Because I Wear Hijab People Don’t Expect Me To Be Queer

'I’ve been called a non-believer, and told that I’m trying to change what Islam is about'

Hafsa Qureshi is one of Stonewall's LGBTQ+ heroes

by As told to Isabella Demilio |

This week a BBC Panorama documentary reignited the debate into the protests in Birmingham about the introduction of LGBTQ+ education in primary schools, which began at Parkfield Community School, where most pupils are Muslim. But amidst criticism that the Department of Education was too slow to support teachers, and the news that fresh protests are planned nationwide in September, Hafsa Quershi writes about the unique complications that come with being a queer Muslim woman...

'People often seem to expect someone who is LGBTQ+ to look a certain way. So as a Muslim LGBTQ+ woman who wears a hijab – I can come as a shock.

'People don’t really know how to deal with me. Because I wear a hijab they don’t expect me to be queer.

'I want to challenge people’s perceptions and help them understand what it means to be queer and from the Asian community, and what that’s like for someone from my background.

'I’m not trying to make a statement about Islam; I’m just living my own life in the way I choose to live. There are so many nuances to being a queer person of colour that don’t always fit the mainstream narrative. Some of us can’t come out or talk about our experiences, or we stay partially in the closet because we want to maintain some kind of relationship with our families. That can be difficult to explain to people who are in the mainstream LGBT+ community: in their minds you should come out as a matter of principle whereas in reality it’s not that easy.

'I came out aged 10 or 11 as a lesbian but these days I identify as bisexual. My family dismissed it at first. I don’t think they took me seriously because I was so young, and because I didn’t talk about it very much. After I was awarded a Stonewall award it felt like it was more official, which was a shock to them, they thought it was just a phase. They were scared it would make me a target.

'Since I’ve become more vocal about my sexuality it has upset people; they don’t understand how I can consider myself modest and wear a hijab. In my community the perception is that you cannot be queer and a Muslim.

'Being involved with Stonewall as LGBTQ+ bi-sexual role model of the year, has given me the opportunity to represent bisexuality in a new way; that didn’t exist when I was growing up. I campaign full time now, raising awareness and being active in the community.

'Sometimes it’s especially hard to be an LGBTQ+ Muslim. The protests in Birmingham schools against LGBT+ education have left me really torn. Initially, I felt bad for the parents because although I didn’t agree with their sentiments, I felt like their views were coming from ignorance and they were misinformed; a lot of them just don’t know what the LGBTQ+ community is about. Now that it’s spread to other schools I’m less forgiving, because people will think that the Muslim community is very homophobic when actually it’s just a small group of people making a lot of noise. It’s unfortunate because it doesn’t represent the wider Muslim community of Birmingham.

'In the past I’ve been called a non-believer, and told that I’m trying to change what Islam is about, but not everyone in the community thinks that way. People have also said that it’s important for young people to feel safe and that we should be able to talk about these issues within our community; there has been some positivity too. I get messages from kids telling me that they were in a very dark place but feel a lot safer now because of the work that I do. That’s the reason that I’m still campaigning. I hope that my work will allow more people to come forward and represent their communities too.

'Day to day I’m more afraid being a Muslim out and about than I am being a queer person. I feel like I’m more likely to be attacked because of my hijab than because of my sexuality, especially as I am straight passing.

'The current government hasn’t been very supportive of Muslims or LGBT+ people, so I decided to wear my full niqab to a recent Downing Street event. I wanted to make a statement because some of the Conservative Party have been very vocal about their distaste for Muslims.

'In the past I haven’t felt represented by mainstream Pride because people of colour don’t get enough space in queer and LGBTQ+ events. I’ve been to events and barely seen anyone of colour, let alone someone who is wearing a hijab like me. That’s why UK black Pride is needed, because queer black voices need to be elevated; they are the reason we’re here.

'As a person of colour I definitely feel more accepted in LGBTQ+ spaces for PoC, because I know everyone around me has previously experienced the same thing in mainstream LGBTQ+ spaces; feeling like you shouldn’t be there. For a lot of people, just seeing someone who looks like them, makes them feel like they’re able to come forward and say ‘I’m queer too!’.

'It’s getting easier every year for the next generation. As a LGBTQ+ Muslim woman, I am determined to make sure that that keeps happening.'

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