Asexual Community Politics

Not queer enough, not Muslim enough

Recently, I wrote about burnout, from writing in general and from writing about asexuality for Muslims in particular. In that post, I talked about the lack of any real asexual Muslim community or even an active group of bloggers other than myself and a handful of others like elainexe.

My post sparked some interesting discussions on Tumblr among other Muslim aces. One of the themes which came up was feeling like there’s no space we really fit in with.

In particular, we may feel “too queer” for Muslim spaces, and often “too Muslim” for asexual or LGBTQ spaces. We’re caught between worlds.

It’s actually even more complicated than that for me. In reality, I’m simultaneously both too queer and not queer enough, and too Muslim and not Muslim enough.

Or maybe I should say I’m not the “right kind” of queer, as an aromantic asexual. And not the “right kind” of Muslim as a convert.

Queer Muslim communities would seem to be an ideal solution to the conundrum of being too queer for Muslim spaces and too Muslim for LGBTQ spaces. Although such communities are often scarce and hard to find, they do exist.

However, my impression of these communities is that most of them are meant for a very specific type of queer Muslim. Namely, one who was born into a Muslim family but is not necessarily observant, and who is gay or lesbian (though there are starting to be support groups for trans Muslims).

As a devout asexual convert, I don’t feel like these groups and resources are aimed at me. I sometimes feel like they don’t even realize that I exist - that asexuality exists, that queer converts exist. And occasionally I wonder if I’m asking too much to want them to include me.

When it comes to my offline life, I always run into my accessibility limitations. There is an asexual meet-up group in a city near me, and also a queer Muslim group - but I can’t easily get to either of them and that’s not something that is likely to change in the immediate or near future (it might in the further future).

But even if I could get there, I’m left wondering how well I would fit in to either group. Are the aces really ready for my hijab? Do the queer Muslims accept aces?

This isn’t just idle speculation. The lack of a supportive community is a major factor in my burnout. I’m used to isolation - isolation has been the story of my life for the last 24 years and counting. But reaching out to communities and not finding a space for myself has turned out to be a lot more hurtful than I had expected.

Given my difficulties in accessing offline spaces, I primarily look for support online. Online asexual communities, for all their shortcomings and limitations, have been a lifeline for me. I’ve been able to find my own little corner with a few people who are interested in sharing with me. I’ve also found a supportive online community for female converts to Islam. But I don’t advertise my asexuality there.

And with these communities, I’m still falling into a gap where I can only find support for one or another part of myself at a time. Still caught between worlds.

That’s where the lack of any real asexual Muslim community hurts the most. I may have made some progress in carving out a space for myself, but if I’m the only one there, it’s not enough.


Asexuality, Writing, and Burnout

Note: This was originally published at The Asexual Agenda.

A year ago, I wrote a post announcing that I wanted to make 2015 The Year of Writing about Asexuality for Muslims. Over the course of the following nine months, I wrote ten essays for Muslim sites about asexuality, as well as four essays about the intersection of asexuality, Muslimness, and accessibility, with a focus on my experiences at the mosque (see list here).

At the end of November 2015, the site I had primarily been writing for, Love InshAllah, shut down indefinitely. I had had some luck writing for other Muslim sites, but usually not directly about asexuality (hence the focus on my mosque experiences in the other essays), so the loss of Love InshAllah was a major blow to my writing plans.

Several other events around the same time also impacted me, including another Muslim site leaving one of my submissions ignored in their slush pile, some private blogging drama, and dealing with misogyny at my mosque. I was exhausted from several months of juggling a full time job, two volunteer positions, an intensive Arabic class, and all this writing, and so I decided to take a hiatus during December.

As the intended one-month hiatus from writing turned into two months and then three, I realized that it wasn’t just writing on top of everything else that had exhausted me, it was writing itself. Writing about asexuality for Muslims had been rewarding in many ways, but it had also burned me out.

One definition of burnout is putting more emotional energy into an activity or cause than you get back. Many of the essays I wrote were deeply personal, in some cases things I had never talked about publicly before or experiences that had been wounding to me. I’m someone that tends to keep things to myself and putting myself out there like that was often a struggle.

