Hijab Butch Blues is structured as a series of non-chronological essays, each of which could easily stand alone, which intertwine Lamya’s explorations of her sexuality and faith with stories from the Quran. Lamya skips between her early childhood in an unnamed South Asian country to the rest of her childhood and adolescence in an unnamed Middle Eastern country to her adulthood in New York, reflecting on how difficult it has been for her to square her identities as a hijabi Muslim and a gay woman, but also how these different ways of living have illuminated each other. This memoir demonstrates how, although Lamya knows that her Muslim family wouldn’t accept her queerness, she herself has found great solace in her faith. Unsurprisingly, some of the essays are stronger than others, with the autobiographical material tying more smoothly into the selected Quran sections, but when the pairings work, they’re brilliant.
The opening and closing essays are two of the strongest and most moving. In the first, fourteen-year-old Lamya is bowled over in school by reading Surah Maryam, the story of Maryam (more familiar to a Christian audience as the story of Mary), realising that Maryam went to live alone in a mosque and, when told by the angel that she was going to have a baby boy, said ‘How can I have a boy when no man has touched me?’ This passage was revelatory to Lamya as well: ‘Miss, did Maryam say that no man has touched her because she didn’t like men?’. Although her teacher tells her that Maryam was simply trying to send the angel away because she knew that God is always watching and believed he was trying to tempt her, Lamya is sure that she knows differently: ‘Maryam is a dyke.’ In the final essay, an adult Lamya rants about how Yunus (familiar as Jonah to Christian readers) is her least favourite prophet: ‘Yunus’s big claim to fame is that he gets swallowed by a whale. And then the whale spits him out… He does very little else in the story…. He preaches about Islam to his people, but they don’t listen to him so he decides he’s done and he leaves.’ However, her friend convinces her to look again at Yunus, arguing that there can be a strength in knowing when you are not going to convince anyone, and need to protect yourself instead, something Lamya embraces when she decides not to come out to her family.
However, even in the essays where I felt the parallels were a bit more forced, the links between this material make Hijab Butch Blues stand out from other memoirs about sexuality I’ve read. Impressively, also, despite jumping back and forth in time, Lamya’s stories never feel repetitive. My only note (not a complaint, but a note) is that readers looking for a focus on the ‘butch’ part of the title may be disappointed: Lamya is clear that she likes to dress in more masculine clothing, and talks a bit about a bad date where she and another butch woman both try to play the gentleman, but the idea of butchness isn’t really interrogated or explored in the same way as her other identities. Nevertheless, this is a great memoir.
I received a free proof copy of this book from the publisher for review.
Just One of The Guys? Transgender Men and the Persistence of Gender Equality, an American sociological study from 2011, has one central argument: while trans men face various kinds of oppression and discrimination in the workplace, it can be surprising how easily non-trans men accept them as ‘just one of the guys’. However, as trans men are accepted into male social circles, they often realise just how far they were excluded and belittled when they were seen as women. Kristen Schilt both respects the importance of trans men’s experiences and uses them as a window into how hierarchies of sexuality and gender operate at work. In short, the acceptance of trans men by cis, heterosexual men isn’t because they are more enlightened than we thought; it’s because it’s easier to incorporate trans men, especially trans men who ‘pass’ as male, on one side of the gender binary. ‘The power to exclude is also the power to include’, Schilt points out. Establishing trans men as just like any other straight man means they don’t cause any further ‘gender trouble’.
