Samra Habib: 'I think now is the time to advocate for a world where people need to be allowed dualities'

The author tells us more about her searing memoir We Have Always Been Here and what it means to be a queer Muslim today

We Have Always Been Here is an emotionally searing and moving memoir charting Toronto-based journalist, activist and photographer Samra Habib's decades-long struggle – and eventual triumph – in reconciling both her Muslim faith and queer identity. We see how Habib navigates her childhood in Pakistan as an Ahmadi Muslim, an often persecuted sect, and later, the multiple challenges she encounters as a newly arrived Canadian refugee after fleeing her homeland: Islamophobia, racism, displacement and more.

Given that queer Muslim identities have been contested over the past year – schools in Birmingham halted LGBTQ+ lessons indefinitely after Muslim parents protested in March, for one – Habib's memoir couldn't be more timely. We spoke to her about how queer Muslims are reshaping global contemporary Muslim identities and what it means to be a queer Muslim woman today.

What inspired you to write We Have Always Been Here?
I was longing to find stories like mine that dealt with the themes of being a refugee and being queer. Through my photo project [Just Me and Allah, which documented the lives of LGBTQ+ Muslims in the US and Europe], I also met many young people who were longing to connect with others like them. I thought that perhaps my story could provide hope. Though my story includes trauma, I want to highlight that there's much more to being a queer Muslim than traumatic experiences. There's so much joy and pleasure.

We Have Always Been Here celebrates how it's possible to reconcile being both Muslim and queer. Did you set out to achieve this?
Both my photo project and book were a way for me to figure out what my relationship with Islam is. I think that deep down, it's a question that I've always had. What I find so interesting is that so many young queer Muslims that I meet are re-imagining what it means to be Muslim in the 21st century.

Why did you call your memoir We Have Always Been Here?
It was inspired by one of my photography subjects Dalia. In an interview, she was asked why there was a sudden fascination with queer Muslims. She responded: 'we have always been here. It's just that the world wasn't ready for us yet'. It's true. Queer Muslims have existed for a long, long time despite the media's current fascination with the seemingly conflicting identities.

We see how you find 'home' in your chosen queer family and faith – does the concept of 'home' for you transcend physical spaces?
One of the biggest lessons for me while working on We Have Always Been Here was that my idea of home isn't defined by geographical boundaries. I can be perfectly at home in different parts of the world if I'm surrounded by my 'safe people'. I think refugees who've had to leave their homes behind are incredibly resilient. Because we've been forced to leave our home, the idea of what it means to me and to re-define it is something I do on a regular basis.

Why do you think queer Muslim voices have been routinely rendered invisible in recent years? And how much do you think that's changing?
I think for the longest time, Muslims were either represented as terrorists or oppressed when it came to talking about women. I'd like to think that the change is due to a hunger for diversity in stories [but] it's changing at an extremely slow pace. I think it'd be great to see stories by queer Muslim writers that aren't exclusively about this experience. I personally love to read what other writers I share a cultural and religious background with think about issues that have nothing to do with our shared culture and religion.

Do you hope your book might change attitudes of what we've come to associate with queer Muslims, i.e. that you have to 'pick' between both?
I already see a shift happening among the younger generation. I think they're less weighed down by the necessity to choose. I also greatly hope that there comes a time in our culture when having to struggle between choosing those two identities no longer seems like the biggest struggle queer Muslims face.

Why is now an important time to hear the perspectives of queer Muslims?
I think it goes beyond that. It's time to hear the perspectives and experiences of everyone who hasn't historically been allowed to be part of the cultural conversation to have a seat. Queer Muslims have always existed. It's not a new phenomenon. I think now is the time to advocate for a world where people need to be allowed dualities and their intersections need to be celebrated instead of being treated as this peculiar thing that needs to be studied under a microscope. For me, change doesn't necessarily mean the monetisation of representation and needing to see people like me on billboard ads to sell more clothes. It means allowing for a diversity of experiences so that policies that harm us can be changed. It means systematic shifts.

We Have Always Been Here is out now via riverrun. Read our review.

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