This item is an audio file.


Urooj Arshad Oral History Interview



DESCRIPTION
Urooj Arshad is a co-founder of the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity and the first LGBTQ+ Muslim Retreat. In the oral history, Urooj describes growing up in Pakistan and Illinois, finding LGBTQ south asian community during college, and ongoing activism to resist islamophobia and queerphobia.

Content warning: Abuse

THEMES
Gender & Sexuality

AUDIO
Duration: 02:05:32

ADDITIONAL METADATA
Date: March 28, 2020
Type: Oral History
Source: Archival Creators Fellowship Program
Creator: Mustafa Saif, Todd Franson
Location: Washington, DC

TRANSCRIPTION
Urooj Arshad:
I was born in Karachi, Pakistan, born in 1975 and I grew up there until my family immigrated in ‘92 when I was 16. I grew up in this neighborhood called PECHS, it’s sort of a middle class neighborhood in Karachi and I went to the school also called PECHS Girls School. It was a private school, in terms of stratification of class in Pakistan, there just really just shows up a lot in the education system. And so there's the Catholic schools, there are sort of the more premier elite schools. So my school was sort of middle tier, so it was private, my instruction was in English. I did O levels, but it wasn't in sort of a very elite setting. And actually looking back, it was also kind of a political setting because it was run by women; I remember when Faiz Ahmad Faiz died we got a holiday off for that. I just think looking back, it was a really interesting mix of both sort of a British education, but also a Pakistani radical kind of politics. I look back and appreciate it because of course now Pakistan looks really different from when I was growing up there. One of the other things that I think is kind of important around my growing up there was I grew up during the dictatorship of Zia-ul-Haq who in the ‘80s - when he came to power, he was the first leader in Pakistan that really conflated Islam and the nation in a way that hadn't been done before. There were of course a lot of concessions to the right wing that were already given, but he kind of came in and really conflated Islam in Pakistan in a way that we're still sort of what I think of as paying the price for, because when Pakistan was founded, there was just a lot of ways that the different provinces, especially when you think about Balochistan, weren't necessarily kind of brought into the idea of Pakistan, right? So, what does it mean to bring all these different ethnicities together into this one nation? And what it was, the reason given was Islam. And I think that over time there is a way that even democratic governments have pandered to sort of the right wing Muslim movements in Pakistan. But Zia-ul-Haq was the first that kind of really conflated that idea of to be a good Muslim is to be a good Pakistani, and to be a good Pakistani is to be a good Muslim. And one of the things that also happened was the Hudood ordinances that sort of pushed and marginalized women's rights and there was a lot of activism around it.

But I was a young person. I grew up in an apolitical family. My mom was a teacher in a military school, so she taught kids - a low income school, not the kind of school that I was going to. Also the disparities within growing up - I feel like my mom came from a background where she wasn't elite in the way my dad was. We grew up middle-class, but my dad had access more to a cultural kind of elite access. I went to boarding school. His dad was in civil service during partition. So I also grew up in a mixed class home where my mom was more religious and my dad wasn't, and so he would drink and party and there was just a lot of tension growing up that I saw between them. So I just grew up with a lot of conflicting messages around religion. I grew up during a time where politically there were a lot of changes going on in the country. And that I started to internalize - I felt even during the dictatorship that things were changing so quickly, and even though I was a young person, I would see it. I would see some of the markers of what it meant for the country to change the family. I started to internalize a lot of cultural messages that I was getting about being a young woman. So growing up, I was fine when I was young, when I was a kid, but then when I was coming into through my teenage years, I started to really kind of shutdown because I was feeling, I think what I was feeling was a feminist understanding of things, but no one around me was talking about feminism. There wasn't any, there was nothing that I could see and look to that could make me feel like, oh, what I'm feeling is this. So things like how I was treated differently than my brothers - not around education cause I think a lot of times when I talk to people in the West about Pakistan they're just like, “Oh, it's so hard, it must be so hard for women to get education.” And they always think about Malala and I'm just like okay, Malala is a very specific experience for Pakistan, but that's not everyone right? I grew up and that access to education wasn't the problem, but there was cultural stuff that was happening: being policed by my own friends around different things. I didn't want to start wearing a dupatta right away, but I remember one of my classmates was like, “Oh, you should really start wearing one and things like that that were making me feel there was a gender, there was a policing around my gender going on - being groped in public or being stared at by men in public, that was just very common occurrences. And this expectation of my role in the family was that I was a guest, that eventually I will be married and I will go to my permanent home. All those things were really hard for me to live with. The idea of what it meant for me to be a good daughter, for me to not ever have an opinion or never get angry because if I did, then what would people say? And that would just start, it felt like a lot of pressure. And so when I think a lot about when people ask me, “were you out?” And I remember, looking back, having crushes on my classmates, but I went to an all girls school, but to me it was more around the way I was understood as a young woman in a Pakistani context and even in Karachi, a super cosmopolitan city.

