On being visibly Muslim and invisibly asexual (with apologies to Queenie)

What does an asexual look like? The easy answer is that an asexual can look like anything, since any type of person may be asexual. Yet the images that mainstream Western society imputes to members of certain groups may tend to negate or erase asexuality as a possible identity. Trudy at Gradient Lair and Fiish have both explored how this works for Black asexual women, while Queenie has discussed her experiences as a mixed-race ace of Latina heritage and I highly recommend all of their posts*. I am going to explore a perhaps narrower issue, what images do people tend to have of Muslim women who wear the hijab (headscarf and modest dress), speaking from my position as a white (European American) convert who is often taken as Arab or ambiguously “not quite white” while wearing hijab, and how does this relate to my asexuality?

Very often, people associate Islam with terrorism and violence and will confront Muslims, or those they read as Muslims, with slurs or attacks related to these beliefs. In my post about queer Muslims and Pride parades, I list some examples of this. Yet, Islamophobia is very gendered and features specific beliefs about Muslim women, especially those who wear hijab. We are often seen as lacking agency or even lacking intelligence, that we have been “forced” to wear hijab by a man (usually a father or husband) or by a culture. In some cases, this leads to a belief on the part of Westerners that we need to be rescued.

In an earlier post on being an ace hijabi, I noted that people tend not to have a stereotype of hijab-wearing women as asexual, but instead I’m often assumed to have a husband, who made me wear hijab (or even made me convert to Islam). Implicit in this is an assumption of uniform heterosexuality. Similarly, in the comments on my Pride post, Ace in Translation brought up an idea that some people taking part in Pride parades may have, that asexuality is a cover for internalized homophobia. They asked me if I thought this applied to asexual Muslims as well.

The anwser is no. Whatever assumptions that people may have about “religious asexuals”, these tend to assume Christianity and are almost always overridden by the specific images that person has about Islam. I said I would expect to be accused that Muslims oppress women and LGBTQ individuals rather than being assumed to be non-heterosexual myself and using religion as a way of dealing with it. That’s what queer Muslims tend to face.

Even when people don’t have Islamophobic or other negative views about Muslims, and my hijab is read purely as a sign of religiosity, I feel that people tend to assume heterosexuality still. I may be read as celibate because of my religiosity, but as celibate straight not celibate queer. Maybe it’s because they think I look like a nun?!

I was thinking about this recently in the discussion of Pap tests. I wondered if my doctor was more likely to believe I am genuinely not sexually active because my dress is so overtly religious that he assumes my celibacy must be religiously-inspired as well (it’s not; I was already celibate because of my asexuality for years before I converted to Islam). Likewise, I think that my colleagues at work and other casual friends tend to read my lack of dating and failure to talk about sex or who is attractive as a religiously-inspired abstinence or celibacy rather than as evidence of a non-straight sexuality.

This made me reflect on Queenie’s recent post on being visibly queer (from which I have shamelessly stolen the title of this post). I think that in order to be read as non-straight, I would need to have a same-sex partner – something that is not very likely for me as an aromantic asexual! I’m actually open to the idea of having a female queerplatonic partner, but it’s a very distant possibility, at best, right now. How does “being out” work when asexuality is not a visibly queer identity to begin with, and when my religion and my dress tend to impute heterosexuality to me in the eyes of others, whether I want it or not? I haven’t figured out the answer to that one yet.

*For more posts on asexuality and race, see Asexuality and Race Resources

About Laura (ace-muslim)

Laura is an aromantic asexual, queer-identified, and a Muslim. She lives in the U.S., works in online tech support, and volunteers for a Muslim anti-racism organization. She blogs about asexuality, queer Muslim issues, and other topics at http://ace-muslim.tumblr.com and has written on asexuality for a number of Muslim sites.
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16 Responses to On being visibly Muslim and invisibly asexual (with apologies to Queenie)

  1. Siggy says:

    Incidentally, the other day some of my gay friends were gossiping about someone’s male Muslim housemate. Apparently he got angry when his female housemate had male guests over. Conclusion: he must have a crush on her, and get jealous of her guests. But also, he never had any guests over, and also someone met him and he seemed gay. Conclusion: gay. I couldn’t figure out the logic behind that one, and it annoyed me on several levels.

    So there’s an example of people doing the opposite. They saw his apparently conservative sexual politics, and interpreted it as him being gay. Somehow, this doesn’t seem like much of an improvement over assuming that all Muslims are heterosexual.

    • I’m definitely interested in how it varies based on gender, race or ethnicity, and other factors, though the specific circumstances of the housemate drama may limit how much we can generalize from the situation you mentioned. It’s interesting, though, that asexuality is never considered as a possibility.

