Welcome to Muslim Voices Rise Up, a month-long project taking place during Ramadan where Muslim authors and bloggers share their experiences on various topics! This project is dedicated to centering Muslim experiences and showcasing the diversity within our own narratives. You can find more info, along with other blog posts for this project, on the introduction post. For this post, Fadwa and I sat down to have a little chat about queer Muslim experience:
Fadwa: We’re here, we’re Muslim AND queer!... I’m nothing if not one for dramatic entrances...To the folks reading this, I’m Fadwa, a Moroccan greyromantic bisexual med student and book blogger who has been waiting for a while for the perfect opportunity and platform to talk about my queer Muslim identity as well as its representation in media, and it’s finally happening! Adiba and I have decided to have conversation just about that and share it for Muslim Voices Rise Up in the hopes that it might be relatable or bring a new perspective to whomever might read it!
Adiba: Hi everyone! I’m Adiba, a queer Bangladeshi/Irish teacher and writer! I’m beyond excited to have the opportunity to talk about queer Muslim identity with Fadwa, especially since it’s almost a taboo subject, and definitely missing in discussions in both queer and POC circles!
Fadwa: That’s very true! We’re just here to break the taboo as best as we can and try to get the conversation going, and what better way to do that than to talk representation and gush about our favourite queer Muslim characters in media even if...those are rare to non-existent, but still there’s progress in the type/amount of rep we’re getting, and that counts for something, right?
Adiba: Definitely! Honestly, I remember when I was a teen and I picked up Ash by Malinda Lo, which was perhaps the only YA book out by a QPOC at the time, and probably one of the only YA books with queer characters. I was astonished because until then it hadn’t quite dawned on me that Asian people could be queer, which sounds totally ridiculous now but until you see it, you don’t really believe it, do you? But now, we still have Malinda Lo writing obviously, but then we also have new QPOC voices joining in, too. I was especially excited to read Girls of Paper of Fire by Natasha Ngan, which is an amazing #ownvoices East-Asian f/f fantasy. Recently I also read It’s Not Like It’s A Secret by Misa Sugiura, where being queer and Asian is explored quite well.
Fadwa: Ah you have no idea how happy this makes me! I’m glad you have queer Asian characters to -relatively- relate to and look forward to. My story is a bit different, since queer North African characters are non existent, and queer African ones in general are like unicorns. But a book DID help me come to term with my sexuality and that was How To Make a Wish by Ashley Herring Blake, I read it when I was questioning and the way Grace, the MC, experienced her bisexuality and felt attraction was so relatable to me that I just had a “That’s it!” moment. Other than that, I’m still looking for that QPOC experience that will feel like *me*. Although, I feel like we can both agree than Adena from The Bold Type hits pretty close to home.
Adiba: I'll definitely have to check out that book now! I'm definitely with you on still looking for the QPOC experience that feels like *me*. I mean, it's lovely to see East-Asian queer rep which often intersects with my identity, but there are still vast differences! Adena definitely hits so close to home and I'm glad The Bold Type created a character like her. I feel like her existence is already making people aware that Muslim people can be, and are, queer. Do you think that's an awareness that'll come to the book world anytime soon though?
Fadwa: I felt SO emotional the first time Adena showed up on The Bold Type, her character was done with so much care and realism, seeing a woman like me on screen owning all parts of her identity and the way they intersect, having so much confidence and faith in herself even when the rest of the world fails her, it’s empowering in a way, you know? I also think you’re right, the fact that she’s out there, and her faith being as much a part of her as her sexuality makes us almost more real, I guess, to people who thought we are either or. And I feel like that awareness is definitely going to reach the book world soon. At a slow pace, but it’s happening.
There are already two 2019 books, that I know of, with queer Muslim girls, The Love and Lies of Rukhsana Ali by Sabina Khan, and Tell me how you Really Feel by Aminah Mae Safi, as well as YOUR BOOK!!! The Henna Wars coming 2020 that I’ve already read and absolutely adored! And it warms my heart that Muslim teens now will get to read these books and see themselves because I feel like if I had them when I was a teen, I would’ve realised a lot sooner that I’m as queer as they come haha. Because I had a couple phases when I briefly questioned but I shut it down quickly thinking that I couldn’t be, not having the proper terminology nor representation to think that it’s possible.
Adiba: Yes, I’m so excited to see these books coming to the fore, and I’m super excited that I’ve been given the opportunity to write and publish a book where I have written about these experiences! I’ve definitely had the same struggle as you, questioning whether or not I am queer, especially because everybody always acts like being Muslim and queer is a paradox, and it definitely isn’t! I think they’re also going to be important in making us “seen,” so to speak, to other people, which includes Muslims! As much as the non-Muslim world can be ignorant to queer Muslims, I think the Muslim world is just as ignorant to us so it’s great to see avenues of dialogues being opened by these books.
