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