Mustafa:
Earlier you said that you grew up in an apolitical family. Can you talk a little bit more about if there was a particular bend or how were people reacting to the dictatorship, both with your mom, your dad, and then at school? What were the leanings that you were feeling?

Urooj:
There was no conversation. My mom taught in a military school, so she was very in awe of the military, I think my family, at least my mom. I don't actually know, my dad passed away when I was 20, so I really don't have an understanding of what he would have thought, but my mom was definitely I think much more from that perspective that many liberal Pakistanis have which is that Pakistan as a nation needs military, they need a military sort of intervention to kind of stay in place. I think she probably has more of that understanding, she's very proud of having worked in a military system. I do have a lot of respect for her as a teacher, because these kids didn't have many resources. I remember her trying to collect pencils from us to take to school and to try to kind of support these young people. I just remember when Zia-ul-Haq died my mom was really upset and I just remember that was sort of the feel that I got from her. And then in school I remember that. So Karachi in those times, there was a lot of turmoil in Karachi, there was a rise of the MQM and there were a lot of political gangs in Karachi. Before in the 80s, Karachi was sort of very unique in a way, I mean, this is the biggest city and it had this really internal kind of political warfare going on that really became battlegrounds. Karachi had just become a battleground around this political movement of MQM and so we also saw a lot of killings, a lot of bombings. I remember my mom once came and we recently talked about this incident where she had to be evacuated from school because there were all these kids, and a certain political party that kind of climbed into the school in the courtyard of the school. And then the police came and there was a shooting and they had to get out. But my mom stayed until the end until all the kids came and their parents got them. So that is the context we were living in. There were bombings, Karachi was in huge turmoil when I was growing up. So I remember my teachers showing us a photo of these burned bodies and saying this is what happens when you get involved in politics. So please do not get involved in politics. That was pretty much our only, and I still remember it cause it was so jarring. And of course photos of dead bodies in Pakistan are much more easily shown than here. So that's just in context it wasn't super out of my context, but at the same time, it was still very scary to have your teachers be, don't ever think about it.

So that was my context, super apolitical, but just really where I think all my anger was coming from was more of the cultural kind of push back that I was feeling towards just culturally what I was experiencing. Now looking at the Aurat Marches and all of the beautiful ways that women are mobilizing there, I'm just “oh my God”. I wonder what that would've looked like for me if I'd seen that. And I know now that there was women's action that was fighting Zia-ul-Haq and they would protest, but I had no idea, and I was completely protected from anything because I would go to school and then come back home. My movements were very restricted, and just like my friends, it wasn't anything out of the ordinary, but it’s just that things were bad in Pakistan, I'm sorry, specifically Karachi. And actually recently, years after immigrating here, I found out that my mom told me, my dad told my mom after we'd already immigrated, that he said that we left, but he wasn't really keen on leaving, they were older immigrants and my dad was already must've been 55 and my mom was probably in her late forties. And so they were already almost retirement age, they knew it was going to be difficult to come here that age, but they left, initially they didn't want to leave, or my dad didn't want to leave, but then he left. He decided to leave because he said that he got informed at least one phone call, maybe a few threatening that people will kidnap me and that is really scary and I couldn't have imagined him having to. And we're not wealthy, we're not in politics, but it was the kind of time where people were just going after other people. And it would have been really easy because even if it's a city of millions of people, it's really easy to track, people know how to track people down. So I didn't understand all of it then, of course, looking back, I'm like, “Oh my god”.

Mustafa:
Who did you consider a part of your family when you were growing up?

