Ten things white folks need to stop saying to me

Dear white people,

I know you’re usually well-intentioned. I know you’re trying to broaden your cultural horizons by exposing yourselves to people from all walks of life. That’s great! Exposure to different ideas is an excellent way of tearing down misguided preconceptions and becoming more open-minded. (Why do you think I’m dating a white guy? I’ve learned so much!) So I get that when you ask me questions, you’re probably doing it out of a desire to learn and become more educated and aware about the world around you. Kudos! I wish more white people would do the same.

That said, there are a few things you need to understand about me. Firstly, I’m not a walking, talking, nicely-tanned substitute for Google. Secondly, you need to think a little before you speak. I’m pretty understanding, but I’m not that understanding. Here are ten things I really don’t want to hear you say to me – no matter how good your intentions are.

1. “Your looks are so exotic!”/”Your people are so beautiful!”

Um, excuse me? “Exotic”? I know you think this is a compliment, but I’m a human being, not a zoo exhibit. I was born and raised here in Australia. I’ve been back to Pakistan once, and I was two years old and barely remember anything. I’m about as exotic as the imported Greek feta cheese I buy at the supermarket – of foreign extraction, perhaps, but otherwise pretty ordinary (if incredibly delicious). And even if I was a foreign immigrant – which both my parents are – I still wouldn’t be exotic. I’d just be from somewhere else. Calling a non-white person “exotic” isn’t the compliment you think it is – it’s just a reminder that you see us as unusual and foreign.

And all this “your people” stuff? Which people would those be, exactly? Most people who say this to me mean Indians. I’m not even Indian. I’m Pakistani and Afghani on my dad’s side, and Turkish on my mum’s side – and yes, there is a difference. This is kind of like asking a Welshman which part of England he’s from. (Note – I did this with a supervising doctor once. He did not take it well.) And besides, “my people” are just as diverse in appearance, behaviour and custom as your people are. We’re not a monolith. There are plenty of brown South Asian folks with whom I have things in common, and there are plenty who would consider me just as “exotic” as you do.

2. “Where are you from? No, I mean, where are you really from?”

Short answer: Australia.

Long answer: Australia. I was born in Canberra.

Do you ask every white person you know exactly which part of Europe their ancestors came from? Probably not, because you consider them just plain ol’ white, just like you. So what makes you think it’s any of your business which part of the world my ancestors lived in? Maybe this is just you trying to strike up conversation, but when I answer your first question with “I was born here”, and you follow up with “yeah, but where are you really from?”, my answer is going to be, “from somewhere where I was taught not to ask pushy, invasive questions. Where are you really from?”

I’m proud of my ethnic heritage, but I was born and raised Australian. Any details I choose to share about my background are optional extras. They’re things about me that you’re not necessarily entitled to know. So when I politely rebuff you the first time, don’t push it. I’ll tell you if I want to, not before.

3. “So, like, do you have an arranged marriage?”

So, like, did you learn everything you know about brown people from fragments of an old Bollywood movie you saw on SBS one time?

This is an offensive question for a bunch of reasons. Firstly, it makes assumptions about my assumed culture, and secondly, it implicitly judges said culture based on those assumptions. For the record, no, I do not “have an arranged marriage”. Neither did my parents – they met here in Australia, dated and got married in the regular (i.e. Western) way. I’m currently in a relationship with a guy I met all on my own, no parental nudging involved.

A lot of people ask me this because I’m Muslim, which is doubly offensive because it plays into stereotypes about Islam as a religion that are rooted in half-knowledge about some of the cultures of people who practice Islam. Now, I’m not saying I have anything against arranged marriages – I’ve known plenty of people in them who’ve found love and long-lasting happiness. But you know what they say about people who assume, right?

4. “So does your dad wear a turban?”

No, because he’s not a Sikh – and even then, not all Sikh men these days wear turbans. You’re aware that brown people, even South Asian brown people, aren’t one giant cultural and religious monolith, aren’t you?

…Aren’t you?