      • Siggy says:

        Yeah, asexuality is never a possibility. But also, they seemed to have difficulty imagining someone of *any* orientation simply not inviting guests over, unless there was something really special going on, like being gay and repressing oneself for religious reasons.

        I mean, it’s a problem that people can’t imagine queer muslims. But people also can’t even imagine plain old celibacy without thinking it’s religiously motivated repression. Why can’t celibacy just be a choice, one that anyone of any orientation can make for either religious or secular reasons?

    • Haha! I was actually thinking about this once but I’m not sure where I’d find the fabric. (Also, most people wouldn’t recognize it for what it is, but I like the idea anyway.)

      • Carmilla DeWinter says:

        I actually have made myself a triangular cloth to tie aroung my hips for dancing and visibility purposes. Not wanting to spend money, I used four different leftovers, including white lace, so it looks all stylish and vintage-y. Obviously, I intended that result 😉

      • Sciatrix says:

        I bet it wouldn’t be difficult to find, say, half a yard of four fabrics of a nice weight and the appropriate colors and sew them together to make one. All you’d need is access to a sewing machine, some pins, and an iron. (Or I guess you could hand-sew it, but I suck at that.) Most crafting stores sell lots of fabrics in all sizes and colors, so that’s where I’d look.

        I’m not sure if the way hijabs are folded precludes them having a visible “wrong side,” and if both sides of the fabric are visible it might be a little more difficult, but you could still probably make two “asexual flag” sides and sew those together to have a nice even seam, like a very flat quilt without any batting in it. It’d be a pretty awesome crafts project. 😀

        • I’ve been kind of hoping I would magically find fabric with the right colors because I think that would work better than sewing different pieces together, but there might be a good way to do that. I’m not crafty AT ALL, lol, but this discussion has revived my interest in doing this some day!

          • Sciatrix says:

            You could look for that kind-of-asexual purple plaid that seems to be really popular right now? That could be a thing.

            I’m… actually kind of bad at sewing, and haven’t had a machine ever as an adult, but I kind of want to try this now. I did something similar in seventh grade when my middle school made me take Sewing and Quilting, except there was some half-hearted padding in the middle two layers to make it thicker, which obviously you wouldn’t want here. Still, I’m pretty sure you could probably manage this as, basically, a very very very thin quilt if you really wanted to.

            …I kind of want to try this out now, but I reaaaallly don’t need any more projects, lol! It’s a fun idea to toy with, though.

  2. caelesti says:

    Many of my co-workers are Somali (and other African) immigrants who wear hijabi, and I don’t even necessarily assume that they’re all observant Muslims- just that they’re from a culture that dresses in a particular way. Similarly with Indian women in saris. And many of them seem like spunky independent ladies who are quite capable of standing up to overbearing male relatives.

    Some part of my brain is probably implicitly assuming that people in general are hetero until proven otherwise. Fortunately other parts of my brain outsmart the social programming before I verbalize such assumptions!

    What I also find interesting is the historic amnesia so many people seem to have re: hats/head coverings being up until pretty recently almost universal among European and Euro-based cultures. Even if you watch old movies from the 40’s, everyone, regardless of gender is *always* wearing a hat outside, though the men take theirs off when going inside, but the women leave them on. (Usually one of the least sexist parts of those movies!)

  3. Sara K. says:

    I find it sadly ironic that some people say they support women’s agency/choice … until some women make a choice they do not like. The assumption that Muslim women (and other women who follow rules about how to dress) have a lack of agency derives from an assumption that no woman would ever choose that. And denying the possibility that a woman would choose that is itself a limit on women’s agency.

    It is actually not unlike the way that people assume that everyone really does experience sexual attraction/desire, and that everyone must want sex, and thus people who say they are asexual must be repressed, or that people of any orientation who choose sexual abstinence must be repressed or have something psychologically ‘wrong’ about them.

    • Yes, exactly. I see a lot of similarities in discourse around choices and identities that are not considered sufficiently “liberated” within dominant Western frameworks. Nobody seems to consider that their framework is not universal, is not the only one, and may not be the “right” one.

      As someone who is both asexual and Muslim, I felt for a long time that mainstream feminist discourses were not relevant to me or that they even excluded me. It was only as I discovered other views of feminism that I felt comfortable identifying myself as a feminist.

  4. acetheist says:

    Hey Laura, sorry for commenting on your post with this, but I couldn’t find another way to contact you.

    It appears that someone has gotten us mixed up, because the other day I got an email with a question that appears to be meant for you (as in, it’s addressed “Laura” and asks about asexuality and Islam). If you’ll shoot me an email (or suggest some other method), I’ll forward it on to you.

  5. Pingback: Hijab as “Leave me alone; I’m not interested” | The Asexual Agenda

  6. Pingback: Creating an asexual jurisprudence in Islam | The Asexual Agenda

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