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 coun- selors 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 four-wheel-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 being alone.
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 some spirituality 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 UK.