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Isolated, Invisible, and in the Closet: The Life Story of a Scottish Muslim
Lesbian
Asifa Siraj

Online publication date: 28 January 2011

To cite this Article Siraj, Asifa(2011) 'Isolated, Invisible, and in the Closet: The Life Story of a Scottish Muslim Lesbian',

Journal of Lesbian Studies, 15: 1, 99 121


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ISSN: 1089-4160 print / 1540-3548 online
DOI: 10.1080/10894160.2010.490503

Isolated, Invisible, and in the Closet: The Life


Story of a Scottish Muslim Lesbian

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ASIFA SIRAJ
In the last three decades, there has been a significant growth in
the literature on lesbian identity and relationships, but the study of
lesbians from a Muslim background is conspicuously absent. This
article was prompted partly by the relative absence of research into
the lives of Muslim lesbians in Britain, and partly by the fact that
much of the literature on Islam and homosexuality has tended to
focus on homosexual men, ignoring the position of lesbian sexuality in Islam. It also charts the difficulties faced by a heterosexual
researcher in conducting an interview with a lesbian and calls attention to the invisibility of self-identified Muslim lesbians in Glasgow. The life story interview is used to explore the very hidden and
untold story of a Muslim lesbian; as such the article draws heavily
on the subjects narrative.
KEYWORDS

closet, family, Islam, lesbian, life story, Muslim

INTRODUCTION
The article charts the life story of Sophia,1 a Scottish Muslim lesbian, who
remains in the closet because of her family, religion and culture. Because
they are often an invisible minority, the subject and study of lesbian lives
is difficult and complex (Herbert, 1996). Acquiring a representative sample
is an extremely challenging task when attempting to conduct research on
such a group. Muslim lesbians represent a population that is hard to define, difficult to reach, or resistant to identification because of social isolation
and possible prejudice (Sullivan & Losberg, 2003). The article begins with
a review of lesbianism in Islam and the position of women of color within
the body of lesbian literature. This is followed by the methodology section, which identifies the problems encountered while looking for Muslim
lesbians. Thereafter, the article focuses on the data from the interview[s].
Address correspondence to Asifa Siraj. E-mail: asifa@siraj.eclipse.co.uk
99

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A. Siraj

Although this article makes no claim of being representative of the Muslim


lesbian experience, this subject is worthy of serious sociological inquiry as it
provides insight into the life of a young woman grappling with her sexual,
religious, and familial identity.

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SEXUALITY AND ISLAM


It is important to base the discussion of lesbianism in Islam by examining
how sexuality is conceptualized in Islam. In stark contrast to Western laws,
where sexuality is considered an issue of individual conscience and private
morality, there is no difference in the Sharia (Islamic Law) between law
and morality. That is, for Muslims no sexual relationship is permitted unless it is legal; otherwise it constitutes a criminal offense (Roy, 1990). All
discourse on sexuality is rooted in the nikah.2 Therefore, sexuality is discussed, viewed, and conceptualised through its lens, and that the sexuality
of actors involved cannot be separated from their gender(ed) roles within
the contract (Shannahan, 2009: 61). This makes it difficult to discuss samesex relationships within the existing legal framework, which ties sex with
the socio/legal and economic contract of nikah (Shannahan, 2009). Gender
relations in Islam, especially in terms of sexuality, are based on the complementarity and union of the sexes (Yip, 2004). This union is referred to
in the Quran as the creation of pairs (Quran, 51: 49), and it comes into
fruition through marriage, which is the binding together of two incomplete
individuals (Quran, 30: 21). Indeed, God has designed men and woman
to complement one another physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually (Maqsood, 1995). The Muslim family is based on a patriarchal social
structure with two discrete sexes and distinguishable gender roles. Gender
roles among Muslims in Scotland are based on a patriarchal family structure,
whereby the husband is the authority figure and breadwinner and the wife is
the primary carer of the family (Siraj, 2010). The family is also built upon the
husbands family. Daughters go to live with their husbands, and sons bring
their brides into their parents home (Beishon, Madood, & Virdee, 1998).
Muslim mens masculine identities are based on their duties and responsibilities to their family and work, and womens feminine identities are associated
with marriage, motherhood, and family (Siraj, 2010).

BREAKING THE SILENCE: LESBIANISM IN ISLAM


Scholarship on lesbianism in Islam is at its very infancy, as references to
homosexuality in the Quran have been directed almost exclusively at male
homosexuality, interpreted always as condemning the practice.3 Equally,
very little is said on the matter in the Hadith,4 but there are references to

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masculine women and effeminate men who are cursed by the Prophet for
behaving in a manner of the opposite sex (Tareen, 2007). As in the Old
and New Testament, where lesbianism is not mentioned (Dynes, Johansson,
Percy, & Donaldson, 1990), there is a striking silence on the issue of lesbian
sexuality in the Quran and Hadith. Furthermore, female-to-female sexual
activity is also missing from the work of Islamic jurisprudence (Ali, 2002).
Studies on the growing visibility of Muslim homosexuals in both Britain
(Jaspal & Siraj, in press; Siraj, 2006; Yip, 2004) and the United States (Rouhani,
2007; Minwalla, Rosser, Feldman, & Varga, 2005) have predominantly been
interested in the male experience. Historical examinations tend equally to
concentrate on male homosexuality (El-Rouayheb, 2005; Murray & Roscoe,
1997). There has also been a lack of attention to the issue by Muslim female
scholars, who have been unwilling (or constrained) to write about femalefemale sexuality in Arab or in other Muslim societies . . . there is nothing in
the way of published ethnographic literature on lesbians in Islamic societies
to discuss at this point (Moghissi, 2005: 48). The only part in the Quran
which is taken specifically as a prohibition against lesbian behavior is the
following verses:
As for those of your women who are guilty of lewdness, call to witness
four of you against them. And if they testify (to the truth of the allegation)
then confine them to the houses until death take them or (until) Allah
appoint for them a way (through new legislation).
And as for the two of you who are guilty thereof, punish them both. And
if they repent and improve, then let them be. Lo! Allah is ever relenting,
Merciful. (Quran, 4: 1516)

