TW/CW: Mentions of Islamophobia as part of the memoir’s narrative.
Ahh, the memoir.
This genre fills a longing within the deepest facets of my being. And I find myself reaching for it time and time again. Memoirs are pleasant reminders that despite our differences, we are woven together by universal feelings. To experience joy and grief, anger and shock, is human. When we read the stories of others — triumphs and traumas— we feel less alone in an existence that can, at times, feel utterly solitary.
A memoir I recently read was equal parts poignant and hopeful. I’d come across it on a list of recommended pride month reads, and I know it’s a book I’ll be returning to in the future. It’s unique in that explores queerness and Islam, two identities that don’t exactly bring to mind images of harmonious existence.
We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir is a vivid, humorous, and introspective account of a Pakistani woman’s journey to embracing their truth.
As a child growing up in Pakistan, Samra Habib is led to believe that fear is the norm — fear of being Muslim, fear of being a woman, fear of leaving the only life they know.
Their family are Ahmadi Muslims, a minority sect that the dominant Islamic extremists believe must be wiped out. Acts of violence are common, and Samra worries that their parents will be the next victims. As tensions rise, the possibility of leaving the country altogether materializes.
At age ten, Samra’s family seeks asylum in Canada. Their new country is far from the safe haven they imagine, though, as their old fears give way to new ones. The possibility of becoming impoverished looms on the horizon for Samra’s family. Samra is also bullied by classmates and is forced into an arranged marriage before the age of eighteen. They feel trapped in a life that doesn’t belong to them. More than anything, Samra desires to embrace their feminism and live a life without limits. But the men in their life condemn their behaviors and the women in their life uphold a message of submission.
“I was destined for a life of servitude, just like Nasir’s mother, my mother, and my mother’s mother, who all muted their ambitions and defining traits to be pious sisters, getting lost in a sea of burka-clad wives.”
Through a series of trials, Samra embarks upon an inner and outer quest. Once they enter university, new doors are opened and what once seemed out of reach becomes fathomable. They seek to detach themselves from the imposed roles of their culture and instead discover their own way of moving about the world. Samra makes friends in the queer community, who brings to light a side of them that had been previously repressed. And so they begin to lean into their queer identity.
Throughout their 20s and 30s, Samra travels to many countries, breaking free from the physical and emotional confines that they had been subjected to for so long. They embark upon a photography project, in which they go around the globe photographing queer Muslims. They hope to capture the nuances of these individuals’ experiences, as well as elevate their presence in a world that only hopes to quell their mere existence. Samra amplifies their voices and gives them a space in which they can feel understood, something Samra had wanted their whole life. Ultimately, Samra rediscovers their Islamic faith and develops a forgiveness towards their past.
What I found beautiful about this book was that Islam was redefined for Samra. They found that by being queer, they need not forego their Muslim faith. Islam had played a pivotal role in Samra’s upbringing, and turning away from it had left a void in their life. By finding an inclusive space in which to worship, Samra finds that Islam brings people together, rather than tear them apart.
“Relearning how to pray, focusing on the words and the prayer steps — such as kneeling in front of God in sajdah — taught me that completely surrendering yourself to something you love is a gift. In fact, it’s in the getting lost that you find yourself.”
It was also compelling to read of Samra’s travels, and how they began to explore their sexuality. To go from a place in which their security and sense of self were under constant jeopardy, to being free and flowing in the world, was a major turning point.
I think many can relate to the themes touched upon in this memoir — feminism, identity, forgiveness, and purpose. A quest for redefining oneself in one’s culture, society, or world that embraces defunct norms can feel like an uphill battle. But through the support and validation of a community, it becomes less daunting to embrace unknowns and tread new paths. And it is only when we share our stories do we begin to heal and enter a place of greater openness to a life we could have never imagined. By sharing their deepest wounds with us, Samra brings us into their world and allows us to feel an understanding of their struggles.
In an interview, Samra said they wrote the book as a love letter to their younger self. They wanted to be the voice for other queer Muslims who didn’t feel they could embrace that side of themselves. I thought this was touching because I could only imagine how relieving it must have been for thousands of others to feel seen through Samra’s words and work. It’s raw and emotive memoirs like these that give me hope for a better future — one that is inclusive and allows for freedom of expression.
“Maybe home was simply any place where you felt seen, and welcome.”
I walked away from this memoir with a redefined idea of what queerness means from one person to the next. It encompasses a variety of realities. And it’s not always antithetical to one’s faith or culture. Memoirs like these help me to break free from preconceived notions and vicariously live others’ lives. Ultimately, by hearing others speak their truth, it becomes easier to embrace our own.
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