Turbans are, generally speaking, associated with the Sikh religion, which is, generally speaking, followed by quite a few people in Punjab province in both India and Pakistan (though this is not a hard and fast rule – there are non-Punjab Sikhs and non-Sikh Punjabs). My family aren’t Sikhs, though I grew up with Sikh friends (many of whom did not wear turbans except on formal occasions, just for the record, because we live in the tropics and those things are heavy). This would be like asking a Hindu woman why she’s not wearing a hijab. Don’t assume a religion or set of cultural practices based on my skin colour, please. You will almost always be wrong.

Honorary mentions go to all the people who’ve acted confused when they’ve seen me eat beef (that’s a Hindu thing, not a Muslim thing), all the people who don’t understand why I don’t eat bacon (that actually is a Muslim thing), and everyone who’s ever asked me about bindis.

5. “Why don’t you wear your traditional dress more often?”/”So do you own any saris?”

The last time I owned a shalwar kameez was when I was about thirteen. It was maroon with cream embroidery, a combination that is absolutely killer with my skin tone. I haven’t owned or worn one since because, as it turns out, we brown folks often dress for comfort and utility, just like white folks do, and a heavy knee-length tunic and wide pants are not the most practical garments for someone who lives in Oh My God When Will The Humidity Stop, I’m Melting, Queensland.

And no, I don’t own any saris, those being items of clothing more commonly worn by Indian and Sri Lankan women than by Pakistanis or Afghanis. (Or Turks. Why does everyone constantly forget that I’m half-Turkish?) I actually do know some Indian and Sri Lankan women who choose to wear saris when they go about their daily business, but that’s a personal choice on their parts. We’re not obliged to remain in costume just so you can easily identify us, you know. It just so happens that I’m more comfortable in miniskirts than I ever was in heavy shalwar kameez. That’s not to say I wouldn’t wear one again if an appropriate occasion were to arise, just that I don’t feel obliged to wear one every day in order to prove my South Asian-ness. My cultural background is quite a lot more than just a costume, you know.

6. “You’re Pakistani? I met this Pakistani guy in [town I’ve never visited], maybe you know him!”

Wow, you’re white? I met a white guy at LAX once! Maybe you’re cousins?

India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka combined easily have a population of almost a billion, possibly a little more. No, I do not know every single one of these people. I barely even know a fraction of them, and most of the ones I do know are blood relatives of mine. I am no more likely to know the random Pakistani dude you met at a conference than you are to know the white guy who checked my bags in Dallas one time.

Now, if you were to ask my dad, on the other hand, he’d probably know exactly who you were talking about. He’s connected, man. You don’t even know.

7. “You’re the first [Muslim/Pakistani/Turkish] person I’ve ever met!”/Introducing me as “your Muslim friend”

That’s great! You are not even close to the first person who has ever said that to me!

Again, I am not some kind of novelty. I’m a human being. Am I the first one of those you’ve ever met? If not, you probably shouldn’t be getting so excited about this. Despite my skin colour and facial features, you and I actually have a huge amount of DNA in common. We’re not that different, so please stop treating me like something out of one of those alien encounter movies. Brown girl phone home? Yeah…not so much.

And while we’re on this, if you feel the need to introduce me as “your Muslim friend” (or “your Pakistani friend”, or “your Turkish friend”), I am going to start introducing you as “my white friend who is incredibly boggled by the idea that non-white people exist”. Sure, it’s a little unwieldy, but maybe if I keep doing it, you’ll get the point eventually. I’m just your friend, m’kay? You know, like all your other friends. (Or are you one of those people who introduces folks as “your gay friend”, too? If so, you have so, so many problems that I do not even have time to start fixing.)

8. “Can you teach me your language?”

Well, I would be happy to, but it seems to me like you already know how to speak English, seeing as you and I are using it to converse right now.

My parents both speak different first languages, so growing up, we all spoke English at home because it was the only language my parents had in common. It’s the only language I speak fluently (though I can teach you how to say a few phrases in Turkish and how to count to five in Urdu). And even if I did have a different first language, why would you feel entitled to free private lessons from me? I happen to teach English (the language I do speak) for money. Why would I teach you for free?

I get it – speaking other languages makes you feel enlightened and cosmopolitan and worldly. But if you want to learn, do it the way everyone else does – either travel overseas or take a class. I’m not your private tutor.

