Transgender Muslims in America Fight Bigotry on Two Fronts

Posted on

Originally published on Muftah on April 15, 2016.

The wave of Islamophobia erupting across the United States has taken a toll on every aspect of Muslim American life.

climate of fear has emerged in the wake of recent events in Paris, Brussels, and San Bernardino, and every day seems to bring new reasons to worry. Mosques across the country are being threatened, vandalized, and burned down; Muslim children in schools are being beaten up, and women in hijabs are being spat on, yelled at, and stalked by armed men trying to intimidate America’s Muslim community into disappearing.

For transgender Muslims, this discrimination is compounded by issues of gender identity. While cisgender Muslims find refuge from Islamophobia in mosques, for transgender Muslims, these spaces can often be just as unsafe as other places.

Confronted by Islamophobia in the streets and transphobia in the Muslim community, trans Muslims across the country are fighting against bigotry on two fronts. Organizations like the Transgender Muslim Support Network and Queer and Trans Muslim congregations, as well as other groups across the country, are struggling for change, but they are facing an uphill battle.

The case of an Arizona woman named Sumayyah Dawud reveals how bigotry plays out for those caught at the margins of LGBTQ and institutional Muslim identity.

After being taunted and having her veil ripped off during an arrest by local police, Sumayyah filed a lawsuit alleging religious discrimination. Police retaliated by outing her as trans at her mosque, and, as a result, she was expelled from a place that had once been her home.

Hunted by the cops and abandoned by her community, Sumayyah’s story is an urgent reminder of how discrimination and hate against vulnerable communities in America can create a horrifying storm of bigotry for those in the greatest need of support.

‘There’s no religion in jail’

I first met Sumayyah, a convert to Islam, through a Facebook group for progressive Muslims interested in religious interpretations that prioritize social justice. An activist for many issues, Sumayyah is well known in Phoenix as the Muslim woman who attends every left-wing rally. Dressed in a black veil that covers her face and body, she is instantly recognizable in a part of the country where Muslims are few in number. Whether supporting Black Lives Matter or confronting right-wing militia members picketing mosques, Sumayyah has been compelled by her faith to stand against injustice, no matter the target.

Sumayyah Dawud

Social Justice Activist Sumayyah Dawud

In October 2014, Sumayyah participated in a march against police brutality in which protesters blocked traffic before being dispersed by police. The group had walked a half-mile away when, Sumayyah says, a police car rolled up and officers surrounded the demonstrators, forcing them to the ground.

“They walked around looking at different people, and then I heard a voice behind me: ‘Burqa, burqa, where’s burqa?’ He’s snickering at me, mocking me, and then tells me to get up and puts handcuffs on me, and arrested a few others, too,” Sumayyah told Muftah.

With her hands cuffed behind her back, Sumayyah says the officer approached her and unbuttoned her hijab: “I told him, don’t do that, I wear it for religious purposes, don’t remove my headscarf. I was very clear.”

His response? He continued unbuttoning her clothing and removed her veil, saying: “That’s too bad, there’s no religion in jail.” Sumayyah was taken to prison and detained for a day; she repeatedly asked for her veil back but was refused.

Embarrassed and humiliated, upon her release Sumayyah, went to the Arizona chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) for help, and the group promised to help her file suit.

Her story quickly became a cause célèbre in the Phoenix Muslim community, a clear-cut case showing how Muslim women were being targeted for their faith and commitment to wearing the veil. With her community behind her, Sumayyah’s case was set to become a rallying point for Muslims across the country fed up with how ever-present discrimination had become in their lives.

Police Come to the Mosque

But then the police struck back.

In July, while passing by her local mosque, the Islamic Center of Tempe, for prayers, Sumayyah noticed that the police department’s Muslim community liaison, Detective Mustafa Masad, was visiting.

Tempe Mosque

Islamic Center of Tempe, Arizona (Photo Credit: Sumayyah Dawud)

Liaisons, like Detective Masad, exist in many police departments across the country. Their work is often officially described as keeping lines of communication open between law enforcement and minority communities, but, in many places, they are a cover for domestic spying. Mosque outreach programs are an outgrowth of the War on Terror and the expansion of domestic surveillance programs that target Muslims, alongside the FBI’s 10,000 “counter-terror” agents and 15,000 paid informants. Police liaisons are crucial for keeping tabs on Muslim communities and spreading a culture of fear and uncertainty in mosques, creating anxiety amongst congregants about who can and cannot be trusted.

Police have used information gathered through these programs to entrap and coerce many Muslims into becoming informants. Diala Shamas, an attorney who fights law enforcement efforts to target Muslims in New York City, has said that when she visits mosques to give workshops about surveillance, every hand in the room goes up when she asks if anyone has been interrogated by police.

For his part, Masad serves with the Phoenix police department’s “Community Response Squad,” a program that aims to “create a climate of trust” between the police and local communities, as well as to “monitor demonstrations, rallies and marches.” Sumayyah has often seen Masad at protests, watching activists in attendance.

The day after Sumayyah saw Masad at the mosque, a friend told her there were rumors circulating that she was really a man. Soon afterwards, Sumayyah received a call from mosque authorities, asking her to attend a meeting. There, she was confronted by a board member who said he had conducted a background check, discovered her male birth name, and had evidence she had been to protests with “anarchists.” The board member demanded that Sumayyah provide proof she was a woman in order to be allowed to continue attending the mosque. Otherwise, he said, she would be forbidden from returning.