While traditional interpretations take the verse as referring to heterosexual


couples, commentators use it as evidence of the definitive condemnation of
female homosexual behavior (Anwar, 2000: 404). The term sihaq or musahaqa, which is defined as rubbing, grinding, or pounding, is often used
to denote lesbian sexual behavior in Islam, and sometimes it signifies female masturbation. The word sihaq is also interpreted as tribadism, which
refers to a female doing with a female something similar to what a man
would do with her (Ali, 2002). Yet, religious jurists concur that there is no
hadd 5 punishment for lesbianism, because it is not zina6 ; rather, it is to
be punished with a tazeer, a punishment that is not decreed in the Quran
or Sunnah7 but fixed by a judge to deter women from committing this sin
(Abdul-Rahman, 2007). The term used in the Quran to denote fornication
is al-fahisha (translated also as lewdness or indecency), but Tareen (2007)
explains that the reference in the verse to women guilty of fornication does
not use the Arabic term for dual to mean two womeninstead, the plural
is employed to signify the general Muslim population. El-Rouayheb (2005)
posits that, in the legal tradition of Islam, female same-sex sexual intercourse

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(sihaq) is considered distinct from male-to-male sexual intercourse in both


language and punishment. The severity of sexual sin is assessed on the basis
of intercourse, not on the gender of the partners. Illegitimate vaginal intercourse between a man and a woman is punishable more severely, as it is far
more sinful than caressing, kissing and non-penetrative sex between men or
sexual intercourse between women. Consequently, because the latter does
not involve penetration of the vagina or anus, Sunni jurists do not regard
them to be major sins. Tareen (2007) remarks that technically, one cannot
derive any definitive conclusions about the permissibility of lesbian sexual
behaviour in Islam from the legal tradition of the religion (Tareen, 2007:
363). She states further that while Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) has been vocal in the condemnation of male same-sex behavior, it has been silent on
the issue of female same-sex behavior.
In recent years, scholars have shifted the focus by questioning the traditional Islamic ethos concerning the historical position of lesbianism in
Islam. Samar Habibs landmark book, Female Homosexuality in the Middle
East: Histories and Representations, argues that Muslim societies have not
always condemned homosexuality; indeed, same-sex relationships existed
in the past, and she cites the example of same-sex weddings in Yemen
and Saudi Arabia (Habib, 2007). Habib proposes a reconsideration of traditional thinking of female homosexuality in Islam through an interpretation
of Arabic scholarship and literature. She contends that Islamic discourses on
female homosexuality have evolved into a religious tradition that condemns
femalefemale sexuality. However, Habibs book is based on medieval Arabic literature and contemporary representations of female homosexuality in
Arabic novels and cinema. Consequently, her book is not based on a theological account of lesbianism in Islam. Overall, the general perspective of
traditional and orthodox religion is that being Muslim and being lesbian are
mutually exclusive categories (Anwar, 2000).

THE HIDDEN LIVES OF LESBIANS OF COLOR


It is not known how many Muslim lesbians currently exist in Britain, much
less how many of them are in Scotland. The number of lesbian and gay
people in Scotland is difficult to determine, but an estimate of 510% of the
population is generally accepted.8 Perusing the vast array of literature on the
topic, one is faced with an over-representation of White female voices as
whiteness pervades the character of debates on sexuality (Kawale, 2003:
182). With the exception of Mason-Johns (1995) collection of Black and
Asian lesbians, studies on lesbians of color in Britain are noticeably absent.
This is exacerbated by the fact that the homosexual Muslim identity is a
markedly recent development in Britain, less than a decade old. Nevertheless,
homosexual Muslims have grown in visibility through publicity and media

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coverage (Rashida X, in Summerskill, 2006: 155). Organizations such as the


Safra Project (research organization), which was founded in 2001, reflect
a growing need to understand the issues affecting lesbian, bisexual, and
transgender women of color.
Muslim lesbians inhabit multiple roles and identities that subsequently
shape the development of their sexual identity. Accounts written by Muslim lesbians indicate an intersection of their multiple identities. Rashida X, a
British-born Muslim lesbian, and the Chairperson of Imaan (see Endnote 8
on Al-Fatiha), comments that the life of a British Gay Muslim is a strange
world-within-a-world place in which to exist (Rashida X, in Summerskill,
2006: 151). Khalida Saed (2005), an American-Iranian member of Al-Fatiha9
(renamed Imaan in 2004), talks about her experiences of finding love and
gaining a renewed sense of spirituality through the Queer Muslim community. Other accounts reveal that, in coming to terms with their sexuality,
lesbians must carefully navigate and negotiate with their religious, familial,
and identities. For some Muslim lesbians like Bushra Rehman, a U.S. poet,
accepting her sexuality meant casting off her Muslim identity.10 In interviews
with Muslim lesbians from North America, Al-Sayyad (2010) similarly found
that Islam was pushed aside in order to maintain their lesbian identity. For
Al-Sayyads participants, there was a clear struggle to reconcile their faith
and culture with their sexuality. For instance, as lesbian Muslim women living in the diaspora, they experienced pressure from their families to follow
normative gender roles through marriage, because many of them were not
openly gay in the Western sense (Al-Sayyad, 2010). For women living in
Muslim countries, these issues are exacerbated. Ayesha, a Pakistani lesbian,
speaks about how her religious adherence has been the biggest hurdle . . .
especially in terms of consolidating a religious-spiritual perspective for myself in which I am not guilty, not a sinner. Ayesha explains that the lack
of space and context make it difficult to meet other lesbians, coupled with
the shame and ostracism lesbians would face in a community that strongly
deters public expression.11
Lesbianism in migrant communities is often perceived to be a symptom
of westoxfication (being intoxicated by secular Western culture; Yip, 2004:
340), and coming out may be construed as evidence of womens cultural
assimilation with the White majority and their adoption of fundamentally
un-Muslim norms and values (Jaspal & Siraj, in press). Muslim lesbians also
face accusations of being too Westernized (Saed, 2005: 86). Surina Khan,
a Pakistani-born U.S. lesbian, described that when she came out to her
mother, her mother suggested that Surina go to Pakistan to get away from
it all, to clear her head (Khan, 1998: 64), believing that she would return
cured. Her mother admonished Khan for moving away to live with her
girlfriend: You and your lover better watch out! There is a large Pakistani
community in D.C., and they will find out about you. Theyll break your
legs, mutilate your face (Khan, 1998: 64). This led Khan to reject her family

