By Joy Muhammad
Letter from 15-year-old me to seven-year-old me:
I know you feel a bit rubbish. A bit awkward in corduroy trousers
and consequently having to pretend to be a little dad in that
awful playground game “Mummies and Daddies.” You would
rather play She Ra, like on the telly, than the other alternative,
which is football, because the boys would think you fancy them
if you went near them. Yuck.
Mum and Dad say you’re ready to fast for Ramadan. You think
it’s exciting because it means you’re growing up. I will tell you
now, despite being really skinny you will not like fasting and
will struggle with praying five times a day because you’re either
reading, skipping, sleeping, or daydreaming. You will wonder
why it takes so much work to follow a religion, Mum and Dad
will try to make you understand. You’ll ask your gran, years later,
in the middle of her teaching you the Qur’an, what a hernia is.
She’ll tell you straightaway and will continue teaching. Gran’s
kickass like that.
It’s not your fault. You read too much Garfield the Cat. He was
complaining about hernias.
Letter from 18-year-old me to 16-year-old me:
It’s only been two years that I’m writing to you but quite a bit has
changed. You’ve got some weird attitude to sexuality right now.
You started off by thinking “I’m not gay, I’m just a supporter” like
some pink scarf-wielding football fan. Then you think, “I’m not
gay, I’m bisexual,” but there’s nothing about bisexuality for you
to turn to. So then you say, “I’m not bisexual, I’m a lesbian.”
You’re poring over every lesbian-related article and book you can find in the library and reaching for help from different counselors and pen pals.
The lesbian counselor finds your teenage angst boring. Your
Muslim counselors are a mixed bunch; the older ones expressing concern that you’re going through a tough time, and the younger ones going
through a flap about your “homosexual tendencies.” Your pen
pal shares the most embarrassing teen crushes with you and you
do the same, sharing agony aunt columns with advice about
growing pains. She cuts you off suddenly, signing off in her last
letter that she is now dreaming of being married to a boyband
member. You have a feeling her mum has read your letters.
Right now you’re lusting over the neighborhood androgynous
tomboy and wishing she could whisk you away in her fourwheel-drive jeep. You’re drooling over queer lesbian celebs except
for k.d. lang who just doesn’t rock your world. You bat away
any feelings you have for guys because you consider yourself to
be a lesbian.
You attend your first Pride march and your parents scream that
you are going straight to hell when they see you on TV. Being gay
is not accepted in Islam. Still, you look far and wide for support.
There are Christian gay groups but there are none for Muslims.
Your best friend’s family find out that you’re attracted to women
and ban her from seeing you. You tune into a post-midnight gay
radio show to give you some hope, as the DJ himself is Jewish.
Although you feel numb you can never get used to the pain of
Letter from 21-year-old me to 18-year-old me:
You now have your first girlfriend. I am telling you now: hold
her dear all you want, but she is so much better left in the past
as well as the next one. And the next. And yeah, maybe the following one too. You’re still keeping your feelings for men at bay.
You have moved to a Muslim country of late, and you have
managed to reconcile both your faith and sexuality, which you
still keep under wraps. Perhaps it’s the strong queer network
you have now become a part of, which is prevalent in Muslim
countries. Strangely, no one screams “lezzie” or “faggot” at or
harasses the camp gay man or butch tomboy, not even in the
rural villages. Sometimes, there’s the odd account of trying to
‘cure’ homosexuals, but overall you and your friends, including
your girlfriend, don’t seem worried. Even the teenage girls in
sixth form at the local secondary schools have girlfriends.
But love isn’t all it’s mapped out to be. Your first girlfriend, who
isn’t Muslim, is Islamaphobic, always encouraging you to drink
alcohol at social events, as you’re a sinner for being a lesbian
anyway. She makes snide comments about the Azaan and other
Muslims, and as she’s your first girlfriend you don’t dare say
anything back even though you refuse the alcohol. She and the
rest of your mutual friends are not too fond of bisexuals. You
attend a short college course in an Islamic university that your
dearest parents have fought tooth and nail to secure for you. In
the opening ceremony, you’re looking forward to regaining somenspirituality until the sermon covers— for no apparent reason—
the sins of homosexuality in the West.