Urooj:
For me it was my dad, my mom and my two younger brothers, and I was very close to some friends from schools. So I had three friends from school that I was very close to, one of them was my best friend. So I was always at her place, or if she was at my place, I kinda grew up with her. I was born off of Main Tariq Road, which is where my dad's dad, after partition happened, my dad's family moved directly to Karachi cause it was the capital at the time and my mom's family made their way through Lahore, so they were, so they, both from the Punjab, Indian side of Punjab and ended up immigrating to Pakistan. My dad's dad built this big mansion and I was born there. And so they were my aunties and uncles also were living there, cousins. So for my first, I think eight years of my life, I grew up there, but then we moved to our own kind of more nuclear family apartment. And then we just kind of moved around in Karachi until we left for the US.

Mustafa:
You described some of these feminist tensions that were building in you during this time that you were able to think about more recently. Do you think you had, with your friends or other people in your community, were you able to talk about those?

Urooj:
No, there was no, not even with my close friends. I think I remember trying to ask to have a conversation about getting a period. But no, it was just, there was nothing. There wasn't any outside of our studies and our studies didn’t include anything that was political or even around sexual health or reproductive health. I do a lot of that work now and back then we didn't have any education (around that). Actually this is a pivotal point in my understanding of things: when I got my period, I was 12 and I didn't know what it was. And I thought I was pregnant because the only message that I got ever about anything was that God forbid you ever got pregnant without marriage. And so, because I had no idea of how anything worked, I thought I was pregnant. And then my mom saw that I had my period and she had this stern conversation with me. She's like, “this is your period. You'll have it for the rest of your life and you better stay away from boys. And no one should see this, your dad, your brothers”, and I was like, “first of all, I'm not around boys. I go to an all girls school, at what point in my life is that going to happen? And also why should I be ashamed of it?” Once I realized that it was a natural and it was just something that my body did, then I started questioning why I should be ashamed of it or why I should not be able to talk about it and so that was, I would say, kind of a pivotal point in my sort of understanding of a feminist understanding of myself without actually having the words for it or having anyone to talk to about it. And this is obviously pre-internet, so there wasn't any way to, I didn't have any access to anything.

Mustafa:
What was your vision for your future at that time? What did you hope to become or be like as an adult?

Urooj:
I just really wanted independence. I just wanted more agency over my body and my thoughts and my future, which was completely not, which was out of the question in the way that I understood my life to be, like I will get married. And again, it wasn't so much about queerness for me at that point, but it was more about an agency, and perhaps that is wrapped up in queerness, but agency over my future and not having other people tell me how to dress or how to be, or how not be angry. And so one thing actually that I forgot to mention is that in the last few years of my life in Pakistan, I started dressing a very different way, cause I'm femme and I love all the things that are colorful and ‘lingy’ but I moved into this sort of part of my life where the only agency I had was literally on the clothes I could wear. So I would get very, somber, mostly white clothes made and no jewelry, just sort of very, very as removed from femininity if I could, because I felt that was the only way I would stop getting attraction from men and from these ways that I didn't want to. And that was at least one way for me to have agency over me, over my body and over what and how I was expressing myself. And also definitely going to the West was part of it, even though we immigrated, so it was a bit different than how some other people get to the US but I just thought I had this idea of being more independent there and being able to do what I wanted to, travel, but also growing up, I knew that access to the West was not possible. I remember some of the friends I grew up with were wealthier or wealthy. And one of them, my best friend, went to the US and traveled around with her family. I remember I asked my mom once if we could do that, and she's like, “yeah, if we sell everything”, and I was like “okay, so that's not going to happen”. My first time on the plane was when we were leaving. I also desperately just wanted more access to the West for whatever it promised, which coming here, then it's like, “oh, okay”, it's not everything that it’s made out to be, but in that moment, I wanted to have that as well.

Mustafa:
So what year did your family immigrate, where did they immigrate to and was it all five of you?

Urooj:
So they immigrated in ‘92 based on my dad's brother's sponsorship, who was already in the Chicago suburbs. And so we immigrated there in ‘92. And all of us, yeah, just a one way ticket to the US.

Mustafa:
And it sounds like you were somewhat optimistic or excited for this move. Were there things you were scared of or things you were sad to miss about leaving Karachi?

