Why Just Existing as a Queer Muslim Woman Is a Radical Act

Muslims at prayer
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

This piece is part of the Radical issue, a special package from Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

“Don’t stand like that. You look like a man!” my stepmom would chide in a low, harsh whisper. She was born in the countryside of a suburb of Cairo and came to the states in her late 20s when she married my dad through an arrangement. My cousins, who all still live in Cairo, have asked me questions like, “Are homosexuals nice people?” not realizing that they loved and harbored a queer woman in their very own home. While their origin by no means justifies labeling them as “backward,” it’s clear that my family’s environment and language have shaped their ideas of femininity so profoundly that even posture can make one seem out of place.

When I first became sexually active, my dad, a Saeedi with origins in the Aswan region, found the little green package of birth control from Planned Parenthood on my desk one morning while I was—ironically—in my anatomy class. He was so outraged that I was subsequently thrown out of the house two weeks before my high school graduation. While that romantic relationship has long since dissolved, the event has stayed with me for years. Not because it irreparably destroyed my relationship with my dad—it didn’t—but because it was a tangible example of how my expression of sexuality and desire to fulfill my sexual needs as a woman so threatened the men in my life.

We never, ever talked about sex in my household. Acknowledging my vagina as anything else but untouchable, a selling point for future suitors, a source of shame, or a reason why I was restricted from having male friends and participating in sleepovers was liable to get me in deep shit, to say the least. Keep in mind, this is all under the assumption—and expectation—that I identify as straight. The subcontext to every argument and showdown I had with my parents throughout my adolescence was hinged on the shaming of my womanhood. For most of my life, I was gaslit by my inner circle to believe that any expression of self-discovery regarding sexuality was unacceptable and reserved for an unknown future male counterpart.

My identity as a bisexual woman was so forcefully repressed by these experiences that it wasn’t until I completely removed myself from the structure of my familial household that I was able to be truthful with myself. No one I know would dare describe me as soft-spoken, but when it comes to queerness, I still feel insecure. I never had a moment when I suddenly “came out” to the world in a bombastic display of queerness. Instead, I just kind of slid into it, like a hangout with my best friend after years of separation. Sometimes, the shift of being able to admit my queerness aloud is so profoundly uncomfortable that I feel like an imposter in my own body.

Like many Arabs growing up in America, despite the sheer amount of household trauma that occurred, the idea of “family values” or “family first” was so adamantly ingrained in me that I will stand by them until my legs give out. This raises the question: How am I to reconcile my true self and the imagined self that fits into the familial structure I so desperately look to for a sense of belonging? After all, as a first-generation kid, my family is my primary source of cultural validation that I need for a fulfilling existence. They are the reason my memories are a convoluted mixture of Arabic and English, and my reminder that any potential I have to self-actualize now was only made possible by their survival.

After years of deprecating self-hatred and mantras of self-denial, I’ve come to understand that radicalism isn’t just a belief system or an unpopular political inclination. For me, radicalism is the ability to fully accept all of who I am and who I want to be as a queer woman, a fierce Egyptian queen, and a practicing Muslim. Even if my cousins, whom I pray shoulder to shoulder with, wouldn’t be able to reconcile the idea that I could be both Muslim and queer simultaneously, I can. And of course, they’re not the only people suffering from limited imaginations. It seems the one thing Western conservatives and liberals can agree on is that Islam is irreconcilable with feminism and that Muslims are incapable of accepting those who identify as queer.

Anyone with these assumptions needs to drop them because I’m living proof that these two identities can simultaneously exist not only in one realm, but within one person—and I’m not the only example. Aside from the budding queer communities that I have personally experienced in Cairo, Beirut, and Palestine, I know that I’m not the only American Muslim navigating my multiple identities at once.

To this day, I haven’t shared my queer identity with my family—and I won’t until I’m ready. Exploring both Islam and my queerness has been a special journey of self-love and appreciation that I have never had the chance to embark on until now, despite being on this Earth for so many years. And finding out how it all fits together, in my own time, is the most radical thing I can do.

Read all of Outward’s special issue on Radicalism. And queer your ears with a special radical-themed episode of the Outward podcast.