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'Hijab Butch Blues' challenges stereotypes and upholds activist self-care

The Dial Press

Binaries be damned: What if God is genderless? What if God is trans?

In the new memoir Hijab Butch Blues, Lamya H takes what Leslie Feinberg started in 1993 with Stone Butch Blues — a complex depiction of gender and labor politics in 1970s-era America — and makes it true and holy. To Lamya, God isn't a man or a woman. "My God," they write, "transcends gender."

Lamya, a bored 14-year-old "nerd" who "never skips Quran class," wants to die. At the age of four, her parents had dragged her from her unknown, Urdu-speaking country of origin to live in a "rich Arab country," "in a "large metropolitan city" located "away from everything and everyone we knew." She's stuck in a system of "unspoken racial hierarchies." She becomes fascinated by her female economics teacher: "A hyperawareness of her coordinates at all times, like there's a long invisible string connecting us." She realizes she's gay — though she doesn't have the language for it yet.

The author's new identity seems to conflict with their faith, until deeper reads of stories from the Quran educate them and readers on Islam in an avant-garde way. Their curiosity keeps them alive. At 17, Lamya earns a scholarship and moves to the U.S. to pursue their education at an unnamed "prestigious college." A few years later, though, when they apply for a special visa extension, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services mistakenly sends their official mail to an old address. Lamya receives it too late, and they have to make a life altering decision: leave the country or fight for the new life they're building for themself.

Hijab Butch Blues is organized in three parts. The first one is all about Lamya's childhood and gender questioning. When Lamya tells her mother she'll never marry a man, her mother responds: "How will you live...? Who will take care of you?" Lamya's not sure. Readers get the CliffsNotes on Maryam, the East's "Virgin Mary," and Lamya sees the story with fresh eyes: "Did Maryam say that no man has touched her because she didn't like men?" Her teacher says no, but Lamya resists: "Isn't it obvious? Doesn't it make sense?... Maryam is a dyke."

In the second part, Lamya challenges the "authentically gay experience," e.g. coming out to your parents, frequenting lesbian bars, and explicitly defining your sexuality to others in order to be "legible." These goal posts aren't necessary, Lamya argues: Coming out to their parents "doesn't make sense." They "live across an ocean in a country where queerness... isn't an identity..." According to Lamya, all you need to be gay are your own "gay enough" activities. For them, that's "dosas every Thursday evening; watching the soccer world cup and picking which teams to cheer on based on anti-imperialism..."

They show readers how harrowing it is to navigate life in the U.S. in their "brown hijabi Muslim body," which is "seen as scary, disempowered, both hypervisible and invisible at the same time." Lamya learns to carry photocopies of their papers at all times. When their time in graduate school is nearing an end, 11 years have passed since they first arrived in the U.S. They've renewed their student visa four times: "Four times filling out extensive paperwork, four airplane trips to the one U.S. consulate in the country where my parents live... Four times being asked questions designed to trip me up: Can you tell me your parents' birthdays again? Have you ever been rejected for a visa before? You're not one of the ones we have to worry about, ha-ha-ha, right?" Lamya's life in the U.S. could end in a flash due to one bureaucratic blip.

The third and final part of the book is all about Lamya's internalized homophobia and their coming out. "Dating queer women will make my gayness real in ways it isn't when I'm crushing on straight girls," they realize. Several bad dates later, Lamya finds someone they want to keep seeing. At the same time, they buckle down on their faith and start a study group, finding new meaning in some of the Quran's "hardest verses to reconcile": the ones which, according to typical interpretations, condone "intimate partner violence" and unjust inheritance laws for men versus women, and condemn homosexuality: "What if Allah wants us to extrapolate gender inequality to class inequality," Lamya wonders, "... wants us to redistribute wealth?"

Hijab Butch Blues is more than a must-read. It's also a study guide on Islam, a handbook for abolitionists, and a queer manifesto. It inspires critical thinking, upholds activist self-care, and permits the defining of one's own queerness. Good vs. bad Muslim, straight vs. gay: That's all a trap. There are third options, too. By the end of it, readers will see queerness — theirs, others', and the concept --"for what it is: a miracle."

Ashlee Green (she/they) is a writer and editor living in Washington, D.C. Green is former managing editor of The Northside Chronicle; their work exploring gender and sexuality, power structures, personal freedom, and mental health has been published in HuffPost and The Rumpus. Find them on Twitter at @ashleegreenbean

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Ashlee Green
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