I know that my father is Muslim. There is not much confusion there, especially once you know his name. My mother is not Muslim, but that is insignificant, thanks to patriarchy. I am supposed to be Muslim, well… because my father is! Apparently, that is the norm.
All of this was very funny growing up, mainly because of the presumptions that I had to endure as a child. For starters, no one ever asked me if I identified as Muslim (people still don’t). My father’s and my name have always been enough for everyone to arrive at their own conclusions about my religious identity. However, it was never as apparent to me, primarily because my parents never raised me to be religious. I was never sent to religious schools or compelled to follow any rituals. In fact, I was encouraged to mingle with children of all faiths. More often than not, I would be welcomed to Hindu festivities in the neighbourhood, where I would actively observe, learn, and be fascinated by them. It was my parents’ way of raising a child with liberal values.
However, such practices would usually end up confusing me as a child. While I was submerged in pluralistic values, I was denying myself a religious identity, which was progressively developing in my peers based on their religious upbringing. In fact, to be honest, not identifying as Muslim was not really a bad thing, until I realised that I had nothing else to identify with. The only saving grace was the privilege that cocooned me. By privilege, I am referring to an economically upper-middle class upbringing, and in times when society (or at least the one I moved in) was not prejudging someone openly based on their religious identity. My parents came from very conservative backgrounds, but their choice of raising me without religion (and all this during the 1990s) reflects certain progressive values that come with a sense of economic and social privilege. Structured society has its fears and biases, however, I was relatively free to be a liberal Muslim, and that came from privilege. Sheltered in this privilege, it was easy enough for me to live a life devoid of a religious identity.
In fact, in a recent interview, I joked about how, in these privileged circles, people were more fascinated with me being gay, because they considered it – hold your thoughts – fancy.
Humans have an inherent tendency to flock together. Years of evolution have made us realise that strength lies in groups, and hence humans have packed themselves under labels of all kinds – tribes, ethnicities, nationalities, etcetera. We seek to identify ourselves with respect to others. And this relationship works both ways. Based on how we perceive our own identities, we seek to form associations. Again, our associations shape our identities as well. It is a complex cycle, something that I had failed to perceive in the turmoil of my teenage years.
Call it plain ignorance, or it could have just been the shelter of privilege, but I was growing up denying myself a religious identity. I sought refuge in my queer identity thinking that it would be enough, but as I walked deeper into queer circles, I realised once again that there is no single gay identity. Yes, we all marched with pride under one rainbow banner, but again we were so divided along lines of caste, class, and gender (or the lack of it). And this would irritate me to no limit. When I tried to climb out of the boxes that kept us separated, I found myself being held back by the lines that were dividing us. It took me very long to understand that I could not escape the structures of modern civilisation. It took me a while to understand that differences are not bad, and it is through this diversity that we become stronger. As much as some of us try to carve ourselves into a monolithic form, we have to realise that we are never just one person. Our lives are a function of numerous intersections that start working right from the time we are born. As much as we may seek to avoid it, we are creatures structured by norms of class, caste, sexuality, gender, culture and a plethora of ethno-sociological forces that affect us without our even realising it. We are all a product of intersections, whether we like it or not.
It is funny how intersections work.
While I may have made a conscious effort to break away from a religious identity, some things cannot be just rubbed away like a pencil mark. To begin with, there was always Islamophobia. People did not like me just because I was Muslim. Across school, university and in my workplace, I would feel people mincing their words around me. 9/11 and the subsequent rise of Al Qaeda was affecting the way society perceived Muslims. It is funny how I encountered Islamophobia long before I witnessed homophobia.
By the time I was done with university and was pretty much out of the closet, I would often be hailed as a mascot for social inclusion in my social circle, as long as I refrained from identifying as Muslim. People were careful enough to not appear like bigots. Most would prefer that I avoid bringing up religion. It was – how should I put it – just plain inconvenient for them. There would be resounding acceptance for other intersections. When lesbians complained that the queer movement is largely male dominated, people nodded their heads. Transgender people had their issues with cis-gendered folks, and people nodded. Then, at one such event I heard a fellow Muslim gay man raise the issue of religion and I heard the silence that followed. It was deafening.
In a country like India, where the social fabric is wrought with fissure, religion was, and continues to remain, the ultimate dividing line. Let me emphasise here that not for once, did I feel that the queer movement in India was shaped on lines of any particular religion. My complaint is not rooted in any particular religious community dominating the movement. I am speaking out today because I feel that there is one topic that is still taboo: the topic of religion in the queer community is like the Pandora’s box that people are scared to touch. But it is about time that someone realises how significant that is. A recent article on Firstpost explored the complexities of being Muslim and queer in India. The two identities often clash head on, making it literally impossible for an individual to coexist with both of them. Islam is the only religion that has institutionalised homophobia. While bigger cities still provide us with safe spaces, many queer Muslims continue to struggle for acceptance. In most conservative Muslim families, youngsters find it very difficult to date a person of another gender, let alone engage in a homosexual relationship.
While I shunned a religious identity, I still had to face the stigma associated with one. There would be seemingly innocent questions that weren’t that simple after all – like, how do I even manage to live being a Muslim gay boy?
I don’t know. Perhaps the same way that you live with your Hindu identity – a religion that celebrates gender and sexuality in theory while condemning them in practice.
Some would be curious to know if I wanted to change my religion. Sometimes, they would be rather silly, asking if I could be stoned for my sins, as per the sharia.
It is not kinky, man!
And then, there was the problem of the foreskin…
While I have learnt to laugh it off now, it was not at all funny in the first place. Sex would often involve an awkward conversation around the subject. While many (read all) of my dates would often be confused, faced with a circumcised penis, some would venture a comment or a joke.
I think the contemporary slang to describe a person like me is Katwa! You know, because I have a cut dick!
And I have to be honest – the foreskin thingy – it worked both ways. Having never had the experience of having a foreskin, I didn’t really know what to do when I happened to meet one! I know it sounds funny, but it goes to show, in the crudest way, how religious identity intertwines with our everyday lives. Even while running away from Islam, I could not really run away from the (absence of) foreskin!
My entire life has been a struggle of confused identities. I stood at the intersection of gay, Muslim and economic privilege. Living with them involved me navigating a maze of prejudices and presumptions. While I am trying to come to terms with it now, it was never easy, and it will not be.
Meanwhile, I will continue to deal with all the caveats that come with being gay and Muslim. I am after all expected to be fair skinned, sharp featured, and circumcised!
Sighs, such dreams!