Urooj:
Yeah, I was sad to leave my friends. We had just finished O Levels, so it kind of was, I didn't have an interruption in my school, so it was literally my exam. So you sit for the exams and then you wait a few months for them to be released and the results would come back. And so we were all, that was the summer we were all anxiously waiting for our exam results. And then our school called and we all ran over there and it was two days before I think we were scheduled to leave, so it was very dramatic. The nice thing was that I was able to kind of complete that set of education that all of my life was building up towards. The class that I started with was a class that we moved, each grade we kind of moved together and we were kind of a community of really close friends. I had a few friends in there, but, the entire class was maybe, I can't remember now, 20 plus people. So you just are with them the entire time. So I'm glad that I had that ending kind of closure with them, [00:20:00] but I certainly, my close, close friends, I certainly missed. And I remember just spending some last two days with my best friend and just kind of, it's hard, how do you say goodbye? So I would say probably my friends and just kind of my teachers, who we just adored and, yeah. I mean, in that moment, of course, now I go back and have a lot more things that I missed, but in that moment that was, yeah. And I was a teenager, so it makes sense that I was going to miss my peers and that immediate kind of community that I had.

Mustafa:
And what were your first few days or first few months in Chicago like?

Urooj:
Yeah, so they were really tough. So. We were in the Chicago suburbs and we stayed with my uncle, so he has a wife and three kids. So my cousins, we stayed with them and it was pretty rough because my uncle had come to the US in the 70s, so he had been here for a few decades, very settled in the suburban life. And we just, we weren't welcome there. So even before we, so it's weird because he is the one who sponsored us and kind of made it all possible. And we'll always be grateful for him for that. But when we were about to come, he was like, “well, things are really hard.” I don't know, what it was ‘92, so I don't know what the economy was like, but he was like, “it would be terrible if you ended up working in a Dunkin’ Donuts” and to my family, right? He was starting to get cold feet, it felt like, but my, my parents had made a decision and they had sold everything, it's like we're coming. And so we got there and got to their place and it's very different coming from a cosmopolitan city like Karachi and then kind of getting dropped into the middle of a Midwestern suburb. It's so different in terms of just the geography of how things work. And there are no markets around just all this suburban land and yards and the yards that no one hangs out in. We got into trouble for hanging out in the front yard, things like that that we just didn't know about. And cause I guess the neighbors complained that we were hanging out in the yard. Just things like that, but also my aunt ran a strict household and we just didn't feel we were welcome. I remember she was driving me somewhere to get my shots for before starting school there. And she's like, “did you have a, do you have a return ticket?” and I was like “no, we do not have a return ticket”. It just felt she was asking me and I didn't know what to say because this is way above my - all I know is that this is not okay what you're asking. But, I also am so concerned that you're asking, but also I'm a teenager. What do you want from me? And so things like that, and then we weren't allowed in the kitchen. So sometimes we'll go hungry. It was really, it was just, it was tough, and no one was welcoming. It just felt like we were an imposition. And I think it's sad because in the Pakistani context, it's really hard because your hospitality is such a big thing, but unfortunately with my family, people will say that they were welcome, but then everything in their behavior just said something else. So, no one actually talks about it, or actually says anything. And I can imagine that they were probably stressed out to host another family, but it just felt really scary to know that we weren't welcome there. And I was too young to know what the plan, what my parents' plan was or how we would survive in this new place.

And then of course starting school was pretty rough. So once we came in August,I think I came three weeks into my senior year. So I enrolled in senior year of high school, and I remember going to the admissions place and I showed them my University of Cambridge results, which is where my results from O Levels. And the person looked at me and said, “why are you, what are you doing in high school?”, and at that moment I was like, “oh, you have no idea what this is. Oh, okay.” It was this moment of like, okay, so everything I've worked for my entire life of this moment is completely...this doesn't exist in your eyes. You have no idea what this is or what this means or, so things like that were just really, it was really tough, and then to worry about my parents and how they're going to make a living. My dad ended up getting a job at a gas station, so when we went from middle-class, both of my parents having white collar jobs to immediately going into working class careers. And then my mom got a job at a daycare center. We did end up moving out pretty quickly. I think my mom actually remembers the exact days and I have it in my notes somewhere, but she remembers it's a month, basically was a month and a half and they were out and they rented their first apartment. And my father started driving, because of course he had to learn how to drive. He didn't have a US driver's license. So all these things that were really tough, but also looking back and comparing to what's happening with immigration now. Also really lucky for us that we came when we did and we had green cards, but yeah, it was, it was tough.

