Bringing The World Home To You

© 2024 WUNC North Carolina Public Radio
120 Friday Center Dr
Chapel Hill, NC 27517
919.445.9150 | 800.962.9862
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Expanded: Episode Transcript

Anita Rao 0:00
I'm Anita Rao, and this is Embodied, our show tackling sex, relationships and your health. Today we're exploring the intersection of sexual health, sexuality and Islam. And we're doing it through a special collaboration with a podcast "Me and My Muslim Friends." Later on in the hour, I will talk with a queer Muslim writer about faith and sexuality. But first I'm going to pass the mic to me and my Muslim friends host Yasmin Bendaas.

Yasmin Bendaas 0:26
My first introduction to sex ed was in the fifth grade, courtesy of North Carolina Public Schools and my mother who signed me in. Although it was a bit cut and dry and included sitting through really old tapes that I'm pretty sure were from the 80s, at least it was something. But one thing that public school sex ed definitely did lack was spiritual perspective. I didn't get what I would consider a comprehensive Islamic sex ed until I was 27 years old. It was in a seminar that included a large sex Q&A component where the imam answered any and all questions and quite unabashedly. And in each response, he had Islamic context that he would point to.

Even then, I would describe that Islamic sex ed I received as religious but not spiritual. In the mainstream, I'd seen sex described as casual or just physical. In the religious context, it was generally considered shameful to discuss in detail. Navigating all of these contexts around me, I felt very much like the oddball out. I saw sex as far from just physical. I genuinely felt sex was connected to my spiritual self, to my soul. And I really, really wish I had someone to tell me that was normal.

Cue Sameera Qureshi, a Muslim sex therapist and founder of Sexual Health for Muslims. In coming across our Instagram page a few years ago, I finally found a space that discussed sexual health in tandem with spiritual, mental, physical and emotional health. This was a sex ed I always wanted. Even more astonishing, it was a holistic perspective directly derived from my own faith. Here's our conversation, and I hope you learn as much from Sameera as I did.

So I'm just curious if you could tell us about your background. How long have you been a practicing therapist? And how does someone become a sexual health therapist?

Sameera Qureshi 2:28
Yeah, I had a bit of an unconventional journey and beginning, my background is occupational therapy. And I started working around 16 years ago in Canada. I was assigned to actually a mental health project that serviced Islamic, private religious schools. And a year into that program, we started noticing issues with middle school kids and topics related to puberty and gender. And so the schools were obviously not teaching the sexual health curriculum. And so I remember thinking, why don't we just create a version that is more aligned with our Islamic faith, tradition and values? And so, I collaborated with the Islamic study staff at the school and also had a mentor who was a sex educator for over 20 years, and it really developed from there. From around 2010 onwards, I've continued to see the gaps, and I've continued to see a need. And I think my own journey with Islam and sexual health has definitely evolved over these 16 years for sure.

Yasmin Bendaas 3:36
I actually want to go into the gap issue. So my mom always opted me into sex ed. And it wasn't until college that I learned that not all Muslim parents did that. Years ago, when I asked her about it, she said she was just relieved someone else could teach me about it in school. Your website points out that many Muslim parents opt their kids out of sex ed in schools masjids don't fill in those gaps. And many Muslims end up learning about sex from inaccurate sources. Can you give insight on why you think sex ed has been missing? And what are some of the key consequences for Muslim youth not having a comprehensive sex education?

Sameera Qureshi 4:15
I think the reasons why there's gaps are, are multiple. The first one is as we both know, there's so much shame and taboo around this topic of sex and sexual health. And unfortunately, it's not coming from our Islamic tradition. It's coming from other sources - such as colonization of Islam; very literal, puritanical perspectives of the Islamic tradition; and I think also a reduction of sexual health down to the topic of sex, which of course when Muslims hear that word, they think, "Well, I'm not married or my kids aren't married, so it's too early and it's going to only corrupt them if they learn about this when it's too early." And then when you look at mainstream, let's say schools and society, there's been a bit of a separation between religion, spirituality and sexuality. And so there's a gap in terms of how do we create sexual health curriculum that doesn't just have elements of Islam sprinkled into it, but really starts from the Islamic tradition and evolves from there. And I think - parents are doing the absolute best they know what to do. And I think there's a lot of lack of resources, lack of support. And I think the tendency is for Muslim parents who want to shelter and protect, and to say, "Well, if this is not being taught from an Islamic framework, well, then why should I expose it to my kids?"

Yasmin Bendaas 5:48
And what are the consequences that you've seen when kids are not getting this sort of comprehensive spiritual, even education, if any, at all?

