I'm a trans non-binary Pakistani Muslim woman – who says it all can't co-exist?
The stage before me was dripping in gold, silk, and flowers.
Traditional desi patterns surrounded me, and the glowing tinge of purple, twinkling lights shone, while words in Urdu, Arabic, Hindi and English fell on my ears.
It was last December and I was in the MEHFIL – a London-based arts organisation that spotlights South Asian artists, from poets and musicians to singers, authors, amateurs and professionals. I’d been invited as a poet, and I was buzzing.
I went up on stage and I poured my heart, soul and breath into my poems.
‘I am a weapon,’ I read. ‘Or so I have been told. The soft subtlety of my brown skin. The fine hair shivering on the surface of my planet. The jingle jangle of my gold finery. I am a weapon. Or so I have been told.’
I heard the affirmative clicks, laughs and cheers from the audience. I could also see their watchful brown eyes, while glints of earrings and nose studs fed me as the energy reverberated from the crowd.
I was spinning tales of what Islam means to me, with my queer, hairy, brown, trans woman body, all while talking about my sciencey, nature-nut mind – and they loved me. Not despite it, but because of it.
I felt content, empowered and alive, but – most of all – safe. I was surrounded by brown skin, black hair-adorned faces, all rich with smiles and tales of their communities, struggles and lives. And I was one of them.
I grew up with a very different Islam – Sunni (one of the sects of Islam), strictly religious, but with a flavouring of ‘liberal-thinking’ is how I’d describe it.
As an AMAB (assigned male at birth) person, I had rules ingrained into me – grow a beard, expect to marry, pray in the mosque five times a day and learn the Quran.
The toxic masculinity I saw and heteronormative roles in the community – loud angry men, submissive quiet women, husbands as breadwinners, and wives as carers, mothers as emotional punching bags – stunted my visions of a life. I’m not saying it was all bad, but my identity was severely limited.
I had no idea that the words ‘gay’ or ‘queer’ even existed until I was around 15.
So coming out as gay at the age of 18 was the first hurdle because it distanced me from the toxic structures of my heteronormative youth. But that’s all it did, and I fell into other stereotypes of societal gay-ness, like dressing like white gay men, adopting their mannerisms, and the ‘campness’ of identities I’d seen represented in mainstream media.
I soon sought to rid myself of this altogether, coming out as non-binary at 19.
Being non-binary felt like I could shed the heavy, ill-fitting armour made from the myriad of stereotypes I’d grown up with. It felt like a space for me to distance myself from gender norms, cultural bias and societal pressure and judgement – for just a second to catch my breath – so I could begin to stand up again.
This developed to encompass my trans womanhood about a year or two later, allowing me to keep from being hidden in the folds of stereotypical femininity.
The friends I had around me – my chosen family – provided much-needed and incredibly valuable support and validation, allowing me to reach tentatively towards some sort of stability in the confusion I had around myself.
However, the community (in Portsmouth at this time) was largely white and could not understand the pain I had of possibly losing family or community back home in London and my entire previous reason for being alive (my religion and service to God), simply because I expressed and identified differently than the norm.
My biological family, although caring, would not hear about any of my journeys until much later, and I kept my life hidden from them for years as I tried to live with the shame and fear built up around queerness and self-reflection in the way I was exploring myself.
These thoughts put a hand to my mouth every time I even thought of speaking to my family about it.
These coming outs led to the realisation that I am not fighting to change from one thing to another, but to break the perception of binaries and bias. We should view identity, society, and sexuality with a flexible mindset that allows people to question, express and grow authentically via their own self-autonomy.
So why am I Muslim? Honestly, for part of my life, I wasn’t. I hated ‘religion’. All organised groups centring god-like entities could – ironically – go to hell.
But as I understood myself more and realised that I could not exist without my past, I put out feelers for an Islam that made more sense to me. I discovered that it had never really left, just been shoved into the attic, hidden in a box of dusty decorations and wrapping paper.
Stranger still, it was realising my transness that set me on a path back to any sort of religious identity.
What I love about Islam is always changing.
Just as we have differing and ever-changing favourite foods, animals, objects or even moments in our lives, so the parts of this cultural, spiritual thread I hold onto morphs every day. For the moment, the feeling of connection to something so beautiful and timeless – that I can have to myself and yet still belong to a larger collective – is what I most embrace.
I wanted flexibility, but also reclamation. An intersectional understanding was necessary for that so I needed to delve into what made me truly myself to pull back the covers of who I wanted to be.
My Islamic upbringing was interwoven so closely to my cultural roots – the Pakistani food, the Arab perfumes, the languages of Arabic and Urdu, the dressage and the decentralising of Eurocentric standards of beauty, ideology, and western political agendas.
I went back to religion because it felt comforting and familiar to me. My lack of conformity makes it hard for me to access these communities, but it isn’t because I’m made wrong, it’s because the world I was thrust into was made for singular identities – and that’s wrong.
Now I embrace that diversity.
My non-binary identity, my trans-womanhood, my Muslim upbringing, my Pakistani Indian heritage, my passion for science and artistry. These all live alongside each other, and they help to uncover faults in the others.
If I could offer any advice to that exhausted, unhappy, lonely little brown kid thinking they had to be a boy, it would be that you already have all the stuff you need inside you.
The magic and colour of the ecosystem that exists within you, the many identities that don’t match up and that people keep telling you to mute in favour of just one, that’s your toolbox. You have more tools than anyone else because you encompass so many worlds.
It is through this encompassing that you will be able to reach and understand places some will not. You’re an explorer. A traveller. A monster – but the rare, exciting kind – not the horrible, misunderstood creature they all said you were.
To the people like me: the outcasted, non-conforming, not-white, religiously connected – even if you don’t strictly believe it all – flexible, trans, women (I love that term and you can’t take it away from me), or anyone else who dribbles and leaks across so much diaspora.
You’re so much, and that’s not only fine, it means you have a right to not belong to any of the groups you overlap with or come from. You understand and see the world in colours and filters no other person can.
You are an intersectional masterpiece of art, and the artist is you.
Pride and Joy
Pride and Joy is a weekly series spotlighting the first-person positive, affirming and joyful stories of transgender, non-binary, gender fluid and gender non-conforming people. Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing [email protected]
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