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and connection with the community, as well as vowing never to return to


Pakistan, which had become synonymous with homophobia. In contrast,
living in the United States allowed her the freedom to live her life as she
pleased. In reflection of this, homosexuality and heterosexuality serve to
strengthen the hegemonic views of the West as liberated/liberator, and the
Other as repressed/repressor (Al-Sayyad, 2010: 381).
An article by Rahman, a Bangladeshi Muslim lesbian, positions the East
as homophobic and hostile and the West as welcoming and open. Rahman,
who was raised in the United States, reflects on her attempt to combine three
incongruent identities: her nationality (Bengali), faith (Islam), and sexuality
(lesbian). She explains that life in the United States as a lesbian provides
her with anonymity and some relief. Life in Bangladesh, however, would
mean resorting to living in absolute secrecy (Rahman, 2006: 236), because
Bengali society, as a Muslim country, has zero tolerance of homosexuality.
In Desiring Arabs, Massad (2007) contends that desire and sexuality vary according to locations and cultures; however, Western discourses on sexuality,
in ignoring this diversity, have produced a universal framework for conceptualizing sexuality. In a historical review of Arabic literature, Massads central
argument is that although same-sex desire existed, it was not understood
through the concept of homosexuality (Massad, 2007). Thus, the gay and
lesbian typology cannot yet be applied universally, and the sexual human
rights project that Massad refers to as the gay international, in espousing
this liberation project . . . is destroying social and sexual configurations of
desire in the interest of reproducing a world in its own image, one wherein
its sexual categories and desires are safe from being questioned (Massad,
2007: 189). Thus, movements like the gay international recreate sexual and
gender duality through the use of the Western model of heterosexuality.
The above stories illustrate that Muslim womens self-acceptance of their
sexuality necessitates an inevitable distancing from their heterosexual family,
religion, and community. Their narratives also foreground their marginality
and exclusion because of their failure to conform to cultural, traditional,
familial, and religious customs. There are thus multiple barriers that lesbians
face within their respective communities, and, as Bradshaw (1994) notes,
sexist stereotypes in communities of color deny the existence of lesbians of
color. There are further cultural, linguistic and ethnic obstacles that prevent
non-White lesbians from having a voice:
The fact that there is no word for lesbian in Bengali, Hindi or Urdu is a
linguistic clue to cultural and structural organization of sexuality in the
respective societies. It is a reflection of the absence of an identity constructed primarily around sexuality. Gay identity is a rather new Western
construction problematized by issues of gender, class and race. Historically this identity has been constructed by middle-class gay white men.
As a result, it has placed them at the center and marginalized lesbians,
racial minorities, and other classes. (Islam, 1998: 7273)

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With their multiple identities, lesbians of color inevitably face multiple


oppressions (Sokoloff & Pratt 2005), namely the triple jeopardy of homophobia, racism, and sexism (Bradshaw, 1994), meaning that there is no
safe place, no place to belong, whether in the majority or minority community (Bradshaw, 1994: 109). DiPlacido (1998) writes about the minority
stress that lesbian and gay people experience and endure in their daily lives,
such as experiences of heterosexism, homophobia, sexism, and racism. The
emergence of the gay and lesbian communities in recent decades has transformed our culture and consciousness, creating radically new possibilities
for men and women to come out and live more openly as homosexuals
(Herdt, 1998: 279). Despite Herdts words of optimism, this prospect is not
one experienced by those who continue to remain in the closet due to cultural, religious, and ethnic constraints. One of the features of the closet is
social isolation: individuals are often separated both physically and emotionally from other homosexuals, and this emotional distance extends to friends
and family. The closet is also about isolation and secrecy, with the former
maintained by feelings of guilt, shame, and fear. In essence, it is about social
oppression (Herdt, 1998) and creates internalized homophobia in the individual, ultimately resulting in behavior that involves duplicity and deception
(Herdt, 1998). Through the closet the lesbian produces a fictitious self and
this:
lie keeps numberless women psychologically trapped, trying to fit mind,
spirit, and sexuality into a prescribed script because they cannot look
beyond the parameters of the acceptable. It pulls on the energy of such
women even as it drains the energy of closeted lesbiansthe energy
exhausted in the double life. The lesbian trapped in the closet, the
woman imprisoned in prescriptive ideas of the normal.. . . (Rich, 1980:
120)

THE SCOTTISH CONTEXT


Scotland is home to 43,000 Muslims, who account for 3 percent (18,000)
of the Glaswegian population. Glasgows Pakistani population makes up
85 percent of the Muslim population in Scotland. Pakistanis constitute the
largest minority ethnic group in Scotland (31.27 percent of the total number
of ethnic minorities in Scotland).12 For migrant Muslims and those born
in Scotland, Islam is an important aspect of their identity (Hopkins, 2006;
Saeed, Blain, & Forbes, 1999). In a study by Hussain and Miller (2003), 50
percent of Pakistanis who were born in Scotland identified as Scottish Muslim
and young people of Asian origin tend to use hybrid identities such as
Scottish Pakistani or Scottish Muslim (McCrone, 2002). The Scottish minority
ethnic population tends to be middle class and, in comparison with their
counterparts in England, more likely to reside in middle-class neighborhoods.