Sameera Qureshi 5:59
So there's quite a few, but we can frame it under the umbrella of Muslims are feeling disconnected from their sexual health. And it's seen as this abstract thing that they're not meant to touch or go near until they're married, which is seen as you know, their permissible time to start learning about sexual health when, when it's still reduced down to sex, right, because that's what sexual health is often seen as. So the the consequence is this disconnection from something that God naturally created and gave all of us. And so with this disconnection, there comes other consequences such as shame. So this feeling of unworthiness, or kind of disgust or very low self-worth with, with regards to one's body. There can also be a lack of foundational information about one's body. So a lot of Muslims that I work with don't understand what is healthy sexual health? And then when do I need to seek professional support and resources? Without a baseline, how do we navigate when issues may come up? And so I'm - what I see is often, you know, clients, Muslim clients who are in their 20s, 30s, 40s, onward, and then when we talk about their history, it often stems to lack of comprehensive sexual health education, a lack of holistic understanding of the Islamic tradition. And so we often see issues downstream that are reflective of this disconnection and also a lack of baseline information.

Yasmin Bendaas 7:31
Oh, I have so many thoughts. I do want to start more with some of the spiritual foundation, because one of the things that drew me to your work is that you tie in an Islamic understanding of the soul into your framework for sexual health. You say that sex ed for Muslims must be framed in a conversation about the soul. Why do you think this was missing in previous teachings? And why is it so important?

Sameera Qureshi 7:55
So I think if we look at Islam in modern times, that being over the last 150 to 200 years, we see that a lot of Islamic civilizations have been colonized by European sources. And so one of the results of that is that Muslims pushed back and I think, one - in trying to preserve Islamic teachings and the way of life- turned to very puritanical, literal interpretations of Islam, that were all about the halal and the haram. So what is permissible and what is religiously impermissible, and so those schools of thought have made their way to the west, to the United States, to North America. And what I see is a lot of reductionistic understandings of a very holistic Islamic tradition. And so it's unfortunate that the soul has been gutted out, not just from sexual health and Islam, you know, that relationship, but from a lot of different relationships that intersect with religion. So I think what that has done is that it has made Muslims really forget what our tradition is. And so we don't often see this intersection being made until recent times.

Yasmin Bendaas 9:13
And can we talk about the levels of the soul? I've seen you discuss this on your Instagram page sometimes, and I find it so fascinating that Islamically we have kind of these understandings of levels of the soul and I wanted to help people understand that as well.

Sameera Qureshi 9:28
Yeah, so the Quran highlights three levels of the soul and they're not meant to be linear. So it's not like you're moving up a ladder; they're quite fluid and dynamic. and the base level is called the al-Nafs al-ammāra or the soul that commands to harm and there are two main functions of this level of the Soul, one of which is sexual desire or lust or an Arabic shahwa. And the second is anger or ghadab. A Muslim may struggle with too much sexual desire, even too much anger, right, with this level of the soul, and so it may pull them towards behaviors that are taking them away from being spiritually aligned with God and Allah. And then if we go into the next level of the soul, it's called the al-Nafs al-lawwama, or what's called the self-discerning soul. And this is the soul that starts to get a little bit more insight about what's showing up in terms of our behaviors and our thoughts. So for example, a Muslim person here may start to think, "You know, I have this value of abstinence, but I'm realizing it's really tough for me to follow through on it when I'm out there. I wonder what that's about. And I wonder if I can gain a bit more awareness about why it's kind of showing up and what I can change about what I'm doing." So this is meant to be introspection and self-awareness. And then the third stage is something that I think Muslims really strive to get to and it's really tough. It's called the al-Nafs al-mutma'inna or the soul at peace. So it's when we are completely satisfied and in harmony in presence of God. So it's where - we've conquered our lower self, not to a point of obliterating it, we don't want it to that we can't do that. But we're not being pulled into those lower levels where it takes us away from our journey towards our spiritual potential. And so a Muslim during our lifetime is going to fluctuate in a day within these levels of the soul than within a week, month, years. And so it's not a static model, but it's really meant to have us be introspective about how we're showing up in the world around us.

Anita Rao 9:28
That was Yasmin Bendaas, host of the podcast "Me and My Muslim Friends," talking with sexual health expert Sameera Qureshi, and they're going to continue that conversation in just a moment. You're listening to Embodied from North Carolina Public Radio, a broadcast service of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

This is Embodied. I'm Anita Rao and you're listening to a collaborative episode between Embodied and the podcast "Me and My Muslim Friends," hosted by Yasmin Bendaas.

