Illustrations by Katie Horwich
Miriam hid her sexuality from her strict Muslim parents for years. When she eventually did come out to them, she found it impossible to translate “lesbian” into Punjabi or Urdu. She tells BBC journalist Jonathan Holmes how the conversation put an end to her double life “playing the straight woman” but caused a rift so deep that her father disowned her.
“I always knew I was attracted to the same gender – as young as four or five, when I kissed my best friend in the cloakroom, I knew then.
“But it wasn’t until I was in college that I first started exploring. We got the internet at home and there was a dial-up computer in my brother’s room – it had a lock on the door.
“I used to go on Yahoo chat, I remember sometimes I pretended I was a man, for the sake of speaking to women. Then from 18, 19, I [thought], ‘maybe I need to look for lesbian women’.”
Miriam* grew up in a traditional Muslim family in Bristol where her grandfather “ruled the roost”, with Islamic sermons and prayers five times a day.
Despite knowing from a young age she was gay, she knew telling her parents would cause a rift that might prove insurmountable. She went to great lengths to hide it but found an outlet in which to explore her sexuality by speaking to women in chat rooms.
It was only when she went to university that she built up the courage to meet other women in person, travelling hundreds of miles so she wouldn’t be seen by anyone she knew.
“I went as far as Manchester or Hartlepool, as long as it was a minimum of two hours away.
“I was absolutely [terrified] of having a relationship with someone in the same city as me. These scenarios used to play through my mind – what if someone sees me at the station?”
Quote: “It was heartbreaking, knowing we were so close to something so perfect!
Fearful as she was of being caught out, these relationships gave Miriam freedom.
“I made sure that my girlfriends didn’t visibly mark me, so I didn’t come home with [love bites] on my neck. But while I was there, it was thrilling – I thought, ‘Oh my god, I’m doing this, I’m having a sexual experience with another woman, this is amazing’.
“At the time, the people I met didn’t question the fact it was long distance. One woman in particular I only saw every other month. I used to go up on the train, meet for a few hours, go to a pub, have some food. We were quite open, it felt massively liberating.”
Some went on for much longer: for a year she went to Burnley, near Manchester, to visit a Muslim woman who was married with a child.
“I used to stay in the B&B down the road. Her husband worked nights and at 18:30 he would go to work and I’d go through the back door. I’d set an alarm for 05:30 and go out the back door again. It was ridiculous. Her family knew of me but I was a ‘friend who was visiting’.
“It didn’t occur to them I could have been a sexual partner and her husband never caught me. There was a naivety to it all, I didn’t think it was my problem to bear because I was so used to living this closeted life. Even thinking about it now chokes me up, because I think, ‘how did I do that?'”
Under the guise of friendship, Miriam did, on one occasion, take her lover home to her parents’ house in Bristol.
“She was Muslim – if it was anyone else but her, it would have been difficult. But because she looked Asian it was easier [to explain her presence] than [bringing home] a white girlfriend. She had the cultural and religious understanding – she knew how to behave.
“My room had two beds it, my parents never came in my room anyway so we slept in the same bed. We were exploring this new world, it was amazing and refreshing. In some ways it was so easy, it was almost a relief.
“But it was so whirlwind, she had to leave – her plans were premade for her and she went home to Saudi Arabia. It was heartbreaking, knowing we were so close to something so perfect.”
At 21, Miriam and her then partner got engaged. She knew she wanted to tell her mum about this “massive thing” but knew it would cause pain.
“Her words were that she never thought any child of hers could bring her as much shame as I did. And since then it’s very much been about religion. She’d reply, ‘God made man and woman – if you look at any verse in the Koran it’s never husband and husband or wife and wife’.
“It resonated with me, because I realised how much she was in a bubble – for her to not even [know] about homosexuality. But her overarching love for her daughter fights with her culture. She worries about me because she believes the life I’m living is a sin. I can tell when I look at her face that she’s hurting.”
Quote: “I’m right, you’re wrong. What you’re doing is against Islam”.
Miriam said their relationship became very strained and for six months after, every time they spoke there was “shouting, screaming and crying”. She stopped going home as much and feels like their relationship has never recovered, but her mum agreed to keep it a secret. It was more than a decade before Miriam told her father. She and her current partner had recently got engaged and she decided the time was right to tell him.
“There’s no direct translation for gay, lesbian, bisexual in Punjabi or in Urdu that I know of, so I basically said ‘of that with you and mum’ – to liken it to a relationship.
“He said: ‘You know Islam, you’ve gone to the mosque, you’ve read the Koran, you know it’s a sin don’t you? As far as I’m concerned, I’m right, you’re wrong. What you’re doing is against Islam’.”
Miriam said her father presented her with a choice; give up her partner and return to the family home, or drop off her keys and never show her face again.
“He basically said he didn’t want anything to do with me and disowned me.”
He initially prevented her mother from seeing her, even though she still wanted to have contact. They have managed to see each other occasionally at her sister’s house, but Miriam admits she has given up wanting to change how her mum feels.
“When you strip away religion, culture and feelings, you just have to think ‘she’s my mum, and I’m her daughter’, and that’s all that is left. When I was younger, it was ‘I’m right, she’s wrong’. It was black and white, but now it’s grey. She’s right in how she feels, and I’m right in how I feel.”
As for her father, Miriam recently saw him at a family gathering with other relatives who don’t know about her sexuality.
“I used that opportunity to be normal with him. When he was about to leave for work I went up to him and gave him a big hug. He was rigid, but I stayed there for an extra 10 seconds to have that extra contact because I bloody miss him.
“I could either do what he said on that day [and leave], or I could keep testing the waters and that’s [what I’m going to do].”
In Islam, as in many Christian denominations and in Orthodox Judaism, homosexuality is seen as a sin. While there have been moves towards acceptance of homosexuality in some religions, Islam in the West has tended to stay with the Orthodox view.
Miriam and her partner, who is white British, hope to marry in 2020. She plans to wear traditional dress for part of it and there “may be a few Asian tunes”. But the rest will be “as gay as gay can be” – with a drag act as compere and DJ.
In the meantime, the 35-year-old is focusing her efforts on the group she founded, Bristol Queer Muslims. She hopes it will become “a safe space” for Muslim LGBT+ people to meet without fear of discrimination.
“I think Islam itself is a very closed off religion. If you look at some older members of the community, they are living in the 8th Century, not the 21st. But it is possible to be Muslim and gay. I genuinely believe that although I had a girlfriend earlier in life, I wasn’t out to myself. I feel not just stronger now after having those experiences, but more accepting of myself.”
*Miriam’s name has been changed