9. “Can you make me [insert food here]?”

Yes, because a little-known secret about us foreigners is that we’re actually born with the instinctive knowledge of how to cook the perfect biriyani.

Seriously, now? I mean, I grew up eating curry pretty much every day for twenty years. Then, when I left home, I never ate it again, because it’s pretty much the equivalent of the old steak and three veg to me. What seems like exotic, exciting food to you was just “dinner” when I was a kid. Not only did I not put much effort into learning how to make it (because I wasn’t all that interested in eating it), but even if I did…you’re aware that there are restaurants that specialise in the cuisine of different countries, right? You can literally go right in and ask for all the curry you want! The people who work at said restaurants are paid to make you feel like you’ve got a little bit of [insert country here] at your doorstep. I’m not.

Other things I get asked for a lot: Turkish delight (no, I do not know how to make this), dolmades (I’m pretty sure even my mother doesn’t know how to make this), some Indian sweet that you don’t know the name of that you tried at a multicultural fest one time and really liked. I make a great baklava, though, and if I like you a lot, I might make it for you some time – without you even having to ask first!

10. “Your culture is so fascinating, teach me more!”

I’m putting this one last because it’s pretty much the first nine all summed up in one sentence.

Look, it’s awesome that you want to learn more about other people. But to me, this isn’t “fascinating” – it’s just my life. I grew up in a mixed race household in a white country exposed to all kinds of cultural influences, both ancestral and otherwise. It’s not exotic or exciting or foreign to me. It’s just a part of who I am.

If you want to learn more about my culture, or the cultures of your other non-white friends, engage us respectfully. Ask specific questions about things you’ve observed (“so, I noticed that you call all your mum’s friends Aunty and Uncle – what’s with that?”) and I might answer you if I feel like it. What I won’t do is answer blanket questions based on mangled pop culture references to “my people”. What I also won’t do is educate you on whatever you feel like whenever you feel like it, solely on your terms.

I’m just a regular person. This is my life, not a National Geographic documentary giving you a glimpse into the mystical people of some far-off land you’ll never get to visit. Please stop treating me like a museum exhibit. If you want to learn, ask respectfully – and don’t be surprised if my answer is “I can’t really explain that, it’s too complicated” or “that’s not really something I’m comfortable talking about”. It’s cool that you want to learn, but you don’t actually have an inherent right to that knowledge. This is someone else’s life and history you’re talking about. What we choose to share is entirely up to us, and we’ll be more likely to share if we don’t feel like we’re being asked to entertain you or help you feel more sophisticated. That Eat, Pray, Love garbage just won’t fly, you know?

Respectful cultural exchange is an excellent way of learning more about the world, being exposed to new ideas and finding things you love in places you might never have thought to look. I would love to learn more about you, and would be happy to teach you more about me. But let’s do it the right way, m’kay? That way, we can come away from the experience enriched by our new knowledge and nobody ends up feeling like someone else’s neat party trick.

Now – who’s up for white people food?

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IMPORTANT PUBLIC HEALTH UPDATE: MAS reaches pandemic status worldwide

Readers, we are in the grips of a pandemic.

For years now, members of minorities and marginalised groups have been afflicted by a terrible condition. It may strike at any time, affecting them at work, during recreational activities or even when in the comfort and safety of their own homes. It affects people of colour, queer and trans* people, women, the disabled, the uneducated, sex workers, even the poor. As this condition sweeps through our population, taking casualty after casualty, many have searched in vain for a cure – some kind of vaccine to inoculate the victims against the effects of this affliction. Sadly, their efforts so far have been fruitless, and thousands – nay, millions – find themselves falling prey daily, usually when they least expect it.

I am speaking, of course, of Minority Ambassador Syndrome.