I started writing about asexuality and Islam because there wasn’t really anything else out there on the subject. I hoped that by writing publicly about my experiences, I could carve out an asexual Muslim space where others might join me. I have received a number of comments, both privately and publicly, from other asexual Muslims and that means a lot. But there’s still no asexual Muslim community of any kind, just ships passing in the night every few months.

And knowing that if I wanted to read anything about the intersection of asexuality and Islam, I pretty much had to write it myself ended up putting a lot of pressure on me.

There was also the reaction from non-asexual Muslims. Or perhaps I should say non-reaction. For the most part, I didn’t receive too much negativity from people, and I’m grateful for that. However, I began to notice a pattern after awhile that few people seemed to relate to my experiences in any real way. I was just a curiosity to them, worth a “Thanks for teaching me about this” but no deeper engagement. Discussions that I hoped to contribute to continued on as if I didn’t exist.

I realize that community building and visibility work are long-term processes. But I underestimated how much it would take out of me and I overestimated how much I would get back from it. Hence the burnout.

I’ve taken the extra two months to think about how I can continue writing in a way that’s more sustainable. To reset my expectations to be more realistic.

For most of my life, asexuality has been an experience of isolation and alienation for me. Running into the limits of how much I can change that was a tough experience. I still hope that by plugging away at it, slowly and gradually, I’ll eventually get somewhere.


Building an asexual Muslim community

One of the items on my asexual community wishlist is to have some kind of online asexual Muslim community. In this post, I look more at this goal.

When I first joined Tumblr in 2012, I came across exactly one other asexual Muslim. Since then, I’ve discovered a number more (I’m curating public posts in my asexual Muslim tag) and last week muslimaces launched. While there are likely many other asexual Muslims on Tumblr that I just haven’t found yet, I think the total number that I know of is still less than a dozen. (The 2014 asexual community census found that 0.5% of respondents were Muslim. That’s a grand total of just 70 people!!)

More than this, most of the asexual Muslims I know of are not posting much about their experiences. Almost all of the content I’ve found on asexuality and Islam is written by one person - me. The other posts tend to be one-off personal narratives, submitted to series like “We Are Not Haram” and “Ace Of Color Stories”.

It’s great just to know that other asexual Muslims exist. I love reading the personal narratives. Don’t get me wrong. I completely respect that many asexual Muslims may not be ready to post their stories (I wasn’t myself until last year), or don’t feel they have much to say, or just prefer not to.

But subsisting on just this handful of posts is not really “community”. It’s merely occasional ships passing in the night every few months.

The broader asexual community on Tumblr has helped me immensely over the last three years. Through reading posts from other aces, I’ve been able to see the different ways people have handled situations similar to the ones I’ve experienced in my life. I’ve learned about aces who are leading lives and building relationships that I’ve come to realize I would like to do as well. Very often, I didn’t even realize I wanted these things until I saw other aces talk about them.

I hope that in some small way, my posts on asexuality and Islam have already helped other asexual Muslims in these ways. What I’d really like to see is other people contributing to these conversations so that I can learn too!

Moreover, I’m aware that, as a white convert and as someone who lives in the U.S., my experiences are not typical of most asexual Muslims. Limited by my own perspectives and background, I’m hardly able to provide a representative illustration of asexual Muslim life. I’ve sometimes hesitated to write for this very reason. I ultimately decided that I needed to put my voice out there anyway, in the hopes that it would inspire others to speak up as well. If not me, who?

With that in mind, here is a list of topics I’d like to see other asexual Muslims writing on, inshallah. This is not meant to be a complete list, just a potential starting place.

