*My brown identity is that of a British person living in the South Asian Diaspora (more specifically, Pakistani and North Indian). My Brownness is different to those from Southern Indian, Black, and other Muslimahs and by no means do I want to subsume everyone under the same and reductive category of “brown.”
Answering questions are hard, innit? I get asked questions all the time. I mean, I know everyone gets asked questions. “How are you doing?” “Where you been?” “Where’d you get them dungarees from?” “Who was that piffy I saw you with on road last week?” but the nice, inane questions change when you’re deliberately the topic of interest. How many of you reading have been in a situation where, when you’ve mentioned you’re queer or Muslim, had a question posed due to that? “Oh, you have a girlfriend? Is she Muslim too?” But seriously, when people find out you’re queer AND Muslim, you have to give them a minute to catch their breath. It’s like they’ve found a living, breathing case study. They’ve only just gotten over the fact a brown gender-queer(ish?) person is in their heterosexual white midst and you have the audacity to drop another bombshell their way. So I figured I’d help out my fellow queer brown Muslimahs and start off what I hope will be a handy go-to list for answering basic questions at parties, job interviews, awkward sexual encounters, and all of those tangled up microaggressions that use up too much energy to unpick. It’s easy to forget, what with the cultural preoccupation of survival being on the forefront of our minds, that we’re bound to have monotonous interactions with Dave from HR during our lunch breaks. But remember, patience is a virtue! So the next time someone asks you if your headscarf just magically slipped off when you get to the monthly local lesbian night, recite Ayat Al-Kursi before decking them across the head, it makes it halal innit. Let’s have a starter of about 10 questions that I get asked, ranging from prospective lovers to people who want me to be in their new edgy documentary that their uncle funded and is absolutely certain their pitch to Channel 4 will come through so, while they can’t pay for your time, it’s really great exposure.
When did you find out you were queer?
For some reason, this question is taken as a universal assault to all queer people. Sure, white queer people have often had the “when did you turn gay” question posed to them a number of times too. I would hate to erase the “universal” queer experience after all. But in this context, the question is racialised. The question normally comes after the initial disbelief around the multiplicity of your being, and then turns to the question of time. A while ago, I never really counted the racialised aspect of this question and it often defeated me, leading to questions like number 2, onwards. SO how do you answer this question? I would recommend removing yourself from it entirely. If you can’t do that because Dave likes to ramble and you want to be in his good books, why not change the topic? Tell him he’s wearing a nice tie. But the most effective way of dealing with this question is head on. It can take a lot of labour, it can be scary, and it can cause confrontations. It’s simply saying “I don’t feel comfortable with answering that question / that doesn’t make any sense / that’s quite offensive so I wouldn’t ask that again if I was you.”It can introduce more questions, but there’s really nothing like politely declining to go any further.
How did your family react? Do you still talk to them?
This one’s cheeky because, in case you have not noticed, I rolled two questions into one. The main beef I have with this question is that it is insulting my family. Firstly, no one needs to know about my family’s feelings if they aren’t personally expressing them. I feel this way when people ask how my mum “handled” it. When you ask this question, you’re taking away my own mother’s agency and voice, and expect me to be a ventriloquist for your disposal. If you want to know how my family feels, do the legwork and ask them yourself if you’re so interested. This question can be really fucking triggering, right? And for what? Someone’s vague interest in a massive part of your life. I dunno, I’m British and avoid anything deep with people who aren’t my loved ones, so I just usually say “yeah they were fine, of course, we still talk” in the hopes that the conversation can end… but, you guessed it, it doesn’t. I’ve had my “situation” compared to “honour” killings, for god’s sake. There’s always a Muslim woman they can reference as being a victim of violence by their “backward” family. Again, just know you don’t have to answer any of these questions. You have the right to be in a safe environment all the time and not be triggered. And remembering that can save you half an hour of dodging uncomfortable questions. You don’t owe anyone anything.
Did you ever wear a headscarf /why don’t you wear a headscarf?