Minority Ambassador Syndrome (MAS) is a condition transmitted from unaffected carriers (usually able-bodied cishet white males with college degrees and steady jobs in respected fields) to marginalised people. Transmission can occur upon first contact, though it is not rare for MAS to incubate and lie latent in a carrier for some time before the condition is passed on. Although completely harmless to the vectors that spread it, MAS has serious and far-reaching consequences for any members of a marginalised group that may come into contact with it. I am writing this guide as a public health initiative. By learning to recognise the signs and symptoms of MAS, you and your loved ones can learn to take precautions and keep yourselves safe. While there is not yet any foolproof method of preventing MAS transmission, the following information may prove helpful to people in a high-risk environment (one with a lot of carriers, such as a video game forum, comic convention or gawker.com comments section) and help those already afflicted to obtain some symptomatic relief.

MAS – Recognising the Signs

MAS is transmitted aurally or via text from the carrier to the recipient. Transmission occurs in the form of a generalisation about the recipient’s race to which the recipient is then expected to give some kind of apology or rebuttal. Examples of transmission spores include:

  • “I don’t see any of you [insert religion here] apologising for [insert act of terrorism committed by people who claim x religion here]! You’re all the same!”
  • “I heard in the news last night that a [insert race here] committed [insert felony here]. Why don’t community leaders stand up and denounce those people? They’re making you all look bad.”
  • “I saw a [insert non-het sexuality here] couple engaging in the grossest PDA the other day. Why do all [insert non-het sexuality here] people have to be so blatant about it?”
  • “If [insert race here] women don’t want people to think of them as [insert racial pejorative here], maybe they should all stop [insert stereotype about women of x race here].”

However, transmission is not always in the form of a generalisation about the marginalised group in question; it may also occur in the form of a compliment that positions the recipient as somehow having transcended the group with whom they claim association. Examples of this include:

  • “It’s so great to see someone from [insert race/religion here] in college – you’re such a good example! If only more [insert race/religion here] people were like you.”
  • “Obviously, you’re not like those other [women/gay people/trans* people/sex workers] – you don’t go acting like they do.”
  • “I know you deserve disability benefits, but what about all those people with fake disabilities who are just rorting the system?”

In both cases, the recipient is now positioned as a representative of their entire group – be that people of a certain race or creed, women, trans* people, queer people, disabled people, sex workers, etc. Upon contact, the individual is expected to assume responsibility for all actions ever taken by any member of the group to which they belong, even if those actions were taken by someone they don’t know, someone whose behaviour they don’t condone or someone who is only tangentially related to them. If they do not do so, their failure is seen as an indictment of the entire group.

Symptoms of MAS

MAS is unique in that it does not affect carriers whatsoever. They are not expected to assume responsibility for groups to which they belong (e.g. white people, straight people, cisgender people, men, people with college degrees, people belonging to [x] field, etc.). The disease only activates upon transmission to a vulnerable minority recipient. Symptoms may include:

  • Being asked to justify the actions of complete strangers (e.g. “a black man robbed my friend’s friend’s house last night – why aren’t your people doing more to crack down on crime?”)
  • Being attacked if they do not issue fervent apologies for atrocities committed by people claiming to represent them (e.g. “those terrorists said they were fighting in the name of Islam, don’t you feel ashamed? Why aren’t you standing up to them?”)
  • Being expected to act with impeccable etiquette and deportment in all situations, even when subjected to scorn, criticism or mockery, on pain of damning the entire group by association if they do not (e.g. “I knew I shouldn’t have trusted you! Trans* people are all deceptive liars!”)
  • Being held up as an example to which other members of the group should aspire (e.g. “If you could work three jobs to pay your way through college, why can’t every poor kid from the poverty-stricken neighbourhood in which you grew up do the same?”)

Over time, these symptoms lead to irritation, frustration and a feeling of overwhelming pressure in sufferers.

Prognosis and Treatment

As of yet, there is no reliable treatment for MAS. Prognosis for sufferers is largely dependent on their will and ability to argue with carriers who insist that they be held accountable for the actions of complete strangers with whom they may have only the vaguest and most tenuous of affiliations. Whilst some sufferers of MAS are able to rebut such demands, others are not, and the stress of being expected to act as a perfect example for others to follow can do incredible damage over time. In such cases, the prognosis is fairly grim.