And then high school was a whole other situation. Lots of racism, I experienced a ton of racism there, some of the highlights, that’s what I always talk about because I think it's just so revealing of the way things are. So no teachers didn't know how to pronounce my name, didn't attempt to pronounce my name, but one teacher in class in front of everyone said, “can I just call you ‘Paki’?” And everyone laughed. And I didn't have an experience of racism before, so I didn't actually understand. And so I was talking to someone, another friend who's Pakistani, and she was like, that's not, that's not right, so it was a lot of racist interactions. And just also coming into senior year, three weeks in, that's a pretty crappy thing to do to begin with. But then to just also come from another country and people asking stuff like, “do you have cars in Pakistan?” I was shocked cause it was ‘92, Bill Clinton was running for president and I was watching, I had been watching CNN in Pakistan cause that was one of the channels that used to start airing there. And I really liked Bill Clinton. And I was telling my uncle like, “I hope you work for Bill Clinton!”. That was my, I mean, so sure, maybe it was also a skewed understanding of the US but at least I had some understanding of the US , and then to interact with people who are like “do you have cars there?”, it's just shocking.

Mustafa:
Was it also an adjustment going from an all girl's school to the school in Chicago?

Urooj:
Yeah I hadn't really interacted with men before in that way, but I think I was also dealing with so much other stuff too, but yeah I remember going to gym class and navigating that because I never wore shorts and also had never shaved my legs. And so suddenly I have to figure that, everything just felt such a hard thing to navigate and my parents weren't, they weren't going to be able to help me figure it out. So also, really early on realizing that I had to rely on whatever limited resources I had to figure this out.

Mustafa:
Within your family, what was your role? You have two younger siblings. Were you supposed to, did you feel you had to help them navigate this world and your parents, or were you sort of supposed to stay out of it?

Urooj:
Yeah, I mean, I think I did help a little bit. Yeah, but I think probably my primary role was to just take care of myself, cause then my youngest brother was quite young, so I can't, I don't remember if I was super involved in their enrolling of school and stuff like that. But I had to quickly figure out colleges, that was my next big thing because I was on, because of my parents, I was on this medical school track from when I was very little. And so they were like, “you have to go, you cannot lose a year, you have to go to college, you're in 12th grade.” But by that time everyone had already applied for colleges and gotten in, in their junior year. I had to take the SATs, I had to take TOEFL to get my English, sort of to confirm that indeed, yes, my English was good, and I had to wait for my GPA from the first semester until I could apply. And so it was very late, so that was my big sort of thing was to just get enrolled, in one year to get enrolled in all of the prerequisites to graduate from high school and try to apply for colleges and financial aid. And I did that kind of basically on my own, but I had a friend who was also from a Pakistani family who had been in the US for a while and was on her way out. Her dad worked at the Pakistani, one of the Pakistani banks, and he had been assigned in the US so she was just one of those people that I'm so grateful for because she really made it possible. I didn't know basic things. I never, I remember having to fill out the bubble forms, when you fill out a bubble. And I’d never seen that. I was like, “I don't know, what is this? How do I even fill this out?” And just basic things, just so many things to navigate. And she was incredibly helpful in that, so I had her as a support system.

So I did end up applying to colleges that made sense that even either I was getting letters from, or just my guidance counselor was helping me figure out. But of course, where I was in the Chicago suburbs, it was the big school that everyone wanted to get into was University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana. So there wasn't really a concept of liberal arts colleges, East coast, that was not in the picture, but it was sort of you got into that school, that was a big deal. And, and the, the day for that had passed, the application process was already over. And cause I still remember having to call colleges and just asking them for application packets. And so when I remember calling them, they were like, “we're not accepting students anymore”. And, and it was just one of those things where you just think back, when I think back, I'm like oh, these little moments where it just all felt connected. And so I remember seeing my guidance counselor on a school trip on a bus. And I told him about it and he's like, “oh, I will write to them and explain what the special circumstances that you are in”. And so I went ahead and applied and I got in. Looking back, I don't know, that was probably not the right school for me, which I'll get into later.

