I AM COMPASSIONATE - Maiesha's story

Pronouns: They/Them

It was a year ago Maiesha made a short documentary about two queer Muslims in a loving relationship – living a, regular, ‘normal’ life. The ensuing reactions and responses to that film opened Maiesha’s eyes to the selective perspectives people hold about queerness and Islam.

Maiesha was born in Bangladesh and arrived in Canada at the age of 5. They recall being a very talkative and extroverted child up until middle school.

As their personality evolved and they became more introspective, they re-discovered their voice in art and went on to pursue film as a career. As someone who was racialized, Muslim, and queer, their parents were skeptical about their success in this chosen career. Until they saw their work and knew that they were destined for success despite the barriers that might come their way.

The Chosen Items

Maiesha’s first item of choice to express their queer/trans/non-binary identity was a trans flag. They had bought it last year for Trans March, and later took it home to display in their bedroom. Although their family has been progressively accepting of their identity, supportive in silent and sometimes endearing ways, they don’t really talk about it.

“This trans flag was the very first queer thing I had brought home. It was a big step for me to solidify my identity in my own space.”

Their other item of choice to represent their Muslim identity was a set of silver bracelets inscribed with Quranic verses. Those bracelets were given to their mother by their grandfather, a loving presence in their life. A few months ago, their mother had passed on the bracelets to Maiesha.

“I lost my grandfather when I was in high school. It changed me – made me stronger and more compassionate. The sadness that came from that loss made me empathetic and helped me understand other people better.”

They used to avoid wearing the bracelets or any overtly religious symbols.

“I wasn’t comfortable wearing anything that screamed that I am Muslim. But over time I have become more comfortable about embracing my Muslim identity in public spaces.”

On the Intersections

Maiesha always had a non-traditional relationship with religion. They grew up in a Muslim home but remained curious about exploring other faiths as well. An impactful piece of advice that led them further on to this path of exploration came from their father.

“My father told me you can’t choose the family you are born in, but you can choose the faith that you practise.”

That openness coming from a Muslim parent made them open up to exploring Islam further.

“I officially chose to identify as a Muslim when I was in grade 7. It was my curiosity that led me to the conclusion that the true roots of Islam are community and care for other people.”

This belief reflected well in Maiesha’s documentary project about a queer Muslim couple.

“I wanted to purposefully make a calm and relaxed story about two people and the normalcy of their lives as queer Muslims.”

They recalled the time when they presented a rough cut to their class. Many of the reactions they received were of frustration and even anger. Representation of Islam in the context of queer communities in a loving and non-controversial way was something some people found unpalatable. One fellow student even told them to go back to the drawing board and do their research.

“I felt that the criticisms were not coming from a place of queer rights in Islam, but from a selective perception of Islam. There are many other organized religions in their various interpretations that have similar views about homosexuality or queer rights. But whenever I attempt to initiate that dialogue, people usually shut down.”

During their time at the university, Maiesha also revived and led an LGBT Muslim group. They continued running that group until recently. They grew into that role and loved being a leader – loved showing up, not just for themselves but also for others.

Although there was a lot of love in that group, they also had to deal with hostility on campus, including a time when their group’s posters were vandalized.

Such instances of casual hostility – whether motivated by homophobia, transphobia, or Islamophobia – often come with people’s expectations of them to either renounce faith to be queer or reject queerness to be true to the interpretation of their faith.

“You can be queer and Muslim! I want to tell people to put aside what they have learnt and inherited and build a new understanding of queerness in connection to faith.”

This Campaign

Maiesha came out in High School, a year after attending a panel discussion about queer Muslim identities. It was the first time they had heard the words queer and Muslim together, and seen people owning it in such a natural way.

“I was able to be out and myself because of visibility of other queer Muslims. So I showed up for this campaign to be visible for other queer/trans/questioning Muslims.”

The Change

Maiesha believes that visibility and support are important instruments of change. With this understanding, they have been focusing more and more on supporting other queer and trans Muslims.

“Instead of engaging with people who attack, I want to focus on other queer and trans Muslims. I want to focus on listening to them, seeing them, and comforting them.”

Storytelling, design, and photography by Soofia Mahmood, The 519