We just learned about the Islamic understanding of the soul from sexual health expert Sameera Qureshi. Exploring aspects of the soul and how they work together is part of Sameera's approach to sexual education for Muslims. We're going to dive back into that conversation now. Here's Yasmin.

Yasmin Bendaas 12:36
You touched on this a bit earlier. But I'd love to know, what are some of the most common issues you find raised in your practice?

Sameera Qureshi 12:45
Yeah, there's a few depending on the life stage that Muslims are showing up with. I will say that shame is a big one that that shows up across different issues. So for example, a Muslim who has experienced sexual or other forms of trauma - There's a deep sense of disconnection from their bodies, from their sexual health and also from Islam, especially if Islam was misused against them in how they experienced their trauma. So shame, I would say, is quite pervasive. I'll also say that there's a real struggle with Muslims who are trying to hold on to their God-conscious glasses. And then they're trying to navigate life. So Muslims who are engaging in premarital sex or pornography use or masturbation even, and they don't want to, there's a cognitive sense of "I know what my values are." And then there's a real world struggle of "I'm struggling with keeping these glasses on and knowing how to do that," right, because knowing what's right or wrong is not enough. There's a struggle. And that struggle is internal, oftentimes. And then I also see within the context of marriage, a lot of issues around sexual intimacy, difficulty with communicating about sexual intimacy all the way to having pleasurable sexual intimacy and marriage. And on and on, I think when we think about, you know, the large life stages, there are really common issues that I'll also say are not just limited to the Muslim community, they're in mainstream and other religious spaces, too. And so it's definitely -we're seeing the same things that other folks experience. I think we definitely have more complications as Muslims to navigate through.

Yasmin Bendaas 14:35
I also appreciate your work breaking down myths. I'm sure you see these also come across in your discussions. What are common misconceptions you hear about what you do specifically and what are some common myths you are working against in your work?

Sameera Qureshi 14:52
Where do I start with this? I...

Yasmin Bendaas 14:57
[laughs] Oh, gosh.

Sameera Qureshi 14:59
It's really tough to pinpoint this down because I feel like it's a constant battle. I think one of the biggest myths I face is why are you talking about this? And I think especially in terms of how I show up in a space so, you know, I don't wear a hijab, a headscarf. I think people are maybe not used to seeing a Muslim woman speak so openly and confidently about Islamic tradition, citing Islamic tradition, citing scholars studying it, and then talking about sexual health in a way that I'm not reducing or beating around the bush the topic, I'm actually speaking about it quite openly and practically. I don't think Muslims are used to that. And I've had Muslims access my content, and they cut off my name, like they'll share my post, but they'll cut off my name, they, they won't follow me. But then they'll share stuff now and then. So it's this shame piece that's coming in again, I think that's the biggest myth I find is why are you talking about this and the shame piece around people accessing the content.

Yasmin Bendaas 16:06
Can we kind of talk about, I guess, more concrete examples of these myths and how they show up?

Sameera Qureshi 16:12
I'll say that a lot of Muslims hold the myth that virginity is a Islamic concept and that it relates to certain things like menstrual products, so that tampons and menstrual cups and disks are impermissible, because there's an idea that that's going to break or snap the hymen and that is what determines a woman's sexual status. And we know that that's completely not Islamic. We know that the hymen will naturally stretch and even, you know, stretch. Sorry, I'm just gonna pause

Yasmin Bendaas 16:49
Absolutely. Yeah.

Sameera Qureshi 16:50
I get a little frustrated about this myth keep coming up, to be honest, because I'm like, it's 2024. And are we really still here? Like, we don't have sex with tampons, can we put that in the podcast?

Yasmin Bendaas 17:02
Yes, we can. Yes, I can. Oh, man. Yeah.

Sameera Qureshi 17:07
So I've come across the tampon myth over the 16 years that I've been in this field, and it continues to both frustrate and shock me. I think the frustrating part is the lack of nuanced thought and intention around this topic. So number one, menstruation is a God-given process. And there are many different menstrual hygiene products that we have access to. And so products such as tampons and menstrual cups are not to have sex with. They are used for menstrual hygiene. And so this idea that tampon or menstrual cup use is impermissible before marriage because it affects a woman's virginity is absolutely un-Islamic and honestly ridiculous. So I would encourage Muslims to really think about separating our body out from just being seen as a sexual object. And I think that's the part that many Muslims aren't understanding is our reproductive system is not just sexual in nature. So a teenager, a young woman, a woman who uses a menstrual product and they're not married, they're using it for the purpose of menstruation, and they are not using it for sexual intercourse. So being able to see our bodies in nuanced perspectives, and remember our intentions as Muslims for why we're taking care of our bodies, including our menstrual cycles, is so so important, because that's what's missing is the nuanced intentionality.