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METHODOLOGY
Sampling the lesbian and gay community is a challenging task, and there
are several issues the researcher must confront. Access to the population is
a significant hurdle that the researcher must overcome, because the most
difficult part of research directly investigating gays and lesbians is identifying lesbians and gays. The gay and lesbian population is invisible (Riggle & Tadlock, 1999: 6). However, when researching a minority within a
minorityethnic and (homo)sexual minoritythese issues are exacerbated.
I began my search for Muslim lesbians in February 2009, using several different methods for recruiting participants. I first discussed my research with
friends, family, and acquaintances, and placed notices on student boards
at universities in Glasgow, at the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] Centre, and at the Glasgow Womens Library. I posted requests on
two sites for women to contact me if they were interested in participating: pinksofa.com and imaan.org.uk. There was no response from either
site, despite 49 people viewing the posting on the latter site. Despite my
perseverance, all the above methods elicited no response. However, several months later, I received an e-mail from a friend, saying that she knew
someone who was willing to talk to me informally about participating.

MY POSITION AS A HETEROSEXUAL RESEARCHER


Throughout the interview process, I was conscious of my position as a heterosexual researcher. It is important to analyze my position and how it may
have affected the way I approached the study. My (hetero)sexuality was perhaps the biggest obstacle reaching out to lesbians, simply because lesbian
or gay researchers have obvious and clear advantages when doing research
about this subject: they may produce questions that would influence a different line of inquiry; they are able to interpret meanings ordinarily reserved
for members of that particular group; they possess insider knowledge and
have access to places where LGBT people meet and gather; they have more
information about reaching contacts for their samples; and participants may
be less reserved when taking part in the research (Meezan & Martin, 2003).
Despite these advantages, LaSala (2003) notes that insiders may miss or not
understand specific meanings or terms when it is presumed they would. Similarly, Wheeler (2003) remarks that the issue of trust is central for ensuring a
successful and working relationship irrespective of the insider/outsider status
of the researcher. And although sexual identification with the participant may
be helpful, this is useful, not sacred (Reinharz, 1992: 232). The researchers
appearance, language and non-verbal cues also provide signs for the interviewee about the degree of distance or common values and beliefs. In my
situation, I had anticipated that my hijab, as a symbol of religiosity, would

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be perceived negatively by the interviewee.13 During the meeting, Sophia


admitted that she had reservations about talking to a woman who wore the
hijab, which for her represented my piety and religiousness. I clearly could
not identify with her experiences, feelings or views, because I represented
the moral Muslim majority that negated her sexuality and devalued her
identity as a Muslim. Sophia asked if I had friends who were homosexual,
and I told her that I had friends and colleagues at my university who were
homosexual. I also talked about my experiences of interviewing homosexual
Muslim men in London (Siraj, 2006).
Despite Sophias hesitation, she felt happy talking to me informally, and
we discovered several commonalities. We were both from a middle-class
background with a similar family, ethnic, and cultural background. Although
Sophia admitted having reservations about the research, she felt at ease
talking to me and said that I was a good listener. This gives credence to the
view that people often derive considerable satisfaction from talking about
what they are doing to a disinterested but sympathetic ear. Taking part in
a study can often lead to respondents reflecting on their experience in a
way they find helpful (Robson, 1993: 73). It is believed that participants are
more at ease with a friendly stranger, because this affords them a degree
of control over the relationship; more importantly the judgmental attitude of
family members and friends is not present (Letherby, 2003: 129).
Despite her initial doubts, Sophia e-mailed to say that she would like
to participate in the study. She explained: one of the reasons Im able to
do this with you now is the fact that Im comfortable with my sexuality,
and also I think its important for people to know what life is like as a
closeted Muslim lesbian. The location of the interview was a decision I left
to Sophia, in order for her to feel safe and comfortable in discussing her life
story. Consent forms were presented to Sophia, detailing confidentiality and
the use of a pseudonym, and they were signed prior to the digital recording
of the interviews. All three interviews took place at the same coffee shop over
three consecutive Saturday afternoons. The interviews were approximately
an hour long, and each was transcribed verbatim.

THE LIFE STORY INTERVIEW


I acknowledge the issue of generality that arises from my study. However,
as Smith (1987) remarks, the particular case is not particular in the aspects
that are of concern to the inquirer. Indeed, it is not a case for it presents
itself to us rather as a point of entry, the locus of an experiencing subject
or subjects, into a larger social and economic process (Smith, 1987: 157).
Therefore, I believe that telling the story of one lesbian is as important as
telling the stories of several lesbians. My choice of methodology developed

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and changed as a result of the lack of response to the study. I employed the
life story interview, which Atkinson (1998) explains as the story a person
chooses to tell about the life he or she has lived, told as completely and
honestly as possible. What is remembered of it, and what the teller wants to
know of it, usually as a result of a guided interviewer by another (Atkinson,
1998: 8). The life story method is particularly suitable for the present study as
one of the clearest of situations where voices have appeared telling their life
stories where once there was silence is in the case of gay and lesbian stories
(Plummer, 2001: 94). The life story interview is an open-ended method of
eliciting information from a research participant. I started by asking Sophia
to tell me about herself, and according to the life story method I listened
without interruption. This allowed Sophia to direct and determine the length
of the interviews. Once the interview was transcribed, I asked the subject to
review the transcript in order to make any changes she deemed necessary. I
then undertook an in-depth interpretation and analysis of the data. The story
began with the narrators childhood experiences and earliest memories of her
sexuality, her school years, and ways in which she dealt with her sexuality.
Several long quotations have been included to preserve the respondents
viewpoint, because the life story method allows the respondents to talk
about their lives in an open, uninterrupted, and nondirective fashion, and to
develop their story and thinking (Chaitin, 2004: 13).

