Reader Question (is this becoming a pattern?) – being yourself when the world doesn’t want you to be

Y’all, I’m not becoming an advice columnist. I swear I’m not. Do you know how bad I would be at that job? I would be terrible at it! But here’s a question I received that I felt particularly moved to answer. The questioner, as always, has asked to remain anonymous. Because she is not a native English speaker, I’ve taken the slight liberty of editing her question.

I’m 19 years old (20 soon) and I grew up in a very, very, very conservative Muslim family. I have worn the hijab since the age of 8 years old, and honestly, I hate it. I feel imprisoned and like a hypocrite. Every single day wearing it is torture, it’s like I’m lying to myself, to God and to the entire world, only for the sake of pleasing my parents, and because I’m scared as hell of my dad might do if I take it off.

I have no self confidence, and it really hurts more and more as I age. I feel like I’m not doing anything in my life, because I’m not even myself, so how can I achieve something?

Recently, I’ve been thinking about taking it off in secret. I feel guilty for those thoughts, but it’s honestly my only escape, what else could I do? My dad is not mean, nor is my mom, and it makes me feel even more bad. If they were bad parents, I would probably have done it without hesitating, but I love them, and those feelings also make it hard.

I really don’t know what to do, and I’ve never felt so lost in my entire life.

Oh, sister.

It’s hard enough to rebel against people we hate, but it’s harder still to rebel against people we love. I’m sure your parents really are wonderful people – most parents are! And I think that’s why you will probably need to have a conversation about this with them eventually.

I used to take off my hijab in secret. I would wear it out of the house, take the bus to university, then take it off the moment I got on campus. I’d fold it neatly, stow it away in my satchel, and not take it out again until it was time to go home. I felt terrible about it, not because I felt like I was lying to Allah (who could see what was in my heart anyway), but because I knew I was living a lie.

My situation was a little different from yours. My mother and I get along just fine, but my father is a very conservative Muslim who is fond of strict punishments for small infractions. I did try talking to him about not wearing the hijab, and he told me that I had no choice because I’d “decided” to start wearing it at age 12 and couldn’t back out now. (I didn’t actually decide – he made that decision for me. Had I had a say, I probably would have refused to begin with. I wear the hijab to pray, but I don’t feel the need to wear it outside.) So I had to lie to him instead, even though I didn’t want to, even though I would much rather have just been honest.

My father and I don’t talk any more, and this is one of the reasons why.

Have you tried talking to your parents about these feelings? You say they’re very conservative, but also that they’re kind people. Maybe they’ll hear you out and maybe they won’t, but isn’t it at least worth trying? If they refuse to listen, then you know you’re not rebelling against people who want you to live your own life – you’re rebelling against people who want to control you, no matter how good their intentions. I think that’s an important distinction. If your parents aren’t violent or abusive, you should at least give them the chance to do the right thing here.

Wearing the hijab is such an intensely personal decision. Nobody but you can make it. If you don’t feel like it’s right for you, you shouldn’t wear it, and nobody should force you to wear it. By the same token, if you wanted to wear it and your parents didn’t want you to for some reason, I would tell you the same thing. Your body is your own, and it is up to you what you choose to hide from society and what you choose to show. Allah did not give control of your body to anybody but you, nor did Allah give anyone else the right to take that control away from you.

Here’s what I think your game plan should be:

  1. If you think you can do so safely, find a good time – when you and your parents are both in a good mood – and sit down and have a conversation about your feelings. Tell them what you told me – that you feel like a hypocrite, that you don’t want to lie to Allah or to anyone else, and that while you’re still a devout Muslim, that wearing the hijab just isn’t the right choice for you.
  2. Let your parents respond. If they’re good people – and you say they are – they should at least be willing to hear you out and have a reasonable conversation.
  3. If they agree with you, great! You can stop wearing the hijab freely and feel better because you’re being honest with yourself.

Of course, there’s a chance – a pretty good one – that even if they understand your reasoning, they won’t agree with it and will want you to keep wearing the hijab. In that case, there are a few things you can do:

  1. Keep wearing it and feel miserable
  2. Take it off in secret (but in the knowledge that you tried your best to work out an accommodation with your parents and they refused)
  3. Take it off in public (knowing that this will probably cause conflict with your parents)

This isn’t an easy decision to make. You’re 19 years old, so I assume you’re either in university or working, if your parents allow you to do either. You’re a young adult and should be allowed to choose how you live your own life. On the other hand, living at home means making certain compromises. Only you can decide what you’re willing to sacrifice and what you’ll refuse to give up.

It might turn out that living at home just isn’t a feasible option if you want to decide how you live your own life. I was your age when my dad kicked me out. He and I simply can’t live together. I’m happier when he’s not around. It might be that your relationship with your parents would be better if you didn’t live with them and had a little independence.

It also might be that you can’t afford to move out, so you have to put up with a few concessions, like wearing the hijab. It all depends. How much is this issue worth to you? You’ve said you feel like you’re living a lie and you can’t achieve anything because you can’t be your authentic self. It sounds like something’s got to give. You just have to decide what it will be, and what kind of price you’re willing to pay.

Talk to your parents if you think it’s safe to do so. See how they react. Make your choices from there. Remember that safety always comes first. And no matter what, don’t forget that Allah gave your body and your life to you only, and that you are the only one with the right to decide how you live it.