Yasmin Bendaas 18:42
I feel like even for me, when you think about sex ed, a lot of people think it's about, you know - and I grew up in North Carolina, so it was mostly an abstinence-framed education that I had - but I mean, my first one, I think, was in fifth grade. And it was really only focused on what is a period, and you might have this in the next few years, and just kind of understanding the biology of yourself. You know, it wasn't about sex, it was about, you know, a biological understanding of what is about to happen to your body. And I can't really imagine not having had that education or explanation or - do you know what I mean? So thank you for that. You also mentioned in one of your responses earlier the judgment that sometimes you feel that you get, you know, as a therapist speaking more bluntly or directly about these things. And one of the things that I appreciate about your account, Sexual Health for Muslims, is that you kind of use the social media space to discuss other issues. One of your social posts is about Muslims lacking compassion toward one another, and another post is about judgment. I'd really like your perspective on this judgment slash policing of bodies that we often see on social media. It's not particularly tied to sexual health per se, but it is something that women, I think, can relate to on social media, whether it's comments on what they're wearing, comments on activities they're involved in, just basically harassment online in this kind of culture of, it's okay to police people. And I don't know, I think they think that they have the right intentions in what they're doing, but I think they can be extremely hurtful. And I think you've talked about this on your own account. So I'd love to hear your perspective.

Sameera Qureshi 20:28
Yeah, the reason I bring up this judgment of Muslims and the lack of compassion is I think it relates back to what we're often projecting on others that is actually coming from ourselves. So there's this moral, idealistic nature that a lot of Muslims walk around with, where - and I'm sure we're all guilty of this - where we are trying to feel better about ourselves as Muslims, or we misuse the Islamic teaching of, you know, enjoying good and forbid evil, which was some seek to the extreme of any Muslim I see who is not fitting my image of what a proper good Muslim should be, I'm going to call them out, which is completely un-Islamic. So I think there's this idea of moral policing, as you said, and feeling better about oneself as a Muslim. And we tend to box Muslim in to a particular visual stereotype. And the reason I post about this, even though it doesn't seem directly sexual health-related, is because as Muslims, we're so focused on other Muslims, and we are lacking focus on ourselves. So each of us has this journey to try and better ourselves and to work on our soul, including our sexual health, because it, because it's tied to our spirituality, yet we're so focused on telling other Muslims what their issues are based on our own preconceived notions, or our own traumas and our own challenges that we're projecting. So I keep seeing this trend of lack of compassion. I mean, I'm sure you have, and I've experienced it myself. And I'm just really trying to get Muslims to turn inwards because if we don't, I'd really don't see anything or much changing in our communities to be honest.

Yasmin Bendaas 22:32
In addition to individual and couples counseling, you offer parent counseling, what is some of your advice for Muslim parents on talking to their kids about sex? And at what age do you recommend that start?

Sameera Qureshi 22:43
So speaking of Islam and focusing on yourself, I really recommend parents educating themselves, which I think is a process of asking themselves, "what did I learn or not learn about sexual health in Islam? What do I need to unlearn? What is my comfort level with this topic? You know, what, who are my resources?" I think it's really important that parents start with themselves. And I would say that I often get the question about what age, and I will say that it is a process that begins from a very young age, and it's nothing to do with sex. So we know that, you know, when kids are learning about hygiene and toilet training, and they eventually learn about, you know, changing their clothes behind closed doors, and you know, wudu and religious practices, we need to teach them about their bodies. I mean, how are we teaching them how to clean themselves after using the bathroom, and we're not teaching them the names of their body parts. It really is about safety and about comfort with their body and about only talking about their body with trusted adults. So it really is important, I would say, before kids enter any sort of school setting to understand their bodies for safety and biological, functional reasons. And then as we develop physically and mentally and spiritually, for example, preteen, prepubescent, then we need to amplify the knowledge that we're sharing with our kids. And that is not just about the do's and don'ts, but it's really about getting ahead of their development, because puberty marks the age of spiritual accountability when kids start puberty, you know, menstrual cycle, or, you know, the first nocturnal admission, that is when we become directly accountable to God for our actions. And so if we're not equipping teens with that information, then we're not setting them up for success. So it really is a journey. It's a series of conversations over a child's lifetime, and it's equipping adults with what they need to know as they continue to develop through their life stages.

