Religion: the unusual ally of LGBTI inclusion

May 17, 2019

Interview with Sheikh Ibrahim Washenga, an imam from Mombasa

Kenya’s debate on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex (LGBTI) people has been fueled by our historical penal code 162 that criminalizes homosexuality. While we could make history on May 24, 2019 by decriminalizing the penal code, justice towards LGBTI persons in Kenya still has a long way to go. This is a society that has largely incubated inequality and discrimination against the community as a norm.

Central in this debate has been the role of religion in shaping attitudes, either promoting homophobia, or human rights for all regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity. In Mombasa County, some religious clerics have been at the forefront of changing the narrative to advocate for safe spaces, tolerance and acceptance of LGBTI persons.

Sheikh Ibrahim Washenga (IW), an imam from Mombasa, has partnered with PEMA Kenya to create forums where religious leaders and LGBTI persons can have candid conversations on sexuality, spirituality and the social dimension of enabling dignity and respect. Hivos East Africa’s communication officer, Sally Akinyi (SA), sat down with him to discuss religion and equality.

SA: Tell me about yourself

IW: I am a trained telecommunications technician, and I worked at the defunct Kenya Posts and Telecommunications for a couple of years. Currently, I am a Muslim cleric – a sheikh (Muslim religious leader) – who is passionate about using my faith to promote social justice within communities. This is a cause I have been championing for about seven years now.

SA: What has your journey as an ally of LGBTI persons been like?

IW: My perceptions and attitudes towards the LGBTI community were transformed in 2011 by a Christian reverend who introduced me to the concept of true humanity. It all began with bringing together 100 sheikhs, which wasn’t an easy task. I was challenging the beliefs of three sets of religious leaders: hardliners, who simply do not want to listen; moderates, who are willing to listen but not to change their attitudes; and the willing, who listen and are open to changing their attitudes. I have since convened workshops that link LGBTI persons and sheikhs together to discuss issues of sexuality, faith and rights.

SA: Can you share some of the wins you have experienced?

IW: Acceptance has been the most positive attribute I have witnessed. Creating relationships and linking faith with human rights is what spearheads acceptance. There have even been clerics who were willing to use mosques as safe spaces for LGBTI persons. For any cleric wishing to be an ally, I would encourage them to have authentic conversations and establish relationships.

SA: What are your personal beliefs regarding inclusion and acceptance of LGBTI persons?

IW: My personal belief is that all human beings are born free and have equal dignity. This has always been my starting point to countering any form of hostility, violence, stigma and discrimination against LGBTI persons. The unfortunate situation is that some religious leaders just bury their heads in the sand and deliberately ignore the fact that society is diverse, that people have different capabilities. For me the worst form of hostility is religious ignorance. It has proven to be a factor behind growing discrimination against LGBTI persons. Even though Kenya has a progressive constitution that protects all human beings, we have witnessed situations where members of the community are evicted from their houses because of their sexuality.

SA: Tell me about safe spaces

IW: Together with PEMA Kenya we are creating safe spaces for LGBTI persons in Mombasa County. We monitor where they live, report and document any forms of violence and come up with ways to support them. Having a common group on the WhatsApp platform has made coordination much easier and helps us decide on situations that need a quick response.

SA: What does the theme of this year’s International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT), Justice and Protection for All, mean to you?

IW: The first thing that comes to mind when I reflect on this theme is: ‘’Haki na Ulingaji’’ (the theme in Kiswahili), simply meaning it’s important to end the continued treatment of LGBTI persons as second class citizens. They have a right to be treated with dignity and respect.

SA: Any parting shot?

IW: Despite the immense challenges the community faces, I believe there’s still hope for a promising future. Kenya has the most progressive constitution on the continent that puts human beings at the center of equality. We religious leaders must be deliberate in promoting acceptance and inclusion and working in partnership with civil society organizations to ensure that historical injustices against LGBTI persons are addressed in a just and fair manner.

Sheikh Ibrahim is a religious leader and an LGBTI ally in Mombasa. He is a frontrunner who collaborates with PEMA Kenya – Hivos East Africa’s partner – to champion inclusion of LGBTI rights in Kenya.

Hivos East Africa supports PEMA Kenya through the Strong in Diversity program funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The program aims to promote inclusion of LGBTI+ people in society and recognize their rights by opposing discrimination and stereotyping, while also making LGBTI+ communities more resilient.

Poster courtesy of