Allah bless you and guide you, wherever your path may lead.

[TW: depression, suicide] Reader question: when being in the closet kills

I received this last night. I really don’t want to turn into an advice column, but this is another question that mirrors many I’ve received in the past, so I’ll do my best to answer it.

Hi Salaam!

So I’m a 20 year old queer muslim male, currently in college. I’m realized I was queer when I was around 14 or 15 years old. I’m not out anyone at all in my life. However over the past couple of years since starting college, keeping my queerness a secret has been taking quite the toll on my mental health. My anxiety and depression associated with my secret are at an all time high, and I feel worse than I ever have. My situation now is that mom and dad have now both noticed over the past year how depressed and anxious I have been. They can tell I’m much more reclusive and not as happy as I used to be. I guess I couldn’t hide it forever. Anyways, so just last night, my parents confronted me directly about why I’m so depressed. They walked into my bedroom and just asked me what was going on. I was sitting in front of them, crying uncontrollably and I just can’t tell them why I’m so sad. So at this point, my parents now know that I’m depressed and suicidal, but have no idea why, and I refused to tell them when they asked me. They’re really concerned about me and they’re coming from a very loving place and they now want me to go see a therapist to try to work things out. I come from a practicing Muslim Sunni Arab household and I’m practicing myself, my parents aren’t super conservative,and generally make a good distinction between cultural and religious practices, but they’re conservative enough to not accept LGBT people, at least that’s what it seems. But given that they know I’m in such a terrible mental health situation, would they maybe accept my queerness? I don’t know.  
So yeah, I just don’t know what to do right now because my parents know my mental health is terrible, and I refuse to tell them what’s going on. Any thoughts on how I could approach this situation?

For pretty obvious reasons, this reader also wanted to remain anonymous.

I want to preface this by saying that I am not a doctor and that if you’re having thoughts of suicide, you need to see a health professional. I’m a blogger on the internet, not a psychiatrist or a counsellor. Everything I suggest you do should be done in conjunction with a treatment programme devised for you by a pro. This isn’t as daunting a prospect as you think – if you’re in college, you likely have access to free or very cheap counselling services, and there are therapists that charge on a sliding scale in a lot of cities, particularly bigger ones. Therapists are bound by patient confidentiality. They’re not going to tell your parents or anyone else that you’re queer. I recommend that you find one ASAP and schedule an appointment.

Now, onto other things.

I don’t say this often because I’m not generally in favour of outing yourself if you aren’t assured of a positive reaction, but it might be time to tell your parents.

You’re worried that your parents are too conservative to accept you. That might be true. Maybe they’ll react terribly. Maybe they’ll kick you out or cut you off. Maybe they’ll try to get you to pray it away. Those would all be awful scenarios, and if you honestly think that they’re the most likely, then you can keep this between me, you and your soon-to-be-therapist and maybe you’ll be fine. But it sounds like your parents are pretty good people. You’ve said you think they’re coming from a loving place and that they’re worried about you. Maybe – just maybe – it means that if you come out to them, their first instinct will be to help.

Coming out to my own mother wasn’t easy. I had no way of knowing how she would react. I had to trust that she would continue to accept me for who I was even once she knew everything about me. It was dicey at first. It took her a long while to get used to the idea. I’m not sure she’ll ever really be thrilled about it. But she loves me and supports me, and it’s a huge weight off my shoulders knowing I can rely on her now. I could never have had that assurance if I’d never come out.

Your parents aren’t my mother, and maybe they won’t react the same way. There are a few ways this could go:
  1. The worst case scenario – they cut you off, disown you, never want to speak to you again. This seems unlikely based on your description of them. Even some more conservative religious types listen to love over judgement sometimes. But that doesn’t mean this can’t happen.
  2. Slightly-less-worse-case-scenario – they don’t disown you, but they decide your depression would disappear if you just prayed the gay away somehow. I have a couple of family members like this, and I avoid them at all costs.
  3. A liveable scenario – they’re not thrilled, but they try to support you anyway. They help you seek therapy for your depression and try not to make it all about how if you were straight, you wouldn’t be so upset. I would like to believe your parents are capable of this, but you know them better than I do.
  4. A really good scenario – they’re supportive, they tell you they love you no matter what, and they help you seek treatment. In an ideal world, all parents would be like this, right?

Only you know which of these scenarios is more likely. I hope it’s #3 or #4, but obviously I can’t say for sure.

If you do decide to come out to them, you can always test the water first. Bring up gay rights issues and see how they react. Decide if you could deal with that level of scrutiny or judgement directed at you. If you mention anti-gay laws in Uganda and they say they hope everyone there gets the death penalty, it’s probably not safe to come out. If you mention statistics about gay people being beaten and murdered and they’re horrified, maybe things might not be as bad as they could be. Find a time when you can sit them down and tell them what’s going on with you. Usually I’d suggest that you bring a friend, but you’re not out to anyone, so that’ll be tough. Maybe establish a connection with a therapist first, then invite your parents along to a group session. If nothing else, they’re much less likely to become violent if there are witnesses. (I hate that I have to talk about these things as though there’s always potential for violence, but we all know there is.)