Yasmin Bendaas 24:49
So for people who may want to see you, whether it's a parent or a couple or an individual, it's hard enough to find a therapist with availability these days, let alone one with your Islamic framework, and so many will have to go with non-Muslim options for therapy related to sexual health. In your professional opinion, how can non-Muslim practitioners help to bridge the gap and reach Muslim patients?

Sameera Qureshi 25:15
Such an important question. I would say that number one, non-Muslim professionals need to take time to really decolonize their understandings of Islam. It's, it's a common thing that I've noticed when I'm training professionals is their Islam 101 knowledge is really lacking. It's been learned from inaccurate, non-holistic sources. So I would say starting there, and then building upon knowledge of sexual health, mental health and other aspects of health. I think it really does start with a foundation in Islam that is accurate and holistic. And then I think I've had non-Muslim professionals reach out and to other even Muslim counselors to, for consultations. I've had folks access my social media and say, "This has really helped me with my Muslim clients or patients." And I'm like, "Wow, that's awesome." It's almost indirect learning. It's not intentional training they're going to, but I think being able to reach out to Muslim professionals in this space, whether it's directly or indirectly, and being able to learn and consult and support Muslims doing this work - I think those are really important steps. And having the humility to do that is really, really important. And it's something that I've definitely had to learn, and it's something that I think all professionals would benefit from.

Yasmin Bendaas 26:34
I want to touch on something that I really wanted to dive into earlier in this conversation. You mentioned that a consequence of not having sex ed is just a complete lack of understanding of sexual health and what that would look like when it's healthy. So what does sexual health that is healthy mean? What does that look like?

Sameera Qureshi 27:00
For a Muslim who has an Islamic worldview of their, you know, God-conscious glasses on, that would be understanding and embracing sexual health knowledge for the sake of taking care of their body that Allah has gifted them with. So it's this sense of deep responsibility of sexual health is something that God has given and created in us, it is not something separate from who we are, and for a Muslim to really see and take that seriously - because their intention is to please God through taking care of their body - so that means being proactive and not reactive. Muslims love to be reactive, we love to wait until something is wrong. And then we want to seek help, and then we're backtracking. So Islam really is a religion and framework of prevention and being proactive, and so being able to see our sexual health in that light? That would, to me, that seems like healthy sexual health for a Muslim.

Yasmin Bendaas 28:08
And what can our Muslim listeners do to improve their sexual health knowledge? What advice do you have for them?

Sameera Qureshi 28:15
In my work always boils down to self-reflection, because I think we often lack that, and, you know, society's just about externalizing. So I think I would, I would want to tell Muslims, like, take a deep breath and ask yourself, "What do I know about sexual health? What is, what does sexual health even need to be? Who, where did I first learned about the topic of sexual health? Who taught me? What's missing? And also, how do I, how does it even feel in my body when I hear sexual health and Islam spoken in the same sentence?" I think these are all really important reflection questions where if we're starting from where we're at, then we can start to think about, well, what do I need from that point? And it's always from a place of compassion. So you know, we're not talking about being harsh on ourselves. And you know, asking, "Oh, you know, why am I missing this" and being angry with oneself or with our situation, but from a place of, "You know what, I'm learning and I always will be learning, and so let me be compassionate and also add sexual health to my journey as a Muslim."

Yasmin Bendaas 29:22
Thank you so much, Sameera. I think we talked a lot about frustrations in this episode. And so I wanted to give an opportunity to maybe talk about what you find most rewarding about your work.

Sameera Qureshi 29:34
I think what's been rewarding has been that my work as alhamdulilah, you know, thanks to God, been a reflection of my own personal journey as a Muslim. And so I see myself as the main focus of quote, my work, because it informs how I show up. And I think that's been rewarding as, as much of a struggle as it's been I think it's been rewarding to look back and kind of see the blessings of where my personal and professional journey have often been intertwined. And so I hope that that continues because it means that I'm walking the talk and I and that's really important to me, I think I have to walk the talk as a Muslim in the space.

Yasmin Bendaas 30:26
Sameera this is such an important conversation. I've been wanting to have you on the show for so long. And I really can't wait for people to listen to this. When I was driving to the studio today, I genuinely felt like I was doing something important. Um, and so I hope that you feel the same way. And I hope this reaches people and helps them in however way it can and maybe provides, you know, just an introduction to this if they've never had the opportunity to get it before. So thank you so much for being here. Thank you so much for being willing to talk to me about it. And for all the wisdom that you shared. I really appreciate it.