Fadwa: I feel like non-queer Muslims can be almost more ignorant to us than non-Muslims folks, especially older generations who grew up removed from queerness and being told all sorts of wrong things that they didn’t have the right tools to question, which is something our generation is definitely better about, because I think we are a lot more accepting and less judgmental of others, not just sexuality and gender wise but on all fronts. And I think media plays a big role in that. Going from my personal experience, I know that social media, books, movies, etc… helped me come to term with my own queerness, and it helped me unpack a lot of the wrong notions I had growing up. So the more representation there is, the easier it will be for queer Muslims to accept ourselves and for other people who thought us nonexistent to see that there is a non-negligible number of us out there.
Adiba: I totally agree! Media definitely acts as a kind of mirror to us and the world around us. So it really helps us come to terms with a lot of things, especially when we're not necessarily exposed to it in “real” life (like we can even separate real life from online life anymore). On that note, what kind of Muslim, and specifically queer Muslim, representation would you like to see in upcoming books?
Fadwa: All kinds of it! But I’m gonna be selfish and say f/f stories. Even better if there’s bisexual representation thrown in there as well, because I REALLY want to see myself as a whole in a story not just bits and pieces, either the Muslim or the queer. And in a happy setting because my personal situation isn’t ideal so even though there is a lack of ALL kinds of stories that represent us and I will read all of them, I’d rather read books that would help me escape that situation and see genuinely happy sapphic Muslim girls. Maybe even coming out stories? I want them, especially since there aren’t nearly enough QPOC coming out stories, let alone Muslim coming out stories. What about you? Is there a specific type of representation you’re hoping to read in the near future?
Adiba: I'm definitely with you on happy settings. I think, when it comes to queer stories, we've been exposed to the sad, tragic stories for so long and we really deserve some happier endings. Especially for QPOC. I'm also with you when it comes to wanting more f/f stories, they always seem so underappreciated. I'm working on trying to write us into the narrative here as well, with f/f happy stories. The Henna Wars can definitely feel a little bittersweet when you’re reading it, but I hope readers will come out of it feeling happy and content!
I would also really love to see Muslim men in stories, queer and non-queer ones. I feel like Muslim men and women carry two different types of stereotypes with them. Women as the oppressed, meek, voiceless in need of white saviours, which many authors are working to deconstruct and to write Muslim women who are real and honest representations. So we've had, for example, Janna from S. K. Ali’s Saints and Misfits and Maya from Samira Ahmed’s Love, Hate, and Other Filters. They're both very different but very honest examples of young Muslim girls. Men, on the other hand, battle different stereotypes all together that's totally rooted in violence, terrorism, being the oppressor, having backwards and “traditional” masculine values. But they haven't really been written into the narrative yet, so I would really love to see that.
Fadwa: Oh! I’ve never really consciously thought about Muslim men representation because, it’s even more nonexistent but now that you’re pointing it out, you’re absolutely right. Muslim men have their own set of stereotypes that need debunking. Now that you’ve mentioned Love, Hate and Other Filters, I really love Karim in that one, he’s far from being a MC but I loved how his character was removed from all toxic masculinity. That being said, we need them as main characters, it saddens me that young Muslim boys don’t have those kinds of characters to hold on to when the world seems to be against them. I know the representation is lacking on all fronts but as of right now, girls have it a little better and I hope that changes soon.
And about The Henna Wars, I can definitely confirm that the feelings that ultimately sticks is happiness, even though it’s not happy from start to finish and Nishat faces hardships both related to her sexuality and completely removed from that, what stuck with me once I finished the book and sat with it for a little while is a hopeful, genuinely happy feeling that I still get every time I think about it again. And I feel like that’s really important, you know? Hopeful QPOC stories can sometimes be the only thread holding you together when your own story as a QPOC and especially as a Muslim one seems to be going down a less than favorable path. Especially when said stories have those dark times and the main characters surmounts them, it tells queer Muslim teens that their stories aren’t over and that they can overcome those hardships too. Maybe not in the same ways, but they’ll find their own way. I’m really grateful as a reader and proud of you as a friend for paving the way and probably also giving queer Muslim writers the courage to write their own stories.
Fadwa is a 22 year old book-devourer and 5th year medical student based in Morocco. She basically runs on books, tv-shows and music. She’s dedicated to championing diversity and inclusivity is all types of media. She loves travelling, taking pictures and food -both eating and cooking it, as well as all things science related.
Adiba is an Irish and Bangladeshi writer and teacher who lives in Dublin, Ireland. She loves drinking too much tea, reading diverse books, and listening to Hayley Kiyoko and Janelle Monáe on repeat. Her debut novel, The Henna Wars will be published by Page Street in 2020.