SOPHIAS STORY
Sophia was born in 1984 in Glasgow and lives in the West End of the city. She
comes from a middle-class background and is the youngest of two brothers
and one sister. Her parents originally came from Pakistanher father arrived
in Glasgow in the 1960s to work, and her mother, a housewife, arrived later
in the 1970s. She is a Sunni14 Muslim, and her family is relatively religious.
She realized she was a lesbian when she was 12 years old, but only came
out to her friend at the age of 18. She is open to only five people and
still considers herself to be in the closet. Sophia graduated in 2007 with a
degree in biochemistry from the University of Strathclyde, and she currently
works for a multi-national company in Glasgow.15 Sophia began her story
by recollecting her earliest memory of same-sex attraction:
At primary five, when I was about 10 years old, I developed a crush on
my teacher. . . . I still have her picture in my head. I remember I used to
feel nervous around her. I had no idea why. All I knew was I liked her
more than anyone else, but thinking back now it was more admiration,
nothing sexual at all. But even at that age I knew it was wrong, I knew
it was bad thing.

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The feelings Sophia was experiencing were not easily definable, and even
at the age of ten her instinctive awareness was that they were wrong. At
this stage in her life, she was ignorant about the term lesbian and did not
have the words to interpret her same-sex feelings or the information to give
her experiences meaning. She continued to talk about her life at secondary
school, which was a time when she became increasingly more aware of her
sexuality:
Literally the first day I started secondary school, I liked someone. Ive
always fancied someone at one point or another. I really fancied my
friend Maria for 3 years. I used to be very nervous around her, sweaty
hands and panicky. My friends used to ask me who I fancied, theyd
ask me his name, but Id never tell them, and some of them even asked
me: Do you like girls?, Id be like: No!, because Id never come out
and specifically said I liked so and so. I used to just panic and thought
they know. Once, I was with my friends and she asked if I liked girls. I
panicked, and the first guy that walked by I said he was the one I liked,
and he was to remain my fake crush for a couple of years.

Despite her close network of friends, she felt herself to be an outcast and
invented a heterosexual identity by imitating her heterosexual friends. She
felt excluded, inadequate and different:
At secondary school with friends, I had to be the typical, Asian teenage
girl who was into boys. I was the total opposite from that. I felt uneasy, but the only way I could assimilate was to be somebody I wasnt.
Although this has never left me, as I still assume this persona.

Coincidently, at school she was friends with an open lesbian, Samantha, who
was in a relationship with another girl:
I found out that Samantha and Elise were together in 5th year. I thought
they were weak for giving into their feelings, because I thought it was
something that was wrong, and I was strong for not doing anything,
because I hadnt given into my feelings. Samantha and I were quite
close, and towards the end I was happy for them, because although I
didnt want a girlfriend they were so carefree about it. For them it wasnt
a big deal, but for me it was my deep dark secret. My school years were
crap. Throughout my life I felt secure, because I knew that this was a
phase . . . every birthday that went by 13, 14, 15I stupidly thought
by 16 Ill be straight, just like that, hah! But I was becoming everything
that I hated, it was a part of me. I felt helpless, disgusted.

Falco (1991) explains that many women experiencing same-sex physical


and emotional feelings do one of three things: disregard their feelings, fail
to label their feelings as lesbian, or consider their feelings to be just a phase.

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For Sophia, believing that her lesbianism was a phase was her strategy of
coping, regarding it as a temporary condition that would eventually run its
course and return her to the straight path.

STEPPING OUT OF THE CLOSET

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Sophia has disclosed her sexuality to five people (three friends, her brother,
and her sister). At the age of 18, she associated the term lesbian with her
feelings for the first time. This tentative recognition influenced her decision
to come out, but disclosing her sexuality has been a painful communicative
process. As she entered university, her concern regarding her feelings led to
a great deal of anguish and anxiety. She chose to confide in her friends, but
her first disclosure left her feeling humiliated and demoralized:
When I left school, I felt I had to tell someone, its a huge burden keeping
this all to yourself. The first person I came out to was a close school friend
(a Christian). I was eighteen. We went out to lunch, and when I told her
she literally just froze, put her fork down, drank some water and spat in
my food and left. She didnt speak to me for years. Once I had come out,
it shook me up, the reality of it all. I went back into the closet and felt
as though I had made a mistake.

This experience further created feelings of estrangement, because for lesbian and gay people disclosing their sexuality has the potential of producing
negative effects. In Sophias situation, this meant losing a very good friend.
Homosexuals anticipating this possibility attempt a partial disclosure over
a period of time (Plummer, 1992). There are two methods for the containment of partial disclosure: compartmentalization and collusion. The former
involves compartmenting ones life into areas where one is known as gay
and other places and spaces where this is hidden. Both areas are typically
segregated from family or people at work (Plummer, 1992); Sophia said:
I always invented different identities, which allowed me to be open with
some people while remaining in the closet with others. For example, at
home its just me, the little sister. At university, with my friends David
and KayI know it sounds cheesythey got the real me, they knew
about my family and what would happen if I came out. While at my first
job, which was an Islamic organization, it was the religious me, clean,
attempting to find a place in religion.