But in that moment it was huge, because I got into the school that everyone wanted to get into in my school, and so that's where I ended up going. I did end up, me and my family, we visited this one other college, which was a liberal arts college in Wisconsin, which looking back, I'm like oh, I should have gone to college. I won this major scholarship to go there. But I remember rejecting them because I was like you don't have a pre med program and which doesn't make any sense. And I wish I had people who told me that you don't actually, there is no such thing really. But I didn't have a lot of guidance, so I decided to go to this school that everyone's like, “yeah, it's a great school”. I mean, it is a great school.

Mustafa:
Were you excited about that new independence or were you anxious and apprehensive about it?

Urooj:
Both, because I'd never left, never left my family before and then just started this new journey. Yeah, it was really scary. But yeah, I think I've, I just remember them driving me and then them saying goodbye and just kind of, I never, that had never happened before. And suddenly I'm in this thousands of people university and I don't know anyone really. I didn't know anyone. So yeah, it was, it was scary. And, but I don't think, I felt, looking back, I'm like, “Holy shit”, but right in that moment I was just trying to put a brave face on and kind of feel excited for the next chapter.

My first year was pretty rough. I was assigned a random roommate who was from the Chicago suburbs. I also ended up in this really interesting dormitory. So when I was filling out my application for residence halls I was like, again, I don't know. I have no one to tell me who’d been there, who can guide me, in terms of where I would have liked to live, cause there are two, there’s Champaign part of town and then there’s Urbana part of town. But there were two dorms that stood out to me. So one of them was an artist in residence dorm. So they had artists visiting throughout the year. But you had to write an essay to apply for that dorm. And then the other dorm, which was right next to it, was a women's only dorm. So men weren't allowed to visit or whatnot. And I was like, “Oh, this is interesting, at least it’s something to go off of.” And so I thought about it, I was like, oh, I don't know. Which one would be more interesting. And then I was like, oh, let me apply for the one that actually requires an essay. So I wrote an essay, got into the dorm, great. And it turns out, which is just hilarious, again, these little dots that connect to my life or the way that maybe they're coincidences, but I like to believe that they were some kind of, the universe pointing me in the right direction. And it turned out that that's where the dorm, where all the nerds and all the queers and all the gothic kids, just that's where they would go. It was sort of a nerdy, out of the entirety of the dorm system, it was considered a little bit of a yeah, it's the space where all the outcasts, so to speak, would hang out.

So that ultimately helped me really meet a lot of queer people and just kind of a really great sort of very quick exposure to so many different ways of being. But my roommate was a racist. So I met her my first day, after my parents dropped me off. And I remember everyone had these comforters and matching comforters and, and I didn't, cause we didn't have comforters in Pakistan, we didn't have that matching kind of stuff. So I remember calling my family and being like, “so there's these things that everyone has, can I, can you send them to me or can you bring”. I was just like, I don't know, I don’t have a comforter and what is the thing? And so things like that that were just different about, kind of the standard way of everyone else. But she, I remember her asking me, she’s like, “I don't understand, I have a hard time understanding you. Do you have a hard time understanding me?” And I'm like, “no”. And just feeling really bad. And then over time, I didn't have any friends, I would hang out with her and her boyfriend that she met pretty quickly, I think even during orientation. And just over hearing her talk to her friends and she would go in the closet and talk to her friends and she's like, “oh, she has no common sense.”

Because I didn't know things, but just overhearing her talk about me that way was really heartbreaking cause I didn't, I thought that she was a friend, and I started getting depressed, just sort of navigating the huge space that that university is, it's the campus is huge. You're just a number, it's not sort of going to a liberal arts school where you're actually a person. It's just a number, your social security number. And I also didn't have the, I think for some of the international students, they had a little bit more of a community, but because I wasn't considered, I was an in-state resident, which is good in terms of my tuition, but I didn't have anything to kind of really, I didn't have a support system. So that was really tough, navigating that. And I had these pre med classes. I was in biology and chemistry and they were very cutthroat, it was a very kind of cutthroat kind of system where students were really mean to each other, and just tried to get ahead. So yeah, it was a pretty miserable year my first year.