If you don’t decide to come out to your parents, I think you’re still going to have to come out to someone. Definitely your new therapist (I really can’t stress how important it is that you find one), and at least one friend or family member you can trust. This is not a burden you can carry by yourself. It’s eating at you every day and endangering your life. You need at least one ally in your everyday life so that you don’t have to do this all alone. We are not solitary creatures, we humans. We need love, support and community. Those things are sorely lacking in your life right now. Consider joining a campus LGBT solidarity group – you don’t have to be queer to be in one, so this won’t necessarily out you – and see if you can’t find some friends who’ll empathise with you and support you.

Mental illness is such an ugly, unbearable thing. You are not weak or childish or in some way defective for being unable to handle it on your own. I remember being roughly your age and sitting in my doctor’s office, just talking about how I was. He told me, “I think that if you don’t get help, if you don’t get out of the situation you’re in, it’s going to crush your soul.” He was talking mostly about my abusive father, but he was right. Some things a human being simply cannot tolerate forever. I implore you to find a counsellor, doctor or psychologist. I promise that there are some available to you. Your parents may even help you seek treatment, even if you don’t come out to them, given how worried they are about you and how much they want to help. Take advantage of the services available to you as a college student – they won’t be free forever, and you should use them while they are. Find that one person who will offer you a safe, non-judgmental space where you can finally be yourself.

Whether or not you decide to come out to your parents, I really hope things work out for you. Remember that you are never alone. Allah’s blessings be with you, wherever your path may lead.

Reader question: navigating Islam in the 21st century

I promise this isn’t turning into an advice column (wouldn’t I be the worst advice columnist ever?). When I got this question from a reader, however, I figured I ought to make the response public. I get questions like this a lot and I don’t have the time or energy to give them all the lengthy, in-depth, personal responses they deserve. I hope this will help some of the people who write to me asking for advice on navigating their lives as Muslims whilst staying true to themselves.

Hi! 

I came across your blog when I was searching about Islam, feminism, and other random things. I was surprised to read something so open and honest regarding topics that are generally taboo in the Muslim community. 
I’m a teenager living in a family that strictly follows Islam (Islam mixed in with culture and my parents’ upbringings) in a community that does the same. While I believe in Allah and his prophet, I’m not very religious and I believe many practices/thoughts/beliefs are outdated. 
Reading your article on Islam, it seems you have your mother’s support. despite practicing your religion a different way. What should you do when you don’t have parental support? Every time I try to leave the house in a loose t-shirt, my mom reminds me to put a scarf around my neck or on my head.  
Did you receive any backlash from your extended family or community for going against the religious and cultural rules they live to follow?
I dream of the day when I can go to college and live on my own, without having to explain myself or my actions. 
Thank you for reading. 🙂
 
Hi, reader (I’m gonna call you X because you asked to stay anonymous)! I’m sorry it took me so long to get back to you. Life, you know? Ain’t no rest for the wicked.
 
It’s always hard to know where to start with questions like this. Your question had several parts: how did I get my mother’s support? what would I have done if I hadn’t been able to secure it? what was the community response to my choices? There’s a lot in here, so I’ll try to break it down.
 
Firstly, you should know that Islam is not incompatible with feminism. I encourage you to look into organisations like Muslims for Progressive Values, which you might find more in line with your own feelings on Islam, as well as following some Muslim feminists on Twitter and other social media. A few of my favourites are @Rrrrnessa, @UncolonisedMind, @Sahraa_Ali, @atypewritersing and @carambalache (holla!). They all have amazing, intersectional perspectives on Islam, feminism, identity and community. There are plenty of amazing and insightful people like them who will make you feel a lot less alone and help you find a strong basis for reinterpreting Islam in your own life. Look for Muslims who incorporate queer, trans and black perspectives into their feminism. All of the great people I mentioned do all of that and more, but there are others who are also fantastic!
 
Now that that’s out of the way, onto the meat of your question.
 
I am pretty religious in my way, but I understand that some people aren’t, yourself included, and that’s fine. You asked me what I would’ve done if I didn’t have my mother’s support for my own lifestyle and practices. That’s actually easy for me to answer, because it was my experience with my dad. And let me tell you, it was tough. It wore on me. I felt like my spirit was being crushed every day that I lived under his roof. I’ve written about some of his abusive behaviours elsewhere so I won’t go into details here, but it is extremely difficult to attempt life as your authentic self when a person who controls everything from where you go to when you eat is calling the shots.
 
All I can tell you on that score is to be patient and to find places where you can be yourself. For me, my escape from my father’s tyranny was college. I used to stay long hours just so I wouldn’t be at home. I’d bring my computer to college with me, hole myself up in a computer lab and not come home until midnight. My father didn’t like it, and he often punished me in cruel and creative ways, but it was worth it for those moments of escape and solitude. I made friends, got a taste of life outside and was able to recharge a little between doses of “discipline”. I’m reasonably confident that I wouldn’t have survived twenty years at home without those fleeting escapes.
 
You aren’t in college yet, so I assume you’re in high school. Are there clubs you can join? Can you start a study group? Tell your parents you want to do your homework at the library because it’ll help you focus? If your parents are like mine were, appealing to academics is a good way of getting yourself that tiny slice of freedom. Even a couple of hours a week away from them will help. You’ll get to meet people who won’t judge you for being yourself, which is hugely important. If you can, find a place where you can have short social encounters without members of your community watching and judging. (For me, this was a little cafe across the road from my campus, where I shared many a plate of chips and gravy with friends between classes. Every little bit helps, it really does.) Carve out a little space in the world for yourself and the people you love and trust. It really does make all the difference.
 
