Asexuality & Hijab

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.

Hijab as "Leave me alone; I'm not interested"

Note: This was originally published at The Asexual Agenda

The thought of someone else finding me sexy? That made me more uncomfortable, and in retrospect I think it was because now I was being asked, in an abstract sense, to picture myself actually in a sexual situation. If I’m sexually attractive, that means people want me to be having sex. (luvtheheaven, Am I sex-averse? Maybe. I have made a decision to identify as such.)

In my recent post, Social anxiety, sex aversion, and asexuality, I talked about how for a long time I found it difficult to distinguish between my introversion and instances of social anxiety, and my sex aversion. Over time, I came to realize that I experienced two separate anxiety responses when someone made a sexual/romantic approach to me, and that the person's sexual/romantic interest in me was a distinct and much stronger trigger for anxiety than the simple social anxiety. The anxiety response specific to being approached sexually or romantically I recognize as my sex aversion.

The quote from @luvtheheaven above expresses really well what I think is at the core of my sex aversion. I don't want people to think they can or should approach me sexually or romantically. If they did, they would want me to engage with them in a way that I am not able to do, they would expect something from me that I can't give. It's better to not even let them get started on thinking in that direction. Ideally, I would like people to realize this before they approach me and to only do so if they accept those as my terms.

Over at The Asexual Agenda, I wrote On being visibly Muslim and invisibly asexual about some of the ways people tend to perceive me because of my hijab. Many times, people simply regard and treat me with hostility (TW: Islamophobia) because of their prejudice against Islam and Muslims. Sometimes they assume that I'm oppressed; typically they imagine I have a husband who forces me to dress modestly. Even when they have a more positive view of me, they seem to see me as a heterosexual who is celibate for religious reasons (hence "invisibly asexual").

The interesting thing is that none of these three views seems to involve them seeing me as someone they themselves should approach sexually. Either they despise my very presence, they don't want to mess with the husband they imagine me to have, or they correctly realize I'm not interested. Because of this, I feel that hijab tends to desexualize me.

And I like it that way. I don't like Islamophobic harassment, obviously, and being asked why my husband makes me dress that way is annoying and frustrating. But if they don't vocalize these views, and they just leave me alone, I'll take it.

For this sex-averse asexual, hijab is a tool that helps me to define how others see and approach me and that makes it more likely they will do so on my terms. It makes my life more livable. This is empowering for me. Even with the difficulties hijab sometimes causes with others, I wouldn't give up my shield for the world.

On being visibly Muslim and invisibly asexual

Note: This was originally published at The Asexual Agenda.

What does an asexual look like? The easy answer is that an asexual can look like anything, since any type of person may be asexual. Yet the images that mainstream Western society imputes to members of certain groups may tend to negate or erase asexuality as a possible identity. Trudy at Gradient Lair and Fiish have both explored how this works for Black asexual women, while Queenie has discussed her experiences as a mixed-race ace of Latina heritage and I highly recommend all of their posts*. I am going to explore a perhaps narrower issue, what images do people tend to have of Muslim women who wear the hijab (headscarf and modest dress), speaking from my position as a white (European American) convert who is often taken as Arab or ambiguously "not quite white" while wearing hijab, and how does this relate to my asexuality?

Very often, people associate Islam with terrorism and violence and will confront Muslims, or those they read as Muslims, with slurs or attacks related to these beliefs. In my post about queer Muslims and Pride parades, I list some examples of this. Yet, Islamophobia is very gendered and features specific beliefs about Muslim women, especially those who wear hijab. We are often seen as lacking agency or even lacking intelligence, that we have been "forced" to wear hijab by a man (usually a father or husband) or by a culture. In some cases, this leads to a belief on the part of Westerners that we need to be rescued.

In an earlier post on being an ace hijabi, I noted that people tend not to have a stereotype of hijab-wearing women as asexual, but instead I'm often assumed to have a husband, who made me wear hijab (or even made me convert to Islam). Implicit in this is an assumption of uniform heterosexuality. Similarly, in the comments on my Pride post, Ace in Translation brought up an idea that some people taking part in Pride parades may have, that asexuality is a cover for internalized homophobia. They asked me if I thought this applied to asexual Muslims as well.

The anwser is no. Whatever assumptions that people may have about "religious asexuals", these tend to assume Christianity and are almost always overridden by the specific images that person has about Islam. I said I would expect to be accused that Muslims oppress women and LGBTQ individuals rather than being assumed to be non-heterosexual myself and using religion as a way of dealing with it. That's what queer Muslims tend to face.

Even when people don't have Islamophobic or other negative views about Muslims, and my hijab is read purely as a sign of religiosity, I feel that people tend to assume heterosexuality still. I may be read as celibate because of my religiosity, but as celibate straight not celibate queer. Maybe it's because they think I look like a nun?!

I was thinking about this recently in the discussion of Pap tests. I wondered if my doctor was more likely to believe I am genuinely not sexually active because my dress is so overtly religious that he assumes my celibacy must be religiously-inspired as well (it's not; I was already celibate because of my asexuality for years before I converted to Islam). Likewise, I think that my colleagues at work and other casual friends tend to read my lack of dating and failure to talk about sex or who is attractive as a religiously-inspired abstinence or celibacy rather than as evidence of a non-straight sexuality.

