Asexual Muslim resistance, activism, and self care: Creating Change 2017 and me

This post was originally published at The Asexual Agenda.

I attended the Creating Change conference in Philadelphia from January 18 to January 22, 2017. I had several different goals for the conference, reflecting different facets of my identity and work:

  • connect in person with other aces
  • connect in person with other queer Muslims
  • attend anti-racism workshops to further my volunteer work with the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative (MuslimARC)
  • attend organization building workshops relevant to the needs of MuslimARC
  • attend sessions on spirituality and self-care to help me in coping with burnout

The fact that I could further my interests in so many different areas of my life is why I was so excited to attend the conference. MuslimARC is not an ace or queer organization but since I have access to the resources that Creating Change offers due to my own ace and queer identity, I figured I might as well take advantage of it.

To my delight, I was able to attain all of my goals for the conference and benefit in each of these areas of my life.

Due to the way my asexuality, my being a Muslim convert, and my accessibility limitations intersect, I have difficult in connecting with groups in my local area. The Muslim spaces nearby that I am able to get to are usually not welcoming to me and not places where I fit in at all. I have been making efforts for the last several years to show up anyway because I hoped that even a flawed space would be better than nothing, which is what I have otherwise and what I had for most of the time since I converted.

Creating Change offered a chance to participate in spaces that are more inclusive of my identities. These spaces were limited - just one panel and one official gathering for each of my core identities (the ace inclusivity panel and ace caucus on the one hand and the Islamophobia panel and jumu’a prayer service on the other) - or on the margins (the unofficial ace hospitality suite and the unofficial queer Muslim caucus) but they did exist. While I could see ways these groups might fall short of providing all the support I need on an ongoing basis, within the context of the conference just the fact that they were there at all was enough.

Beyond just finding community spaces where I could meet others who share identities with me, I was able to have deep conversations with David Jay and with queer Muslim activist leaders Imam Tynan Power and Palmer Shepherd telling them my personal story and the issues I experience and even advocating for greater inclusion of asexual Muslims. The Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity (MASGD), which both Ty and Palmer are actively involved with, has not made any efforts so far to reach out to asexual Muslims or even acknowledge in their public materials that we exist and I emphasized to Ty and Palmer how important it is to mention aces by name because otherwise we will assume that we are not welcome. Meanwhile, I gave DJ a reference to my Asexuality and Islam website and a printout of asexual Muslim data gleaned from the ace census, so that he can amplify these resources.

The most valuable thing about these three talks was that although each group represents only half of my identity by itself, I was able to share all of myself with them. These were probably the most deeply validating experiences of the whole conference for me. And while there is still no actual asexual Muslim community (a continuing frustration of mine), I hope that my work in these conversations can help other asexual Muslims as individuals find the same validation I did.

Meanwhile, as I attended the Racial Justice Institute and a session on building sustainable funding for nonprofit organizations, I found that I was able to reference MuslimARC frequently, contribute usefully to the conversations based on my experiences volunteering there, and learn some tools and frameworks that will be useful to MuslimARC’s work. I even decided it would be useful to list MuslimARC as my organizational affiliation at future Creating Change conferences to continue building in this area. This was a pleasant surprise.

Two other workshops I attended with a racial justice focus, the Police Violence Institute and the alternatives to law enforcement session, gave me something I hadn’t expected - an insight into how Creating Change can be useful to connect ace youth, especially those from marginalized backgrounds, to LGBTQ resources that already exist to help address the larger systemic issues they face. I was able to talk with the head of an LGBTQ center in Colorado about asexuality, discover that they are already seeing ace youth seeking out their resources, and connect them with Asexual Outreach to get information and resources on asexuality. The opportunities for networking at Creating Change are amazing and next year I might print out some resources from Asexual Outreach to be able to give to people!

On the spiritual front, I made use of the Many Paths Spiritual Gathering Place as a prayer room - with five daily prayers, the logistics of being Muslim at a busy conference can be tricky and having that dedicated space out of the crowds made things a lot easier. I got to know the spiritual care team there and through the centering care workshop and the session on building an authentic spiritual path. Because of the limited space provided for Muslims specifically at the conference, and because Ty is only one person, the spiritual care team ended up providing me with a lot of support and friendship I didn’t expect to receive. Beyond this, some of the practices and ideas I gained from these sessions are things I am slowly working to implement in my life back home with links to both queer spirituality and anti-racist self-work.

Speaking of the unexpected, the conference pushed me way out of my comfort zone in multiple ways. I was initially very anxious about wearing both hijab and obvious ace gear at an LGBTQ conference where I wasn’t sure either identity would be fully welcome - but I spent five days as a very visible asexual Muslim and most people hardly blinked.

I did experience a few microaggressions, all related to being Muslim (none were related to being ace). While I was attending the Police Violence Institute a white woman acted to me in a way that I found rather tokenizing (”I’ve never seen a queer Muslim before! Can I have your business card?”) and I had to spend several minutes educating her about effective allyship (build relationships with the affected community and learn what they need you to do, then do that).

Also, at the end of the ace caucus, a white ace came up and asked me if I was a nun (yes, I consider this a microaggression). I also got this question from a random stranger while I was buying food in Reading Terminal Market one afternoon. Still, I was expecting a lot worse than this and I was really very pleasantly surprised by how unfazed most attendees were by me. Shout-out to the hijabis who have attended past conferences and paved the way for me.