(Oh, and see if you can’t take a change of clothes with you when you leave the house. I used to wear my hijab out the door and onto the bus, then take it off the moment I got to school. Is there a place where you’d feel safe doing something like that?)
 
The other thing you asked about was backlash from my community. X, I’m sad to say that I’m still experiencing that backlash. People talk behind my back all the time: “ah, she was such a good Muslim girl! what happened to her?” You just have to ignore it and move on, I’m afraid. You can’t change people’s minds for them. Decide for yourself how much you need these people in your life, and if you can avoid them, do so. You don’t need that kind of toxicity following you around. Rumours and whispers are hard to ignore at first, but if you pay them no credence, you’ll find that they either die down or people stop relaying them to you. Of course, every now and then you’ll get someone (probably a man, let’s be real) telling you to your face that you’re a bad Muslim or that you need to cover up. If you can, look them in the eye and tell them your life is between you and Allah, then walk away. You don’t owe anyone else an explanation of your life choices.
 
This is all a bit hard when you’re still a teenager, isn’t it? I know there are many people whose misguided “advice” you’ll have to listen to out of politeness and lots of aunties and uncles who will tell you things they think they know about you. Grin and bear it. You won’t be stuck under their thumb forever, and sometimes keeping the peace is better than starting a fight you can’t win.
 
Finally, I’ll give you the advice I give every young Muslim who comes to me for help: read the Qur’an. I’m not saying that in a holier-than-thou, “you need to improve yourself” kind of way. I’m saying it because the Qur’an is truly your best weapon against ignorance and bigotry of the kind you’ll experience from your family and community. I have to recommend The Message of the Qur’an by Muhammad Asad, which you can find as a free PDF at that link or for pretty cheap on Kindle. I’ve found a lot in Asad’s translation and commentary that has come in handy when addressing the criticisms of bigots and fundamentalists. Maybe it’ll help you too.
 
I hope you found this helpful! Remember above all that you are not alone: there are thousands – tens of thousands, even more! – of Muslims the world over who are questioning the outdated cultural mores of their ancestors and reinterpreting Islam for the 21st century and beyond. I believe that Islam is truly a religion for all time, which means that we have a responsibility to constantly re-examine and question what we think we know about it so that we can be sure we’re following it in a way that brings us the most possible peace and happiness. Whether you consider yourself very religious or not, remember that you have as much of a right to Allah’s love and the comfort of community as anyone else. I very much hope that you find these things and that they bring you peace and solace.
 
May Allah bless you and make your path an easy one, sister.

A letter to the Muslim girl who found my blog by accident

My dear,

I don’t know you. I don’t think you know me either, because you found my blog by accident whilst Googling something that truly broke my heart:

search term: "i'm a bisexual muslim my mom took away my phone with messages between me and a girl what should i do"

a search term in my blog stats.

I cried when I saw this. I cried because it reminded me so strongly of a time in my life that was very painful and very bleak and during which I had nobody to talk to about the things that were hurting me. I don’t know if you stayed to read my blog or if you clicked the link and decided I didn’t have the answers you were looking for. I don’t know where you are now or what you’re doing or even if you’re safe. But I’m writing this anyway, because once upon a time I felt very lonely and very scared and I didn’t know what to do, and maybe you feel that way too and maybe you might see this and feel a little bit less alone.

I want to tell you a story.

I had my first boyfriend when I was nineteen. He was Christian. I met him in med school. My dad didn’t even let me have male friends, let alone a boyfriend, so I had to keep him a secret. We were engaged within two months (bad idea in hindsight, but I digress). I would talk to him on my mobile using credit the two of us bought with whatever spare cash we could scrounge up. When my dad wasn’t home, sometimes I’d dare to use our landline to call him. We would Skype whenever I was allowed to use the internet, which wasn’t often because my dad was very suspicious and thought I might be talking to boys online. (I guess he was right.)

Anyway, one night my dad found out, and he kicked me out.

It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever gone through in my life. I remember packing as many clothes as I could fit into canvas grocery bags. I remember that my brother tried taking my phone and laptop from me but I fought him until he left me alone (though he broke my glasses during the struggle). I remember thinking to myself, this can’t be happening. It was New Year’s Day, 2010. I was twenty years old. I had never lived away from home in my life. I remember my youngest sister accompanying me to the front gate and tearfully hugging me goodbye because neither of us knew what was going to happen next. I remember that my brother chased me down the pitch-black street in the middle of the night to demand that I give back my house keys so I couldn’t sneak back into my childhood home. I remember passing a family who were out celebrating because it was New Year’s Day and exchanging greetings and being glad it was dark because it meant they couldn’t see me crying. I remember thinking my life was over.

My mother’s house was two blocks away (she and my father divorced in 2008) so I walked there in the hope that even though she and I were somewhat estranged, she would take me in. She wasn’t home, but my grandmother was visiting, and after I tearfully beat at the door for five minutes, she woke up, saw it was me and let me in. I remember breaking down crying in my grandmother’s arms. I remember trying to explain to her what had happened to me. She was very confused because she didn’t speak much English and had trouble understanding me at the best of times, let alone when I was sobbing and incoherent and scared.