However, there are some strategies that sufferers may use to mitigate the effects of MAS. These include:

  • Asking carriers to account for the actions of people only vaguely connected to them (e.g. “your great-great grandparents probably owned slaves, should I make you apologise for that, too?”)
  • Insisting on being viewed as an individual regardless of group affiliation (e.g. “do you really think all brown people look the same? That’s pretty messed up, dude.”)
  • Telling carriers to fuck right back off on the high horse they rode in on

Employing these strategies will not cure MAS or completely remove it from the system of the sufferer, but they may provide some symptomatic relief, as well as a soothing sense of accomplishment and satisfaction at having told at least one ignorant bigot where to shove it.

Lessening the Impact of MAS

MAS is currently endemic amongst marginalised populations, with an estimated up to 100% of members of these groups having been exposed to the condition at least once in their lives. Therefore, treatment and intervention programs should initially focus on limiting exposure to carriers by removing the large-scale public platforms from which these carriers are often able to infect multiple people at once.

In order to stop the spread of MAS, a concerted effort must be made to stop the condition at the source. By eliminating carriers through education, socially-enforced anti-discrimination messages and straight up pointing and laughing at their ignorance, the number of carrier-to-recipient transmissions would be greatly lessened. In cases of patients already suffering from MAS, eliminating further contact with carriers can eventually lead to the condition becoming latent again. Future intervention programs should also focus on eliminating sources from which carriers initially pick up the condition, such as FOX News, Drudge Report, Cathy Brennan and any Twitter account operated by someone who endorses the views of Richard Dawkins.

Although it may seem like an impossible task, it is conceivable that in the next ten to twenty years, MAS transmission could be greatly reduced by implementing these measures, and existing sufferers could see their conditions become – and remain – latent. It may take an army of dedicated specialists slowly hacking away at the fanbases of influential carriers such as Dan Savage, the aforementioned Richard Dawkins, anyone who identifies as a “TERF” or “SWERF”, or Sean Hannity, but with time, effort and large-scale international cooperation, it may eventually be possible to end this pandemic.

Virtue, and other non-existent commodities

It’s a funny thing, a woman’s virtue. If she clings tightly to it, she’s frigid and a prude. If she doesn’t care to preserve it, she’s a whore.  If she thinks the concept is outdated, she’s dangerous. A woman cannot decide for herself whether or not she is virtuous – whatever her actions, her virtue will ultimately be judged by men. A woman’s virtue is kept for men, not for herself – without it, she is worthless not to herself, but to men who might wish to sleep with her or take ownership of her.

Every culture has their own ideas about how to preserve a woman’s virtue – segregate schools by gender, force women into separate communities where they are restricted contact from men, place restrictions on the amount of sex a woman can have, and with whom she can have it. In the culture in which I grew up, the method of choice – amongst others – was the hijab.

I started covering my hair when I was twelve years old. I did not want to do it, but I wanted to please my parents. I had no conception of sexual desire or sex appeal. I did not think of myself as a sexual object, nor did I think of other people as sexual objects. But I covered my hair because people thought it made me – a twelve-year-old girl – virtuous. I wore long pants and long-sleeved shirts that hid my figure. I didn’t have male friends. All of this was meant to preserve me so that one day, another man might find me worth owning.

Many girls younger than me cover their hair, or even their entire bodies. Why a child needs to be dressed in a way that is meant to render them non-sexual objects is beyond me. In which situation would a child of eight or nine need to cover herself so as to deflect the attention of men?

I do not have anything against women who choose to cover their hair. In fact, I do not even have a problem with them deciding to do so because they wish to preserve their virtue (whatever that means) – as long as it’s their choice. We all make choices about what we’ll show to the world and what we wish to hide. There are things we don’t tell strangers, to it makes sense that there might be things we choose not to show strangers. I take no issue with this.

But it has to be a choice – and to me, not covering my hair does not make me any less virtuous or worthy than a woman who does. And even if it did, I wouldn’t care, because my worth as a woman is not based on whether or not a man thinks I’m pure enough to make his wife.

That’s the problem with the idea of protecting our virtue – we’re being asked to safeguard something only men value. We are not devalued by choosing to show hair or skin, nor by engaging in sexual activity – it is men who have decided for us that these things lower us, devalue us, debase us. It is men who have decided that we need to cover up, be meek and quiet and non-threatening so that they might contradictorily find us more desirable.

