Hijab Butch Blues: A Queer Muslim memoir that challenges binary ways of thinking
With a South-Asian background, upbringing in the Gulf and ultimate relocation to the United States, Lamya (a pseudonym) deeply self-reflects about identity in her memoir, Hijab Butch Blues, while anchoring the coming-of-age tale in stories from the Quran.
She reimagines Prophetic tales in contemporary, colloquial language, and interweaves lessons she extracts from the Quran with her daily life experiences.
"Time and again, Lamya challenges readers to reject longstanding, culturally-informed binary ways of thinking. She writes about the uniquely heart-breaking homophobia of Muslims, who are also a minority in the West"
Hijab Butch Blues book was released earlier this month with The Dial Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House, and while Lamya has written essays in the past, this project is her first-ever book. “I don’t have any formal training as a writer, my parents wouldn’t have even considered that as a career,” Lamya tells me over Zoom, her camera screen blank to protect her identity.
An image of Lamya does, however, appear on the US cover of her book, featuring the author dressed in a hoodie and hijab, photographed from the back, her profile ever so slightly visible.
“That is me,” Lamya confirms. “I really didn’t want the cover to be Orientalist, or have bad puns on the veil, or be Muslim trope-y, so we went back and forth a lot on something that would feel both hopeful and warm in terms of colours but also what feels butch,” she explains.
The UK edition depicts an abstract, colourful image of a person holding a rosary and covering her face, and was created by Brooklyn-based graphic designer Maya Sariahmed. “I love the depiction of this strong figure who is playing with what it means to be seen and not seen,” says Lamya.
Lamya explains why it was important for her to write her memoir anonymously: “I don’t want to be googleable. I value my privacy. The world is a difficult and violent place for queer people, and for Muslims,” she says.
The very concept of a Queer Muslim is considered to be an oxymoron by more conservative and puritanical Muslims, who believe rigidly that queerness and religiosity cannot overlap. “It’s completely outside the realm of their imagination that people can be both gay and Muslim,” writes Lamya in her book.
Lamya is a practising Muslim and writes about reading the entire Quran during Ramadan, going to the local Islamic Centre for Eid prayer and reciting the Ayatul Kursi when scared.
As a child living in the Arabian Gulf, she looked forward to the Quran class that other students would try tirelessly to avoid, writing that she is “both enraged and inspired at the same time by this living text, this breathing text.” Her relationship with the Quran is dynamic, transformative and intimate, often making her “shake with clarity and adrenaline” when reading and interpreting it.
Time and again, Lamya challenges readers to reject longstanding, culturally-informed binary ways of thinking. She writes about the uniquely heart-breaking homophobia of Muslims, who are also a minority in the West.
She ultimately finds a community of like-minded Muslim Americans when she attends a “coming out Muslim play”, a gathering that she writes “feels like a window into Jannah”.
Lamya starts Quran study readings with a Queer Muslim group and discovers that Muslims can pray side-by-side instead of the traditional male in front of the female hierarchy. She “nerds out” about a new tafsir of the Quran, and becomes closer to her friend Manal as the two read, interpret and discuss the surahs together.
"The very concept of a Queer Muslim is considered to be an oxymoron by more conservative and puritanical Muslims, who believe rigidly that queerness and religiosity cannot overlap"
The story is not strictly chronological – each chapter is themed around a prolific Islamic figure, aside from the chapters about Allah and Jinn. “I’ve always thought of these characters and figures in the Quran as deeply human and messy, and this definitely made me way more empathetic towards them,” says Lamya, who began writing the book with an essay about Hajar, the wife of Prophet Abraham. “All these other essays had been here all along, it felt like I couldn’t stop writing them, because for so long I had been thinking about both my life and the lives of these Prophets and complicated figures – so it felt like a lot of those essays just wrote themselves.”
While Lamya refers to the chapters of the book as essays, the chapters flow seamlessly together and are laden with thoughtful metaphors – sometimes, quite abstract.
At one point, Lamya contemplates the whale that swallowed Prophet Yunus and offers the interpretation that, rather than a punishment, it may have been a means of protection – “a brief respite, a shelter, a resting place. Protection, for the time being.” She then describes how her pseudonym serves a similar purpose: “A whale that allows me to keep fighting, to fight with my writing.”
— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) March 27, 2020
Lamya says that she started writing the essays that would form her book in her late 20s: “I was angry about things, and a friend had suggested that if I don’t write things down then the anger just dissipates.”
Anger is an emotion underlying much of her work and inspired her social media moniker: @lamyaisangry. “Anger is this emotion that a lot of people are scared about,” Lamya tells me, citing a Prophetic hadith which recommends that if one is angry while standing, they should sit down, and if they’re sitting down, they should lie down.
“But to me, anger has been just always really generative and it’s been sort of a driving force towards justice. I think the way that I used to fight in my youth just felt very unproductive and un-generative. I still feel angry and I still use that as something that motivates me, but I’ve had to learn how to channel that in ways that feel better.”
Hijab Butch Blues is not your typical coming-out tale that climaxes in a grand revelation to family members. “What would my telling them I’m queer achieve?” asks Lamya in one chapter. When we speak, she brings up people's fixation on revealing queerness to parents. “There are so many things that straight people don’t tell their parents growing up, there’s an entire part of so many peoples’ lives that their parents just don’t know about – and so it feels really strange to be obsessed with this idea of having to tell them everything,” she explains.
As for those to whom she has opened up, Lamya has reframed it as “inviting in” rather than “coming out”, and she believes that being vulnerable can help others become more understanding and accepting.
There are people who will call this book blasphemous, and who will be incredulous as to how a Queer Muslim woman can compare her struggles to those of the Prophets. But there will also be those readers whose minds will be opened, their perspectives broadened, and their binary ways of thinking dismantled as they engage in critical thinking beyond the parameters of whatever version of faith they may have been indoctrinated with.
Such was the case with some of Lamya’s own friends, like one who she calls Rashid. When she finally reveals her truth to him, he responds: “Listen. I’m prone to saying ignorant things about queerness sometimes. Please don’t let it slide. Please tell me if I ever do that. Please hold me accountable."
Hafsa Lodi is an American-Muslim journalist who has been covering fashion and culture in the Middle East for more than a decade. Her work has appeared in The Independent, Refinery29, Business Insider, Teen Vogue, Vogue Arabia, The National, Luxury, Mojeh, Grazia Middle East, GQ Middle East, gal-dem and more. Hafsa’s debut non-fiction book Modesty: A Fashion Paradox, was launched at the 2020 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.
Follow her on Twitter: @HafsaLodi