(External Content - posted on behalf of author)
Part of the LGBT history month is reflecting on how far we have come in regard to LGBTQI equality, but also reflecting on how far we have yet to go. Legislation in the UK is both indicative of and a driving force for changing attitudes within society regarding LGBTQI people. These changes have empowered more of the younger generation to come out and live openly in a way that many before were not able to. However, we continue to struggle in many ways for the liberation of LGBTQI people globally.
As a British Muslim lesbian, LGBT history month, much like Pride month in June, is bittersweet. Even in 2020 I find myself stuck at the same crossroads I found myself at ten years ago when I began to come out, questioning whether there is a space for me to be authentic to myself instead of sacrificing (or minimising) identities in favour of another - depending on whatever context I am in. My gender, sexuality, race, nationality and religion are all facets of my identity and shape each other. To put on a different identity hat’ when I'm in different spaces is inauthentic and counterproductive.
In many ways my upbringing looks much like any other working-class British Pakistani/Kashmiri family. The traditional ideals of gender reinforced upon me by my father was met with resistance from my mother, who always assured me that there's nothing wrong with being a gutsy brash girl. My mum's feminism confronted my dad's casual sexism and provided a model for me to be that gutsy brash girl.
Even though I knew from the age of six that I was a lesbian, coming out never felt like an option
Growing up, our household was semi-religious. Religion was important, but I didn't grow up in an orthodox, conservative environment. However, despite this there was one issue in which there was no question: homosexuality was a sin and Muslims cannot be gay. This was echoed throughout my childhood and my young adult life by my family and my friends who were also Muslim. Even though I knew from the age of six that I was a lesbian, coming out never felt like an option. I had to make a choice: I'm either Muslim or lesbian. I chose Islam.
By my late teens, despite trying to pray away my sexuality, I realised I couldn't ignore that I was a lesbian and that nothing was going to change that. I thought by wearing a hijab, holding onto my faith and following orthodox interpretations of the Quran and Hadith, I would be able to lead a normal life. At the same time, my mum also became more religious when choosing to wear the hijab and praying regularly. As I realised I couldn't hide from my sexuality, I began to feel incredibly isolated. I felt that because I was taught the Islamic perspective of homosexuality that my religion would not welcome me and, not knowing any other LGBTQI Muslims, that also the LGBTQI community didn't include people like me. This had a serious impact on my mental health.
My sexuality and faith have felt in conflict not because of my own relationship with Allah, but because of outside voices. In fact, it was during the month of Ramadan, the holiest month in the Islamic calendar, that I fully came out to myself and began down the path of self-acceptance. It was the spiritual empowerment I felt during this month that allowed me to accept the way Allah had made me. My sexuality was something I had resented and hid from since I was a young child and to truly accept it brought a huge sense of relief.
However, whilst I had come to accept myself, I didn't know if there were any Muslims I could speak openly with about women's sexuality in Islam. Also, the image of LGBTQI people in the media and public life was (and still is) overwhelmingly white. This meant that those feelings of isolation I had felt before coming out to myself persisted.
It was a pure coincidence that I met a prominent Muslim feminist who helped me to accept my sexuality as a Muslim woman and not feel like I had to denounce or distance myself from Islam to embrace my sexuality. She saw me as any other Muslim and didn't just accept my sexuality in the hope that I would work against that part of myself. This sense of acceptance by a fellow Muslim woman gave me the reassurance that I could come out to my family. This ended up being extremely traumatic for both me and my mum and is something we do not discuss even to this day. However, I believe that if there was more support led by Muslim women for us to discuss, learn and support each other regarding gender and sexuality then perhaps she could have begun to accept or be more open to my sexuality.
At this same time, I tried to find support within the LGBTQI community. However, I found, as a Muslim woman wearing a hijab, that Islamophobia, sexism and racism were entrenched in many LGBTQI spaces, cutting access to any support or community. Around this time, I discovered Muslim LGBT groups, but these groups often focused on LGBT nightlife culture, something that was isolating to me as a practising Muslim. This contributed to the feeling that I had to leave behind my religion and alter my appearance in order to find a space that accepted me. I found these communities at a vulnerable time and this deepened the feeling of conflict I felt between identities and that in order to live freely as one identity I had to sacrifice another. This of course gave no freedom as no matter what, I had to hide or lessen a part of myself.
Gay Muslim activism continues to relegate lesbian Muslim women to the last in line
Whilst there has been increasing representation given to LGBTQI Muslims, the narratives we see are overwhelmingly that of gay Muslim men. This comes from the hostile sexism found in many LGBTQI Muslim groups that reflect the sexism found in the mainstream LGBT community and conservative Muslim community. Muslim women within these spaces are treated as secondary by gay Muslim men, further restricting access to safe spaces for lesbian Muslim women. Gay Muslim activism continues to relegate lesbian Muslim women to the last in line. It is Muslim feminists, both gay and straight, who have opened the conversations around gender and sexuality and provided progressive and inclusive frameworks to examine these within an Islamic context. This in turn has created spaces for all LGBTQI Muslims.
The conflicts I felt in consolidating my identity as a Muslim and my identity as a lesbian are similar to the barriers people, like my mum, have to accepting me as a Muslim lesbian. The pressure on Muslim women, particularly British Pakistani/Kashmiri women, to fulfil gender roles means that much of the care duties for families rest on their shoulders. This in combination with the lack of representation of lesbian women within the Muslim community and the Muslim LGBTQI community makes it harder for us to live freely as our authentic selves. Those of us who are gay and Muslim should be able to more than a gay Muslim, but instead a Muslim who happens to be gay. Only when we get to that point are we beginning to acknowledge the diversity of Muslims, that has always been there.
Reflecting on my own personal
story and how far we've come (and how far we have yet to go), I want to thank all the
Muslim women this LGBT history month that have been allies to me and continue
to challenge homophobia in our religious communities. Thank you for saving my
life, without these remarkable Muslim women I do not think I would be here.
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