There’s this invasive fascination from non-Muslim folks around head covering. I mean, feel free to engage. My family are really eager to engage with non-Muslim folk and educate them on purdah and the like, but I’m not. When I get asked this question I tend to respond with a “Did it use to be your business? Why have you made it your business?”
Isn’t being gay haram?
Sigh. I’ve had this question thrown at me by a white Christian person during a recorded interview that I was doing as a favour. It’s like anyone who asks that question hasn’t given a single thought to the complexity of faith and how many diverse sects of Islam there are, let alone the geographical range of Muslims. To ask such a “yes/no” question is surely insulting to any faith. The truth is, Islam is a personal journey at the end of the day. Some Muslims will drink alcohol but remain adamant that being queer is haram. Some Muslims will murder people, but insist that being trans is a stain on this world. Heck, some Muslims will excuse the mass oppression of their sisters, but still, blame the west for the invention of the LGBT. This question is not progressive.
Do you pray?
This is kind of linked to the “isn’t being gay haram” question. I get asked this a lot in interviews and when I meet people who learn about my gender and sexuality. Again, you don’t really ask straight Muslims this question, so why ask queer Muslims as if their queerness negates their religion (spoiler: it does not).
Do you date white people?
A weird one, right? But I honestly get it, in a sympathetic way. I like talking about race a lot day-to-day, I would by no means call myself an activist (I wouldn’t know where to begin and my organisational skills are appalling) but it’s a big part of my life and everything that I do. I’ve actually been called “radical” by a straight girl for no reason. I guess she thought it was radical that I even existed in front of her. When it comes to talking about race as a brown person, I’d have to deconstruct and critique “whiteness” as I know and experience it. I only get asked this by white people, perhaps they feel left out. Go figure.
Do you want to be in a podcast that I’m making about diverse Muslims in Britain?
I feel many ways about this. Firstly, did the person who’s making the podcast even consider my safety? It screams “quirky art fayre object” to me. Like, I must have you and document you for my own archive, for my own people. What kills it, is that they phrase it in such a way which tells me I should be grateful for the opportunity to step foot onto their platform! But here’s the important stuff: ask questions back. How much are you paying me? Are you reimbursing my travel costs, are you buying me coffee and lunch? How are you going to ensure my safety, are you going to get me an uber, change my name? What’s the demographic of this podcast? Who else is going to be on this podcast? When it comes to this, know your worth. If you want to be on this podcast and it sounds good, but you can’t afford the train there, say it. State your needs and make sure they are met. The same goes with panel discussions as well. Recently, I’ve learned to turn down panel discussions, even if they pay me if there are no black Muslims on it. Always question these types of things, and remember that we have a lot of unlearning to do, too.
Oh my god, you’re so radical! How do you do it?
This is more of a general comment/question that I get a lot for no apparent reason. I get people calling me radical for my opinions and thoughts on racial, sexual, and gender equality and equality amongst all faiths. I’m not an activist, and I will not pretend to be one. I respect activists for all the time and labour they put into their work, and the resources they give people like me to learn and grow from. So why call me radical when I’m not always at the protest, and I’ve never organised grassroots meetings or rallies? Like I’ve already said, I think it’s the simple fact that I exist that is ground-breaking for them. Remember that the word “radical” is used differently now than as it was 10, 20 years ago. How do you understand what radical means to you? And remember even this warrants a self-critique. That being said, a lot of folx say that the act of existing in public spaces as a queer black person or person of colour is radical.
Can I use your blog post/tweet / status update/comment for my article? I would pay but the budget’s been cut so I can’t extend that to other contributors.