Sameera Qureshi 30:59
It was such an honor to be chatting with you Yasmin and I really, really appreciate the opportunity. Thank you so much.

Anita Rao 31:11
That's "Me and My Muslim Friends" host Yasmin Bendaas talking with sexual health experts Sameera Qureshi. Thanks so much to them and the whole team behind the podcast "Me and My Muslim Friends" for sharing that conversation. Just ahead, we'll meet a queer Muslim author who wanted her memoir to be unapologetically Muslim and unapologetically queer. As always, you can hear the podcast version of the show by following Embodied on your platform of choice. Please stay with us.

This is Embodied. I'm Anita Rao. Today we are exploring the relationship between sexual health sexuality and Islam. We just heard a conversation from the podcast "Me and My Muslim Friends" between host Yasmin Bendaas and Sameera Qureshi, a therapist and a founder of Sexual Health for Muslims. One of the core themes of Sameera's work is that talking openly about sex and sexuality is not at odds with Islamic values. In fact, she encourages people to think about their sexual health as something that's part of their spirituality. Someone else who's thought deeply about the intersection of faith and sexuality is writer and activist Lamya H. In their memoir "Hijab Butch Blues," they tell stories from their life alongside stories of the Quran, sifting through the many ways that queerness and Muslimness are not mutually exclusive. Lamya, welcome to Embodied.

Lamya H 32:49
Hi, thank you so much for having me on the show.

Anita Rao 32:52
So in your memoir, you tell the stories of 10 different figures from the Quran to reflect and share experiences of your own life. That's kind of the frame and structure that you use for this book. Tell me a little bit about your relationship with the Quran growing up and your exposure to the stories.

Lamya H 33:12
So I grew up in a predominantly Muslim country around mostly Muslim people. And I went to an Islamic school for most of my life. And so I grew up with the Quran sort of being everywhere, you know, from playing in the background when you know, we would go to stores, to learning Quran in school, to hear in recitation. But for a very long period of my life, my appreciation for the Quran was mostly aesthetic. It was something that, you know, we read or we listened to, but we didn't really understand the meaning of, and then I started reading the English translation as a young adult. And the more I read the stories, I found myself really fascinated by them as people. As people who, like, sometimes make mistakes, as people who sometimes made questionable decisions. And that's kind of how my memoir came about is really thinking of prophets and figures in the Quran as deeply human people and really reflecting on their lives and the way that the stories intersected with the things that I was learning as I was going about my day-to-day life.

Anita Rao 34:28
I love the way that you describe your young self in your memoir: someone who is deeply curious, who is searching for that recognition of parts of your self in the text that you are exposed to. And you share a story in your memoir about one figure in particular Maryam, who is also known as the Virgin Mary in Christianity, and you describe yourself at 14 years old sitting in class learning about the Quran and really seeing yourself in her story. Can you take us back to that moment and how learning about her opened up some new possibilities for you?

Lamya H 35:03
Yeah, in some ways, I've always known that I am queer. And even though I didn't have the words for it as a younger kid, as you know, someone growing up, I didn't, I didn't have the words for the concept. But at some level, I deeply knew that these feelings that I was feeling for women were different from other people. And then I remember being 14 and reading Surah Maryam in class in, you know, this Islamic school that I went to. And we read this translation of a verse that talks about this incident where Maryam is, you know, living alone in a temple and has devoted her entire life to worship, doesn't really see a lot of other people. And this angel disguised as a man comes to her door as this sort of like handsome, well-proportioned man and you know, knocks on her door and says, "I have something to tell you." And immediately she says, "I don't want to talk to you, please leave." And I remember reading the translation to that and having this moment of, "Oh, wait, Maryam doesn't like men, is Maryam like me?" And I found myself like, even before I knew what I was doing, or saying, like putting my hand up and being like, "Hey, miss, did Maryam say that to this angel because she didn't like men?" And my class of other 14-year-olds all like went like totally silent for about 30 seconds. And then like everyone started giggling. But there was this moment in which you know, I just felt so deeply connected to Maryam. And in my book, I wonder if Maryam was a dyke. And in some ways I do - I wonder that, but I didn't need her to be because in that moment, just seeing myself in the Quran, seeing this person, you know, also have no interest in men in this way that felt deeply familiar to me, just really made me feel so connected to me and and connected to Islam in the sense of like, there being other people like me, in the world.