(Writing about this now, I feel a shadow of the paralysing terror I felt then, and my breath is catching in my throat. I was so young and scared and alone and I was sure it would never get better.)

My mother got home and I explained things to her and of course she let me stay, because she’s a good woman who loves her children more than she loves following rules. I slept on her couch for the next six months. My father sent me angry text messages, then got my younger siblings to call me and try to guilt me into breaking up with my boyfriend and coming home. Eventually, I wrote him a letter telling him to leave me alone. The phone calls and text messages stopped and that was the last I saw of many of my siblings for months. I remember having nightmares that they had all died and I hadn’t been able to say goodbye. I woke up crying over and over again and I couldn’t tell anyone or call anyone or do anything at all but wait for the terror to pass.

I’m telling you all of this because I know a little bit of what you’re feeling right now. When I came out to my mother as bisexual, she was initially not thrilled. We fought about it. She yelled at me. She cried. She asked if it was a phase. She outed me to people without asking my permission, which infuriated me. Those were a hard few months. I felt even more alone, like I was being rejected by both of my parents, not just the one who’d kicked me out. I wondered if my mother even wanted me, if she wasn’t secretly sick of having me in her house. Over time, we came to an understanding and now we’re very close, but those were hard times for both of us.

I don’t know how old you are or where you live or what your situation is like. Perhaps some of what I’ve written here is resonating with you or perhaps it isn’t. But I wanted you to know – if you’re still here, still reading – that you are not alone. You are not unloved. Being Muslim and bisexual can be so hard and you can feel like the world hates you and I want you to know that I understand that and I’ve been through it and you do not have to be ashamed if you feel scared or lost or like nobody wants you around. I know all of those feelings. But you need to hear this: none of that is true. The world doesn’t hate you. Not even all Muslims hate you. I love you. People like my mother who are loving and kind and accepting love you. People like my Twitter followers who asked me if there was a way we could reach out to you and support you love you.

You are so very loved, my dear. You are so very, very loved. And I know you feel like you’re alone, but you aren’t. We’re here for you – the other misfits, the other people who were told they didn’t belong. We’ve formed our own friendships and our own families and we are so, so ready to be here for you if you would like us to be.

It’s very likely that you will never read this. I don’t know where you are or what you’re doing or if when you found my blog, you decided to stay. But if you did, know that you are amongst friends here. You are amongst people who will not ask you to feel bad about yourself because of the way Allah made you. You are amongst people who will love you and support you and hold you while you cry just like my grandmother held me and who will be your friends when you need friends, just like my friends were there for me when I spent days on my mother’s couch staring at the wall wondering if my life would ever be the same again. (It was never the same, but you want to know a secret? It got better. Things get better, sometimes. Hold onto that. They might very well get better for you, too.)

If you’re still here, my dear, then know that we are here for you. You have people on your team if you want them. Your mother can take your phone – and, if she’s like my father, do all manner of other nasty things to you – but you are not alone and she cannot stop us from loving you and wanting to support you even if she chooses not to support you herself. If you need someone to talk to, if you need people to tell you that everything will be okay, if you need help finding a safe place to stay or a new phone or really anything at all: write to me. Leave a comment or email me from a computer at school (jaythenerdkid @ inbox dot com) or tweet me or send me an ask.fm question anonymously or whatever you like. I’m here. Lots of people are here.

We love you. You are loved. You are not alone. It will get better. I promise.

May Allah protect you and guide you, my dear. You are in my prayers.

With love,

Jay

Scenes from the life of a Muslim feminist

“Aaminah, tell me you’re not wearing that out,” my mother says, consternation writ large on her face.

I am going to a party with friends, or to a late night coffee outing with the girls, or to an indie film night at the local community theatre, or just to the library to read. We have had this conversation so many times, my mother and I – she with her hair covered, in her long-sleeved shirts that are never too fitted and her trousers that are never too skinny; me with my lips painted bright red, towering over my mother in my high-heeled boots. We will have this conversation many times more.

“What’s wrong with it?” I ask, deliberately feigning ignorance. “Don’t I look nice?”

I know what she means. She knows I know what she means. She sighs. “Of course you look nice,” she says. “But do your skirts have to be, you know…” she gestures at the hem of my skirt, far above mid-thigh – exactly where I like it.

“I love this skirt,” I say. I said it the last time I wore it, and the time before that. “What’s wrong with this skirt?”

“It’s not a skirt, it’s a belt,” my mother quips, but by this point, both of us are smiling a little. She knows I won’t change and I know she won’t stop trying to convince me to change. It’s all right. This is a part of our relationship – me with my miniskirts and heels and shirts that make my mother blush, my mother with her scarves and sensible clothing that is always elegant without showing very much of anything.

We do not have to be alike in order to love each other. We have always been different, my mother and I. She is warm, genuine, loving and has a smile and a kind word for everyone. I am cold and aloof and like to pretend that I don’t care about people nearly as much as I secretly do. Perhaps the reason we get along so well is that we balance each other out.