Besides wearing hijab and ace gear all the time, I ended up on stage during the opening plenary session (me? shy Laura?) and even attended the lesbian caucus. I wasn’t forced to come out as anything (except as Muslim because I was wearing hijab) since there was just a large group discussion I listened to but didn’t take part in. But this was the first time I had made a public connection for myself between being homoplatonic and lesbian identity. I’m still hesitant to identify as an asexual lesbian specifically, but I took a baby step that evening and I’m proud of myself for that.

As if all this wasn’t enough, I participated in the Philadelphia Women’s March draped in an ace pride flag (and wearing an ace pride hijab) and shouting slogans like “We’re here, we’re queer, we’re fabulous, don’t fuck with us” alongside Mary and Brian, which was pretty freaking awesome. Between that and being at a session on combatting Islamophobia and then at a queer Muslim prayer service during Trump’s inauguration, I figure I put a distinctively asexual Muslim stamp on my resistance that I plan to continue.

Creating Change 2017 was a life-changing experience that for the first time brought my whole self together in a single activist space. I’m still struggling every day with burnout but this was just the self-care I needed to help me get through a very tough time.

My Intersectional Identities: LGBTQ Muslim Reflections on the Orlando Shootings

This post was originally published at Patheos altmuslim.

As I let myself into my apartment, the clock showed 1 a.m. A sister at the mosque had just dropped me off at home after tarawih – two hours of prayer on these Ramadan nights. I have a strict rule not to check social media or messages during the night unless it’s a family emergency, so I was unaware a major news story was breaking in Orlando, Florida, at that hour.

Instead, I had a bit to eat and drink, made sure everything was ready for the pre-dawn meal, offered my pre-bedtime dhikrs (remembrance of Allah), and settled in bed to rest for about half an hour. Then it was up again to pray and eat, start my fast at 3 a.m sharp, and offer the fajr dawn prayer.

Grateful that it was a Sunday and I didn’t have to work, I went back to bed and slept in late, finally waking around 11 a.m. In the 12 hours since I’d last checked anything online, an Afghan-American Muslim named Omar Mateen had opened fire in a gay nightclub in Orlando, killing 49 people and wounding dozens more.

My first inkling of this was an email from a Muslim crisis response list that was waiting in my inbox.

As I scanned news headlines, my insides twisted with the complex tangle of emotions I always feel after a major terrorist incident. Sadness and grief for the victims. Anger – and often also despair and hopelessness — at yet another extremist hijacking and perverting our religion. Fear of backlash against Muslims.

Guilt too, sometimes, at not being able to focus only on the victims and their tragedy.

But as the true scope of the Orlando shootings and their homophobic motivation became clea,r and as I watched responses from American Muslim groups, LGBTQ groups and right-wing politicians, a wave of new emotions hit me.

I’m asexual, meaning I don’t experience sexual attraction to anyone and am not interested in sex. Because of how my asexuality has marginalized me in society and in Muslim spaces, because of how Islamic orthodoxy would mark me as deviant and worthy of punishment if I married and because I’m emotionally and relationally oriented towards other women, I identify as queer – outside of heterosexual norms – and consider myself to be part of the larger LGBTQ community.

In the wake of the massacre in the Pulse nightclub, two key parts of my identity – my Islam and my queerness – seemed at war. Not in myself – to me, my Islam and my queerness are intertwined in a whole, integral identity – but as others sought to tear me apart.

I watched Muslim leaders and groups talk as if Muslim and LGBTQ were mutually exclusive groups. I noticed who edged around the LGBTQ identity of the Pulse nightclub victims and who was completely silent as if this was any other shooting and these were any other victims. Online, as I tweeted about the intersection of Muslim and LGBTQ identity, I received homophobic messages from self-identified Muslims.

I watched LGBTQ leaders and groups also talk as if LGBTQ and Muslim were mutually exclusive groups. I saw sweeping generalizations about LGBTQ experiences that left no space for me as a devout Muslim. Not all of us were out clubbing Saturday night. Some of us were at the mosque, praying tarawih after breaking our Ramadan fast.

And, I watched right-wing politicians – many of whom had been promoting anti-LGBTQ laws just the previous day – using the Orlando shootings to depict Islam as uniquely homophobic and violent in order to further their Islamophobic agenda.

At the same time that I was receiving homophobic messages on social media from some Muslims, I found myself targeted by right-wing Islamophobes as well, trolling that greatly intensified after I participated in an LGBTQ-affirming hashtag campaign and declared my queer Muslim identity a source of pride.

Laura P wears a hijab in the asexual pride colors. Photo by author.

Laura P wears a hijab in the asexual pride colors. Photo by author.

The toxic mix of Islamophobia, racism, misogyny, homophobia and anti-asexual prejudice that followed made me acutely aware of how complex my intersecting identities are, and how many people do not want me to exist in the particular, unique way that I do.

I felt sliced in two by these external pressures — that I was being asked to choose sides, to align myself with only one identity and community and erase or reject the other. I can’t do that. My asexuality is, I believe, innate, a lifelong orientation that cannot be changed.

As a convert, my Islam was a choice, and I will not abandon it. My faith is central to my life and putting my trust in Allah has gotten me through some of the toughest challenges I’ve faced.

More than that, for the last 17 years I have chosen to visibly affiliate myself with Islam through my hijab. Showing up with and for Muslims is part of my commitment to justice. I will not stop doing so because others, both Muslim and not, try to define Islam and LGBTQ identity as incompatible.