I do not care whether or not men find me desirable based on how much of my skin they can see. I do not care whether they see my uncovered hair and judge me not Muslim enough, because my faith is between God and me and God can see into my heart no matter what I try to cover. Before God, I am utterly exposed. Why, then, would God care about my clothing? And I do not believe that it is a woman’s responsibility to safeguard something only men find valuable.

If men want women not to be ogled, not to be used as sexual objects, to be treated with dignity and respect, then the onus on them is to do so. A woman who covers her hair is not making herself less of a sexual being – she is simply making a choice not to show a part of herself to the world. Men will still look at her and objectify her, not because of how she dresses, but because they think they have that right. She could be swathed in cloth from head to toe and they would still objectify her as much as they would if she were walking down the street stark naked. Objectification is an act removed from a woman’s state of dress – it is a choice a man makes, and if he wishes so fervently to preserve a woman’s virtue, it is up to him not to make it.

Personally, I don’t give a damn whether or not men consider me virtuous, but I do not wish to be seen as an object, regardless of how I dress. I was seen as one when I covered my hair and I am seen as one now. This is not because of the way I dress, but because there are men who believe they have the right to decide my body’s value as though it is a commodity. This is their doing, not mine. They believe that I exist for them, and that as such, I must preserve myself in a condition they find suitable. But as I have said time and time again, my existence is not for them. So to hell with their ideas of virtue. I am not any more of an object because I choose not to cover my hair. I am human, and my value is self-determined, not calculated based on what I wear or how many people I’ve slept with. I should not need to wear a hijab in order to broadcast to the world that there is more to me than what a man thinks I’m worth.

Virtue is a false commodity, created by men to control and judge women. By whatever standards it is judged, by whomever it is judged, it is meaningless and worthless, because no woman is merely an object onto which male desire can be projected. Wear what you like. Cover your hair or don’t. But do it because you are choosing for yourself what you wish to show the world, not because you think you need to preserve something that doesn’t exist. You are worth more than what your sex life and your clothing choices say you are. You are worth what you say you are. You do not need to prove that to anyone.

The Gay/Religious Paradox

One of the many questions people like to ask me repeatedly is as follows: how is it possible to be both bisexual and Muslim?

I am not sure what they expect me to say. I do not know if they believe themselves the first to ask such a thing of me. Perhaps they think they will lead me towards some kind of epiphany. Or perhaps they are just being rude, in the way that people often unintentionally are, by probing into my personal life and expecting that I will be forthcoming to strangers. Whatever the reason, this is a question I am asked at least once a week, sometimes more often, almost always by people who don’t know me at all. None of them are owed an answer – both my sexuality and my faith are, after all, personal. But for the sake of saving myself the time of repeatedly telling people to mind their own business, I suppose I can satisfy their curiosity once and for all.

But first, let me ask you a question:

Knowing what we know about the mechanics of pregnancy, the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and the dangers of HIV/AIDS, would you consider it a healthy choice to have unprotected sex of any kind with a complete stranger?

Perhaps it’s the former medical student in me, but I’d consider such an act quite foolish. Unprotected sex – including anal and oral sex – carries with it the risk of many complications. We know this because we have discovered through scientific research how sperm fertilises an egg to create the cluster of cells that will eventually become a baby, how bacterial and viral diseases can spread through sexual contact, how certain kinds of sex carry with them higher risks of injury and disease transmission. This is knowledge accumulated over hundreds of years. In response to this knowledge, we’ve developed barrier prophylactics and chemical contraception, so that we may engage in sex safely, responsibly and without fear of unwanted consequences.

Fifteen hundred years ago, we had neither the knowledge of the risks sex entailed, nor the means of mitigating them.

My thesis, then, is this – that in an age before science, when we didn’t know how diseases were caused or spread, when we were unclear of the mechanics of conception and pregnancy, when we were unable to reliably prevent the consequences of sexual encounters, it made perfect sense to regulate sex. By restricting sex to an act between married partners, disease transmission could be kept down to a minimum, even completely stopped. By prohibiting sex acts with greater inherent risks, such as anal sex, the consequent injuries and damage could be avoided. By framing sex as an act to be engaged in only between monogamous, married partners, people could be kept relatively safe from the consequences of unprotected sex in an age before contraception, condoms and antibiotics.

