“I’m Queer”: Grappling with Orthodoxy as an Asexual Muslim Woman
Note: This was originally published at Love InshAllah.
Recalcitrant. Disobedient. Deserving punishment. These words filled my mind one night in March 2014 as I bowed then dropped to the floor to prostrate before Allah.
Prayer before bed is usually my quiet time. Standing alone in a darkened apartment as the rest of the world goes to sleep, I often find stillness of mind. A renewed connection with Allah after a busy day.
Not always. Sometimes my mind is sticky, refusing to let go of a problem that frustrates me. Or a minor comment from the morning looms large. They’re wrong and this is why, I think. How dare they? Other times my thoughts, though still distracting, are more productive. The solution to a puzzle presents itself. Words form a lovely turn of phrase for an essay.
But that night my thoughts were darker. I’d been reading commentary on Qur’an 4:34. The verse reads in part:
…And those [wives] who, you fear their recalcitrance, so admonish them and separate from them in bed, and hit them…
The Qur’an doesn’t explain exactly what “recalcitrance” (nushuz in Arabic) is, but most traditional scholars agree that sex is a man’s right in marriage and for a wife to withhold that from him is the most fundamental form of recalcitrance.
Sex is not something I will ever want to do. I have no interest in it and the very thought leaves me cold. It’s not something I can compromise on.
Does Allah want me to be hit for that? For a way that I am innately?
The Prophet never hit a woman and that, I believe, is what Allah really wants. For too many Muslim men, however, it seems their nafs comes before this Sunna of the Prophet. Looking at how 4:34 is commonly understood today, I’d long since decided that what the verse really means is that marriage is not a possibility for me. To protect my own integrity (and perhaps my safety), I can’t and won’t put myself in that position.
Those were old thoughts, though. What pulled at my mind that quiet spring night was different. What does it mean that my religion, as traditionally constructed, sees me as innately disobedient, as led by my created nature to act in a way it has set as haram?
My mind still swirled as I finished my prayer and crawled into bed. A sleepless hour later, I sat down in front of my computer and typed out, I’m queer.
A modern word. A word with a long and sometimes painful history. At various times it’s been used as a slur against gay men and lesbians, especially the former; it’s been contrasted with “gay” as the more radical or political identity; and it’s been used in sometimes abstruse academic discourse to talk about subverting dominant paradigms.
Many LGBTQ people today use it to refer to anybody whose sexuality or gender is non-normative, or as an umbrella term for LGBTQ communities. It can be used as a non-label label (“I’m not straight but I don’t fit into any of the existing identity boxes”).
In some LGBTQ spaces there’s a debate about whether asexual people can or should use queer as a label. Is queerness associated with same-sex attraction? With experiencing certain types of prejudice or oppression? If queerness is defined narrowly so as to exclude asexual people, but we’re not straight, where do we fit?
No matter how many times I’d grappled with those questions, I’d never come to a definitive answer. Perhaps there is no way to answer in a Western context whether asexuality is queer. Perhaps the word’s meaning is too tied to a specific history.
But in an Islamic context? My sexual orientation cuts me off from how my community and the traditional authorities of my religion expect me to experience and express my sexuality. Within marriage, it would lead me to act in a way those authorities consider deviant. I've had to search for alternative interpretations and obscure texts to justify my choice to go away from marriage, to defend the validity of lifelong celibacy. I've kept silent for 15 years about why I've chosen this path, because explaining it means telling people my sexuality is not the way they believe Allah created everybody to be. That I'm not "normal".
I need a word to describe how excluded I feel by Muslim orthodoxy, to express the frustrating impossibilities of my life, the marginalization, the alienation, the silence. I need an alternative to the harshness of nushuz. Whether or not I’d ever face physical hitting, that word pummels me.
When the tradition makes no space for you, you have to create your own. Queer that night offered me a new way to think about myself, a new way to help others understand me. My emotions beat down by the refrain of recalcitrance, disobedience, and punishment, I found comfort in a word from a different tradition. Neither orthodox Islam nor Western LGBTQ discourse alone had given me answers. It was only when I wove them together, created a new meaning for myself out of my unique experiences, that I found the place I needed.
I’m queer, I wrote, and my heart found peace. An hour and a thousand-word blog essay later, I settled back into bed and immediately fell asleep.
Sometimes Allah answers the prayer of night in the most surprising of ways.