That Sunday night I was at the mosque again, wearing a hijab in the colors of the asexual pride flag, seeking solace in Allah for my shattered heart, asking for His forgiveness, guidance and healing. This is where I stand, as my whole self, and this is where I will stay.

#QueerSelfLove, Intersectional Harassment, and Resilience

Content warning: This post contains a discussion of multiple types of bigoted harassment that I experienced, and provides examples of threats of violence. This section is preceded with a trigger warning and its end is also marked. Please exercise self care and skip this section if you need to.

This month’s Carnival of Aces topic of resiliency proved to be unexpectedly timely. I already knew that Ramadan would be grueling - it runs from June 6 to July 5 this year and so covers the longest days of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. Where I live, a dawn to sunset fast at the summer solstice is 18 hours long. Add to that long night prayers (tarawih) every night, and I spend most of the month in a state of sleep deprivation and profound exhaustion.

Then came the shootings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. As a queer Muslim, this event was a much greater emotional shock than I expected. As I was just starting to regain my equilibrium after this, a tweet by Vesper led me to the #queerselflove hashtag conversation on Twitter that went viral late on the Tuesday evening immediately following Orlando.

Inspired by the diversity and positive energy that I found in this conversation, I shared my own tweet on the hashtag:

I didn’t have time for too much more, as it was late in the evening, but the conversation was still going strong the next day so I spent hours checking the hashtag for aces and queer Muslims and retweeting them.

Then the trolling started.

[Trigger warning: Discussion of bigoted harassment including examples of threats of violence ]

Nearly all of the trolling was by right-wing activists. Most of it was Islamophobic, including a number of vile racist comments about Muslims, suggestions I must be mentally disturbed to be a member of or have converted to such a religion, and the like. A few tweets implied I was in some way a race traitor for converting (I’m white). I was also told by multiple trolls that I would be stoned to death in Saudi Arabia for being queer, and I received a number of other homophobic tweets. Another line of trolling focused on my asexuality, with much of it being misogynistic at the same time, such as telling me I was only asexual (or only wear hijab, for that matter) because I’m too ugly to get a man. A few comments suggested corrective rape as a “solution” for my problems, and most of this line of trolling qualifies as sexual harassment. It was a truly toxic stew of four or five different types of prejudice, all directed at my single person because of my intersecting identities.

[End of trigger warning section]

The trolling came in three major waves, the first and the third being the most virulently Islamophobic while the second was more focused on sexualized misogyny. At one point I had to block more than 100 different users to clean out my Twitter mentions.

I’ve reported this type of harassment to Twitter in the past ([Trigger warning on contents of link] and also to Tumblr after one time it happened here) and they have declined to take action. Twitter’s anti-abuse tools are also largely ineffective against the type of trolling I experienced - each user has to be blocked individually and there is no way short of making one’s account completely private to stop the flood in the first place (this option also doesn’t work if you were away from your computer while it happened and come back later to find it already in your mentions). As well, in cases like this, the individual tweets themselves may not be extremely bad, but the cumulative effect of receiving hundreds of them is overwhelming and this is something that Twitter’s anti-abuse process doesn’t take into account. For these reasons, I simply tweeted about what was going on so that my followers were aware and blocked all the individual users who had trolled my mentions.

The way that all of this unfolded triggered memories of the period 2002 to 2003 when I was blogging actively on Muslim and political liberal issues. During a 14-month period, my blog (which was otherwise pretty obscure) was repeatedly targeted by readers of a major Islamophobic warmongering blog. Without warning at random times, I would receive a flood of Islamophobic comments on my blog and when I checked my visitor stats, I would find that a certain individual had posted a link in the comments section of the other blog to the targeted post. It was weirdly stalker-ish and I could never predict exactly what would trigger it.

The distinctive sexualized misogynistic tone of many of the comments I received 13 years ago is the same as the trolling I experienced on Twitter in the last month (and on Tumblr in the one instance). Also the same is the swarm behavior of the harassers.

Much has already been written about the pervasive nature of online harassment, of course. I’m not usually targeted by such harassment due to the relative obscurity of my online presence. However, my #queerselflove tweet went viral (it was even featured in two write-ups on the hashtag) and the particular combination of identities I represent seems to have made me an irresistible target for the trolls.

That is, it wasn’t just because I’m Muslim, or a woman, or asexual, or queer-identified, and it wasn’t even just about the mix of misogyny with both Islamophobia and acephobia that Muslim women and asexual women can experience. It was, I believe, because being queer and being Muslim at the same time are felt to be mutually exclusive and contradictory - and in the minds of some people so are being queer and being asexual. Add to that being a white convert when many bigots believe that Muslimness and whiteness are mutually incompatible, and my very existence is a challenge to their worldview on multiple levels.

For members of socially dominant groups, a challenge to their worldview can be perceived as an act of violence in itself, because it destabilizes their privilege and power. In their minds, this justifies an act of violence in return. When it’s your very identity that’s the challenge, you may face violence (such as harassment) just for occupying space in the world. The trolling I experienced after publicly stating pride in my identity was a sobering reminder that there are a good number of people out there who do not want me to exist in the particular way that I do.

Thankfully, the trolling has mostly died down as attention turned to other events, though I still receive occasional “one-off” replies on my original tweet (now over two weeks old). Not being under active siege and having some distance from the incident has also helped me to regain my emotional equilibrium and to reflect.