  • Marriage - Are you married? Do you want to be? If not, have you faced pressure from family or community to get married and how have you dealt with it? Do you feel like the Islamic jurisprudence around marriage is helpful or harmful for asexual Muslims? If harmful, how would you like to see it changed?
  • Relationships - Do you want to have a primary partnership (where you share residence, resources, or future plans) in your life? Who would this be with, ideally? For instance, are you only interested in ace-ace relationships or would you want to have a relationship with an allosexual person? Do you only want a Muslim partner or would you be willing to have a relationship with a non-Muslim? What type of relationship would it be? Sexual, romantic, queerplatonic? Something else? Are you interested in a same-sex or polyamorous relationship? Do you have a primary relationship now? If not, what obstacles have you encountered in building one?
  • Queerness - Do you identify as queer or LGBTQ? Are you part of any queer Muslim communities and, if so, what have your experiences been like? How do you think queer Muslim groups and communities can be more ace-inclusive?
  • Hijab - If you wear hijab, have worn it in the past, or want to wear it, what have your experiences been like? For instance, I tend to find that it desexualizes me and, being asexual, this is actually a relief in some ways. Is this true for you? How do you feel hijab expresses or relates to your asexuality?
  • Community - Are you out to anyone in your local community? Would you consider it? Have you found a progressive, feminist, or queer community (perhaps online) that you would feel comfortable being out to? Do you feel that asexuality marginalizes you within Muslim communities? In what ways? What would you like to see here?
  • Faith - Do you feel that asexuality is part of the natural diversity of Allah’s creation or do you have a different view? Do you feel that an asexual identity or your way of living life as asexual is haram? Are there verses of the Quran or rules in fiqh that you struggle with and how have you come to terms with them? What changes would you like to see in theology or fiqh to better support and include you as asexual?
  • Intersections - Are there other intersectional identities that you have that impact how you live as an asexual Muslim? For instance, disability, transgender identity, neurodiversity or mental health issues, being a survivor of domestic or sexual violence, race or ethnicity, being a convert or part of a minority group within Islam, gender, etc. How do these weave together with your asexuality and your Muslim identity in your life?
  • Asexual communities - Are you part of any (predominantly non-Muslim) asexual communities, whether on Tumblr or elsewhere? What are your experiences? Have you encountered Islamophobia or other forms of prejudice? How can asexual communities better support you as an asexual Muslim? How would you like to see them develop?

I hope that as more asexual Muslims begin to write and share their stories, this will encourage a still larger group to come forward and that we can begin to learn from each other and support each other in our experiences until we can be a genuine and sustainable community, inshallah.


Faith, Islam, and Asexual Community Politics

Note: This was originally published in f-ace-ing silence, issue 3.

Five times a day, I stand before my Lord in prayer, bow and prostrate. This June and July, I’ll be doing a month straight of 18-hour fasts for Ramadan. I do this because my faith grounds and centers me.

This isn’t the queer Muslim story that it seems most people in LGBTQ and asexual spaces want to hear.

The queer Muslim narrative that people in these spaces seem to want to hear is about how I struggle with religious rules that were not designed with my sexuality in mind.

That is an important story, and one worth telling. Islam, like many other religions, has something to say about sexuality and I can’t exist as an asexual person in Muslim spaces without eventually running into that.

But my asexuality is not all of me. I exist as a whole person, a flawed human being seeking a structure for shaping my life according to moral guidelines, a believer who seeks reminder of and connection with the divine, a perspective that this world is not all that there is.

When I accepted Islam in 1999, that faith was why. When I continue to practice it, that faith is why. Being asexual means I may run into more obstacles in living my faith than a straight person does, but the faith is already there, rooted in my heart, before it meets those obstacles.

I am an asexual Muslim – Muslim is the noun, modified by my asexuality.

According to the 2014 asexual community census, 58.6% of respondents identify as atheist, agnostic, or other non-religious. But I believe it’s not just because aces of faith are in a numerical minority that faith perspectives can be marginalized in ace spaces.

Rather, I believe that when faith perspectives are marginalized, it is because of how LGBTQ communities – and the asexual communities that are modeled after them – tend to define themselves in relation to religion.

Specifically, these communities often perceive religion as seeking to repress sexuality, and part of the “ideal queer narrative”[1] is a triumphant progress from repression to healthy, sex-positive Pride.

In such a narrative, religion often appears only as something that a person needs to leave behind in order to become liberated.

In such a narrative, there seems to be little or no space for faith as a positive force in a person’s life.

In the case of Islam, this narrative is further complicated by stereotypes common in Western societies that Islam is uniquely oppressive to women and to LGBTQ people of all genders.

In this view, Islam is such a negative force that no one in their right mind could choose it freely. LGBTQ Muslims must exist in a state of victimization by their families or cultures, ready to be “rescued” to a secularized (and usually capitalist-friendly) Western identity.

