage. Court insisted that homosexuality was an ‘abomination’ and a ‘personal choice’, and that transgender people were ‘of the devil’.

Zreika has not made any such statements, and Salman’s claim that all three athletes are equally participating in the public practice of their religion does not hold up to scrutiny. It also hints at the core problem that we face in the Muslim community: a patriarchal leadership that is so quick to throw its lot in with conservative Christian groups, often at the expense of Muslims, in the mistaken assumption that they share common ground.

For example when, in 2017, One Nation leader Pauline Hanson entered the Senate chamber wearing a black, full-body burqa, her stunt—designed to justify exclusion of Muslims on national security grounds—was roundly condemned by lawmakers across the political spectrum. That same afternoon, the Australian National Imams Council issued a statement on the ‘Islamic view of marriage’. It was days before they issued a statement on Hanson’s behaviour.

When the results of the plebiscite were released, Muslims copped the backlash for the sizable ‘no’ vote in Western Sydney, even though the campaign was spearheaded by the Australian Christian Lobby. Muslims contribute only marginally to homophobia in the Australian colony: a sizeable 38 per cent of the Australian population voted ‘no’, and Muslims make up just 2 per cent of that population. Unfortunately, Muslim leadership, committed to regressivism till the bitter end, plays into the hands of Islamophobes who justify their prejudice by holding our community responsible for all social ills, including homophobia.

Some may interpret my defence of Zreika as timidity on my part to challenge homophobia in my own community. I don’t think Zreika is a homophobe, and I don’t think she’s an appropriate target, either. My reasoning is straightforward: she has been remarkably quiet throughout the media storm that followed her decision to sit out the Pride round. In contrast, people emboldened by religious zeal (think Folau, Court) are usually loud and belligerent. Ultimately, I am more worried about how this narrative is being weaponised by both Muslim patriarchs and white colonialists to preserve their own power at the expense of Muslim and queer communities. If we should challenge anything, it should be that established power. My question is how do we create change in the Muslim community so that a footballer who wishes to show her support for the LGBTQ+ community can do so without the fear of retaliation, pushback, or abuse?

This goes to the question of what the Pride round is really all about: visibility. In an environment where queer rights are generally respected, this visibility can help cultivate a sense of togetherness and community, but it does not effect change. This is the kind of visibility that does not pose a threat to power—the kind splashed across the face of ANZ ‘GAYTMs’ and ‘BWYASSS’ branded BWS stores.

In an environment where queer rights are not respected, visibility is protest. Coming out, or making one’s queerness or allyship visible, is a political act. This is why I insist upon centring queer Muslims in the discussion, and why I felt the need to write this article in the first place. While coming out may not be advisable or safe for many people, those of us who have made the journey are in a unique position where we can challenge hegemonic power from within.

Zreika’s self-imposed invisibility gives us a better sense of the meaning of her choice to sit out the Pride round: not homophobia, as some have assumed, but instead a reluctance to engage in what would constitute an act of protest within the Muslim community. She is well within her rights to make that choice. To do otherwise would present risks that neither her teammates nor those sledging her on the internet would have to face. Why should she have to go it alone? And more importantly, why should she have to take on that burden when she is already engaged in another kind of rebellious visibility: that of a Muslim woman playing a public sport?

Just as Zreika is challenging patriarchal notions of Muslim womanhood, so too must we challenge homophobia within the Muslim community. Queer Muslims must be at the forefront of this change. It is important to recognise that racism and Islamophobia have led many Muslims to distrust what they perceive to be external, and LGBTQ+ rights are no exception. Homosexuality is perceived as ‘Western’ and therefore non-Muslim. It does not help when non-Muslim allies attempt to assert themselves or their politics in Muslim spaces.

So what can allies to do to help? All I ask is that you centre, support, and amplify queer Muslims so that we have a platform to speak our truth.

Although colonial orientalists like to perceive Muslims as being frozen in time, our communities have been subject to major political developments that may not be apparent to outsiders. Consider that homosexuality was still criminal in Tasmania until 1997, less than three decades ago. Many migrant settlers arrived in the colony following the conclusion of the Western gay liberation movement, meaning that they were not a part of the resulting conversations and social change. To this day, mainstream colonial queer organisations like the Sydney Mardi Gras and Melbourne Queer Film Festival continue to exclude First Nations and People of Colour. Despite our exclusion from these white-dominated spaces, queer Muslims have been broadly successful in shifting attitudes within our own communities. The Western world was able to confront homophobia on its own terms, so why can’t we?

We still have a long way to go, but one day we’ll see rainbow jerseys on Muslim footballers.

Fahad Ali

Fahad Ali is a molecular biologist, science educator, and writer. He lives and works on unceded Dharug and Gadigal lands. He is a member of the Palestinian diaspora, a co-founder of the Queer Solidarity Film Festival and the Muslims for Marriage Equality campaign group, and a community advocate and organiser.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. I have formed a range of thoughts around this issue, but I will present one here for contemplation.

    In my advocacy for LGBTIQ+ inclusion in the Jewish community I am often faced with Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox opponents to homosexuality. I know the issues, the arguments, the attitudes, the defences, the immutability.

    The objection to homosexuality distills down to a sexual “act”. They won’t talk about what the “act” is. It’s danced about, and referred to in obscurity. Essentially, it’s about anal sex between two men. Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 talk about what is forbidden and what will happen if you contravene.

    None of this should be unfamiliar for those in the Muslim or Christian faith communities.

    My response to those who have a clinical fascination, bordering on obsession, with the sex lives of gay and bisexual men, is that what happens in a person’s private sex life is just that – private.

    It’s not for anyone to make assumptions about the specifics of the sex life of two men, should they be fortunate enough to have an active sex life. It’s generally considered rude to inquire about what type of sex a person has, unless previously invited to do so. One doesn’t walk up to another person and request a menu of their preferred sex position/s. It’s just not polite.

    And so, if anyone decides to tell a gay or bisexual man that their sexual practices are sinful, it should suffice to ask what that person knows about their sex life. Invariably they would respond with honesty they know nothing, because in all honesty they do know nothing beyond what is in their fertile imagination.

    At which point one might suggest that if they know nothing about their sex life, perhaps they shouldn’t speculate, keep their judgement to themselves, and treat gay and bisexual men with the same level of respect they treat all other people.

    My point is that no matter what Haneen Zreika’s religious beliefs are, or what those of her family or community are, she should be able to hold her head up proud, put on a Pride jumper, and tell everyone that it’s none of her business what happens in the sex lives of LGBTIQ+ people, as much as it’s no one else’s business either, and that she stands in solidarity with her club in supporting LGBTIQ+ inclusion and acceptance.

    This would be a win for her religious beliefs, a win for her club, a win for those closeted and out LGBTIQ+ people in the Muslim community, and a win for LGBTIQ+ people in the wider community. It would demonstrate leadership, maturity and genuine respect.

    Right now, I don’t see any real winners.

    1. Agreed.

      The author seems to be tying himself in knots on this issue.

      Bringing up Tasmania – it was roundly criticised for it’s backwardness on the issue, at least legally.

      What should have been raised is the myriad of alternative sexualities (for want of a better word) found in Muslim-majority nations or those with significant Muslim minorities. This disproves the claim that alternative sexualities are Western, and provides an opening to further discussion on increasing religious conservatism in many countries since the late 70s Islamic revolution.

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