The second category of partial disclosure is collusion, which requires the


disclosing individual along with usually one but sometimes two or three

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111

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others in the know. . . within the family a sister, usually an elder sister,
often plays this role (Plummer, 1992: 81). Lesbians along with gay men
tend to reveal their sexuality to their siblings before others in their families,
as they often act as a testing ground prior to disclosing this information to
their parents, who represent an even bigger emotional risk (Gottlieb, 2004).
The second person Sophia came out to was her sister:

A few months later I told my sister. I didnt intend to tell her, I was upset
in my room and she walked in. I still remember some of the things she
said: Do you have a boyfriend?, Are you pregnant? And when I told
her I was a lesbian, she said I wish you did have a boyfriend. That
really, really got to me. I totally regretted telling her, she came across as
being very, very selfish. She said that shed wished that I didnt tell her
because she felt burdened. With my brother, it was the opposite, he
was absolutely amazing about it. He was very calm and very caring. But
they both said I should get help and its a phase. They thought I should
see a psychiatrist, my sister believed that my sexuality was the cause of
some childhood experience, but I dont think that. I think I was born
with it, but born with what? What does that mean? I mean born with
blindness? I hate saying that! My brother thinks its a complete phase, he
thinks Ill find a guy I can connect with and Ill be fine. They both think
I need to do something to fix myself. I felt as though they felt sorry for
me, because I cant live that full heterosexual family-orientated life. My
sister said if I did anything about it she wouldnt talk to me. If you dont
do anything about it then its fine.

Being a lesbian is the antithesis of the ideal Muslim woman: mother and
wife. The proper expression of ones (hetero)sexuality is through marriage,
because marriage is typically a key element of Muslim orthopraxy. It is
not simply an expression of sexual desire or a sign of being pious, but
a practice that makes one a more pious Muslim (Boellstorff, 2007: 147).
For Sophias brother and sister, heterosexuality equals normality, anything
else is abnormal; thus, the lesbian has a corrupted sexuality that through
psychiatry or some form of therapy is repairable. Sophias sister searched
the Internet to find organizations that specialized in helping those struggling
with their homosexuality. However, despite her sisters insistence to explore
this avenue as a source of overcoming her lesbianism, Sophia ignored her
requests. In spite of this, she comments that overall, they [brother and sister]
have been fine with it. The most that you can expect is that people tolerate
it. I should be quite grateful about their reaction, my sisters quite tolerant
and quite accepting, and I feel good that I told her. I was expecting a lot
worse. Its also helped me to be comfortable with myself.

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A. Siraj

FAMILY TIES AND EXPECTATIONS

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Sophia had originally planned to come out to one family member each
year, but she is now less inclined to do this. First, she is worried about
their reaction and fears being ostracized, and secondly, she feels that the
knowledge of her sexuality would only serve to complicate their lives and
create undue problems for her within the family:
I dont think there will ever be the right time to tell my parents, but Im
not giving them any bait to hate me or not to approve of me, because Im
not putting into practice what I feel. That gives me strength, knowing that
Im not doing anything . . . but I suppose I have to tell them because of
the marriage thing. It feels forced, I would feel exposed, its private to me.
When they find out, theyll probably be angry, disappointed and shocked.
My family are quite homophobic in their language and attitudebut thats
no different to any other Asian family. They use the words poof and
dyke in a derogatory manner to describe homosexuals. Whenever my
mum talks about them, shes always got a look of disgust, because for
her and for the rest of them its a chosen sexual identity, they dont
understand or dont want to understand any more than that.

Sophia portrayed herself as a misfit, somebody who lacks but longs for a
sense of belonging. She was also pessimistic about the support she would
receive from her family:
I feel disconnected to everything in this world. Its like youre on your
own, you feel numb on the inside. No one can reach into me, its like
watching the world pass you by. I dont belong anywhere. At the start
of coming out, my family were the most important, but now theyre not.
Because I wanted their respect and happiness. But it doesnt bother me
because I dont have a role in my family. Im too different, and they
[family] know that Im different.

Greene (1994) points out that lesbians from ethnic minority groups learn a
range of negative stereotypes about homosexuality before acknowledging
their own sexual identity. This process of internalizing negative attitudes is
caused because trusted and loved ones complicate the process of gay or
lesbian identity development and self acceptance (Greene, 1994: 248). In
the following quotation, Sophia describes how in the face of internalized
homophobia, she, like her family, condemned homosexuality:
I remember my sister would always say that gay men really repulsed her
because they have anal sex, but I used to say that I hated lesbians, but
she would try to convince me that gay men were far more abhorrent

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113

than lesbians, but Id be adamant and say no, I think two women are
disgusting!

Sophias family does not perceive homosexual relationships as an alternative


sexual and social identity; hetero-normative indoctrination through religion,
society, and culture does not allow this. Consequently, Sophias voice and
sexual identity are essentially silenced, and she feels herself to be an invisible
and inconsequential person in her family.

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SUICIDE
The anguish Sophia experienced after coming to terms with her sexuality
culminated in a strikingly painful and disturbing time in her life. During this
period, she felt helpless and experienced a deep sense of anxiety attributed
to the guilt she carried about her feelings for women. From the age of ten,
the daily conscious conflict with the self had become insufferable:
Why would God do this? Why me? When I first realized I was a lesbian,
I hated it. I hated myself. I thought it was disgusting; I didnt want to
be like them [gays]! I mean, what was I going to do? The ages of 1618
were the worst because it was mental turmoil. I didnt ask for this, yet
Im made to suffer. How would I ever be happy? What will my family
think? It was an accumulation of everything. I saw suicide as a source of
comfort, I felt in control. I just hated that heavy feeling and I still do as a
26-year-old. Its a heavy burden of deceit, and Id just come to a breaking
point, I couldnt handle it. I thought about suicide seriously when I was
16, then 18 and then 21. The first time I planned and attempted suicide
was in 1998, but I had to snap myself out of it . . . it was the closest I
ever got to, it was just a matter of counting up to 10. I was in the process
of doing it but stopped at the last minute . . . well somebody came in
. . . although I had made a conscious decision of stopping myself. The
last time was in 2003, my last year of university. I had everything set
out, I knew when and where I was going to do it. Both of the times
when I had my plan in my head I was the happiest. Day in and day
out, I felt really happy and really light. Some people think people who
commit suicide or think about it are cowards, but Id like to see how
they would cope being in my shoes. You obviously think about it or do
it when you cant go on, its like letting go of all your problems. People
should understand that its something quite powerful thats driving you to
suicideits constantly thinking about it (your sexuality), and you think
about ending it regardless of your parents and family. It wasnt feeling
bad for a few moments but for several years. So it wasnt a light decision
. . . its sad when somebodys only option is suicide. But Ive got to grips
with myself. Its only a problem if you make it a problem.