Look, this is different because the lack of financial reimbursement has been addressed and any room for negotiating has been shut. If you’re still interested, ask what you will receive for your time and effort because they should know better than to use “exposure” and “experience” being a suitable currency for your emotions, knowledge, and experience. I remember when I first started speaking about my identity and getting my work “out there” I would see loads of inspirational QTBPOC (some Muslim) posting up their talks and collaborations on social media and I would feel useless and not that great, to be honest. I’m being upfront about this because this isn’t only my experience. Studies have found that the rise of social media put unrealistic expectations of happiness on most users, specifically the younger ones. So I would think about why these people’s voices are more important than mine. This isn’t a healthy way of thinking and is counterproductive to any solidarity you can find in this world. Now, I see social media as a way to be challenged, engage in positive discussions, and support QTBPOC and their work. But that took a lot of work for me to overcome and social media didn’t really help me gain perspective, my friends and peers did. So when I started, I would lessen the value of my work just so I could get a mention on a website and get a shout out to my Instagram. Don’t get me wrong, I still love getting mentions and shout outs and I’m a firm believer of giving credit where credit is due. But when I exercise patience and remind myself that there are resources to sustain me, pay me, feed me, I know that maybe I can live without being on someone’s article for a brief mention on Buzzfeed.
Do you think that you’ll be conservative when you’re older and leave all this stuff behind?
So to give a shitty comparison, have you ever heard of someone tell another person who’s said they won’t even want kids to tell that they’ll change their mind when they’re older or “find the right person” *cough* toxic monogamy and heteronormative standards *cough*? It’s like when people can’t deal with the fact that this is who you are. Yeah, you might change, you most likely will, because we’re fluid beings. I change or grow month to month. But why do people assume that queerness is tied up only with youth? Not only is it erasing queer and trans people from older generations, but it’s reinforcing the idea that there is no room in Islam for queerness. I had cousin’s who would treat women badly, drink and drive, and do stuff that I have no time for. I always asked them “so d’you reckon when you’re older you’ll stop treating women like shit and leave all that stuff behind?” Now, I know that comparing misogyny and queerness isn’t the best thing, but I was young and angry. Again it goes to show that we as individuals have a lot of self reflection and growth to experience. But remember, this is a gradual process. We will never be completely unproblematic, but we can be held accountable in a safe way and figure out how we can be less shitty.
So, after reading my thoughts on each question, it wasn’t really helpful for any queer brown Muslimah, productively. I didn’t give any answer on how to combat these questions. Because, in actual fact, there should be none of these questions in the first place. There is no right or wrong answer, and we weren’t trained up for these painful encounters in our everyday life. As I was writing this I thought about who I would actually want to read this, and honestly, I’d like straight, non-muslim people to have a butchers and try and gauge the awkwardness and exasperation from my perspective. Especially when all I get asked about is my faith and sexuality. In these questions, I’ve literally spelled out what makes them invasive, insensitive, and unnecessary. The word “labour” is used a lot in queer communities, and writing/spelling things out is exactly that. If a QPOC Muslim is writing things out for white heteronormative people in an attempt to engage with some compassion, that labour should absolutely be respected, right? “So what can we do?” I hear you ask. You can still ask questions, sure, but maybe put our humanity before your curiosity. I know you’re dying to hear about my dramatic escape from my pious Muslim family, but maybe ask if I’m doing okay. Ask if QPOC Muslims need any help and support that you might be able to give us. A place to stay, a coffee, an ear. Because while we love recounting our deep and unseated trauma’s to literal strangers, there might be the slightest chance that Muslim’s in QPOC communities are having a hard time and feel a bit isolated.
I’ve mentioned twice in this article where I myself have been problematic and have had to learn from my mistakes. There are still plenty of mistakes which I definitely haven’t fully processed. So in that breath, I would urge you to know your worth, and simultaneously practice patience. Allah forgive me for displaying impatience and speaking in jest. Here are some affirmations for my siblings that help me when I’m struggling.
Except those who show patience and do righteous good deeds: those, theirs will be forgiveness and a great reward (Paradise). [Hood 11:11]
And verily, whosoever shows patience and forgives, that would truly be from the things recommended by Allaah. [al-Shoora 42:34]
Make things easy and do not make things difficult. Give glad tidings and do not repel people. Cooperate with each other and do not become divided. [Sahih Bukhari 28:73]
Follow Shiri on Twitter @_shirishah