RELIGION, GENDER & SEXUALITY

When I reflect back to the times my family and I visited the beautiful motherland that is Bangladesh, I always remembered hearing about a specific shunned group in society referred to as Hijra. The first time I heard this term, I had no idea what it meant... but was able to pick up on how it had negative and derogatory implications. 

I soon learned that Hijra was the South-Asian term for those who are assigned male at birth but identify as women. At the time, I myself was in my early teenage years, still unsure and uneducated about sexuality and sexual orientations enough to understand what transgenderism signified or what it meant. But as I became more and more exposed to these topics in books, the Internet, and through interactions with other people, I realized that it was not a conversation that ever occurred at home. When it comes to considerably taboo topics, such as sexual orientation, within a conservative Bengali household, the conversation simply never occurs. Unfortunately this perpetuates the negative stigmas that are attached to such topics.

I remember when I was attending middle school, I went through a phase in which I refused to accept anyone referring to me as a girl, to the point that I asked my sister to call me her brother. This phase did not last too long, and at this point it didn't cause me to question my sexuality, but I did note the lack of understanding I got during that time. Primarily within my religious and cultural community, I saw that this did not read as something acceptable. To this day, any mention of that short-lived phase causes laughs and ridicule, rather than an acknowledgement of the normalcy of the situation.

I stand here today, very confident in my heterosexuality and cisgenderism. But this of course was not always so concrete as I was growing and developing into the woman that I am today. The truth is that there have been times where I questioned my sexuality and was willing to accept the thought of different genders for myself as well as for a partner. These thoughts crossed my mind during my early teenage years when I was exploring and still trying to figure myself out in terms of who I am and how I wanted to identify.

Writing this is the first time I have ever legitimately confronted these thoughts and put them out into the world, FEARLESSLY. The best part of this small-scale revelation is the fact that it is completely normal for a developing, pubescent individual to question and explore their sexuality. The problem lies in the fact that these ideas and possibilities around exploration are shunned and completely taken off the table when considered such a strong abomination.

When I think about those times, I do wish that there was more of a conversation at home, one that let me feel like my feelingsquestions, and short-lived desires were all okay. I wanted to be told that it was OK for me to question if I was interested in women. I wanted to be told that it was OK for me to question who I am and what I want to identify as. I wanted to be told that it was all accepted and alright rather than condemned entirely.

But I have always known the way in which my parents and culture viewed such topics. I was conditioned to learn that topics of sexuality and genderism were so wrong that I could not utter any such words at home without having my mom exclaim, “Astaghfirullah!” (I seek forgiveness from God). These conversations almost felt satanic at home, generally to not be spoken of or acknowledged, and completely avoided as much as possible.

I remember whenever there were videos or imagery of gay couples kissing on the news on topics around same-sex marriage legalization debates, my parents would scramble for the remote control and immediately switch the channel to something else.

These actions and mentalities had permeated into my own mind for a brief while. A few years ago I, unfortunately, felt repelled by homosexuality, bisexuality, and transsexuality and was unable to understand it. I remember feeling that it was wrong but never really knowing what was so wrong about non-heterosexuality and non-cisgenderism.

As much as I hate to place blame on my upbringing and culture, the undoubted truth is that these negative feelings stemmed from what I have viewed and heard my parents say about such topics. And this is one of the biggest mistakes I feel is applied in the upbringing and household principles of many conservative religious families. 

Neglecting and completely avoiding these topics is problematic because it fails to create an open space for children and developing pre-adolescents to explore and be comfortable with themselves. It creates bad associations and ideas in the minds of children about others who identify differently within the sexual and gender spectrum. Secondly, it limits the minds and bodies of children from sexual exploration, identity, curiosity, and freedom.

Although I am at a point where I am very in tune with my sexuality and gender identity, I would have loved if the journey to where I am now would have been more fluid, acceptable, and open. Each and every individual deserves that opportunity, to test out possibilities and ideas as they wish, and feeling unrestricted and unconfined. Particularly now, it is close to impossible to shield children from learning or hearing about these topics, but more than that, it is crucial to see that it is wrong to shield them and teach them hatefulness from this in the first place.

I know my parents did not see it that way, and I know that their world view comes from centuries of tradition and deeply-rooted cultural and religious values, but at the end of the day, it is necessary to come to terms with the reality of it all. And that reality is — that the love one receives from their parents, family, and community should be un-gendered, unstigmatized, and unprejudiced. I now know that it is the duty of each parent, family, and member of every distinct culture to channel acceptance and give room for conversations about gender and sexuality. We can't go forward with a backwards mentality.


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Fariha Nizam

lives in NYC and writes for missmuslim.nyc