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A. Siraj

The last time Sophia contemplated suicide was during her final-year
exams at university. She talked about how she carried on, completed her
exams and began the search for a job, which occupied both her mind and
time.

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THE JOURNEY TOWARD SELF-ACCEPTANCE


After completing her university education and in between looking for a job,
Sophia immersed herself in Islamic literature and encountered a recurrent
theme, which was that everything comes from Allah. If Hes made you
a heterosexual, then Hes also made me a homosexual . . . I was coming
to terms with my existence, my being here in the world. After months of
contemplation, she was gradually beginning to acknowledge that being a
lesbian was not a choice, and that her sexuality was a natural phenomenon,
leading her to declare: I believe in God and everything comes from God.
He willed this, I guess this is Gods game plan for me. This thinking allowed
her to develop a more positive self-consciousness, and for the first time she
perceived being a lesbian in a more positive light. Sophia has experienced
tremendous psychological adjustment to be able to talk about accepting her
sexuality as part of her conscious subjectivity:
Im very proud of being a lesbian. I dont think you have to be open to
be proud, its the opposite of how I felt before, which was ashamed. I
spent a long time trying to figure out why Im a lesbian or what made
me this way. Its like asking a heterosexual to explain themselves. What
is there to explain? Im like this. There is no logic behind this, its not
a phase, its not a disease, its not an outcome of a traumatic childhood
event. Im a Muslim lesbian. Its not a big deal.

Sophias acceptance has created a new framework based around a strong


degree of her self-confidence and sense of self-worth. In spite of this, Sophia
experiences life as an intensely lonely existence:
Im alone in this. I always have been and always will be. Ive come to
the point where Ive become totally disconnected. Youre on your own
for so long that generally you become more stronger and self-reliant, you
dont need people. Its like feeling numb, when I would feel lonely Id
have friends and Id get out of that feeling, but now Im not getting out
of feeling isolated. Im happy feeling isolated, it doesnt bother me now.
In fact, I feel happy.

Sophia has developed a code of silence primarily though isolating herself


from those around her, typically her family members. Her growing selfacceptance of her sexuality has inadvertently caused a detachment from

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115

her family, and this is exacerbated by a lack of hope concerning her future.
Despite her growing acceptance of her sexuality, Sophia remained dispirited:

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I dont know what the future holds for me. Family? Im not attached
to my family at all, obviously I do care about them, but Ive totally
detached/disconnected myself from them. Ive become a bit of a recluse.
Love? Thats not happening. . . . Life is just little spurts of excitement and
then it ends. I will plod along till the end of my life.

When asked whether she would consider getting married if the pressure
from her family mounts, she was inexorable: Never, ever . . . I dont even
see this as an option. Nothing and no one can make this happen. Although
she stated that not wanting to get married may be the only reason I come
out to my parents. On the one hand, Sophia does not want to commit
to a heterosexual marriage, yet, on the other hand, she has not sought to
affirm her sexuality through a connection to the wider lesbian community in
Glasgow. Sophia was not interested in meeting other women, because she
continues to harbor feelings of ambivalence about being a lesbian:
Although Im happy with my sexuality I still feel slightlynot ashamed,
embarrassed. I think its a subconscious thing. I dont want to be with
anyone, but I dont understand why I dont want to be with anyone, I put
that down to society. I dont mind gays at all, I dont have any problem
with them going out with someone of the same sex. I feel a wee bit better
because Im not doing anything about it, Im only partially conforming
to that role. I think I feel Im slightly superior to them, I mean I am
part of them (gays) but not really being with them. Thats why I know I
can never be with a girl. I just cant, it sometimes feels wrong, it doesnt
even come to my mind to be honest . . . I think its a lot easier and less
complicated being on your own. Also if I was to be with another person,
Id be throwing away so much, society, community, family, I mean, what
they would think of me?

The stigma attached to homosexuality continues to cause Sophia to feel


uncomfortable at the thought of being in a relationship with a woman. She
believes this would risk losing her family, the support they offer and their
respect. More significantly, she questions what would I think of myself?
Sophia believes in the tenets of Muslim marriage, based on a contract with set
duties and responsibilities, where both partners are bound by a commitment
to one another. However, lesbian relationships in the West, she believes, lack
both strength and continuity, and the possibility of having a relationship
on this basis is not something she believes has much promise. There are
persistent reminders for Sophia that her sexuality will not be accepted by
the wider Muslim community. For instance, a comment made by a Muslim

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A. Siraj

colleague at work illustrates the simplistic and intolerant attitude toward


Muslim homosexuals:

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Somebody I used to know at school has joined the company I work for,
and we were talking about these two Muslim guys at school, one who
was gay and the other was bisexual. He was telling me how one of them
was thrown out by his parents because he slept around with guys, and
the other one left for Italy to be with his older boyfriend. And he laughed
and said Thats the worst thing you can be: gay and Muslim, eh Sophia?
I chuckled and said, Yeah, I know.

Indeed, attitudes toward homosexuality among heterosexual Muslims


in Scotland are both heterosexist and homonegative (Siraj, 2009). There are
several factors that influence views of homosexuality among racial and ethnic minority cultures, including the predominant religion within the culture,
traditional views of family, and traditional gender roles (Solarz, 1999: 23).

