Ensaf Raheem: Finding Support for LGBTQ Muslims

Here, MALA shares an honest journey of an individual who’s name has been changed to protect her privacy. In her story, she recalls the multitude of challenges in being Muslim and a lesbian. She recounts struggling with her sexuality, which ultimately led to depression and anxiety, and her struggle to find a support system. The photo used in this story is by Women’s eNews. 


I’m a 22 year old girl from Burqa,Palestine who has lived in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) pretty much my entire life. So basically, a Muslim family living in a Muslim country. You can only imagine how it’s like. When I was in 8th grade my best friend told me she was bisexual. It was strange to me because I have never met someone who was not straight. I remember I got home from school one day and my mother wanted to talk. Naturally, I got scared for no reason. She told me that the school called her and told her that I have been hanging out with a lesbian (you know because they think there’s only straight, gay if you’re a boy, or a lesbian if you’re a girl). Anyway, my mother asked me if it was true,  and I told her it doesn’t matter if it is, she’s my friend – and that’s all it is. Keep in mind that I had a crush on a boy that time and didn’t know what my sexuality was.


So anyway, I guess I discovered that I wasn’t straight around only 5 years ago maybe. It was my first year in university. It was an all-girls university and it was a new experience for me because it was all girls who were UAE nationalists. They would look down upon me a certain way because I didn’t “look” like I was from here. It made me uncomfortable because I simply wanted to work for my education. But it mostly made me uncomfortable because I was used to having friends from different cultures and countries. Here’s the thing about this culture: people believe a girl is either feminine all the time or has a tomboy-ish style. A tomboy is called a “Boya”. Boy (male) + a to indicate that it is actually a female. Personally, I have my own style. I like being comfortable in university and I did not take extra time for myself to wear mascara at all. So I was labeled as a Boya. Keep in mind that I like wearing makeup and dresses sometimes. I just prefer being comfortable when it comes to education and that’s what I did in my university.
I’m making it sound like it was extremely bad, but it wasn’t. At first, I made sure I’d leave campus after every class or stay alone during my breaks if I couldn’t leave. That’s when I had so much time to get on Twitter. I met a mutual who happened to be in the same university. She basically forced me to hang out with her and her group and honestly, I’m thankful for what she did. She forced me out of my comfort zone. There was this other girl in this group and we clicked really quickly. It was awesome. One day, I was walking her to class when she held my hand and I was so shocked when she did that – I didn’t say anything except “see you tomorrow”. Later that day, or week, or even month, I discovered that I liked it. I liked her before and maybe even more after. I sound like a cheeseball but it happened and I liked it. Sue me. I wasn’t in love with her or anything but it felt like we both took the chance to touch each other or get close whenever we could. And she once was completely honest about wanting to make this other girl jealous, so she got extra touchy. And oh my god I knew that it wasn’t real, but I loved it so much and yes – we drifted apart after a year, but I will never forget how good her presence made me feel.
A year later I started talking to this guy who was extremely nice and sweet. He asked me to be his girlfriend but me being my anxious self, I panicked. I didn’t know how to tell him that I was not attracted to men only. I did not know if he would be okay with the idea as a whole. But deep down, I knew he wouldn’t be okay with it…so I broke it off after 2 hours. Yes, 2 hours.
After that I was so sure that I wasn’t straight and was immediately okay with it and what helped me not think negatively about it was, surprisingly, social media and all the stories and good things I’ve read about it that it was not a bad and unnatural thing. I still don’t know if I’m considered bisexual or pansexual. It just doesn’t matter to me what they are or what they identify as if I like someone. It was all good and I felt good knowing myself. However, this  was at the time where my depression and anxiety almost killed me. It was really bad. I couldn’t sleep normally. I couldn’t eat. Going to a psychiatrist wasn’t working for me. It was only making me think more and making it worse. I had no idea what caused it. I still don’t.
Around the time where all headlines were about Caitlyn Jenner, the topic go queerness was brought up at home more often than it should in a house. But what are people good at if it’s not gossiping about others? That’s exactly what my family did and I had no problem telling them my opinion about me being supportive of the LGBTQ+ community. Every time the topic was brought up, my mother would call them “my people” because I always argue and defend their rights, but little does she know that I am part of the community. I just hope I get the guts to tell her one day and hope that she opens up her mind in the future.
As for my depression and anxiety, my family was surprisingly supportive. I had to explain a few things, but it was all good. They understood what I meant when I said I wasn’t okay while not being physically ill. I make my family sound terrible but they’re really not. My mother is open-minded – to a certain limit. For example, I can talk to her about Islam and argue on things I might not agree with. We talk about science. She’s great and I absolutely love her. We have a good relationship. Especially after we left my father, we just all became closer somehow. She supports me in every way. I went to Art school. Can you imagine an Arab mother being okay with her daughter going to Art school? That’s how cool she is. But she is an Arab Muslim woman after all and that’s exactly why I cannot come out to her.
I recently came out to one of my sisters who is also my best friend. I knew that she would be okay with it because we’re just close like that. I know that she would be okay if I had done anything, even if it was terrible, I know that she would back me up.
It still surprises me when I meet someone and they tell me that they’re queer. I know it should not, but living in a country and in the middle of a community with a corrupted mentality, I just assume that everybody has what we call the “Arab” mentality. I know that a Muslim country will not change and my family would not change their mind. However, deep down, I still have a tiny bit of hope that maybe it will change someday.

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