The trolling could hardly have come at a worse time, when I was already physically exhausted from Ramadan and emotionally fragile in the wake of the Orlando shootings. It felt at times overwhelming, especially the third wave which was the largest and worst and came after several days of relative quiet.

But I never considered giving in and I was determined throughout that they would not scare me off. I knew I had outlasted this kind of harassment before (the 2002-2003 period discussed above) and could do so again. The support of both friends and random kind strangers online helped a lot, so that I didn’t feel I was facing it alone. Participation in both asexual and Muslim communities has also strengthened my sense of identity and commitment to that self-identification. I’ve learned a lot about resilience over the years and that helped me get through this most recent period.

More than all of this, though, the #queerselflove hashtag itself helped me get through. Although there were some people trolling from the outside (most of my trolls didn’t use the hashtag so weren’t seen by anybody but me), everybody who was participating was positive and welcoming. There was no gatekeeping over who is “allowed” to identify as queer or who is “worthy” of support and learning to love themselves as they are in a world that too often does not love or support them. It was a genuinely inclusive space and represented a real diversity not just of sexuality and gender identity, but also race, religion, age, ability, and other axes. I was delighted to see dozens and dozens of aces participating and even a range of queer Muslims.

It reminded me of the best of Tumblr, without the gatekeeping and hate that has tarnished the experiences of many aces over the last five or so years. The recent round of this as “The Discourse” has largely passed me by, but #queerselflove on Twitter was a good antidote to that as well.

Above all, it showed how we all, in our many diverse and intersecting identities, can take a reclaimed slur and build something positive and beautiful for ourselves from it. This is the potential of what queer can be and I felt affirmed in identifying as queer because of it.

In this time of trials and difficulties, queer is an act of solidarity and a badge of resilience, one I am proud to wear.

My Islam is Queer

I first became fascinated by Islam in the summer of 1994. I remember spending many afternoons in the university bookstore, lurking by the Religion shelves, at one point poring over English translations of key verses in the Quran.

I went to college across the country from where my family lived, so on the summer breaks, I would return home and take a class at the local university purely for my own interest. One year it was meteorology and weather. The summer after my junior year it was Islam and the Muslim world.

I’d had little contact with Muslims prior to taking this class, as there were few at that time in the area where I lived. I enjoyed the class and learned a lot but I hardly thought of the experience as life-changing... and yet, there I was regularly lurking at the bookstore to look at books on Islam outside of class.

My junior and senior years at college were a transitional time for me. My freshman year, I became significantly alienated by the new expectations around sex that I was encountering. But it was only in my junior year, when I moved out of the dorms to live in my own apartment for the first time, that I was really able to create an autonomous space for myself. Over the years, this would become my Fortress of Solitude, though I didn’t know it at the time. I also didn’t know that Islam would come to be an important part of the safe space I was creating for myself.

Despite my fascinations that summer in 1994, when I returned to college in the fall, my interest in Islam fell away as it seemed to have little to do with my life there.

Two years later, I found myself fascinated anew. By then, I was back in my home state and was pursuing a master’s degree at the same university where I had taken my summer classes. But grad school was very different than college had been, and my increasing alienation and isolation left me without a support system.

It was in the wake of grad school failure that I became interested in Islam again. As it had been the first time, my interest was intellectual. This time I was particularly fascinated by similarities between Islam and Judaism, particularly cognates in Arabic and Hebrew religious terminology. Even while I struggled with my classes, withdrew from my program, and then looked for a job, I would spend hours every day reading and learning about Islam.

Reading was a safe space for me, a place where I could explore the things I really cared about, instead of having to deal with other people’s expectations I didn’t understand and didn’t seem to be able to meet.

By the time I found a full-time job in 1997 and moved closer to home, I was spending much of my free time learning about Islam. I’d ranged far beyond my earlier interest in cognates and was delving into the religion and its sources.

As a religion, Islam made a lot more sense to me than Christianity ever had; I was brought up Catholic but my family were not particularly observant and I had dropped out of Confirmation class when I realized I didn’t and couldn’t believe in the Trinity. I’d been agnostic since then.

But Islam’s monotheism made sense to me. Reading about theology and mysticism from this perspective opened up whole new intellectual worlds to me. It seemed that there was always something new and fascinating to learn and I loved it.

In August 1999, I converted to Islam. In all this time, I had had only limited contact with other Muslims, all online (primarily through email discussion groups and forums). There was no mosque where I lived (one wouldn’t be established until 2002). When I converted, it was alone in my apartment. I recited the testimony of faith to myself then offered the ritual prayer for the first time. I began wearing the hijab a month later.

Because my journey towards Islam had been so intellectual and because I was by that time so isolated, I had given very little thought until after I converted about what other people would think of my new religion, a degree of sheltered naivety that I boggle at today.

Islam is not just any religion, you see. Even at best, most Americans know little about it and think of it as something “foreign”. At worst, and increasingly so since 9/11, they think Islam is inherently violent and fundamentally opposed to everything that they feel the U.S. stands for.

American converts to Islam often lose friends and become estranged from their families after their conversion. Even if the people close to them accept their new religion, as my family did, they may find themselves alienated from the larger society they used to be part of, which now sees them as Other.

For white converts, identification with Islam can be particularly complex because Islam in America is racialized. It is not simply that most Muslims are people of color, but that many white Americans believe that the foreignness and Otherness they associate with Islam makes it incompatible with whiteness.

