What does it mean to fully bring all of yourself into a space? As a person who occupies several different identities that are often marginalized in many spaces I walk into, this is a question that I consider on a regular basis. I am not someone who can easily compartmentalize all of my identities. When I was younger, I spent a lot of time compartmentalizing my queerness in certain contexts, but I’m older now and I can no longer abide. I have no desire to piece and parse out who I am, and this means that I have to think carefully about who might be in the spaces I’m walking into and what variety of oppression or discomfort I might experience.
I sometimes wonder if the idea of a “safe space” is a myth. I’m reminded of Roxanne Gay’s essay “The Illusion of Safety,” where she writes that the debate over trigger warnings is “an impossible debate. There is too much history lurking beneath the skin of too many people. Few are willing to consider the possibility that trigger warnings might be ineffective, impractical and necessary for creating safe spaces all at once.” I sometimes feel this way when I’m considering what a safe space would look like for me. I have so many different identities – some visible, some less visible. Some of those identities I choose to wear and reveal openly; some of those identities are written on my body; and some of those identities, I choose to hold close to my chest.
When I’m in non-Muslims spaces, a safer space is one that acknowledges that there is nuance within difference. I need a space that doesn’t suggest that my experiences and thoughts are synonymous with the experiences and thoughts of all Muslims (Black, woman, or otherwise). I need a space that recognizes that Muslims, like other faiths, exist on a spectrum of religiosity and cultural specificity. That’s what I require of non-Muslim spaces. But there are so many Muslim and non-Muslim voices educating people about the diversity of Muslim lives and experiences – I don’t feel compelled to add my voice to that chorus at this moment. Finding a safer space within a Muslim community almost always leaves me feeling heartbroken, and I feel compelled to speak about that heartbreak.
Within Muslim communities, I need a space that acknowledges that oppression exists. When Muslims talk about identity-based oppression in an Islamic context, we’re often quick to refer to the Prophet Muhammad’s last sermon where he stated that “All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action.” Muslims also cite a verse from the 49th chapter of the Qur’an that reads: “O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.” For some Muslims, these are ideas that inform their racial/gender/class justice politics. But for some Muslims, this is the rote response to the question of whether or not Muslims are xenophobic, racist, misogynist, and so on. It’s far too easy to drop this sermon and this verse without while simultaneously delegitimizing and erasing the lives and experiences of Muslims who are routinely marginalized in Islamic communities. Experiencing this hypocrisy is what keeps Muslim spaces feeling unsafe for me.
Racism among Muslims.
On March 18th of this year, Stephon Clark was murdered by the police in his grandmother’s backyard. Clark, a young black father of two living in Sacramento, was unarmed. He was shot at 20 times; he was hit by 8 bullets, primarily in his back. As with so many murders of black people at the hands of the police, black people across the country were – and still are – rocked with grief, anger, sadness, and all of the appropriate range of emotions we feel when we see our skinfolk getting shot down, with impunity, by police.
Why bring up Clark’s murder in the context of Muslims and Islam? Because there are intersections. Approximately 10 days after Clark’s murder, news began to circulate that Clark was a Muslim – he’d taken shahadah (the Islamic declaration of faith) a few years before his murder. When this piece of information started making the rounds, the voices speaking in protest and in mourning of Clark’s killing suddenly changed, overnight. Suddenly, the non-Black Muslims in my social networks were posting about Clark, reciting the traditional Islamic response to death – Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un (“We belong to Allah and to Him we shall return”), and, in general, acknowledging this tragedy in a way they hadn’t previously acknowledged. Some non-Black Muslims even made the decision to be among the hundreds that attended Stephon Clark’s funeral.
For me to feel comfortable in Muslim spaces, I need non-Black Muslims to acknowledge that both interpersonal and institutional racism exists, and that it affects all of us, as humans, but, more specifically, as Muslims. Stephon Clark’s murder was heartbreaking and enraging because it points to the systemic devaluation of Black life – a fact that Black Muslims are acutely aware of on a daily basis. This fact shouldn’t only come into relief only when it’s made clear that the murdered Black person was a Muslim. As a Black Muslim woman, I can’t feel comfortable in all Muslims spaces if those spaces don’t affirm the lives and humanity of Black people. I can’t feel comfortable if there isn’t an acknowledgement that racism and anti-Blackness is deeply entrenched in Muslim communities.
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Misogyny among Muslims
While I wholeheartedly reject the notion that Islam is inherently misogynist, I cannot deny that there are both individuals and Islamic institutions that oppressive women in words and in action. I become filled with RAGE when I’m in spaces where Muslim women are articulating the gender-based oppression they’ve experienced at the hands of Muslim men, and the Muslim men in the room are doing the equivalent of #notallmen. It’s utter nonsense.