Sumayyah asked the board member if he had spoken to the police liaison, and he admitted as much. Once she provided documentation showing that her gender was female, the board demanded proof that she had biologically transitioned.

To add insult to injury, word began spreading throughout the mosque that Sumayyah was transgender. As wife of one of the board members even publicly confronted Sumayyah and loudly accused her of “not being a woman.”

Officially outed as transgender, Sumayyah was effectively forced out of the mosque where she had long been an active member.

For Sumayyah, the line of culpability leads straight back to the police. “I think this is retaliation,” she said. “The police tried to sabotage any potential lawsuit by going to community leaders and outing me as transgender, knowing that there is prejudice and transphobia within the community.”

Neither the mosque nor the local police department responded to repeated requests for comment.

Sumayyah Dawud

Activist Sumayyah Dawud at a rally against police brutality (Courtesy Sumayyah Dawud)

Abandoned by Her Community

The Tempe Mosque was not the only Muslim institution that failed to come to Sumayyah’s defense. Nearly two months after being ejected from the mosque, Sumayyah reached out, once again, to her local CAIR chapter. When she met with CAIR civil rights coordinator, Liban Yousuf, he said he knew about the mosque controversy. He also informed Sumayyah that the law firm CAIR had engaged to represent her had dropped out since the “material facts” of the case had changed.

“But it’s not a material fact,” Sumayyah told Muftah. “My complaint is not about being discriminated against for being trans. My complaint is that they took my hijab off and made humiliating comments about my faith.”

Sumayyah believes CAIR had an interest in dropping her case. As she was being expelled, mosque officials posted a document on their Facebook page outlining a new “transgender policy” that required proof of gender transition. The move suggests the mosque was trying to justify Sumayyah’s ejection, ex post facto. After outcry against the policy, the mosque removed it from its Facebook page.

When Sumayyah asked if CAIR knew about the “transgender policy,” she said Yousuf explained that the mosque had taken the text from somewhere else. Sumayyah believes that, because Yousuf knew about the policy and its origins, CAIR must have been aware of the mosque’s actions against her, and, perhaps, even consulted with mosque officials about instituting the exclusionary, transphobic policy.

“He said that CAIR would continue trying to help me, but he also told me that since there was a controversy, they didn’t know if they could keep the case. He said a doctor in the community had donated a large sum of money to help, but that they’ll probably have to return that money since he probably wouldn’t be comfortable with me being transgender, ” Sumayyah explained. Yousuf also told her “CAIR could lose donations because the community wouldn’t want CAIR representing someone who is transgender.”

In the months that followed, Sumayyah contacted the organization regularly to follow up on her case, but received no response to her calls. When she posted a Facebook status in October 2015 explaining what CAIR had done, she promptly received an email from Yousuf saying they had dropped her case altogether.

CAIR maintains it did nothing wrong. When I reached out to Yousuf, he declined to comment. He did say, however, that Sumayyah had filed a discrimination complaint against CAIR, and that the Arizona State Bar had investigated and dismissed “any grievances that Ms. Dawud may have had.” He added that, “as an organization – CAIR Arizona treats all clients with dignity, respect and professionalism. We do not discriminate against our clients on the basis of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.”

But, Sumayyah’s story suggests otherwise. CAIR appears to have colluded with her mosque to formulate a policy that was designed to remove her from the community, and then dropped her as a client when she confronted CAIR about it.

‘I have to defend myself’

Ani Zonneveld is the leader of Muslims for Progressive Values, an advocacy organization that promotes liberalism and tolerance in Muslim communities. She said that transphobia in American Muslim communities is so widespread that few transgender Muslims, like Sumayyah, bother trying to fight it.

“The problem with many mosques is that they’re intolerant. Everything is very black and white for them,” she said in a telephone interview. “I believe that Sumayyah, as a Muslim, has a religious right to worship at the mosque. … (The mosque) is using religion as a basis to justify discriminatory practices. As far as I’m concerned, the Prophet Muhammad revealed the Quran and the Quran is about social justice, human dignity, and compassion. So why are they not practicing that part of Islam?”

“And why is CAIR, whose mission is to defend Muslim rights, not defending Sumayyah’s rights? It’s hypocritical,” she continued, accusing CAIR of shying away from cases involving either inter-Muslim discrimination or where the victim does not fit an idealized Muslim image.

Sumayyah agreed: “When CAIR found out I’m transgender and there was controversy, I no longer fit the right image anymore. I was no longer the comfortable face they wanted to put on TV and stand by.”

Amidst the drama that unfolded at the mosque and CAIR’s potential complicity, Sumayyah’s case against the police has taken a backseat. What originally began as an attempt to confront Islamophobic treatment at the hands of police officers has, because of the police’s alleged exploitation of transphobia, ended in the expulsion of a woman from her religious sanctuary and infighting within a besieged community. It has brought Sumayyah’s world crashing down around her, leaving her nervous at the mere sight of a police officer.

“In the Muslim community, we’re dealing with Islamophobia and hate crimes from the outside. We don’t need infighting. But I can’t help it, because if the mosque and now CAIR are going to be treating me this way simply because I’m transgender, I have to defend myself and my rights against them,” she said.

“It’s wrong. As Muslims, we’re not supposed to be behaving this way. And I’ve been hurt really badly. The police hurt me because I’m Muslim. And then the leaders of the Tempe Mosque hurt me and now CAIR is hurting me. Why? Because I’m transgender.”