I believe in God, and I believe that God wants the human race to better itself. It is not such a logical leap for me to believe that the prohibitions against sex outside of marriage of sex between people of the same gender were designed to keep a pre-science civilisation safe and healthy. After all, the Qur’an also contains instructions about personal hygiene despite the fact that the people to whom it was revealed had no conception of germs, bacteria or parasites. In fact, much of the Qur’an only strengthens my belief in scientific principles, and vice versa. It is quite remarkable that a society pre-Semmelweis knew that washing one’s hands with running water was a way of warding off disease thanks to instructions in a book they believed was revealed to them by their creator. The simplest and most rational explanation is that whoever was instructing them knew something they didn’t.

You do not have to believe in God in order to agree with my basic point – that in a society without access to contraception and antibiotics, restricting sexual activity was the best possible way of ensuring good sexual health amongst the population. You also do not have to believe in God to agree with the point that follows – that in today’s society, where we have access to antibiotics, condoms, dental dams, the oral contraceptive pill, contraceptive implants and so much more, those same restrictions are no longer necessary. It is possible to have sex with multiple partners – including oral and anal sex, between partners of any gender – in a way that does not endanger the health of those involved. It is possible to have sex before marriage without falling pregnant and being stuck with a child one does not have the means to care for. (Indeed, it is now possible to safely terminate the pregnancy if the mother finds herself unable to deal with the demands of having a baby.) Society has advanced. We have new ways of protecting ourselves; the old ways have become obsolete.

I am, for the most part, a rational person. I do not believe that God would ask anything of me that it is not reasonable to ask. And in the time and place in which I live, it is not reasonable to ask that I restrict my sexual activity or my sexuality for the sake of my health and well-being. I am lucky enough to live in a point in time where access to safe and affordable contraception means I can engage in sex safely, healthily and with whomever I choose. I believe religion is meant to be permissive, not restricting. My faith frees me; it does not confine me. And given that it is possible for me to express myself sexually in a safe way, I do not see the need to pointlessly restrict myself.

Yes, I am both Muslim and bisexual, and I do not see any inherent contradiction. God is my guide, but my faith is also my path to freedom and peace. It is not a set of shackles – it is a pair of wings, designed to allow me to achieve greater heights than I could on my own. God is not, in my experience, a harsh master, but rather a loving mentor – a light by which I might find my way through life. I have been created as I am – a sexual being who is attracted to more than one gender. I do not believe I was created this way only to be forced to live a half-life, unfulfilled and unsatisfied. That is not what God means to me. That is not what my faith means to me. My faith means freedom to live and to love – safely, healthily and happily.

There is no paradox inherent in my being. I am as I am, and I live according to the rules of the universe as I am able to discern them. My sexuality is not sinful or shameful – it simply is. I simply am. And I am perfectly at peace with that.

Labels on my soul: “Muslim”

I thought twice about discussing this. Sometimes, people seem offended when I talk about my faith, as though I might try to spring a conversion talk on them at any moment. Some people are apatheists or anti-theists and view all faith talk as unnecessary at best and dangerous at worst. This post is not for them. (In fact, none of these posts are for them – I’m writing all of these posts for myself.)

Some Muslims believe that all babies are born Muslims and that some of them merely change faiths as they grow older. I am not one of these people. However, long before I had a name for God, I felt a larger presence in the universe – something bigger than me, something watchful, something kind. I did not have a name for it – indeed, I did not have names for many things yet – but I knew it was there. When I was a bit older and my parents told me that presence was called God and He created the universe, it was as though I was being told something I already knew. It was old news.

To be a Muslim means many things to many people. I cannot speak to their experiences, only mine. I cannot tell you what it means to be a Muslim in Riyadh or a Muslim in Kuala Lumpur or a Muslim in Islamabad. I can’t even tell you what it means to be a Muslim in Townsville, Queensland, Australia, unless the Muslim in question is me. There are very few concepts and beliefs that are universal to all Muslims – as a group, we are scattered, diverse, often at war with each other just as much as we are at war with the outside.