In the context of Western political and military interventions in Muslim-majority countries, LGBTQ politics can become homonationalism[2].

The invisibility of asexuality means it is not overtly deployed in these types of discourses.

However, nearly half of asexual-spectrum respondents in the 2014 community census identified themselves as “sex-positive” and just over half consider themselves part of the LGBTQ community while the vast majority think asexuality should be part of the LGBTQ umbrella[3].

This means that sex-positive LGBTQ-inspired politics are a significant factor in online asexual discourse.

Online asexual communities have begun to analyze sex-positivity and how it affects those on the asexual spectrum[4].

As we do this, we should also examine how sex-positivity impacts aces of faith, especially aces who belong to non-Christian religions such as Islam.

We should examine whether we make assumptions about religion that allow no room for faith as a positive force in the lives of many aces.

As an ace of faith, I don’t need the majority of other aces to share my experiences. As a member of a tiny religious minority within asexual spaces[5], I know that they do not.

But I often feel that I cannot talk freely about my experiences of faith, or that when I do speak about it, it is ignored.

I feel that I need to leave an important part of myself behind when I enter asexual spaces. Given the lack of awareness about asexuality in the larger world, I feel that there is no place I can be wholly myself as an asexual Muslim.

Footnotes

[1] A good examination of these narratives (and how they can have negative effects on aces) can be found in “Stunted Growth” by Megan Milks, in Asexualities: Feminist and Queer Perspectives (partial content available online at https://tinyurl.com/lzdcrcf ).

[2] For more on homonationalism and its impacts on the Muslim world, see “The Empire of Sexuality: An Interview with Joseph Massad”. For a book-length treatment, see Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times, by Jasbir Puar.

[3] According to the census, 44.3% of ace respondents identify as sex-positive. 52.1% consider themselves part of the LGBTQ community. 88% think that asexuality should be part of the LGBTQ umbrella.

[4] For example, see the June 2013 Carnival of Aces on sex-positivity.

[5] According to the census, just 0.5% of respondents are Muslim.


Carving out a space for myself

This post is for the February Carnival of Aces.

About a year ago, I wrote a post called Caught Between Worlds about feeling caught between asexual and Muslim communities. I reflected that I felt I couldn't really talk about Islam or being Muslim with aces, while I couldn't talk about being asexual with Muslims.

Since I wrote that post, I got over my hesitation about talking about Islam in asexual spaces - I've written 15 posts on asexuality and Islam for this blog (seven of which have been cross-posted to The Asexual Agenda)!

I've come across a few more asexual Muslims in that time, some of whom (particularly elainexe) have also written on their experiences with asexuality and Islam.

However, there isn't yet any sort of asexual Muslim community and it's still a topic I largely have to myself.

As well, for the most part the only asexual bloggers who seem to have engaged much with my posts are those who are specifically interested in intersections of asexuality with religion.

On the negative side, I had to leave a Facebook group for aces some months ago after another member posted Islamophobic comments and there was no response to my call-out. Thankfully, this is the only instance of overt Islamophobia I've encountered so far in asexual communities.

Despite these limitations, I'm pleased with what I've been able to achieve in this area.

What about talking about asexuality in Muslim spaces? That's proven more challenging. Talking about Islam in asexual spaces is relatively easy - everybody knows I'm Muslim from my handle and my avatar, so it was just a matter of deciding to stop caring what people think. But talking about asexuality outside of ace spaces runs into all of the issues of invisibility and erasure that aces tend to face. Even in LGBTQ Muslim spaces, most individuals have never heard of asexuality and most groups don't acknowledge its existence or include it under their umbrella.

I actually hope to focus more this year on visibility work in Muslim spaces. Even as I write this post, I have a piece on asexuality on submission to a popular Muslim relationships site that is LGBTQ-friendly.

I feel that starting out in asexual spaces helped me to gain a clearer understanding of what I want to say and what issues are important, which will make visibility and outreach work much easier.