IN BETWEEN ISLAM AND SPIRITUALITY


Despite a growing number of studies documenting the hope and desire
of some homosexual Muslims to reconnect their faith with their sexuality
(Rouhani, 2007; Siraj, 2006), Sophia believed that homosexuality is wrong
because it says in the Quran its wrong. I dont think it can be compatible with any religion. Nevertheless, she maintained that finding legitimacy
hinges upon ones personal interpretation:
I really dont understand . . . you like someone of the same sex, big deal!
It can be compatible if you let it be, if you still have faith and you do the
same things, not lying, respecting your parents, big deal, its not with the
opposite sex its with the same sex.

Sophia was not a particularly religious person. She adhered to the cultural
aspects of Islam (not eating pork, not drinking alcohol, and so forth) and
admitted that:
Islam is not that prominent in my life, my Muslim identity is non-existent.
I find it difficult to relate myself to a religion. Islam is something that
I use in my life to calm myself. When I do use it, I do feel Im being
looked after. I like the feeling that no matter what you do, God will
still be there. I do want to feel close to God . . . you need spirituality in
your life, you need to see yourself as part of the bigger picture.

The overt stigma that Muslim homosexuals face and the subsequent isolation
from their religion caused Sophia to depreciate her commitment to her faith.

Isolated, Invisible, and in the Closet

117

Sophia has not made a conscious effort to integrate her sexual, religious,
and/or ethnic identities. However, she declared she was a spiritual person.
Organized religion is based on a collection of rules and structured around
a belief system and doctrine, which in essence denies her sexual identity.
Spirituality permits her to carve an individual belief system, which allows
her to have a more personal and intimate relationship with God.

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CONCLUSION
Despite the recent flurry of work on Muslim male homosexuals, the role,
position, and experiences of Muslim lesbians are little known. A review of
existing studies on Muslim lesbians reveals few references. Moreover, not
only is a sociological analysis lacking but so is a detailed account of the
position of lesbianism within Islam. There are a few personal accounts of
Muslim lesbians that describe the integration or segregation of incongruent
identities, and similarly the literature on lesbianism and Islam has increased
our knowledge a little, but it also reveals large gaps that need to be filled.
This article was about the struggle of one young woman to come to terms
with her hidden and devalued sexual identity, feelings of not belonging, of
isolation and emptiness. There are countless Muslim lesbians in the closet for
whom admitting the existence of their sexuality is quite simply intolerable
in a climate that is homophobic and unsympathetic. Certainly, lesbians are
equally saturated with the condemnatory theological as well as the homophobic rhetoric of religion, family, and society, which acts as an obstacle to
coming out. A combination of different factors shapes the reality of the closeted Muslim lesbian and creates a very thick boundary between the closet
and openness. Although Sophia no longer grapples with guilt and self-hatred,
she lives a life where neither present nor future matters, as she disquietly
recognizes that an open lesbian identity is unthinkable and her true sense of
self must remain hidden, privatized, and isolated (Ettorre, 1980). The narrators story reveals the struggles she has endured over the last decade despite
her attempts to deny the undeniable. The article also demonstrates that the
lesbian experience should not be limited to women engaged in a sexual
relationship with other women; very little is known about the experiences
and accounts of women identifying as lesbians who are in the closet but not
in a sexual relationship with women.
I acknowledge that the research is neither all-encompassing nor comprehensive. Nevertheless, it provides a detailed portrayal of the life of a
Muslim lesbian and how she has coped with being in the closet and has,
thus far, defined and interpreted her experience. The role of the researcher
in the life story method is predominantly to listen to the narrator and her
story, yet disclosure on my part was also necessary in order to create an atmosphere of trust and rapport. Indeed, I had not anticipated being affected

118

A. Siraj

on such a deep and personal level, as the narrators story is one that is
profoundly imbued in unhappiness and dejection. I felt privileged to be the
first to hear the narrators story in depth and detail, and as such I am grateful for Sophias openness in sharing aspects of herself that have remained
hidden and caused her great emotional conflict and strain. Moreover, I was
impressed with her commitment to honesty, and I hope that I have done
some justice in representing her life.

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NOTES
1. A pseudonym chosen by the narrator.
2. The legal matrimonial contract between a bride and groom within an Islamic marriage.
3. Quran: 6: 8587, 7: 7882, 11:73, 11: 7984, 15: 5877, 21: 7071, 21: 7475, 22: 4344, 26:
160176, 27: 5559, 29: 25, 29: 2734, 37: 133138, 38: 1114, 50: 1213, 54: 3340 and 66: 10.
4. Traditions based on reports of the activities and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad and his
companions.
5. A punishment fixed in the Quran and Hadith for crimes that are regarded to be against the
rights of Allah (Pl. Hudud).
6. Unlawful sexual intercourse.
7. The way of life based on the teachings and practices of Muhammad and on the Quran.
8. http://www.stonewall.org.uk/documents/Towards Healthier LGBT Scot.pdf
9. Founded in September 1998 in London, it is a social support group for British Lesbian, Gay,
Bisexual, and Transgender Muslims.
10. Rehman, B. The Invisible Queer Muslim. http://backup.curvemag.com/Detailed/382.html
11. Dutta, R. (2006) Under the Quilt. http://www.newsline.com.pk/NewsJune2006/lifestylejune.
htm
12. http://www.scotland.gov.uk/library5/social/aescr-02.asp
13. A headscarf that conceals the hair.
14. One of the two main branches of orthodox Islam (the other being Shia).
15. Possible identifying details have been changed in order to ensure anonymity.

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CONTRIBUTOR
Asifa Siraj received her Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Glasgow
(Scotland, United Kingdom) in 2006. Her thesis was entitled The Islamic
Concept of Masculinity and Femininity. Her research interests center on
the lives of Scottish Muslims, especially on issues of gender, Islam, and
homosexuality. She is an independent scholar and currently involved in
research on South Asian gay men in Scotlandan exploratory qualitative
study with Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh gay men.