From the way we see ourselves to the way we are seen, being Muslim means so many different things to individual women across the world. In honor of Muslim Women’s Day this year, we’re focusing on the way Muslim identity presents itself differently—in our personal relationships, our professional endeavors, and more—and how no one experience can speak for us all.
For this piece, we spoke to Wazina Zondon—a 36-year-old New York City-based Muslim sex-ed teacher and co-creator of storytelling performance Coming Out Muslim—about navigating queerness, sex, and Islam.
The first memory I have related to sex was when my parents first told me about Judgement Day at the age of six. When that day comes, they said, all the good and bad things I’d ever done would be played in front of all humanity as we stood naked before God. I remember having this immediate titillating feeling: I'll be naked in front of Paula Abdul.
Later in that conversation, my father told me that I'd never be allowed to have a boyfriend; that this wasn’t something we did. I wasn’t sure if “we” meant Muslims, Afghans, or both, but I accepted it. In that moment, I waved goodbye to this future boyfriend I'd never have.
Growing up in Queens, I collapsed my cultural identity as an Afghan girl and the cultural practices of Islam into one. Though there isn’t, of course, a singular Muslim culture, for me, Muslim culture meant the traditions and beliefs of my family and community. Islam wasn't forced on my siblings and me, but it was something that was part of growing up. As a child, I attended masjid to learn the Qur'an, but I was also encouraged to assimilate, mostly for safety reasons. Today, my family is religious, but each of us goes through periods of being more or less practicing, my parents included.
As I got older and began to understand what sex was, I remember thinking that if I did manage to get a boyfriend, and that boyfriend somehow wanted to have sex with me (I struggled immensely with my self-image as a girl), everyone was going to see it on Judgement Day. I envisioned them all gathering around to watch my porno.
The first time I acted on my sexuality I was around seven years old and had decided to re-enact a scene from a movie, which involved kicking off my shoes and running to a lovely velvet couch that I proceeded to make out with. Afterwards, I had this feeling of I can’t help this, so it must be natural. I knew that I maybe shouldn't talk about it, but I didn't feel bad for acting on the feelings I was having.
As a preteen, my cousins and I had conversations about bodies, attraction, gender, and pleasure. One day, we were looking through magazines and we made a checklist of the things that made you pretty: long hair, no pimples, nice boobs. I remember feeling like, Can we talk about breasts? To me, breasts were more than a body part, they held this other sensation: a pleasurable desire. Again, I knew not to talk about this, but I also understood at a young age that all the stuff going on inside of me—all of these feelings—God had put there.
I had known that I was into girls as a kid, but the first time I acknowledged that I was queer to someone else was in high school. One day in ninth grade, I saw this girl approaching me. Like me, she was very goth, so I felt like a goddess was walking up to me . All she said was, “Are you bisexual? I'm bisexual.” I told her that I was gay too, and that was that. All I needed was the permission to say it out loud, and there it was. After her, I had another girlfriend in high school with whom I was much more physical.
My parents never suspected that I was dating these girls, which, to me, was exciting. I knew I wasn’t supposed to have a boyfriend. No one ever said anything about a girlfriend.
For the time that I was abstinent, it had more to do with feeling ugly and undesirable than my faith. As I came to feel less gross about myself, I also realized the sex negativity I felt wasn't from Islam; it was from American society. There are all these things I never learned about, like that clitorises can be big or small or that not every woman has a clitoris. My queerness helped me demystify sex and the type of sex I thought I wasn't supposed to have. Talking about strap-ons and dildos, for example, made it less scary to think about penetration. Because, really, when my parents were talking about don't have a boyfriend, they were talking about penetrative sex.
When I got to college, I felt like I had to choose between Muslim Wazina and queer Wazina. For a year or two, I chose the latter. I really didn't talk about being Muslim. I still held my Muslimness, but I lived up my queer identity. A large part of that was chasing after this affirmation of being sought after by queer, white folks.
I realized the sex negativity I felt wasn't from Islam; it was from American society.
During my second year of college, 9/11 happened, and it was a turning point for me. I decided to be very out about being Muslim, which coincided with me getting more involved in sex education at my school. I realized that the affirmation I was getting sexually from fully living out my queer identity wasn't that helpful because there were so many underlying feelings and experiences of racism, xenophobia, and just feeling other.
I don't wear hijab and I’m queer, and I think all of that made me really palatable for those around me looking for answers about Islam. It was like I'm the “good” Muslim, because I'm Americanized; because I'm gay. I felt at ease with my identity, and that really annoyed and pissed off a lot of people who just assumed I must be living with some kind of deep tension if I was both Muslim and queer. I have my interpretations of the Qur’an: I'm not deeply conflicted. I've dated and had lovers of Christian faith, and they were allowed to have this diverse religious track, yet I was meeting people that could not imagine that there are queer Muslims, or that Islam can be gender-affirming, let alone queer-affirming.
Today, my partner is Muslim, and I continue to be very much affirmed by Islam in what I'm doing; in finding myself in places where I learn to forgive myself. God, I know, will forgive me—not even because I did something wrong, but for all the times I did the thing I didn't want to do, or for the reasons I pursued the people I did, or stayed in relationships. I forgive myself for that; that is how Islam helps me. So much of my self-care and self-love comes in forms of tasbih, dhikr, and grounding myself in prayer. That is really part of my sexual affirmation.