Women who wear hijab often experience this dichotomy the most acutely. Someone who believes that “Muslim” and “white” are mutually exclusive may experience cognitive dissonance seeing a person who is phenotypically  European-heritage white wearing a garment that is so strongly associated with Islam and with images of Islam as oppressive and foreign.

This cognitive dissonance may lead them to racialize the woman in hijab, often as Arab (most Americans think of Islam as specifically an Arab religion). I personally have experienced this on numerous occasions over the last 17 years.

From the relatively benign “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?” questioning on a regular basis to job discrimination and various types of street harassment including a stalker yelling at me to “Go back to where you came from”, being asked “Are you one of the people that killed our people?” and even having “Sand [epithet]” shouted at me from a passing car, I’ve had a number of experiences that my white privilege had shielded me from previously. The transition to this non-normative whiteness has had a profound influence on my politics and other beliefs.

For many converts, the experiences of alienation and marginalization they face after publicly proclaiming a Muslim identity are too much to handle, especially if the transition was sudden or if they are also trying to make major changes in their way of life (for instance, giving up a party lifestyle or marrying a spouse from a different culture). The shifts in privilege can be particularly jarring for white converts. Some converts who find themselves unable to continue as Muslims leave the religion entirely; others drop out of Muslim communities and navigate their lives as if non-Muslim even while still believing in the tenets of the faith.

Only a minority of converts stick with the religion for the nearly 17 years that I have. In thinking about my journey of faith recently, I realized that there is a special resonance the religion has always held for me that is deeply rooted in my identity and is at the core of why I’ve never gone away from Islam.

Islam came into my life at a time when I was already significantly alienated, isolated, and marginalized from the larger society because of my asexuality. Those ties were already cut, those friendships lost. Feeling myself an outsider, an Other, I drew comfort from a faith that in my cultural context is also Other.

I do not believe that I would have become Muslim if I were not also asexual, if asexuality were not also queer. My Islam and my asexuality, my queerness, are part of the same experience, so intertwined that they could not exist without each other.

My Islam is queer.

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.

Experiences & attitudes of Muslim ace respondents to the 2014 asexual community census

Previously, I analyzed various demographic characteristics of Muslim respondents to the 2014 AVEN survey and found that they are very similar to non-Muslim respondents in most regards.

The 2014 survey also asked a number of questions about sexual experiences and attitudes towards sex. For this analysis I am looking only at the 59 Muslim respondents who identified as on the asexual spectrum (”Muslim ace respondents”).

  • 46 Muslim ace respondents (78%) report that they have never engaged in consensual sexual activity. For comparison, 65% of all ace respondents report this.
  • 8 Muslim ace respondents (14%) report that they have previously engaged in consensual sexual activity but are not currently sexually active. For comparison, 23% of all ace respondents report this.
  • Thus, a total of 54 Muslim ace respondents (92%) report that they are not currently sexually active. For comparison, 88% of all ace respondents report this.
  • 16 Muslim ace respondents (27%) identify as celibate. For comparison, 12% of all ace respondents identify this way.
  • 13 Muslim ace respondents (22%) identify as sex-negative in their politics. For comparison, 10.6% of all ace respondents identify this way.

I chose this set of questions because I wanted to see if a group of ace respondents who identified with a particular religion (i.e., Islam) would differ from ace respondents as a whole in their sexual experiences and attitudes towards sex. There does appear to be some support for this, but there are also some caveats:

  • Muslim ace respondents are significantly more likely than non-Muslim ace respondents to have never engaged in consensual sexual activity.
  • However, Muslim ace respondents are only slightly more likely than non-Muslim ace respondents to be sexually inactive currently. Non-Muslim ace respondents are significantly more likely than Muslim ace respondents to have tried sex in the past before coming to their current state, but similar percentages have a current state of sexual inactivity.
  • Muslim ace respondents are significantly more likely than non-Muslim ace respondents to identify as celibate, a term often believed to have religious connotations.
  • However, the vast majority of Muslim ace respondents do not identify as celibate, and hold a range of views why the term does not fit them.
  • Muslim ace respondents are significantly more likely than non-Muslim ace respondents to identify as sex-negative in their politics.
  • However, the vast majority of Muslim ace respondents do not identify as sex-negative.

If we consider all of these characteristics to be “conservative” (which is arguable; for instance, sex-negativity can also be a radical feminist position), then we could say that Muslim ace respondents to the 2014 survey are somewhat more “conservative” than are non-Muslim ace respondents. However, the vast majority of Muslim ace respondents do not hold such “conservative” views, and their current sexual behavior is equally as “conservative” as non-Muslim ace respondents’ behavior is.

All of this suggests that those Muslim aces who engage with online asexual communities enough to have found the 2014 survey do so at least in part because they are broadly similar to such communities in behavior and attitudes about sex.

Muslim respondents to the 2014 asexual community census

The asexual census team were kind enough to provide me with the data from the 2014 AVEN community survey for the Muslim respondents (the data for 2015 is not yet available for analysis by outside researchers). The analysis provided in this post in my own derivation and is not an official result. All errors are my own.