My RA was South Asian and I felt she saw a little bit of what was happening and tried to kind of intervene or try to kind of support me. But I think I was so in denial. I just wanted to assimilate so desperately, that I didn't even, I wasn't even ready to have a conversation around anything, about difference or being different. And, I remember I did try to, here are a lot of Indians, specifically on campus, and they're very much those suburban born raised second generation Indians that are trying to. So there was this organization that would put on India night and was this fashion show and it's very kind of, I don't know, just very basic in the way of their understanding of, and it's very Indian, right? I wasn't, I'm not Indian, but I wanted to fit in or I wanted to have access to anything? And so I kind of joined and I was in fashion night. But I think I remember overhearing someone say, when I was auditioning or when I was sitting around, “can you imagine if someone was...”, I can't remember now if it was “queer” or “Muslim”, honestly, I don't remember, but I felt both of them would have been problematic, and so I know I'm not that. So I think my first year and maybe my second year, it was a lot of trying different things and being, that's not what I am, or that's not what I want, but I don't know what it is that I want. I remember being dragged to a beer party, completely packed with freshman, promise of beer. And I was just like, “what?”, but I also wanted to, the one thing that was, I wanted to be open to everything. I didn't want to be like, “oh no, I'm from Pakistan”, or “I'm Muslim. I'm not gonna go have alcohol, or I'm not gonna…”, and maybe it was hard in the sense that I then didn't have anything to hold onto, but I also was very much like I want to try all the things.

And so it was a lot of process of elimination that I was starting to understand about myself. I did end up making some friends, my first set of white friends who were a little bit more open and still very liberal and racist, but they didn't think they were racist, those kinds of people. And I think the entire system of the University of Champaign-Urbana is that it’s super white, but liberal, liberal, and yet so racist, and very Midwestern in that way. So my second year I ended up rooming with a friend of mine, a white friend, who I had become friends with. And so marginally better, starting to, at least have some sense of people and community. The other thing that happened was that I didn't want to go home for spring break cause I'm going back to my family, I have an abusive brother, I have two younger brothers and the older one of the two is super abusive and I didn't want to go home for spring break.

So I signed up for alternative spring break and I signed up for a, I don't know if you know about Patch Adams, but he is this hippie doctor. He basically had a, so there was a program to go to his commune in West Virginia [00:40:00] where he supposedly had a hospital, and so I signed up for it thinking, “Oh, well that's great”. Again, interesting coincidence or what, a universe pointing me in the right direction? I don't know, but I just decided to sign up for it because, “oh, that's a medical school, great. This is going to be really good for my medical, my application”. So my first, yeah, it must've been my first year of spring break. I signed up for it and then I went with these folks who, some of them ended up being my friends, but predominantly white, hippies, right? So I basically ended up landing in the middle of hippies and going to this commune of hippies. There was no, there was no hospital. So that was, but I ended up living off of a real commune and getting to, and that I thought it was how Americans were. So that was very confusing because that was my, I was my “oh, okay”. And just having no judgment around it, no, kind of, I'm like, “oh, this is interesting, everything was interesting”. And so I think, of course that shaped my initial kind of view of the US and, or at least some kind of US culture. And then we continued to go back for two more years, on our own, so that was a whole thing.

So I feel I was trying to find my people. I was trying to find my community. And those are some of the early years sort of being around white people, being around hippies and really finding this interesting kind of space, an alternative space within a pretty mainstream institution, which started to get to some of the things that I think I was understanding about myself, which is I'm also not a mainstream person. I hadn't come out yet, and so in my junior year, I became an RA and I moved to another dorm, so no longer at the queer dorm. But had started to meet a lot of queer people, had started to really understand, meeting folks that were queer. And also I ended up in a women's studies class. It was one of those liberal arts classes that I needed to take to graduate. And again, I think it was something medical anthropology or something like that, but it was a women's studies class. And, so you can tell I was in my little zone, I was trying to be medical, medical, medical, medical, but also at the same time being exposed to all these things, which I think is the beauty of college. And taking this class changed everything. I was like, “oh my God. This is the language that I have been waiting for”. Just sort of understanding feminism, understanding that there's a way to be in this world, and that what I have been feeling all this time has actually language and resources and theory and all these things that I didn't know existed. So that was huge.