Anita Rao 37:05
You trace this really long, winding journey of exploring your queerness from these moments in your childhood, like encountering Maryam's story to moving to the U.S. You found queer community in your 20s, you went on a lot of bad dates before meeting your current partner. And you describe how along this path, you've encountered people expressing surprise that you'd be queer and Muslim at the same time. And you've written before that it didn't occur to you that these two things were actually supposed to be at odds until you were kind of performing these identities in a really public way. Can you expand upon that for us?

Lamya H 37:41
Yeah, these are both identities that I've always been and I've always held dear. I've always been queer, I've always been Muslim. And yeah, I've just, I've never thought of them as at odds with each other. It was only when other people would ask me about it that I was like, "Oh, huh, this is the, this is what the narrative is." To me, both those identities are deeply part of who I am and are intertwined with each other. I don't think I could be queer without being Muslim. And I don't think I could be Muslim without being queer. And to me, they also play off of each other. I think what is really beautiful about queerness is the way that it causes you to break open assumptions and really put a lot of thought and intentionality into your life. And at the end of the day, I think that's what God wants from us, too, is this idea of like being really thoughtful about our lives and putting effort into how we interact with the world and with each other. And, yeah, to me, there's a lot of overlap there in ways that are really beautiful and that feed off of each other.

Anita Rao 38:46
You talk in the preface of your memoir, or you share that your favorite verse from the Quran is one in which Prophet Ibrahim turns to God with doubts and says, "I believe in you. But I also have questions and hesitations and uncertainties." And I know that sometimes doubts can make people turn away from religion, from faith. But for you, you really turn toward God with your questions. What has made you do that throughout your life?

Lamya H 39:11
I think faith and doubt are so intimately twinned, because faith doesn't exist without doubt. It would be certainty otherwise. And I think what's really cool about the Quran is that there's so many stories of prophets and other, and other people just doubting. There's also a story about Moses slash Musa who asked to see God. And yeah, and that story about Ibrahim is absolutely like, absolutely one of my favorites because, you know, in the Quran, Ibrahim, like, talks to God and has these whole, sort of like, conversations and almost this like intimate connection with God, and still has these doubts. So yeah, I think that they're both actually very intertwined with each other. And I think that's one of the beauties of faith too is that you have to embrace doubt. You have to use that doubt in ways that are generative and that cause you to also, like, think critically about what is being asked of you. Yeah, and so to me that that doubt is a really important part of faith. And I think that anyone who seeks to shut down that line of questioning is really doing a disservice, not only to themselves, but to the larger community in general.

Anita Rao 40:26
You are definitely a deep student of religion. You describe all of these moments throughout your memoir where you, in conjunction with groups of friends or other folks in your community, are taking passages in the Quran and going piece by piece and really kind of interrogating different interpretations of what these stories can mean. And you do over time, come across and revisit particular passages that sometimes give you trouble or pause because of the way they talk about women or the way they talk about dynamics in a partnership or with the, the way they talk about homosexuality. How do you form dialogue with these parts of this text that you care so intimately about but sometimes don't resonate with you?

Lamya H 41:09
I think what's been really, really helpful in that regard is having other thought partners and having other people to sort of like be messy around and to have interpretations around. In my book, I talk about reading the Quran with a really dear friend who similarly approaches the Quran through a lens of you know, well, not everything is going to resonate with me, not everything is going to work for me right now in this moment. And what are the things that we can sort of, like, come back to? Or what are the things that we can be like, this just doesn't work for me? Yeah and so, sort of like reading in community has been really, really incredible, because it also opens you up to different ways of thinking, and just the validation of like, some things are going to feel not great. And that's okay. It's okay to sit in that discomfort. And it's okay to sit in that unease and that doubt.

Anita Rao 42:06
I'd love to dig a bit more into your relationship with your community. You have really built this robust community of people who hold and support you in all of the intersections of your identity, but it's been a journey for you to let yourself be fully vulnerable always and let other people in. And you talk really beautifully in the book about this term, queer indispensability. I'd love for you to talk more about that and maybe share an example of what that looks like in your own life.