My mother’s sleeve has rolled up slightly, caught in her wristwatch. I feign shock and indignation. “You’re one to talk, Mummy!” I gasp, pointing at her exposed wrist. I hiss, “there are men about, Mummy! Cover yourself! Have a little shame, for heaven’s sakes!”

She laughs, and then I laugh, and then we hug each other tightly. I have to bend a little, as I am already taller than my mother on flat feet, let alone in the heels I insist on wearing so often. I rest my head against her shoulder and smile. I love my mother so very much, and her repeated scolding about my clothing and resigned sighs about my hem length are just reminders that she loves me too. I am her first baby – first to grow up, first to leave the nest. I’ll be married soon, almost ready to start a family of my own, but I know I’ll still be her first baby when I have grandchildren of my own and am clicking my tongue disapprovingly at the way they dress.

“Have fun,” my mother says, gently slipping out of my arms and stepping back. She cannot resist tugging down the hem of my skirt a little. I glare at her and she laughs again. It’s the warmest, happiest sound I have ever heard in my life. “Say hello to your friends for me.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to come?” I ask her this every time I go anywhere. My friends all adore my mother. Everyone adores my mother. She’s the kind of person it’s impossible not to love at first sight. “You know the others won’t mind.” I lower my voice conspiratorially. “I’m pretty sure they like you more than they like me anyway, Mummy,” I confide in her. (This, too, I have said many, many times. We have had this conversation so many times before.)

She rolls her eyes at me. “Stop sucking up,” she says, but she cannot help but smile as she says it. “Go! I’m going to go and pray and then go to bed.”

I hug her one last time. We were separated for so long after my parents’ divorce that I sometimes feel like I’m making up for every hug we missed while we were apart. “I love you, Mummy,” I say, surreptitiously hiking my skirt back up. (She notices. She’s my mother. Of course she notices.)

“I love you too, my love,” she says, and I know she really means it. I know she will always mean it, no matter how often we quibble about my clothes or my feminism or that one time I got a little tipsy at a party. She has meant it since the day I was born. She meant it when I was an awkward, aloof teenager who didn’t know how to say it back. She meant it during the years after she divorced my father – meant it every time she said it to me and I refused to say it back because I was hurting too much. (She knows I wanted to say it but couldn’t. She understands. She’s my mother. Of course she understands.) She means it now.

We are not very much alike, my mother and I – she with her resigned sighs when I show up to visit her at work with fishnets under my plaid Hot Topic skirts; me with my rolled eyes every time she adjusts the necklines of my t-shirts because she judges them indecent. But this does not stop us from loving each other very much. It does not stop me from respecting her faith, or her from respecting mine. We know that deep down, we believe in the same Creator, even if we express that belief to the world in different ways. We know that we do not have to agree on everything in order to agree on that.

“Good night, Mummy,” I say as my phone buzzes to let me know my ride has arrived.

“Don’t bend over in that skirt,” she replies, and I want to roll my eyes at her but I end up smiling instead, because it’s such a very Mummy thing for her to say.

I have a fantastic night. My friends tell me they love my skirt. I think of my mother and smile.


Dedicated to my Mummy, who taught me almost everything I know both about what it is to be a Muslim and about what it is to be a feminist.

Muslim, queer, feminist: it’s as complicated as it sounds.

blog post cover photo

me: muslim no matter how I dress.

NOTE: I am closing comments on this post as of 13/03/2014 due to an influx of very bigoted conservatives telling me I’m a bad Muslim who’s going to hell (way to miss the point of the post!). If you’d like to contact me about this blog post, you can email me (jaythenerdkid @ inbox dot com) or tweet me.

There are three aspects of my identity that really can’t be untangled from each other:

I am a queer woman.

I am a feminist.

And I believe that there is no god but Allah, and that Muhammad is Allah’s messenger.

Yeah, it’s the third one that usually gets the record-scratch reaction.

I was raised Muslim, but in my teens, I became severely disillusioned with the faith. Having finished reading the Qur’an in English for the first time, I started to fully appreciate just how easy it was for people to twist and re-interpret the book to serve their own needs. I realised my father had been doing that to me for years, with his rules that he swore came “from God” and his restrictions on my behaviour that were all part of me being a good Muslim girl. Cover yourself so men don’t stare at you; do not draw attention to yourself; avoid the company of men, for being around them will always be a temptation to the both of you. Obey your elders in all matters, even when you know they’re wrong. Abstain not only from sex, but from any kind of intimacy outside of marriage. Be chaste. Be a credit to your family. Be the version of good the people running your life expect you to be.

It all seemed so convenient, the way every time my dad wanted me to do something, he could find a religious reason for it, but when I pointed out things in the Qur’an that seemed to contradict him, he had a way of twisting the words so that he was in the right. It was frustrating, infuriating. It was around this time that I stopped trusting my father all together.

But that’s another story.

I think I was sixteen when I made the choice to give Islam another try – on my own terms, this time. By this time, I’d made gay friends; nurtured quiet, unrequited crushes on both boys and girls; sung in choirs and acted on stages without my father’s knowledge; cultivated friendships with boys and even flirted a little, though all in secret. I’d taken to studying my developing form – coltish and awkward, but with a hint of a promise of what it would eventually become – in the bathroom mirror late at night when everyone was asleep, wondering about how it might feel to have someone else see it, even desire it. And I thought about reading the Qur’an as a child and how it had made me feel like I was connecting with something bigger than myself, something that had space for a square peg like me. I wondered if I could find that connection again, if maybe there was more to Islam than authoritarian men telling me what to do. Maybe there was a message for me in there, and I could find it.