This made me reflect on Queenie's recent post on being visibly queer (from which I have shamelessly stolen the title of this post). I think that in order to be read as non-straight, I would need to have a same-sex partner - something that is not very likely for me as an aromantic asexual! I'm actually open to the idea of having a female queerplatonic partner, but it's a very distant possibility, at best, right now. How does "being out" work when asexuality is not a visibly queer identity to begin with, and when my religion and my dress tend to impute heterosexuality to me in the eyes of others, whether I want it or not? I haven't figured out the answer to that one yet.

*For more posts on asexuality and race, see Asexuality and Race Resources

When deciding whether to take part is about more than just Pride

Asra recalls a particularly unsavoury incident. "There was an occasion at gay pride once where one of the marchers turned around and quite crudely said 'we didn't know pride was allowing suicide bombers on the march' - it was really shocking to hear it from a fellow gay marcher." (BBC News)

One of the major ways that the asexual community pursues visibility and awareness is through participation in Pride parades. I think this is great! I love seeing photos of ace pride contingents.

So far, no such opportunities have come up anywhere near where I live. But even if I did have the opportunity, the question for me isn't as simple as, "Do I want to be visibly out?" - I also have to think about whether I would face harassment as someone who is very visibly Muslim. As the BBC report quoted above shows, Pride parades are not necessarily safe spaces for queer Muslims.


I wear hijab, the Islamic modest dress, including a headscarf (pictured above). At various times out in public I have had random strangers yell, "Go back to where you came from," at me, had people come up to me and ask, "Are you one of those people that killed our people?", been called overt racial slurs by passing drivers, and even been stalked.

Going out in public always involves mental preparation for the possibility of Islamophobic harassment. While its occurrence is, thankfully, relatively rare, I can never rule out the possibility of having to deal with it.

As a matter of habit, I also usually try to avoid going near large crowds or party-like atmospheres, especially if I'm by myself. Even an apparently happy group can have that one person who gets aggressive in these situations and who happens to be offended by the presence of a visible Muslim.

A Pride parade could fall into this category. I would feel more comfortable about attending if I was with a group of people I was already friends with, such as a queer Muslim contingent or an ace pride contingent.

And I'm not just talking about attending the parade, but about potentially marching in it, which would make me that much more visible to everybody there. While asexuality is sometimes difficult to explain to queer Muslims (as it is to queer groups in general), if they had already accepted me as a member of their group, I doubt there would be any issue about me marching with them. They would also understand the need to prepare for dealing with Islamophobia, since that would be part of their own experience.

But what about an ace pride contingent? While most aces I've engaged with online have been friendly and accepting, I can easily see a situation where an ace group could decide that my veiling doesn't fit the "image" that they want to present and that they might be uncomfortable having me present and visible in their group. This has happened to me before with non-Muslim groups. As with Islamophobic harassment, it's something I always need to be aware might happen. Islamophobia is unfortunately common in American society at large. Aces aren't immune from being like that, or from manifesting any other prejudice or bigotry.

I also think that the asexual community, as I've dealt with it so far, doesn't always seem aware that these intersections exist, that a Pride parade is a type of visibility action that may not be safe for all aces to take part in, and that some aces may face harassment or other obstacles not for their asexuality (which is also an issue, incidentally) but for other characteristics entirely. I've certainly never gotten the sense that anyone proposing visibility actions has thought about how these might work for a hijabi Muslim like me. It's this reflexive lack of awareness that not all aces are positioned the same way in the larger society, and do not all have the same types of experiences, that worries me more than overt Islamophobia.

A few thoughts on being an ace hijabi

As a Muslim woman, I dress modestly, covering to throat, wrist, and ankle and wearing a headscarf, when I'm outside my home. I observe hijab as an expression of my religious faith and have since I converted to Islam 14 years ago. I've worn hijab so long that it feels like a natural part of who I am and I usually don't think too much about it these days.

However, as I've come to explore my asexuality in recent years and to understand what it means for me, I've come to realize that part of what I like about hijab and part of why I think it feels so natural to me, is that in my experience it does desexualize me in the eyes of most people and that this makes my interactions with them more comfortable for me. While this doesn't necessarily hold true for everybody, it has for me.

For me, hijab is a way for me to opt out of the expectations sometimes placed on women in our society to be sexy and attractive to men. It's also a way for me to opt out of a lot of things that are considered "girly" or elements of conventional femininity, like fashion, makeup, hairstyles, jewelry, and so forth. These are things I've really never gotten in the way that most other women seem to, and was never into even as a teenager, long before I converted to Islam. Wearing hijab doesn't necessarily mean you have to give up on these things, but it can, and it's become part of the whole thing for me and is another reason why I think I'm so comfortable with it.

In my experience there isn't a stereotype that hijabis are asexual - most of the stereotypes relate to being oppressed, being foreign or "not American", and so forth. I'm white and one of the most common assumptions people make is that I dress like I do - and even that I follow my religion - because a Muslim husband made me (I am not married and never have been, nor do I plan to). Maybe if I were a nun and dressed like one people would associate my appearance with something about asexuality or celibacy, but the ideas our culture has about Islam completely override that.

It's curious that although people don't take my hijab to imply asexuality, I find that it does in fact suit me well as an asexual.