Letter from 35-year-old me to 21-year-old me:
You’re in a very dark place after managing to split up with your
current girlfriend, who practically handed you the keys to her
flat on the second date. Well, some things need to be kept traditional, don’t they? The relationship is a turbulent one, bringing
out the worst in the both of you. I can tell you now, your taste in
women doesn’t change for a very long time, and you will always
be waiting for some butch to sweep you off your feet. To get
over it, you don some ultrafeminine clothes and makeup and
decide to give men a whirl. Turns out you actually like being
with them, too.
Your family are happy that you’ve changed your image to a more
conventionally feminine one. They bypass the attraction you are
gaining from men, relieved that you have seemingly gotten over
your tomboy phase.
You tell your lesbian friends to shove it when they start going
on their biphobic spiel again. You attend your first Pride in the
country, which is a concert on the top of a high-class shopping
mall. You bump into your ex-girlfriend. Not good.
Your best friend is a trans woman who went to the same Islamic
college you did and has done exceptionally well for herself as a
corporate executive. You pray together in the Muslim women’s
prayer rooms and no one has any issue. You begin to read the
Qur’an, appreciate what certain passages mean and become
prouder of your religion. Other Muslims either tease or look at
you in curiosity—you don’t wear the headscarf or “look” Muslim.
This makes you even more determined to study the Good Book
and you finish both the translation and Arabic script, though of
course no one believes that you did.
From 40-year-old me to 35-year-old me:
Back home in England again!
Sorry, it’s been a while but what can I say? We’ve been really
busy, haven’t we?
You went through a straight-ish sort of phase, despite acknowledging you were bisexual. It worked for a while, even when you
moved countries, because the lads back in the West like a bit
of exotic Asian flesh. Additionally, if they were Muslim they
thought you’d make an interesting wife before the first date. Some
relationships worked out, most didn’t, but that was fine because
you were in no rush. Sadly, there wasn’t much success elsewhere,
but you did manage to get yourself a nice sugar mummy plus a high-flying professional enby [non-binary] partner for a while.
The suburbs suck, don’t they? You fall in love with some of your
boyfriends, ready to hit the life of living in semi-detached houses
with plain manicured lawns, pebble-dashed drives and furnished
with cheap plastic chairs and tables. There’s only one little gay
pub down the road from where you live, and most lesbians ignore you for being too straight looking in your heels and long
hair. You try and fit in with the straight crowd. But they can
tell you’re putting on a mask, and you still feel that you don’t fit
anywhere. You stumble across a few bisexual socials and, finally,
a Gay Muslim group during Pride. You attend their meetings. It’s
like coming home and learning about some wonderful long-lost
relatives over a cup of chai and vegan cookies. The environment
in both groups is very diverse.
And that’s where you have been for the past few years. It hasn’t
been easy going on a journey to accept yourself. There are
still things you could do better. Your faith is still unshakeable
as you pore over scriptures and Islamic history from time to
time, enthralled at how lots of details of your religion apply
to a progressive society, including kick-ass female role models
and looking after marginalized folk. You’re still not the best at
prayers. You still get hangry during Ramadan. Sometimes you
even speak out of turn, throwing your toys out of the pram when
God doesn’t let you get your own way, after being ever so close to
you after all these years. You hear reports of rising homophobic
hate crimes in Muslim countries with members of their public
saying that LGBTQI communities never existed in a Muslim
society. They don’t represent you. Online you’re shown pictures
of fifteen-year-olds being thrown off a roof by Daesh. The poor
young victims have not one name to be remembered by. The
people posting such pictures are usually queer and constantly
label your faith as dangerous to women and queers. Again, they
don’t represent you.
People assume that you’re trapped in the faith of your parents
and that you are too scared to change your religion. You are told
you can choose only one—either a queer life or a Muslim one.
How strange is it that some can possess such a two-dimensional
attitude. You also find out that biphobia exists in the form of
people telling you that you don’t exist and that it’s impossible
for you to remain monogamous. Funny that, you’re not keen on
sharing or threesomes. Did you miss the memo somewhere? A
large portion of your straight friends don’t attend your birthday
parties or events, as they think you’re going to trap them into
a masked orgy with flying dildos and line-dancing gimps. And
yes, even in the West, lesbians don’t like bisexuals. Not to worry,
though, because you found your way and gender was never relevant. Eventually you give up caring and kick back. Too Asian,
too Muslim, too Western, too gay, too straight, too feminine,
too masculine, whatever. Toodle pip, I couldn’t give a shit.
Joy Muhammad is a queer mixed Asian feminist of faith based in