So I looked. I read the Qur’an in Arabic, then in English again – more critically, this time, my mind free of the expectation that I would find things that would confirm what I’d been told as a child. I read about Islamic history and the development and stagnation of Sharia law. And while I did all of that, I looked inward. I prayed. I meditated on who I was and what I wanted and where I was going and where my path might lead. I did as Allah instructed me: I questioned everything. I did as my Prophet instructed me: I sought knowledge. I sought it everywhere – in the Qur’an, in religious commentaries, in the Hadithes, in the sacred texts of other faiths, in discussions with friends who thought the concept of a creator was as ludicrous as the idea that the world was flat. I drank all of it in, filtered it through the lens of my own reality, searched for the things that I felt were meant just for me.

It was a long process. I haven’t finished yet. I don’t know if I’ll ever finish. I’ve spent many, many hours buried in books or deep in prayer or engaged in long conversations with my partner about the nature of good and evil and the meaning of life and what God’s purpose for us is, or if there’s a purpose at all. I think I’ve found some of the answers, and I think there are some I’ll never find, not that it’ll stop me from looking. But here is what I’ve found out so far:

It’s possible to be queer and Muslim. This was actually the easiest thing. Restrictions about pre-marital sex and sex with people of the same gender made plenty of sense in a society without contraception or antibiotics, where there were no paternity tests or laws guaranteeing child support (though Islam does have provisions for spousal support in the event of a divorce). I have access to condoms, dental dams, the oral contraceptive pill, penicillin, STD testing. I can terminate unwanted pregnancies safely if need be. Islam, Allah says, is a religion for all people in all times. I do not believe the Creator meant for us to live forever as though scientific progress never happened. And more importantly, I believe that my god is a god of love, and that expressions of love between people of any and all genders are one of the holiest acts that we as human beings can perform. The love between two men or two women or a couple of varying non-binary genders, or even that of a group of consenting adults of various genders, is a holy and sacred thing. The love a gay couple has for an adopted or surrogate child is a holy thing. The love a parent has for a gay or trans child is a holy thing. I do not believe that my God, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful, would ever begrudge human beings any acts of love. I believe, in fact, that it is through love that we express the part of ourselves that is closest to Allah in both substance and likeness. We were meant to love. We were meant to express that love and share it with others.

It’s possible to be feminist and Muslim. It’s possible to be sex-positive, to support the rights of sex workers, to support the rights of women to work or stay at home (both protected in the Qur’an), to support the rights of women to demand sexual satisfaction (also guaranteed in the Qur’an), whilst being Muslim. It’s possible to support both the right of a woman to wear a burqa or niqab or dupatta and the right of a woman to wear a miniskirt and high heels. I believe the concept of hijab is about more than modesty – I think it’s about comfort, boundaries and deciding for ourselves what we will and won’t let other people see. Not all Muslim women cover their hair – not even all Muslim women who are pious, devout, practising mumineen cover their hair. I believe, for the same reasons I outlined above, that a woman can enjoy intimate relations with a partner outside of marriage, provided she does so safely. I believe women have the right to live their lives without fear of harassment from men, another right enshrined in the Qur’an. Islam is, Allah tells us, a permissive religion. It is meant to make our lives easier, happier and more peaceful. Feminism is also meant to make our lives easier, happier and more peaceful. Islam is also a religion of justice (the Most Just is one of Allah’s ninety-nine names), and feminism is a movement for justice. Islam, I believe, is – or can be – an inherently feminist faith.

It is possible to be me and be Muslim. I wear miniskirts. I flirt with cute girls in bars. I drive my mother to distraction with my scoop-neck t-shirts and exposed legs. I have male friends. I have loved women and men and people who are neither or both or a complex mixture. Islam is not my father telling me that I can’t join the choir because good Muslim girls don’t sing in public. Islam is not a man telling me I need to cover myself or feel ashamed. Allah does not ask me to be ashamed of myself. Allah asks me to love, to feel compassion, to be empathetic, to give my life in service to the creator and to creation. These are things I can happily and willingly do.

The word “Islam” means “peaceful submission to Allah”. The word “Muslim” means “one who has submitted”. I have opened my heart to the love of Allah and it has enabled me to be a more loving person. I have submitted peacefully to the idea that I must live in service of the creator and creation, and it gives me joy and peace to do so. I have a path and a purpose. I understand some of why I am here and what I must do. I do not know everything. In fact, I do not even know if what I do know is correct. But I know that whatever decisions I make, however I let Allah into my life, it will be on my terms – as a feminist, as a queer woman. As a Muslim, devoted to Allah, carrying the message of love and hope and compassion and peace of the Qur’an in her heart always and forever. As a servant of creation: a speck living on a speck orbiting a speck in a cluster of specks surrounded by other specks, a whole so large that only one outside it could see all of it.

I do not speak for Islam. I do not speak for Muslims. I speak for one Muslim: myself. There are as many interpretations of the Qur’an as there are readers of the text. This is mine: a queer, feminist interpretation for my queer, feminist life. It is my path to peace. It is freedom from the shackles of uncertainty. It is my greatest and purest love.

