Yesterday was a powerful day, starting off with the Times of Misfortune tour in Sarajevo with an amazing guide. He was born and raised during the war and was an open book about his and his family's experiences during the siege of Sarajevo. It was really incredible, and Calvin did a great job covering the experience in his blog post. I want to focus on something else, that also came up today in Mostar (which you can also read about on Calvin’s blog).
After the tour, we stopped by the Emperor's Mosque. Unlike when we went to the mosque in St. Petersburg, this time it was summer, and winter hats wouldn't give me an easy out for whether or not to cover my head. Being a non-binary trans person, the gendered segregation and expectations of spaces such as mosques can put me in uncomfortable situations. However, at the end of the day I need to remember that these spaces are not about me. I am travelling in a culture that is not my own, in a country where the majority population is of a religion that is not mine, and I need to not only respect that but use it as an opportunity to educate myself and do what I can to stand in solidarity with these individuals.
There are a few expectations of visiting a mosque as a non-Muslim. However, some of these expectations are gendered and I am still navigating that space in my own physical body - something none of us can escape. As a result, my gender identity and expression, and how people perceive that will influence how I move through such spaces. I've thought a lot about how I, as a queer, non-binary, American and atheist transperson, can respectfully enter Muslim-centred spaces - namely mosques - without compromising my own sense of safety. I by no means have all the answers (or any of the answers for that matter), but based on my experiences and having read various resources on the intersection of Islam and transness, I have a few thoughts and questions that I think are important to consider for any non-Muslim trans person wanting to stand in solidarity with the Muslim community (and you should want to given the rampant Islamophobia currently happening throughout the world).
Why am I visiting a mosque?
This is a question everyone visiting a mosque should ask themselves. If you are “doing it for the gram” or because it seems like an exotic or trendy thing to do, then you shouldn’t go. If you are going because you want to learn or become a better ally, then by all means, go and adhere to the expectations set forth for you.
What do people expect of me?
What I have been doing when entering mosques is walking in slowly to see what, if anything, a staff member, religious leader, or whoever may be at the entrance (which at most mosques that are tourist destinations, there is someone) says to me. Since I am not a woman, I do not want to wear a headscarf when I enter that space, but if others read me as a woman and expect me to, then I feel obligated to wear one. Yesterday the staff member told me to put on a head scarf. So I did. It wasn’t the time or the space to argue gender and say “but I’m not a woman!” because, as I said before, the space is not about me. It sucks having your identity erased, ignored, and overlooked. It hurts and it happens all the time to trans people, and it’s exhausting. But I wasn’t in physical danger, and because a certain expectation of me, a non-Muslim, was set for me, I needed to respect that.
What is more important - taking part in the cultural and educational experience, or remaining within the comfort zone of your identity?
When I was in the mosque, I felt uncomfortable. Not because it was a mosque - I've visited mosques on numerous occasions and have never had that feeling before - but because for the first time in a mosque I was put in a position where I had to compromise my own marginalised identity. It was the same kind of discomfort I get whenever I’m in a gender segregated space (like bathrooms, so it’s a discomfort I’m used to, as horrible as it is). That tension between wanting to learn and wanting to remain true to myself has no clear answer. I almost didn’t go in because I didn’t know what I should do or what would be expected of me but in that moment, I wanted to better understand that culture and religion, so I made the decision to temporarily compromise my identity.
How can I keep myself safe - physically and emotionally - while still respecting the culture and wishes of the space I am entering?
It is extremely important to note that just because you may end up in a position where you have to temporarily repress your identity does not mean that space or people creating the space is inherently exclusive or transphobic. There is a widespread and highly problematic stereotype that Muslims and people of colour are all anti-LGBTQ, which is far from the truth. Them asking me to put on a headscarf may be a form of oppression because they made an assumption about my gender, therefore erasing my identity, but that doesn't necessarily mean they were maliciously or violently transphobic. But I still need to recongise the emotional toll that such erasure – combined with the countless other forms of erasure that happen on a daily basis – has on me, even if in that moment allowing the erasure was the respectful thing to do. So self-care (surrounding yourself with people who validate your identity before and after, eating your favourite treat, taking a walk, or whatever works for you personally) is vitally important.
At the end of the day I think the most important thing is to lift up the voices of trans Muslims and listen to advice they have (so go Google; the links I provided earlier are good starting places). I have reached out to a few of my friends who have better insight than I for their advice and will update this post overtime as I learn more, and include those voices. The trans and Muslim communities need to stand in solidarity with one another not only because it’s the right thing to do, but most importantly because there are people who are both trans and Muslim. Justice for one without the other does nothing. It’s not easy and it will be uncomfortable – in regards to gender and in other ways – but sometimes you have to learn to be okay with being uncomfortable.