“Muslim respondents” are defined as those who selected “Muslim” as their religious preference. Here is some information about the Muslim respondents:

  • 71 respondents selected Muslim as their religious preference. For context, there were a total of 14,210 respondents. This means that 0.5% of respondents were Muslim.
  • 32 Muslim respondents were residents of the United States. The next most common country of residence was the United Kingdom, with 5 respondents. 20 respondents reside in countries with majority Muslim populations. The Muslim-majority country with the largest number of respondents is Indonesia, which had 3 respondents. (Fun fact: Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim country.) A total of 23 countries were listed.
  • 42 Muslim respondents (59%) gave their gender identity as woman/female. 11 Muslim respondents (16%) identified as man/male . For comparison, 62.1% of all respondents identified as woman/female and 13.3% of all respondents as man/male.
  • 20 Muslim respondents (28%) listed a non-binary gender identity. The most common response was agender, which had 6 respondents (9%). For comparison, 24.6% of all respondents listed a non-binary gender identify, and 8.5% were agender specifically.
  • 32 Muslim respondents identified as asexual (45%), 16 as gray-A (23%), and 11 as demisexual (16%). 12 Muslim respondents (17%) did not identify as on the asexual spectrum. For comparison, 49% of all respondents identified as asexual, 16.2% as gray-A, 11% as demisexual, and 23.4% as non-ace.
  • Of the non-ace Muslim respondents, 5 identified as straight and the other 7 as various non-straight identities. The most common of these identities was bisexual, with 4 respondents.

The above analysis looked at all Muslim respondents. The following analysis focuses on the 59 respondents who identified as on the asexual spectrum (hereafter, “Muslim ace respondents”).

  • The breakdown of romantic orientations among Muslim ace respondents is as follows:
    • 14 respondents (24%) identified as aromantic
    • 16 respondents (27%) identified as heteroromantic
    • 7 respondents (12%) identified as biromantic
    • 7 respondents (12%) identified as panromantic
    • 5 respondents (9%) identified as homoromantic
    • 2 respondents (3%) identified as WTFromantic
    • 8 respondents (14%) gave various other responses
    • For comparison, among all ace respondents, 19% are aromantic, 22% heteroromantic, 12.4% biromantic, 19.8% panromantic, 5.1% homoromantic, and 5.1% WTFromantic.
  • In addition to the above, 9 Muslim ace respondents (15%) identified as gray-romantic and 7 Muslim ace respondents (12%) as demiromantic. Note that all of these gave a specific romantic orientation identity in the previous question. For comparison, among all ace respondents, 13.9% identify as gray-romantic and 16.2% as demiromantic.
  • 41 Muslim ace respondents (70%) identify as LGBTQ, either with or without reservations. 34 Muslim ace respondents (58%) identify as queer, either with or without reservations. For comparison, among all ace respondents, 74.6% identify as LGBTQ and 57.8% as queer.
  • 29 Muslim ace respondents (49%) identified as sex-repulsed, 25 Muslim ace respondents (42%) as sex-indifferent, and 5 Muslim ace respondents (9%) as sex-favorable. For comparison, among all ace respondents, 43.5% are sex-repulsed, 48% sex-indifferent, and 8.5%  sex-favorable.

The way that race and ethnicity were tracked was complex, as different questions were asked depending on the nationality of the respondent.

The following analysis is based on the 32 respondents (whether ace or non-ace) resident in the United States (hereafter “American Muslim respondents”). This is the only nationality group which is large enough to do analysis on.

There is an important caveat to keep in mind. Arab Americans are legally designated as white in the U.S. census and some respondents from this background may have selected "white” for their race rather than writing in a response. Thus “white” here does not necessarily indicate only European-origin whites (according to the 2011 CAIR survey, European-origin whites are around 3% of all American Muslims).

  • 14 American Muslim respondents (44%) identified their race as white
  • 2 American Muslim respondents (6%) identified their race as black/African American
  • 2 American Muslim respondents (6%) identified their race as American Indian/Alaska Native
  • 11 American Muslim respondents (34%) identified their race as Asian Indian
  • 11 American Muslim respondents (34%) identified their race as other. 6 of these respondents (19% of all American Muslim respondents) wrote in answers indicating Middle Eastern or North African heritage. Several other responses were given here including “mixed race”. Some respondents also gave specific nationalities.
  • 3 American Muslim respondents (9%) identified as of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin (this is asked separately from race).
  • For context, the 2011 CAIR survey found that 33% of American Muslims are South Asian, 27% Arab American, and 33% Black (African or African American). Only 1% identified as Latino. It is impossible make a direct comparison with the AVEN data due to the issues with classifying Arab Americans. However, it is clear that Black/African American Muslims are significantly underrepresented in the AVEN survey and that white Muslims (whether European-origin, Arab American, or Hispanic/Latino) may be overrepresented.

Because the group of Muslim respondents is so small, differences from the group of all respondents may not be statistically significant. In general, the breakdown of responses among Muslim respondents was similar to that of all respondents. However, the following may be noted

  • Muslim respondents are slightly less likely to identify as woman/female and slightly more likely to identify as man/male or as non-binary than all respondents.
  • Muslim respondents are slightly more likely to identify as gray-A or demisexual than all respondents. A lower percentage of Muslim respondents were non-ace than of all respondents.
  • Muslim ace respondents are slightly more likely to identify as aromantic, heteroromantic, or homoromantic than all ace respondents, and less likely to identify as panromantic.
  • Muslim ace respondents are slightly less likely to identify as LGBTQ than all ace respondents, but equally likely to identify as queer.
  • Muslim ace respondents are slightly more likely to identify as sex-repulsed and slightly less likely to identify as sex-indifferent than all ace respondents.

