remembering. ramzan nine years ago. getting ready for an iftar party where the palao served was too salty, even for me. ma, pinning my duppata on my left shoulder with the brooch nani ami gave her. baba, teaching his thirteen year old son how to tie a tie, no creases, no bumps, yes it must be straight. like most of my memories, i hate this one too, and not because i wanted to swap places with my brother, but because i wanted ma to tear apart the duppata and instead teach me how to sew it into a big fat bow tie so i could wear nani ami’s brooch in the middle of it, rest it below my throat under the absent shadow of an adam’s apple that never grew
remembering. how nine years ago i refused to pray maghrib after that bad iftari and the aunties shook their heads in silent disapproval. it was my first public anti-prayer rebellion. i secretly prayed qazah that night. fully naked. to practice vulnerability with allah, to mark difference from the communal prayer. eyes closed, so that when i went into rukuh, i wouldn’t peek at my stretch marks, at the alien hair growing out of unshavable places. i went into a long sajda that night remembering how my islamiat teacher had told me that we are closest to god when we are in sajda. i stayed that way until i slept, with my back to the dirty sky. i was vulnerable in love
now. i am alone. i hated praying with others but there are none to stand alongside me tonight. no aunty to give me a lecture, no mother to pin a brooch, no suffocating ittar smell to give me headache, no ramzan palao gone too salty
now, my prayer mat looks just like me: dusty, sad, unmoved since last ramzan. today i unfold it as i unfold myself. i am scared to pray again. i fear i may have forgotten the sequence, forgotten the movement, forgotten the words i have memorized in a language i secretly despise (yes, it’s that mixture of internalized islamophobia and saudi imperialism) i fear i may re-learn too much of a faith i need to not know much about. to survive. i fear i may hate it too much once i learn it too much
yesterday, someone who seemed so much more muslim than me told me that sex is a form of ibadat. sex, like worship, can be beautiful, vulnerable, frightening, violent. god too can feel like a nurturing lover one night and an abusive narcissist at others. faith comes with the risk of heartbreak. i have risked heartbreak. i have gone into sajda many times, sometimes on a sad prayer mat that looks too much like me, sometimes on her soft bush, my face embraced by her thighs, my fatihah laced with her moans. i have made myself vulnerable in love
tonight. is chaand raat. i will go into sajda as the moon tries to peek through the dense clouds of smog. teasing. tantalizing. licking the lids of apprehension on eyes that gaze their dirty skies for a glimmer of Her, a glimmer of something to break the monotony of this loveless capitalism
tonight i will recite fatihah and i will mean it. tonight i will even recite darood and i will mean it. and i will lower my head in sajda, bow down with my back to the teasing moon, rest my forehead on her stubble, put my faith in Her rubble, and stay like that for a long long time. on these lonely nights, i like feeling close to allah as She weeps the earth blurry. on these lonely nights, i like holding her close as she sleeps in restless worry. so i will stay that way until the crack of fajr, with her bush under the absent shadow of an adam’s apple that never really grew
If we must extend the umbrella of the word “queer” to all places and cultures, then we must also realize that being queer and doing queerness looks different in different places, since the normative is different in different spaces. Even within urban Pakistan, class and cultural capital allows for a certain kind of normative. I am always surprised when the coming-of-age stories of my fellow queer Pakistanis resemble so much the stories of American queer kids. I think that such story-telling stems from the narratives that are available to us. Since we have no way of understating queer coming-of-age other than the western ideas of “coming out of the closet” and “feeling attracted to the same sex,” we start to narrate our stories similarly. We begin to argue that are we are, like all queer folks around the world, “born gay” (as if our desires were coded into our genes in the uterus) even though at times we may not believe such narratives ourselves.
Since a long time I have been trying to understand my own queer coming-of-age as a woman who grew up in a relatively privileged urban environment of Pakistan where the normative was not the pure virginal Islamic, but the pseudo-western and hybrid ways of doing romance. In my normative environment, the social codes were written by a mixture of western music and films, Hum TV drama serials, classic British fiction or trashy romance novels, the Quran and hadith, and of course, Bollywood.
I realized that I was queer not when I started to accept my desire for women, but when I realized that I could not like boys the way my friends did. It was not a realization of lesbianism or uh, homosexuality (I cringe every time I use this word). It was a realization of failure. Failure to participate in the societal fantasies that are so ingrained in us from TV and romance fiction and pop music and Bollywood. Failure to dream about being a dulhan, about having a fancy wedding—and this was not because the 14 year old me was critical of the wedding industry at that time (I had no anti-capitalist consciousness then), but because I thought I could not feel. I could not feel the way my friends felt about boys and marriage. I could not participate in the excitement over a boy’s love note, or a rose, or a valentine’s day gift of chocolates (we all were too young to understand clichés then).
Therefore, my queer journey began from a sort of asexuality. I could not like boys; and my burgeoning feminism made me resistant to chivalry; resistant to saving sad girls oppressed by their fathers. This inability to actualize my romance fantasies cast me as a failure. I failed to attract, and I failed to desire. Even when I learned what lesbianism was, even when I realized that I liked a girl in a very intense, non-normative way, I was resistant to transferring the cultural fantasies of romance (in which one party woos and the other is wooed) to her.
Having been a victim of so much traumatizing sexualization and objectification, I did not want to look at women sexually. I thought that simply wanting a woman meant objectifying her. I was not taught a way to desire and love that could not sexualize and commodify, that could love without intruding upon her body. So I told myself again and again that I was asexual. That I would not participate in either culture: the romance fantasies with boys, or the erotic desire for women.
This is the tragedy of our culture. Children are not taught the difference between respectful consensual erotica, and intrusive and abusive objectification. Growing up, I thought being “liked” by someone was to be gazed upon by male eyes. And that meant being stripped naked, being pierced into, being penetrated by their violent gazes. So I thought “liking” someone else meant I had to do the same to desire “correctly.” In a patriarchal culture, the proper form of desire is the objectifying male gaze. Proper or real sex is porn, not shared consensual intimacy. And of course, the woman is always used for the man’s pleasure. As a queer woman, I thought that practicing my sexual desires would mean that I had to use a woman’s body for my own fantasies. That I had to look her up and down, to notice her breasts, to imagine her naked, to whistle at her as she walked down the street, to imagine what lay under her kameez. So of course, as a feminist, my own desires repulsed me. Desire turned into self-hate—not because I felt guilty the way my fellow Muslim queer folks did—but because I thought that desire for a woman was incompatible with my feminism.
When we can’t distinguish discomfort from excitement, trauma from pleasure, and erotica from pornography, there is no way we can fully give and receive love. In a world without sex education, and without education about the difference between sexual violence and sexual pleasure, we will never be able to heal from trauma, or allow others to heal through love. Being “in love” will always be violent, and “loving” will always be purely asexual. Even now, many years after my first desire/objectification dilemma, I still worry if I am dancing on the fine line of abuse/love. Despite regular communication with my partner, I still wonder if I am unable to understand fully the difference between the kind of desiring gaze makes one feel forcefully stripped, and the desire that makes one feel beautiful and safe. There is still so much I have to unlearn. I guess this is a queer feminist life: a constant and active struggle to unlearn all social codes that we are always, always implicated in.