Op-ed: Islam and LGBT are Not Mutually Exclusive Urooj Arshad, a queer Pakistani-born woman, tells us why she devotes her life to helping LGBT Muslim youth.-Advocate.com
I grew up in Pakistan, a country with one of the largest Muslim
populations in the world. Unlike most Pakistani women, I had access to a
great education, and loving and supportive parents who treated me and
my brothers equally. However, as I grew up I was troubled by the way
women were treated in Pakistan.
Much of my worry was fueled by growing up during one of the harshest
military regimes in Pakistan, that of general Zia-Ul-Haq. In his push to
“Islamisize” the country, he eliminated many of women’s rights in the
name of Islam. His infamous Hudood Ordinances amplified violence against
women, and the general degradation and humiliation of women in society.
I was constantly afraid, and the oppression started to seep into my
soul. Fortunately, when I was 16 my parents immigrated to the U.S. with
the help of my uncle’s sponsorship.
I came to the U.S. broken and disillusioned. I thought that I would
start a new and happier life away from Pakistan and away from Islam.
But of course it was not that easy. I was just so different from my
fellow suburban white teens. Yet trying to forget who I was and where I
was from didn’t bring me happiness either. By the time I got to the
University of Illinois, away from home and family for the first time, I
had become very isolated. Even when I came out and entered the LGBT
community, I realized that as a queer-Muslim-person of color, the issues
I faced were vastly different from my white LGBT peers.
In 1999, I met Faisal Alam, the founder of the Al-Fatiha Foundation,
an organization dedicated to Muslims who are lesbian, gay, bisexual,
transgender, intersex, questioning, those exploring their sexual
orientation or gender identity, and to their allies and families. He
changed my life forever. To sit in a room full of queer youth and to
know that there is another Pakistani Muslim queer person out there,
started to fill a hole I did not even know existed and I stopped
believing that I would never be able to reconcile my sexuality with my
religion and culture.
I began organizing and getting more involved with work specific to
LGBT Muslim communities, and this has been my mission for the last
decade and more. As a community, we have provided countless workshops
on the intersection of islamophobia and homophobia/transphobia, marched
in pride parades to show our visibility, helped folks get asylum,
provided spiritual counseling, and developed and advocated for
scholarship that looks at Islam in the context of LGBT issues.
built retreat spaces that bring together LGBT Muslims to discuss
spiritual life, religious texts, anti-oppression; and yes, we even had a
speed dating event this year, because nothing is hotter than some
Muslim on Muslim love. Most importantly, we have changed the discourse that looks at LGBT
Muslims as if they are non-religious, somehow outside the realm of
mainstream Muslim life, somehow not impacted by Islamophobia, somehow
not quite able to be both LGBT and Muslim. And as we continue to change
the discourse, I am proud of how much the movement has grown and truly
reflects the LGBT Muslim community.
I am particularly proud to see so many young people as LGBT Muslim
organizers. Youth are especially vulnerable in an environment that puts
all LGBT Muslims at risk of stigma and discrimination: from government,
from our society, and even from our own families and communities. Many
youth face violence and family rejection; many also feel disconnected
from their culture and religion. These young people need a supportive
community - and the community needs their energy and leadership.
Through Advocates for Youth’s Muslim Youth Project, we are developing
Muslim youth leaders who will push back on Islamophobia, homophobia,
transphobia, silence about sexuality, and the oppression of women.
It’s been 13 years since I became involved with LGBT Muslim
organizing, and I am so proud of all the work we have done to bring
people together who, like me, felt isolated and alone — who felt that if
they are LGBT that the love of Allah is no longer with them, and they
were cursed to go through this world unprotected and unloved.
Just a few months ago, I went back to Pakistan, and I realized that
the Pakistan I knew during the draconian days of Zia –ul-Haq has
changed. From transgender communities getting ID cards, to the vibrant
lawyers’ movement that eventually toppled the last military dictator’s
regime, Pakistan has been on its own journey toward becoming the
Pakistan I have always dreamed of. My trip to Pakistan not only took me
home, but took me back to myself, and I hope that this gift of coming
home to oneself is a gift that we as LGBT Muslims can continue to give
to each other.