Because the number of Muslim respondents is so small, distinctive responses to some questions may be personally identifying - for instance I can tell which one is me because I’m the only respondent with my birth year! For this reason, I have left some groups of respondents classified as “other” rather than break out specific responses.

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.

Coercion, violence, and queerness in the context of Islamic orthodoxy

Note: This was originally published in f-ace-ing silence, issue 4.

Content warning: This post discusses coerced sex and domestic violence and systems that give religious sanction to these actions.

I have never experienced coerced sex or any other form of sexual or domestic violence. I chose the path of isolation 22 years ago and have strenuously avoided any kind of relationship, especially with cis men, where there might be any pressure on me to provide sex.

Since discovering online asexual communities three years ago, and especially since beginning to write about Islamic orthodoxy from an asexual perspective in the last year and a half, I have thought a lot about the likelihood I would have experienced one of those forms of violence had I chosen to marry.

When I claimed queerness for myself in March 2014, it was not on the basis of same-sex attraction, although I am exclusively emotionally attracted to other women. Rather, it was on the basis of my rejection of sex with men and the way that Islamic orthodoxy marks me as deviant because of that.

Living in a context of Islamic orthodoxy as a woman who rejects sex with men means being marginalized, isolated, and excluded from communities when I choose to reject marriage, or facing the potential of entrapment, coercion, and even violence if I marry. Traditional Islam offers no third choice.

Starting around 800 CE (about 150 years after the establishment of Islam as a religion), Islamic legal scholars began to construct marriage as a contract for exclusive sexual access to a woman. Her sexual availability at nearly all times became a necessary condition for the validity of the marriage.

Framing marriage in this way allowed these scholars to justify the husband’s control of his wife’s ability to leave the house and even her voluntary religious observance. If she engaged in these activities without his permission, traditional Islamic law deemed her disobedient and subject to punishment.

The Quran itself grants husbands the right to take disciplinary action against wives they consider to be “recalcitrant”. Disciplinary action can include verbal admonishment, separation from the marital bed, and hitting.

Islamic feminists and other progressive Muslim scholars today have argued that the normative example of the Prophet Muhammad, who never hit a woman, should be taken as the definitive interpretation of the Quran.

However, the consensus of the traditional scholars is that hitting is allowed and that a wife’s refusal of sex constitutes recalcitrance and thus is worthy of punishment.

In addition to the options of verbal admonishment, separation from the marital bed, and hitting, traditional legal scholars also allowed a husband to cut off the financial maintenance (housing, food, and clothing) that he is otherwise legally required to provide to his wife. (This financial coercion has no basis in the Quran.)

On top of all of this, the traditional legal scholars placed significant limits on a wife’s ability to seek divorce when she feels she cannot fulfill the role expected of her, or in cases of the husband’s mistreatment.

Taken together, these rules create a regimen where an asexual woman would have little to no ability to construct a celibate marriage and where she can be subject to measures of entrapment, coercive control, and even physical violence if her husband deems her asexuality a form of “recalcitrance”.

The stories of Sawda bint Zam’a and Rabi’a bint Isma’il, two potentially asexual women from early Muslim history, illustrate the vulnerability of the asexual wife and her dependence on her husband’s willingness to refrain from using his patriarchal authority against her.

Both Sawda and Rabi’a sought to avoid sex with their husbands. Sawda’s husband (the Prophet Muhammad) accepted this and sought to fulfill his sexual needs through polygamous marriages with other women. Rabi’a’s husband, by contrast, persistently sought to coerce her into sex despite having initially agreed not to.

My own decision not to marry is based primarily on the fact that I think I’m much more likely to end up in Rabi’a’s situation than in Sawda’s. I just don’t trust most men when they have that much power over me. The extremity of my vulnerability in an orthodox Muslim marriage gone bad scares me.

I want to be able to talk about these issues in Muslim spaces and add to the growing Islamic feminist dialogue on domestic violence and the legal tradition.

I also want to be able to talk about coerced sex and domestic violence as asexual issues and as queer issues.

The topic of whether asexual individuals can or should use the label “queer” for themselves is one that come up in recent years in some online spaces such as Tumblr. I believe this debate is based on overly narrow definitions of what it means to be queer.

When we understand queerness solely as the experience of same-sex desire, asexuality is not queer in and of itself. But if we consider queerness to include the absence of cross-sex desire and the failure to adhere to the norm of heterosexual behavior, then we open up the possibility for asexuality to be queer on its own terms.

And when we recognize my experience as an asexual woman who rejects sex with men as queer, then we must also recognize that some queer experiences are distinctly gendered. In Islamic orthodoxy, asexual men would face few of the issues I have described here, because of the patriarchal authority that this orthodoxy grants to men.

Much of the discourse about queerness that I have seen in these online debates seems to be rooted in the experiences of men (specifically of gay men) and I do not believe it sufficiently takes into account the distinctive issues that queer women may face.

That I am not only asexual but socially classed as a woman under patriarchy matters to how I understand my queerness. That I could face coerced sex and domestic violence because of my queerness matters. I want a discourse that acknowledges that.

Without such acknowledgment, I feel erased and silenced, unable to articulate my experiences in a language that others recognize. That I am not straight has had a profound effect on my life and I need to be able to talk about that.

Giving a Name to the Asexual Muslim Experience

Note: This was originally published at Patheos altmuslim.

