How does one come to terms with a religion that has seemed to reject you or a family that denies your full self? And where does one seek solace when even supposedly safer communities (such as the queer community) does not understand or embrace your past or your cultural identity?
These are questions that photographer and writer Samra Habib wrestles with in her memoir, We Have Always Been Here. And they are questions that many of us who are queer — Muslim and non-Muslim alike — also grapple with.
Part of why this project, Sacred and Subversive, means so much to me is that, in exploring the stories of queer people of different spiritual identities, I’ve found such similar challenges and desires. The desire to be understood and accepted by one’s family. The desire to find support and healing in the queer community. The desire to keep a spiritual grounding in the tradition of one’s upbringing or to find something to replace it.
Of course, some parts of our stories are uniquely our own, and Habib’s own story is beautifully told in her memoir.
Habib immigrated from Pakistan to Canada with her family in her early teens. In Canada, she experienced being an “other” in many ways — a Muslim, an immigrant, poor, and queer (although she wasn’t yet out to herself). But this wasn’t the first time in her life she’d gone through this. Her family is part of the Ahmadi sect of Islam, a persecuted community in Pakistan, which is the reason they fled their home country.
Habib is a queer Muslim, although she’s struggled to come to terms with both aspects of her identity. Her memoir is all about her journey toward embracing both.
“There’s no denying that my identity as a queer Muslim is the lens through which I see and engage with so many aspects of my daily life: fashion, music, literature, social media, politics, history, activism, sexuality, gender, faith, art. Basically, everything,” Habib writes.
At the apex of her story is the decision to start photographing other queer Muslims, a group who historically have lacked visibility. Queer Muslim narratives, Habib writes, are written about in academia — inaccessible to those for whom being queer and Muslim is a lived experience. “Representation is a critical way for people to recognize that their experiences — even if invisible in the mainstream — are valid.”
Her project became quite successful, with exhibits at the International Center of Photography in New York, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and SOMArts in San Francisco, among others. See Habib’s ongoing project at queermuslimproject.tumblr.com.
Habib’s is a hope-filled story of embracing her authentic self and, in doing so, finding purpose and community. She owes the title of her memoir to a conversation she had with Zainab, a trans Muslim woman that she photographed. “We have always been here, it’s just that the world wasn’t ready for us yet,” Zainab explains in the memoir. “Together, through facing distinct realities, we should be united—united in the desire to be, in the desire to enjoy being free, safe and happy … In face of the challenges, our sense of community and our shared aspirations for a better world should make us stronger.”
Habib’s photography and memoir work to strengthen the community Zainab is referring to, and it’s worth engaging with and sharing: by fellow queer Muslims wanting to be seen, by other queer folks looking for stories of hope and acceptance, and anyone looking for journeys of self-empowerment and self-love.