But I will start with the universal concepts. “Islam” is an Arabic word that means “peaceful surrender to Allah”; a “Muslim” is one who has surrendered. From this basic starting point we extrapolate an entire faith, one that has many faces, many voices. One thing we all believe: that there is one God, and that Muhammad was His messenger (though I object to the use of “He” for Allah, who is always rendered gender-neutrally in Arabic). “Allah” is not the name of our god but rather an Arabic word meaning “the one God” – the same God worshipped by Christians, by Jews and by others who prefer to eschew labels.

Broadly speaking, I am a kind of Muslim called a Sunni, and more specifically a member of the Hanafi school like my parents. Hanafis believe in reason over precedent, in logic over the judgements of dead scholars. That said, I doubt many Hanafis would rush to claim me as one of their own; indeed, my own family hesitates to do so sometimes, so radical are some of my views. There are people who would call me a heretic, even a blasphemer, for my acceptance of other faiths as valid pathways to eternal peace and happiness. I would question whether those people read the same Qur’an I did, where Allah explicitly stated that non-Muslims would be granted entrance into Heaven and that it was not the place of any Muslim to judge who did and did not deserve admittance. But I digress.

There was a time in my life when I thought I would not remain a Muslim. As a teenager, frustrated by the doctrinaire approach to faith I saw practiced by many around me, I felt distanced from Islam, a relative stranger to it. I wondered if there was a place in Islam for someone like me, someone who thought the spirit of the law was more important than the letter, someone who wondered about things like inheritance laws and how they could be re-interpreted in the 21st century. My teenage years were a crossroads – I found myself questioning what I’d been taught, wondering why people were so insistent on me believing what they told me to believe without thinking about it.

I did the only thing that made sense – I decided to turn to God, the presence I had always felt in my life, for answers.

I read the Qur’an in English, re-read parts of it. Then I read it in Arabic. Then I read my father’s books on religious instruction that he’d been insisting that I pick up in place of the fantasy novels I tended to favour. I read and I read and I read, and I came to my own conclusions. And mostly, what I concluded was that a lot of what I’d been taught was bullshit.

Islam wasn’t about restricting the freedoms of women – it was about protecting them, and it was a lot more permissive than I’d ever been led to believe. Islam wasn’t about doctrine and dogma – it was about living freely and happily, about willingly giving one’s life in service to God. Islam wasn’t about hatred of outsiders, but rather about accepting that God loved us all equally, in ways that transcended our understanding of the word “love”, and it was up to us to accept that love into our lives. Islam wasn’t about judgement – it was about forgiveness, leniency, mercy. The more I read, the more I found examples of our Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) judging others lightly and preaching forgiveness over punishment. I found that God hadn’t commanded me to live joylessly, but to live a life of love and compassion, to reach out to others and live God’s love through my actions.

My father made something of a judgemental error by commanding me to study my faith. By doing so, he hoped I would find things to reinforce what I had been taught all of my life, things that would make me a more obedient daughter, a meeker Muslim. What happened couldn’t have been further from what he planned. In Islam, I found freedom from preaching, from dogma, from rules designed to keep me quiet and subservient and unquestioning. I found a voice and a purpose, I realised that I was here, in this place, at this time, to do as much good as I could for as many people as I could, in whatever way I could – even if those ways weren’t the ways others had envisioned for me.

Islam freed me. It made me more confident in myself and my abilities. It gave me a sense of my own worth and my place in the world that I’d never had when my life consisted of following other people’s rules.

I love God, as the commandment goes, with all my heart, and all my soul, and all my mind. I live that love every day in my interactions with my fellow human beings. That is the great gift Islam has given me – through my surrender to God, I have found love and peace and happiness.

There are many ways in which I disagree with traditional Islamic teachings. At a later date, I might talk about some of them and why I believe the Qur’an supports the way I live my life as well as the way other people choose to live theirs. But that is another talk, for another time.

I am Jay, a Muslim. I believe that there is no God but God, and that Muhammad is God’s messenger. Islam has freed me and helped me become the person I am today. I am eternally grateful.