Lamya H 42:33
Yeah, so first of all, I'm not the person who came up with this term. It's from this really beautiful play by this Sri Lankan artists D'Lo. And, to me, it's this way in which queer people make themselves indispensable in friendships and in relationships, so that they're not sort of like abandoned. This is how it plays out for me, in that I've lived with the sense of like, dreading of loss almost that comes with queerness. This idea that, you know, if you tell someone that you're queer, if you come out, like people will, will leave you. And so I found myself doing this thing in friendships where I would give more than I would take, because I wanted to be so indispensable to these people that I was like, building friendships with that, that they wouldn't leave me. And what's really interesting about writing this book is that a lot of people are like, "Well, have you have you done it? Have you figured out how to rid yourself of this?" And I'm like, "No, it's it's a work in progress. And it's something that I'm, you know, working really hard on." But one of the things that happened recently to me in my life, is that I had a baby and I think that really teaches you the power of community and teaches you about interdependence. Like there's, you know, there's, people talk about raising children in a village, like it takes a village, and I find that to be so true. It's a - you can't have that level of independence or like, indispensability, where you're not asking for things because it's just, it's so hard. And so, yeah, it's been really lovely to see all these relationships and friendships that I put so much effort into be reciprocated, like people have really shown up for me. And that's been so beautiful. And it's been hard, you know, to let people be there for you. But it's been just like really, really beautiful from you know, my friend set up a meal train and even like four months into the birth of my child that people were still bringing by food. It was like, the most beautiful thing ever. It feels so rooted in the sort of like interdependence, and that's something that I've always wanted in my life. And it feels really lovely to feel like, like, I'm getting there, you know?

Anita Rao 44:47
What has this process of becoming a parent done for the ways that you interrogate gender within yourself and also within the context of your religion?

Lamya H 44:58
What has been really cool about having a baby is that it forces you to kind of crystallize some nebulous things. So for example, I'm nonbinary. And I, I feel like I used to have a really hard time expressing that, because it felt like a taking up of space or whatever, like my own baggage and insecurities around it. But it's been really cool to reframe it in terms of, no, what is this relationship that I want to have with my child? What do I want to model for my kid? And so yeah, it's been really lovely, sort of, sitting with that. And like, you know, telling people that I'm not a mom, I'm a parent, please use that term, or just, I use the gender neutral term Baba for myself. And that's what my kid calls me, and that feels really sort of gender affirming. Yeah, it's been a really cool way to sort of like crystallize my own relationship with my body and my gender, both in terms of forcing me to like think through things and asking for what I need, and also really making me think about what I want to model to my kid.

Anita Rao 46:07
One of the things that I really took away from your book was that so much of our relationship with ourselves, with our religion is in a state of flux all the time. There's nothing static about it. And I know that the holy month of Ramadan just ended recently, and it can be a big time of introspection. I'm curious about any new thoughts or questions that have come up for you this year, in particular, in terms of gender and queerness.

Lamya H 46:33
For me, it was a really hard year to be fasting. I think the intersection of sort of like having a young child and fasting was really hard. And so what I found was helpful was to both do more and less, I did more of the things that brought me joy and less of the like, obligation things, which, which was like a really, you know, interesting thing to learn in your late 30s, that, you know, you don't have to do a lot of the obligation things. It's it's another thing that I've been like working a lot on, in myself, just really sort of like knowing where to put my energy as opposed to trying to do everything.

Anita Rao 47:17
I would love to end circling back to kind of where we started earlier that there is this assumption that you can't be both queer and Muslim. And you have in many ways, given evidence to the contrary and do that throughout your memoir. But are there questions that you would like people to ask themselves first before coming to you with that question that you've gotten so often in your life of how can you be both?

Lamya H 47:40
I don't actually mind when people have questions. But I think the questions need to be rooted in an openness, as opposed to coming at it from like, a really sort of, like, predisposed vantage point. Yeah, I think, shedding some of your assumptions before asking questions and framing questions so that they feel open as opposed to really sort of like rooted in Islamophobic or xenophobic or homophobic assumptions.

Anita Rao 48:05
Lamya, thank you so much for this conversation.

Lamya H
Thank you.

Anita Rao
You can find out more about Lamya and their book "Hijab Butch Blues" on our website Don't forget to check out all of our past episodes as well. And remember, we also release them as a weekly podcast. Subscribe or follow wherever you listen.

Today's episode was produced by Kaia Findlay and edited by Amanda Magnus. Paige Miranda also produces for our show, Skylar Chadwick is our intern and Jenni Lawson is our technical director.

I want to also give a special thanks to Yasmin Bendaas and the team behind "Me and My Muslim Friends" for collaborating with us for this week's show. That team includes editor Jerad Walker, producer Liz Schlemmer and executive producer Wilson Sayre. Mastering and engineering is done by Al Wodarski, Sean, Roux and Denarius Thomas. Find all episodes of "Me and My Muslim Friends" wherever you get your podcasts.

This program is recorded at the American Tobacco Historic District. North Carolina Public Radio is a broadcast service of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I'm Anita Rao.

More Stories