by Sabah Choudrey
In secondary school I remember speaking to one of the few white classmates about my religion, that my parents were both Muslim, and she said, “oh so you’re Muslim by default?” I smiled tentatively and said, “Yeah, that’s it. I’m Muslim by default.” And that was what I said from then on. Throughout university I was ‘Muslim by default’ and it was comfortable. I went to university in Brighton, a population well known to be whiter than white. I went to university to find more people like me and fit in. But my brown skin was only going to let me fit in so much despite how much I tried to look, act and talk like my white friends. Yes, being ‘Muslim by default’ was comfortable.
It became something I said without even thinking. And before I knew it I stopped saying it altogether, and the only time I ever acknowledged it was when I filled in monitoring forms in private, where only the ticked box and my pen knows who I really am.
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It was only when I started to discover my true gender identity that I started to discover all these other parts of me – my queerness, my feminism. And that led me to rediscover my brownness, a process that was a lot more difficult surprisingly. With that came my culture, my heritage, my language, and lastly, my religion.
I found a new community of queer people of colour, queer brown people and queer desi people. But for most of these people, religion was not important. It was never spoken about and it taught me not to speak about it. I understood religion in a way that was so tied to culture, heritage and language, it became something I acknowledged in a different way. Something that was in my past, something that I let go of. I said, “I am brought up as Muslim,” and only when people asked. I declared my desi identity first and foremost and just hoped that was enough.
Two month ago I submitted some self-shot video footage for an upcoming TV documentary called ‘The T Diaries.’ I was filming myself answering a set of standard questions given to all participants focused on trans men transitioning and their medical journey. I answered with non-answers, hoping to broaden the narrative outside of medical transition. For a couple of the videos, my partner helped me out. They are queer, Pakistani and Muslim. Like me. I was answering a question on how my family reacted to me coming out as trans. When we stopped filming, my partner pointed out that I had said, “I’m brought up as Muslim.” I was embarrassed. I realised that I have been saying this for so long without really thinking about why I say that or what that really means. My partner said, “It sounds like you’re not Muslim.” I was hesitant. Am I Muslim? Can I call myself that? Am I as Muslim as you? Am I Muslim enough?
This will be the first time I have ever acknowledged these feelings out loud. Sometimes I feel like I am appropriating Islam. I feel so deeply that Islam is not mine, that I do not have the right to use Allah’s name, to have an Islamic tattoo, to go to a mosque, to even wear shalwaar kameez and a dupatta. I have put myself so far outside my own culture, that coming back in feels like an invasion of someone else’s world. For every Muslim I meet, I almost want to apologise, because I feel like I a caricature, like I’m trying to be a Muslim when I’m not. When did it start to feel like something I had to try to be?
Maybe it was when I started to feel different. Maybe it was when I was told feeling different was wrong. That what I was doing was wrong. Not good enough. Not Muslim enough.
The first time I resented God was when I was a child. I used to pray every night and sometimes in the day when I saw my body or something made me think about my body parts. I prayed to Allah, begging for Him to turn me into a boy. I knew Allah would be able to help me; He knew me for who I really am, who I am really meant to be and that it was all okay. I would pray: Allah, I know that my body isn’t fully developed yet and it doesn’t have to change overnight but soon please. I want to be a boy, I want boy parts, that stick out, I want to grow down there. Please let me be a boy. When nothing changed and I saw myself growing into a girl, I stopped praying.
When people see me speaking about being trans and desi, I usually don’t have a choice in telling them I am Muslim. My experiences, my name and my skin speak for themselves. But now I make the choice to say out loud for myself that I am Muslim. I do not resent Allah any more, I resent not being closer. I resent turning away from Islam and denying myself faith. I know that when I say I am Muslim, I am putting myself in a position of even more discrimination, I become a bigger target. I know that when I say I am a Muslim, desi people around me are surprised that I can call myself that and look like this. My parents are shocked that Islam is important enough to me to mention after a decade of rebellion and queerness. And everyone else didn’t know where to put me in the first place; I don’t fit neatly into the male or female box so I’m already a threat. But I don’t care. I want people to know that being trans or queer doesn’t mean you can’t have faith or practice a religion. It’s the culture that we are in that teaches us that we don’t deserve to be religious. It doesn’t come from within us and it definitely isn’t because of us. I’m still trying to forgive myself for that. I am trans and proud and I am Muslim and proud.
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Sabah is a Pakistani trans activist with a passion for his community. His tiny head is full of big ideas, having founded Trans Pride Brighton in 2012, the first trans march and trans celebration in the UK, the QTIPOC Brighton Network for queer, trans and intersex people of colour, and desiQ for queer South Asian people in London/South East area. He works for Gendered Intelligence as a mentor and facilitator for trans young people of colour. www.sabahchoudrey.com