Queer Muslims, Being Desi and Halal Romance: Growing Up Muslim in Australia

Coming of Age: Growing Up Muslim in Australia is a book that came about, in part, so that young Muslim Australians would see themselves reflected.

‘We grew up with images of Anglo Australia that placed us on the sidelines,’ said co-editor Demet Divaroren. She said that growing up, for her, was a series of questions. What part of her was Australian? How much was Muslim, or Turkish?

In the green room before the *Coming of Age* event. From left: Tasneem Chopra, Amra Pajalic, Demet Divaroren, and, at far right, Alyena Mohummadally.

In the green room before the Coming of Age event. From left: Tasneem Chopra, Amra Pajalic, Demet Divaroren, and, at far right, Alyena Mohummadally.

Co-editor Amra Pajalic was a teenager living in Australia when Yugoslavia broke apart. ‘When I said I was Yugoslav, strangers now demanded more information: was I Bosnian, Croatian or Serbian? When I told them I was Bosnian, more questions followed: why was the war happening, why wasn’t my hair covered, and most importantly, “How is it that there are Muslims smack-bang in the middle of Europe?” These questions made me feel as if I had no right to call myself Australian, because I was the Other.’

‘There were no books to reassure us we weren’t alone,’ said Demet. After 9/11, it became harder for Muslims in Australia; perceptions changed and Muslims were pigeonholed. With this book, the editors aimed to go behind the ethnic and Muslim tags and show a variety of human stories.

Being a queer Muslim: ‘I lived with a double-edged sword inside me’

Alyena Mohummadally identifies as a queer Muslim woman, an identity that was difficult for her to feel comfortable with, or even accept, growing up. ‘Being Muslim wasn’t a big deal for a young person growing up in the 1980s,’ she said. But when she experienced her first same-sex attraction, aged 14 or 15, during a period living back in Pakistan (which her family had left when she was three), she ‘knew that wasn’t on’. She responded by immersing herself in her religion, thinking it would make her ‘less gay’. Returning to Australia in her twenties, she introduced herself to people by declaring her bisexuality, looking for acceptance. But she still wasn’t happy – now, she was suppressing her spirituality and trying to push herself away from being Muslim.

‘I lived with a double-edged sword inside me. Being queer would stab me; being Muslim would stab me.’

She said that one of the big issues for her was that, in 1994, when you googled ‘queer Muslims in Australia’, you got absolutely nothing. ‘It was very isolating. It made me feel I was alone in the world.’

Now, she has been with her partner for ten years and has two children (both with her surname).

‘If my story helps just one Muslim boy or girl see you can have two halves to one whole, can be queer and Muslim, I’ll be glad I shared my story,’ she said.

Irfan Yusuf: Being a ‘Desi’ Muslim

Pakistan-born, Sydney-raised Irfan Yusuf spoke about growing up in the 1970s in a ‘Desi’ (meaning stereotypically Indian) community. ‘A Desi is anyone who can watch Bollywood movies without needing subtitles, or needs them but can only understand every third word,’ he said.

In the 1970s, he said, his Desi elders were Muslim in the same way that his Sikh friends were Sikh, etc. In other words, Muslim was not the primary identity for them. ‘Sydney had a very small Desi community back then. We all stuck together.’ He said there was only one spice shop in Sydney then, and it was in Bondi, run by an Indian Jewish man. ‘No one cared that he was Jewish. He was Indian.’

He said that after a Pakistani-Christian boy was bullied and beaten to death at the local primary school, all the Desi parents in his community began sending their children to private schools. These schools were religious – Christian, Anglican – but no one cared about that. The kids went to mass along with everyone else.

He recalled laughing at his elders, with the other kids – but also teasing the kids who came from Pakistan to study in Australia, and were welcomed into the Desi community. ‘The names we would call them were exactly the ones we were called at school. We were just as racist.’

Halal romance and Goanna activism

‘Growing up Muslim in country Victoria was a relative non-event during the 1980s,’ said Tasneem Chopra, whose many roles include as chairperson of the Australian Muslim Women’s Centre of Human Rights. Like Irfan, she says she was ‘more conscious of my Indian-ness than my Muslim-ness’.

She talked about growing up in Bendigo, catching yabbies, riding bikes and making icy poles from orange juice. She also spoke about her family’s membership of the Indo-Australian Club, as one of about 30 families in town, which meant Indian dance classes, learning Hindi songs and ‘focusing on the promised McDonalds cheeseburger and milkshake on the way home’.

In the 1980s, she started going to Muslim youth camp, where she was ‘the diva of the camp’ with her carefully pre-selected outfits. ‘Despite the fact that girls were required to wear hijabs, the creative blend of big fringes and puffy hairdos that strategically perched under your scarf, or more often than not flowed inside it, became a coveted art form. Dress codes were no deterrent for fashionista warriors.’

At camp, ‘halal romance’ flourished – ‘a tricky journey in which halal and hormones frequently collided’. The camp was significant, Tasneem said, for placing her in a rare environment where she was ‘surrounded by Muslims 24/7.’

Her lifelong activism was spurred by a particularly Australian moment: the school assembly performance by Goanna of their hit ‘Solid Rock’, a song with lyrics ‘that proclaimed that white law had lied’.

‘Solid Rock planted the seeds of activism in my heart. It dawned on me that the state could actually be complicit in inflicting injustices and get away with it. And so began my moral outrage, which would last me well into the future.’

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