Here are a few other things I've learned in the last year about being one of just a few people at the intersection of two very different communities:

  • Pick the space you feel most comfortable in or most free to discuss your whole self in and start from there. This helps you build confidence for more challenging spaces.
  • Be willing to be the first one to talk about your particular intersection, even if you're not sure whether your experiences are shared by others. Somebody has to start.
  • Write for yourself and for people who may share your intersection (even if you're not sure such people are out there), not just for your current audience. Don't let the limits of your current audience keep you silent.
  • Understand what your ultimate aim is. For me, it is to create a space where I can be wholly myself, both wholly asexual and wholly Muslim.
  • Look for allies and safe spaces - and be open to finding them in unexpected spaces. One of the more helpful blogs I came across this last year is A Queer Calling, a blog by a celibate LGBT Christian couple. I've learned a lot from reading this blog about integrating faith with a queer identity, even though their tradition is very different from mine.
  • Take the best you can from both communities. Even if you can't share all of yourself in one or both yet, you can draw support and feel less alone by sharing what you can with each.
  • Do what you can to stay strong. It can be profoundly lonely, and at the same time scary to break new ground. But in my experience, it's easier when I know I'm not hiding or silent anymore.

This year has been one of personal growth and healing for me and I'm glad I found the courage a year ago to hit Publish on the post that started it all.


Caught between worlds

As an asexual and a Muslim, I sometimes feel myself caught between worlds, on the margins of both.

Although I call my blog "Notes of an Asexual Muslim", use the screen name ace-muslim, and post from time to time about queer Muslims or other issues relating to Islam, I don't post about my faith or how I struggle to reconcile being asexual and Muslim. The primary reason for this is that the asexual community on Tumblr seems to be mostly atheists and agnostics. I feel like people wouldn't understand or just wouldn't care. This is compounded by Islam being a religion that is badly misunderstood in the West, and often heavily stigmatized. I've never seen any anti-Islam sentiment here, and I appreciate that, but it's always something I have to think about and face the possibility of dealing with.

As an introvert, I often find it difficult to put myself forward and talk about myself, especially when I'm not sure of being understood. It's easier to avoid anything personal, to just post about things that fit in with the SJ culture on Tumblr, like queer Muslims, and figure at least that might give people here a better impression of Islam and of the diversity of Muslims. But being "too Muslim", that I hold back from. Plus, in some cases I'd need to give Islam 101 before I can talk about what I actually wanted to say. Or I wonder if something I say could be taken out of context or used to further stigmatize Islam and Muslims if it's not 100% positive.

Meanwhile, how do I talk about asexuality with Muslims? It's hard enough to talk about it even with Western liberals, even in LGBT spaces. People haven't heard of it, don't seem to have ever even imagined it can exist, sometimes refuse to believe it does exist. How can you have a conversation where you need to spend the first 15 minutes (or much longer) giving Asexuality 101 just to even be able to talk about what you originally wanted to say?

A growing number of American Muslims, especially millennials, are increasingly accepting of LGBT Muslims, but it can still be a very conservative religious community.

There seems to be this persistent belief in some quarters that somehow being religious and asexual is "easy" because religious communities and traditions supposedly love celibacy. I can only think that people who believe that don't have much experience with actual religious communities. Because what there often is in these communities is a HUGE pressure to be married. I've posted about this a few times before.

Maybe this misperception is because most people on Tumblr seem to be in their late teens or early 20s, often still in college. At that age, a family or community may think you're just "waiting" until after college or until you're a bit older and not be too negative (though of course some can be). But try being a 40 year old spinster who does not plan to ever marry. Do you really imagine that's OK in a conservative religious community?

And Islam is a religion that very strongly encourages marriage. It may be that Christianity is a bit more friendly towards celibacy than other religions (though I don't think this is really the case when it means never marrying), but... I'm not Christian. You can't apply your idea about Christianity to a Muslim.

For me as an asexual Muslim, the question of marriage is a huge thing to deal with. Maybe I finally will write about that one of these days... (ETA 3/5/14: it's here)

But what it means is that just as I hold back about being a Muslim with asexuals, so I hold back about being asexual with Muslims. I am whole in myself, asexual and Muslim, but I'm still trying to figure out how to actually be wholly myself with asexuals and with Muslims.

In the meantime, my interactions with each of these groups are carefully tailored to show only those parts of myself that fit in to that group.