This becomes clear when people react to gay trans men, who often face much more resistance than straight trans men. Schilt quotes one of her audience members: ‘Why would trans men go through so much trouble just to be gay?’ More privileged trans men – often white, tall, and educated – sometimes benefited directly from transition at work. Chris reflected, ‘I have this professional company that I built, and I have people following me. They trust me, they believe in me, they respect me. I never could have done that as a woman.’ While white trans men appreciated feeling less visible in public, though, black trans men, like Keith, had to deal with becoming hypervisible: ‘I went from being an obnoxious black woman to a scary black man’. Trans men also often went from feeling like they had to try extra hard to be taken seriously as men to criticising and challenging rigid rules of masculinity, like sexist banter: ‘Men just think that is how guys are supposed to talk to one another. They don’t even really believe it. It is like this male lingo… It is like a script.’ In other words, trans men didn’t feel that they were the ones ‘performing’ masculinity in these kinds of encounters. Really fascinating, if framed with a bit too much academic gender theory.
I found the first three essays in Amia Srinivasan’s short essay collection, The Right To Sex, disappointing. Srinivasan writes very well, and I would certainly recommend these essays to my students, but I felt she was covering ground I already knew well. It’s in her fourth essay, ‘Coda: The Politics of Desire’, exploring responses to her ‘The Right To Sex’ essay originally published in the LRB, that things get interesting. Srinivasan digs deep into a vexed feminist question: is who we desire political? If so, should we try and change our desires? You only need to go on a dating app to see that what Srinivasan calls ‘fuckability’, or ‘whose bodies confer status on those who have sex with them’ is about race, gender and disability, among other axes of oppression. East Asian men struggle to get dates; black women are viewed as promiscuous and as less attractive than white women; East Asian women are sought after by white men for their assumed passivity. But, as Srinivasan recognises, while we might accept there’s a problem here, the solution is not so easy. ‘When I was a first-year undergraduate I had a professor who said, to our grave disappointment, that there would be heartbreak even in the post-capitalist utopia.’ Some people find it very hard to find a sexual partner or to have a romantic relationship, and this does not always cut along lines of oppression. I found myself thinking of when I was a teenage girl, white, slim, able-bodied, relatively pretty, with long blondish hair – and the total lack of romantic interest I received from anyone. Indeed, my peers enjoyed mocking how unlikely it was that I would ever find a boyfriend.
Reading this essay and others in Srinivasan’s collection, I found myself wondering if we’re asking the wrong questions. If society didn’t elevate sexual experience and romantic love so far above any other kind of love – if we didn’t always put these kinds of relationships first – would we be so desperate to achieve them? When I was a teenage girl, I didn’t want a boyfriend (partly because I didn’t fancy boys but partly because I didn’t actually want any kind of relationship at that time). I felt I ought to have one because ‘having a boyfriend’ gave you social status, proved you were normal, proved (in my head) that you’d go on to get married and have children in the future, to succeed. What would a world look like where we don’t tell people that having had sex means you are more ‘mature’, that we are all bound to be lonely if we don’t have sex, don’t have one monogamous partner, don’t feel romantic love? (As an aside, it’s a shame that Srinivasan’s discussion of Adrienne Rich’s great essay, ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’, doesn’t more clearly explain that Rich’s idea of the ‘lesbian continuum’ means that she emphasises that lesbianism is not just about who you have sex with. Being a ‘lesbian’, in Rich’s terms, is about directing your emotional energies towards women, whether that’s through working and creating together, or through friendship. Rich does write about heterosexuality as a political institution that hurts all women, whoever they desire, but she has so much more to say!)
And then… the last two essays in the collection were much the same as the first three, although I liked them a bit more, and thoroughly agreed with Srinivasan’s argument in ‘Sex, Carceralism, Capitalism’ that a feminism that focuses on the punishment of individual men through the police state is not doing its job: ‘Feminists must ask what it is they set in motion and against whom, when they demand more policing and more prisons.’ I also liked the point she makes, in ‘On Not Sleeping With Your Students’, that consensually sleeping with your students is bad pedagogy, a kind of bad pedagogy that works specifically against women by making them feel that they are not really smart, only sexy (though I wished that essay hadn’t ended with sweeping assumptions about how ‘young’ Gen Z are). So, good, on the whole, but spent too much time going over the basics: can Srinivasan please write a coda to every one of these essays?