Lamya H, Hijab Butch Blues
Hijab Butch Blues appeared on my radar thanks to the great Roxane Gay and her Audacious Book Club. It’s the autobiography of Lamya H., a queer Muslim immigrant existing in a world that is quick to deny the humanity of each of those identities. For a person writing their life’s story, the author maintains an extraordinary degree of anonymity.
The memoir begins in the author’s childhood where, in search of work, Lamya’s father moves the family from their Urdu-speaking homeland to a wealthy, Arabic country, both of which remain unnamed. The move allows Lamya’s father to better provide for the family, but it also separates them from their roots, including extended family members and community. Lamya feels this isolation acutely. The country is so hot that they largely stay inside through the day, and even if they wanted to go somewhere they are limited by the fact that Lamya’s mother isn’t allowed to drive in this country. At school, Lamya and their brother are ostracized for not being native to the country, for looking and sounding different from the other children, and for speaking Urdu. Overall, it is not a happy childhood.
At 17, Lamya moves to the U.S. to attend college, a place where they have the opportunity to explore their queerness, their faith, and their feminism. And yet, they encounter the same oppressive forces as in the Arab country they moved from. On arrival to the States, Lamya’s uncle (their only family and contact in this new environment) advised them to make photocopies of all their ID, and to keep the copies with them at all times. Puzzled, Lamya dutifully obliges, only to discover the wisdom of the advice when, within days of beginning school, they are routinely stopped and asked to produce identification. Turns out, their “brown hijabi Muslim body” is a threat to all forms of campus and community security. Only as they begin to integrate into the academic community does Lamya begin to recognize that none of their white classmates are ever stopped and asked to show ID.
One of the gifts that Lamya offers in this memoir is a reinterpretation of many religious stories through a queer and feminist lens. Beginning with a very basic questioning of God’s gender (“My God,” they write, “transcends gender”) Lamya shares and analyzes the stories of prophets as they mirror or inform their own experiences. Despite the connection between Christianity and Islam (and Judaism) I’ve never encountered anything but the Biblical versions of these tales, and was intrigued to learn about the Muslim variations: Maryam is the Virgin Mary, Hajar is Hagar, Nuh is Noah, Yunus is Jonas, and so on. Recognizing these tales from my many childhood Sundays in church was strangely and deeply comforting. Lamya is a practicing Muslim who is committed to maintaining their faith, despite its lack of space for women and for queerness. Lamya creates their own space within these stories and beliefs. It’s an extremely liberating presentation of religion.
Lamya also finds themself to be an outsider in the world of queerness, when their own experience doesn’t follow a western narrative or pattern. The essential queer experience of “coming out” to family, for example, is one Lamya chooses not to participate in. First, because their culture does not acknowledge or accept sexual or gender nonconformity. There’s also the geographical distance between Lamya and their parents, which inhibits any kind of ongoing conversation or opportunity for support and acceptance. With difficulty, Lamya ultimately accepts that their queer journey is simply not going to look like the one taken by their American friends.
As a grad student living in New York City, Lamya is finally able to find supportive communities. They discover an LGBTQ+ Muslim faith group which does not segregate participants according to gender when praying. (This is frickin’ huge for me, and, I assume, Lamya too). They create a Quran study group specifically to discuss the more difficult to reconcile verses. At the same time, Lamya begins to reckon with their queerness, finally addressing a tendency to fall for straight girls who can never reciprocate their interest. With the help of friends, Lamya recognizes this behaviour as self-sabotaging, a way to avoid seeking genuine intimacy with a woman.
You all know how much I love a memoir, and this is one I can wholeheartedly recommend. Lamya’s multiple struggles are so thoughtfully presented and analyzed it’s impossible not to be fully engaged in the story. Also, what a treat to get a feminist and queer retelling of religious stories! Lamya reminds us that the status quo is powerful, but not indestructible, and that challenging it is possible when you find your people.