Islam has been notoriously famous in foreign countries for its rigidity and people often associate Islam with orthodoxy. But, what most people don’t know is that every religion has such problems. These problems are fought against from time to time and human sensibilities sometimes prevail. The following two Muslim tales are about such human struggles and eventual victories.
Shamal Waraich, A gay Muslim from Manchester
Shamal Waraich is a British-Pakistani Muslim, who grew up in Manchester. He was diagnosed with HIV in 2013 and he now spends his time teaching people what it is like to be a Muslim who is gay and living with HIV.
In an interview with BBC, he said, “To this day, I have never come across someone like me and it’s incredibly lonely. Now I have got to the point in my life where I’m proud to say who I am: I’m British-Pakistani, Muslim, gay and living with HIV. I just want to say to someone, ‘You understand, right? How difficult it is as a Muslim and being HIV positive?'” He also talked about how hard it was for him to deal with the Muslim community and to also be gay. “I felt so much shame and guilt around it,” he said. “HIV is seen as a gay man’s disease. In the Asian community, there is this perception that this is a sinful thing. I internalised that homophobia, and thought, ‘I deserved that – this is probably my destiny, I’m going to die young and go to hell. ‘”
He also talked about the day he was diagnosed with HIV. He said, “I had gone in to get tested for something else. That’s when it came back that I had HIV and my world just fell apart. I don’t even remember what he said, I was scared to face the reality of it. I just wanted the ground to swallow me up.” Waraich also talked about how he hid himself away from the world. He said that he almost contemplated suicide. Waraich eventually pulled himself out of this dark phase and turned his life around. He now works as an outreach worker and works in sexual health education.
Miriam (whose name has been changed for anonymity) is a Muslim who is also a lesbian. Miriam’s tale is one that is filled to the brim with sadness. Yet, there is somehow enough space left for hope. This has more to do with Miriam’s outlook towards life and relationships than anything else. Miriam grew up in a very strict Muslim household.
In an interview with BBC, she talked about how she could never really express her sexuality. “I always knew I was attracted to the same gender – as young as four or five, when I kissed my best friend in the cloakroom, I knew then. But it wasn’t until I was in college that I first started exploring. We got the internet at home and there was a dial-up computer in my brother’s room – it had a lock on the door. I used to go on Yahoo chat, I remember sometimes I pretended I was a man, for the sake of speaking to women. Then from 18, 19, I [thought], ‘maybe I need to look for lesbian women’.”
Miriam talked about the freedom certain small relationships gave her and said, “I made sure that my girlfriends didn’t visibly mark me, so I didn’t come home with [love bites] on my neck. But while I was there, it was thrilling – I thought, ‘Oh my god, I’m doing this, I’m having a sexual experience with another woman, this is amazing’. At the time, the people I met didn’t question the fact it was long distance. One woman in particular I only saw every other month. I used to go up on the train, meet for a few hours, go to a pub, have some food. We were quite open, it felt massively liberating.”
A rift that broke her.
A major turning point in Miriam’s life was the day she decided to tell her parents about her sexuality. She knew that this would cause them pain. She talked about her mom’s reaction and said, “Her words were that she never thought any child of hers could bring her as much shame as I did. And since then it’s very much been about religion. She’d reply, ‘God made man and woman – if you look at any verse in the Koran it’s never husband and husband or wife and wife’. It resonated with me, because I realised how much she was in a bubble – for her to not even [know] about homosexuality. But her overarching love for her daughter fights with her culture. She worries about me because she believes the life I’m living is a sin. I can tell when I look at her face that she’s hurting.”
She and her mom still kept this a secret from her dad for more than a decade. Miriam recalled the day she finally decided to tell her dad. “He said: ‘You know Islam, you’ve gone to the mosque, you’ve read the Koran, you know it’s a sin, don’t you? As far as I’m concerned, I’m right, you’re wrong. What you’re doing is against Islam’.”
Miriam then revealed that her father had presented her with an ultimatum and had finally decided to disown her.
There is still hope.
Through all her strifes, Miriam has somehow still managed to retain hope and is happy. She talked about her current partner and revealed that they hope to marry in 2020. Miriam also revealed that she recently saw her dad at a family gathering. She said, “I used that opportunity to be normal with him. When he was about to leave for work I went up to him and gave him a big hug. He was rigid, but I stayed there for an extra 10 seconds to have that extra contact because I bloody miss him. I could either do what he said on that day [and leave], or I could keep testing the waters and that’s [what I’m going to do].”
Miriam meanwhile is highly focused on creating a safe space where Muslim LGBTQ+ people can meet without discrimination. She said, “I think Islam itself is a very closed off religion. If you look at some older members of the community, they are living in the 8th Century, not the 21st. But it is possible to be Muslim and gay. I genuinely believe that although I had a girlfriend earlier in life, I wasn’t out to myself. I feel not just stronger now after having those experiences, but more accepting of myself.”