I spend an awful lot of my time online, for work, for volunteering, for fun. But even I didn’t expect that one of the most profound realizations in my life would come from the internet.

One evening in 2004, browsing news online after work, I happened upon an article called Coming out, loud and proud: Meet the people who say sex is an alien concept.

What’s that? I’d never understood the point of sex, myself, never had any interest in it, never felt any draw towards it. Intrigued, I began reading:

While David Jay's teenage friends seemed to think of little else, the good-looking, dark-haired young man from St Louis was too ashamed to admit that he found even the idea of sex a turn-off.

He had a girlfriend but their first attempts at "making out" left him cold and he never allowed his relationship to develop physically.

Yep, that’s me. That right there. Reading on, I learned that David Jay and others conceived of this state of being as a sexual orientation, called asexuality, and that researchers believe about 1% of the population are asexual.

At the time I read this article, I was 31. I’d long since structured my life around my lack of interest in sex. As such, the article didn’t tell me anything about myself I didn’t already know. What it did tell me is that there was a name for people like me. And that I wasn’t alone in being like this.

All the time before this, I had thought my lack of interest in sex was just something weird about me. Asexuality was never talked about along with other sexual orientations. No one had ever told me it was a possibility.

I’m the sort of person that not only marches to her own drummer but often doesn’t even realize everybody else is in a parade on another street. I’m used to being weird. So not being interested in sex had always been just one of those “Laura things”. But now I had a whole new way of thinking about myself.

Profound as this realization was, coming across that article in 2004 didn’t change my life, at least not immediately. Gaining insight from it wasn’t like a bolt from the blue. It was much more quiet, an awareness that gradually unfolded over time as I began to think about myself and eventually to talk about myself in a new way.

Being asexual profoundly shapes how I relate to others. If you changed that, you would change me. It’s central to my identity and how I understand myself in the world. Before the article about asexuality, I had no way to talk about that, to express myself to others in such an important area of my life. Without a word for my experiences, I’d struggled to explain the fullness of my existence even to myself. And I hadn’t even known how much it mattered.

The Islamic tradition, too, teaches us that words matter. In Qur’an 2:31, Allah tells us that, “He taught Adam the names, all of them”. Explaining this verse, Shaykh Muhammad Shareef writes:

Thus, the ability to define oneself and creation is the primary function of mankind after gnosis and worship of the Absolute Being. This function is what gives humankind their distinction spiritually, politically, socially, and individually. Your ability to name/define yourself and your environment is what gives you power. (On ‘Naming’ and ‘Defining’ the Self)

For human beings, language is essential.  We give names to everything around us and in so doing recognize their existence and reality. To be given a name by someone else that does not reflect your reality, as Shakyh Shareef discusses in his paper, or to not have a name at all, is in some way to be denied a valid existence.

In the last few years, I’ve been able to share stories with a number of other asexual people, including a growing number of asexual Muslims. This experience of not having a name for oneself is common to so many of us. For some, it meant years or even decades of bewilderment, alienation, and isolation. For others, it meant the only label they knew how to give themselves was “broken”.

Invisibility hurts. It hurts perhaps the most when you’re invisible even to yourself. And it hurts when you’re invisible to everyone else. It’s been over 10 years since I first learned about asexuality and I still almost never hear or read about it except in asexual spaces. Almost every week, I see discussions of human sexuality that leave out the existence of asexuality. Almost every week, I see myself declared an impossibility.

No, not everyone experiences sexual attraction, is interested in sex, desires sex. Allah created us diverse in so many ways, including our sexuality. He shaped each of us in a unique form, with different characteristics, identities, and experiences, and He tests us to see if we can live morally in the way that He has made us.

For most Muslims, marriage is the most moral way to live in their sexuality. It is for this reason that marriage is part of the Sunna of the Prophet, peace be upon him. But marriage is not the best course for everyone, and it is not an obligation. For me and for many other asexual Muslims, it is celibacy that is the best way.

I have come to understand that I not only am not interested in sex but that I would be harmed emotionally, mentally, and spiritually by being required to have it. That marriage would be a source of trauma and oppression for me because of the expectation that I provide something I am so deeply averse to. That I can only find a healthful condition, integrity of heart, preservation of faith, and a soul at peace through celibacy.

I wish that Muslim communities would respect this. That they would recognize lifelong celibacy as a valid path alongside marriage. That they would respect my single status and stop pushing marriage on me. That they would make a place for me at events and in mosques. That I could turn to them for support in leading a spiritually fulfilling life in accordance with the Quran and Sunna in my celibate state. That they would stop treating my sex aversion and my choice to avoid marriage as a disobedience to Allah.

It’s the insistent pressure towards marriage, without regard for my specific circumstances, and the marginalization of the perpetually unmarried that I find most difficult about being asexual in Muslim communities, especially as a convert without Muslim family. I would like Muslims to recognize that asexuality exists, yes, but more than that I need Muslims to understand what being asexual means.

Asexuality needs to be more than just a curiosity read about online and forgotten. Asexuality needs to be named and recognized as part of the diversity of Muslim experience. Asexual Muslims need to be welcomed and accepted as integral members of Muslim communities.

The week of October 19 to October 25, 2015, was Asexual Awareness Week. While this week has now passed, any time is a good time to make a difference for others. Look around for asexual Muslims in your communities, whether local or online, and learn about their lives and their needs. Make a place for them. Speak their name.