And it is mine. Not my father’s or my mother’s or anyone else’s. Mine alone. My Islam. My way of life.

Slivers of Mirrors

I’m going to level with you here – I’m crying as I write this.

I first became a Doctor Who fan in 2007 – just in time to fall in love with Martha Jones and watch as the writers systematically tore her to shreds to make Rose Tyler look like the incredibly classist ode to white sainthood they wanted her to be. (Sorry, that sounded bitter. Another conversation for another time.) Martha was like me – she was a woman of colour, she was a med student, she had a snappy retort for every occasion and she had the kind of adventurous spirit that led her to get into a battered and very anachronistic box for a chance to see the universe. I think a lot of the reason I’m so bitter about the Russell T Davies era of Doctor Who is how he treated one of the very first women on TV with whom I really identified.

The next time one of those came up on Who was several years later. Here she is:

The Doctor:

Rita:

I hear you, sister.

Damn it. I still can’t watch that without crying.

Maybe that doesn’t make sense to you. For context, here’s a little background about me:

September 11th, 2001 changed my life. I remember coming to school that day to see the faces of people who’d known me since I was in preschool suddenly darkened with fear and suspicion. Damn it, I was eleven years old. I didn’t fly a plane into a building and I certainly didn’t want to kill anyone. I was as scared and angry and hurt as anyone else. The difference was that everyone else formed a big group called Us and started treating people like me – the little group called Them – like we were going to take them down next.

I put up with being Them for years. Hell, I still have to put up with it. It’s easier now that I don’t cover my hair any more and I wear short skirts and high heels and a lot of makeup, easier now that I can pass for an “exotic” pretty girl with a nice tan, but it still comes up every now and then. I’m one of Them.

I have spent so, so long laughing nervously and telling people not to be frightened.

I never thought I’d see that on the telly.

I’ve read a lot of very clever, very thorough critiques of the character of Rita. They have lots of good points. Maybe the line was a throwaway joke that could have been taken in a lot of negative ways. Maybe Rita was unfairly stereotyped. Maybe she was just another woman of colour who got to die so the Doctor could save white people.

I’m sorry, but I don’t care. I don’t care because I have spent more than a decade now asking people not to be frightened of me, and I never, never, not once in a million years, thought I would get to see someone who looked a little like me and talked a little like me say it.

I never thought I’d get to see someone like me on Doctor Who. Not ever.

That little throwaway line, that’s my life. Every time some fanatic bombs a building, I have to ask people not to be frightened. Every time there’s violence in Pakistan or Afghanistan or Palestine or Syria, I have to ask people not to be frightened. Every time some madman in a shalwar kameez gets interviewed by a reporter and they get a soundbyte of him that can be twisted into “Muslims want everyone in the West to follow Sharia”, I have to ask – carefully, nervously, like it’s all just a joke – for people not to be frightened.

I’ve never killed anyone or even wished death on anyone because their beliefs were different from mine, but people are frightened of me. I have said those words or some variation of those words – don’t be frightened – hundreds and hundreds of times since I was an eleven-year-old sitting in a classroom full of people who looked at me like they didn’t even know me any more. I have said them to teachers and friends and people I don’t even know. I have apologised for crimes I haven’t committed, for blood that isn’t on my hands, so. many. times. that my reaction now is exactly like Rita’s.

Smile. Little eye-roll. Nervous laugh. Don’t be frightened.

That is life for thousands upon thousands of young, fairly Westernised, probably moderately progressive Muslim women living in predominantly white countries around the world, and it has been for more than a decade now.

And they showed us on TV. For once – just once – we got to tune in and see ourselves.

Steven Moffat has done a lot of problematic things. He has said a lot of problematic things. He has written a lot of problematic characters. But he gave me something I never thought I’d get. He gave me someone like me on the telly. I know a lot of you can identify with that feeling – the feeling that just once, just once, someone stopped treating you like you were invisible and made you feel like you were a part of the world, someone who could show up on a cheesy, clever, ridiculous science fantasy TV show about a madman in a box who goes on adventures. We ache for that, don’t we? We ache for that moment when we’ll turn on the telly or look in a magazine or up at a billboard and see someone who looks and acts and speaks just a little bit more like us.

Rita was my moment. And yeah, I’m still crying. I cry every time I think about it. I cry because just once, there was a girl a bit like me on TV and instead of being a terrorist or a mad person or an illiterate savage in need of help, she was clever and witty and funny and valued and brave and full of compassion and vim and vigour and life. The Doctor didn’t treat her badly or like she was less-than just because of her faith. (Didn’t he even seem a little happy? Didn’t he even seem like he thought she was pretty cool?) It was almost like she was worth something.

Almost like people like me might be worth something.

Almost like people like me might matter enough to get our stories told alongside everyone else’s.

I may never stop crying about this.

Steven Moffat is a cishet white man with a lot of issues about women who does a lot of things the wrong way. I’m not going to say he shouldn’t be criticised for the things he does badly, because he should. I’m not going to say he shouldn’t have to do better, because he should.

But he gave me my moment. That’s something. That’s a start. Journey of a thousand miles, you know.

This was my first step.

 

Related Reading: a post about this on Tumblr that says everything I just said more quickly and with a lot less crying.