Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Book: LIOL: On the Edge of Belonging - Khalida Saed

This is also one of those things girls get hospitalized for, like masturbating.

'As long as I can remember I have teetered on the edge of something. I have not always been an American. Sometimes I wasn't a Muslim. I never wanted to be a lesbian. But I have never had any doubt that I don't belong fully in any of these identities. I teetered on the edge of belonging to the lesbian community and being invincible within it, on the edges of being American and Iranian, and on the edge of Islam. I have been juggling several identities all my life, and it never occurred to me to complain at first. It seemed that the less I complained, the less people would notice that I wasn't fully part of their community - and community is the reason for everything I do.'

Khalida came out as a lesbian to her mother when she was fourteen. Her mother was 'distressed'. She cried, she screamed, she hit Khalida and locked her in her room. She wound up missing two days of school because of it. Her mother told her that it was 'just a phase' and that it was because she was too 'Americanized'. Khalida says that the last argument might have some weight - if not for her American half telling her that she had the right she probably would just never have said anything. But she still would have felt the way she does. They have never discussed it again. 'Honestly, it never occurred to me that my person sexual orientation would hurt her. I was THAT naive. Our relationship today is as close as it can be when two people refuse to bring up the pink elephant in the middle of the room.'

'We are not unlike many American immigrant Muslim families. Sexuality of any kind is not discussed. She would have been more supportive of me if I had never come out to her at all and we had left it unsaid all these years. Sex has been the one issue we cannot get over as a family. Sex has been the one "condition" in the unconditional love parents are supposed to offer their children. A woman's virginity is the most valuable bargaining chip she can bring to the marriage. And she will get married one day, or else it reflects badly on her entire family and ruins the chances of marriage for her younger siblings. Bringing up lesbianism was the ultimate form of discussing sexuality. Not only was I talking about sex, but I was refusing to participate in the biggest institution religion ever created: Heterosexual Marriage.'

"They don't have jobs, they live on the street, and they want to be men, for God's sake!"

Growing up, Khalida believed that in order to be a 'real' lesbian she had to have short hair, listen to Melissa Ethridge, etc. She only knew the stereotype lesbian because she had no access to the wider world. Her out of the home activities were closely monitored by her parents and older brother so she didn't have the opportunity to access any LGBTQ youth communities in New York City. She remembers being lonely and isolated throughout her youth. Her sexuality pained her - she knew it was a death sentence on family relations. Khalida thought that she would have to choose between her family and her own identity. She chose her family - she did what she knew would please them. She began wearing hijab and formed the Muslim Student Association in her high school. She collected all the signatures and then stood back when the elections came so that the boys could all fill the positions - with no mention that she had done all the work to make this MSA even exist. 'I thought I was on my way to becoming fully Muslim and belonging to that community. But I never managed to stop being queer.'

Every time I get a new girlfriend, I have to introduce her as my best friend to my parents. They think I'm very social.

When Khalida was a freshman in high school, she met Jane. Jane was her first girlfriend. They only dated for about a month and kept it very quiet. A little kissing, some hand holding. Soft things. But the important thing that she and Jane did together was get to some meetings for youth at the local Gay and Lesbian Community Center. Khalida remembers them getting to her when it was time to introduce themselves and just blurting out everything about herself. 'We all had a need to be known by somebody. I felt like I had a real chance to find someone with whom I could share all of myself.'

If you wear lots of makeup it will make you look sixteen, then the truant cops won't pick you up, but the lesbians won't know you're a dyke...

When she was supposed to be at school was the only time Khalida's family couldn't monitor her movements and dictate what she did. So she started cutting school and slipping down to the East Village. Stress in her family turned ugly - her parents felt that they were losing their children to America. Khalida equated everything Iranian and Muslim with being anti-gay and therefore anti-her. Her sister regarded all things Muslim as completely foreign to her and anything she might care about. 'My parents tried to control us through fear and anger.' Khalida rejected Islam in all it's forms because she couldn't find any place for herself in it. She left the MSA and turned her back on all of it.

Being gay and Muslim? That's like sinning automatically, for no reason, all the time!

Khalida left home to go to college. It devastated her family - it was just not done. She was the first person in her family to do it and they had no idea what to do with it. She says that it was hard, being away from everything that she knew - she faced 'racism, homophobia, and worst of all, defeat.' But she learned to survive.

At twenty she stumbled onto a website for the Al-Fatiha Foundation - a national group for LGBTQ Muslims that was unapologetic. She 'pretended to be horrified' every day she looked at it for a whole year. In 2001 her girlfriend took her to her first Al-Fatiha conference in Washington, D.C. The first day they just sort of hung around the edges and didn't join the conference. 'This was my last hope of finding someone to tell me that it was OK for me to be who I was.'

'When I finally joined the conference, it was a wonderful and soothing experience. I don't think I lied about who I was once the entire time I was there. I even prayed more regularly than I have ever prayed before in my life.'

Khalida joined the board of Al-Fatiha immediately - 'because I wanted to give that feeling of belonging to other people.'

'Al-Fatiha restored my faith in Islam because it included women in its leadership and insisted on inclusive prayer spaces where women were not relegated to the basement and forced to wear hijab even if they did not wear them normally. Women were even encouraged to lead prayer.'

So you don't want to get married? What did you waste all that time going to college for, if not to be more appealing to a husband?

Khalida's family has come to terms with her refusal to enter an arranged marriage. They don't acknowledge the fact that she is in a long term relationship with a wonderful woman that she met in college. Khalida's s.o.'s family is very supportive and they have embraced her as one of them. They want to get married, but keep putting it off because Khalida wants to tell her family - shouldn't they be there for such a joyous occasion? But she knows that some of them would react violently and others would simply cut her off and bring her more pain. So she puts it off. Because she has this fantasy:

'In my heart I secretly wait for the day when I will gather up my courage, walk into my mother's house with my head held high, and ask her to sew me a wedding dress, just like her mother sewed hers. And while we're on the subject of family scenarios, I imagine her wiping tears of joy from her eyes as she leads me to the sewing machine to take my measurements. She will then do the customary passing down of jewelry. She'll take out my grandmother's pearl set that her mother gave her on her wedding day and extend it to me, saying, "You know, I always liked that girlfriend of yours. Tell me more about her mother and her family."'


  1. Aw, what a sad story in many ways. I hope her dream comes true. It's very touching.

  2. This is sad, but I feel her dream might never come true. Really wouldn't our parents be shocked too if we did this?


  3. Susanne,

    It is a sad story. But I get the impression that, for the most part, she is happy with her life as it is right now. Yes, she wishes that she and her family could be open and together about her sexuality and her partner and that pains her but other than that she has a woman she loves, her faith, and she's doing what she wants to do.

  4. Suroor,

    I don't think her dream will ever come true and I hope that (since the book is several years old at this point) she and her partner have married at this point rather than still waiting for approval that will never come.

    I once asked my mother (when I was younger - probably around 14 or 15) what she would do if I was a lesbian. At the time she said that it wouldn't matter - that she would love me no matter what. Now that I'm older I know that that wasn't true. She would have said the right things and acted like it was okay but it would have broken her heart. And that hurts me, oddly enough. To know that there's something I could do that would hurt her that much - something that I wouldn't be able to help.


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