About a year ago, I was invited to sit on a panel about the intersections of Islam and Blackness for the Black New England “Tea Time” series. There were three of us on the panel: two African-American Muslims (me and a Black man) and one Somali-born Muslim woman. At some point, the moderator asked us if there were any aspects of Islam/being Muslim that we found difficult to contend with. I talked about racism from non-Black Muslims. The other woman on the panel talked about gender-based oppression – she actually said that the gender-based oppression she’d experienced made her move away from practicing Islam in the way that she was raised to practice. When it came time for the man on the panel to respond to the question, he first took the time to invalidate the woman’s experience by emphasizing that equity was at the root of Islam and, while this woman’s experience(s) were (probably) bad, they were not synonymous with Islam and Muslims.
This is an example of a response that Muslim women experience regularly. It is not unique. In an effort to counter the damaging stereotype of Islam and Muslim men being inherently misogynist, Muslim men (and non-feminist Muslim women) throw Muslim women who experience oppression under the bus. We can talk about the ideal Islam being free from gender-based oppression, but that’s not the daily reality of Muslims who identify as women. And to ignore these real and often traumatic experiences of gender-based oppression in the name of Islam and at the hands of Muslim men is deplorable. That is not how we as Muslims work towards liberation. This was my public response to after the male co-panelist invalidated the other Muslim woman’s words. He did not want to talk to me after the panel was over.
Transphobia, Homophobia, Queerphobia among Muslims
When I’m walking into mainstream Muslim spaces, my queerness is the only part of my identity that I automatically expect to keep shrouded. And, because I don’t particularly care to leave any parts of who I am outside of any room I’m walking into, I tend to avoid mainstream Muslim spaces.
My fear and discomfort when walking into mainstream Muslim spaces as a queer Muslim is greater than my discomfort of walking into a Muslim space that is mostly Muslim men or mostly non-Black Muslim. There is no #notallmen for queer, trans, or gay/lesbian Muslims. Unlike issues of race, there is no hadith or verse that mainstream Muslims repeatedly fall back on to demonstrate that they are accepting of all gender identities and sexual orientations, and this feels like there is no space for a conversation – no place to start. There is only erasure and a sense of incongruity. Muslims who are anything other than heterosexual cannot exist, and if they do, they are not truly Muslim.
This particular erasure feels like an oppressive and expanding weight on my chest, because I know that directly pointing to that erasure and trying to bring my queerness into the space might likely end in heartbreak. I recently reunited with some Muslim friends I knew back when I was in college. Prior to our reunion, I was holding on to a lot of excitement about playing catch up, as well as a lot of anxiety about being able to present my whole self. In less than 10 hours, my anxieties were confirmed as I listened to one old friend talk about her young cousin who married a person who is in the process of transitioning their gender. According to my old friend, both of them are “lost” and neither of them (the married couple) could consider themselves Muslim because one cannot be trans and/or queer and be Muslim. My heartbreak in that moment felt like a shattering. I’d been holding myself tense and braced, waiting for a moment like this one – hoping to be proven wrong – and when it arrived, it broke my heart into shards. Important parts of who I am are forever alienated from this friend now; I will never feel fully safe with her.
All of these conversations about safer spaces makes me think of something that Audre Lorde writes in The Cancer Journals. Lorde quotes a journal entry in which she was expressing the feeling of never feeling fully accepted because of the particular intersections of her identities. She writes: “I don’t feel like being strong, but do I have a choice? It hurts when even my sisters look at me in the street with cold and silent eyes. I am defined as other in every group I’m a part of. The outsider, both strength and weakness. Yet without community there is certainly no liberation, no future, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between me and my oppression.” Black Muslims create spaces and communities that are our own, and we come together to celebrate our histories and influences on Islam. These spaces feel safer to me. Queer Muslims, like Black Muslims, create spaces and communities that are our own, and we come together to love and affirm ourselves. These spaces feel safer to me. But these are both an approximation, and I know that. Sometimes an approximation feels good to me; sometimes it doesn’t. But, like Lorde, I’m looking for liberation, and approaching liberation is not a solitary exercise, so I look for spaces that are created and curated by Muslims whose identities are marginalized within mainstream Islam. At least I know that, in those spaces, there will be some fundamental understanding that a Muslim spaces aren’t always safe spaces for all Muslims.
[Featured Image: A person with shoulder-length dark hair. Their head is framed by a wooden frame. They are wearing a red and yellow shirt. Source: pexels.com]