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 While I believe in Allah and his prophet, I’m not very religious and I believe many practices/thoughts/beliefs are outdated.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.
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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.