So that kind of introduced me to the world of women's studies. And so for my third year, my junior year is when I came out, and I was 19, and I came out and I was already an RA, so I was just kind of transitioning. I think I started transitioning from, sort of my first set of white friends into this other world, which was because as I came out, I started understanding myself as a person of color in a way that I hadn't in the previous years. I was from Pakistan and I didn't grow up here. And so I didn't understand racism in the way that I think other folks did, obviously. Coming out is what made me realize I'm not like white people. Cause I remember going to a support group. It was for residential life people and that was a big deal to me because I’d never ever gone to a space. It was basically going to the space meant that I was coming out to other people than just a few friends. And, and I think it was just all white, and I remember someone asked me, “do you have anyone gay in your family?” And I was like “no” and also I was like, “that is not, I don't know why you think gay and family together. That doesn't make any sense to me”. And it just made me realize that holy shit, you don't actually understand what I'm going through, you have no idea what this means for me. It's one of those things where I was well, I'm like them, but I'm not like them, so what am I like? And it was just trying to figure that out was the next piece of the process for me.

Mustafa:
So what led to you coming out? What were the experiences you were having leading up to that?

Urooj:
Yeah, so I think for me, going to the, I really loved taking my women's studies class and I ended up meeting other like-minded women, mostly white at that point. But I really liked it, I really appreciated that kind of community. And then I think that led me to going back to my first ‘Take Back The Night’ and joining, I think probably, I also started, I think joining some groups, around campus and probably was going, starting to go to ‘Take Back The Night’ organizing meetings. I think the first one I felt really empowered by. And I want to say that by the second one, by the next one, I was one of the core organizers and I'm like is that right? But I was definitely co-organizer for one ‘Take Back The Night’, and I think that might've been my next one. So I think I had started to take more women's studies classes. I also switched to Sociology. So that was another big thing that happened was that I went from a bio major, so my junior year when I was starting to come out. So I came out initially, I think just because I was around all these people and I think it made me really, so it was more theoretical. I hadn't had a sexual experience, but I think it was for me more, well why not though? It was one of those, well why can I not be queer? I came out as bi cause I was, well, I can be bi, I haven't had any sexual experiences, but nothing is, in my experience, is telling me that I cannot be, so it was more that than anything else. It was more of a theoretical, understanding at the point of my sexuality, more than actually experiencing something or an experience.

Mustafa:
And in terms of these conversations you're having with yourself to navigate that, did Islam play any role in that? And did you have any fears about your family?

Urooj:
Well, so the other thing that happened is that I basically, after my commune experience and just being around, so one of the things that the commune was like everyone kind of slept on the same floor and people showered together and all these things that I was just, there's no way that I can understand this in my head as Muslim. And so I think for me it just, I kind of what I say, I put Islam on hold, it was kinda, it was there, but I kind of decided to put it kinda on the side, cause I couldn't think about how to interact in the way that I was being in the world and also understand it to be Muslim. Or how does it relate to my understanding of Islam? I was of course afraid. I mean, I think my biggest fear, after I came out, my biggest fear was getting married, in an arranged marriage, that was my fear for a very long time. But that was probably I would say my biggest fear, was that somehow that would happen and I would lose all agency on my, over my body and my sexuality, but I didn't, it was so far back. I'd pushed it so far back, because I couldn't, I just couldn't think about the experiences I was having. There was no one Muslim, no one was talking about Islam. There was a complete absence. I mean this is also pre 9/11. Right? There was a complete absence of any narrative, even if it looks problematic, there was nothing. I remember I did meet, as I was coming out, my first Pakistani first queer person that I met. I was just in complete, in shock and she was fierce. And I remember she was an artist and I'd gone to something that she was performing, just really amazed by meeting someone like her.

But again, it was a very white space, so there just wasn't a lot of people that I was meeting that I felt I could relate to, but I think it was a lot more I couldn't relate to these white folks. But I came out in a very white context, and it was only after I came out and only after I started thinking more about it. I went to a lot of different support groups and just didn't feel right about them until I went to the folks of color support group on campus. And that's really, that's really the first time that I was like, “oh my God, this is, this is it. This is what feels like community and home to me”. And I'm friends with one of the people still who I met there. So just, it meant a lot to finally figure out where I actually fit in. And it came along with sort of my understanding of myself as a person of color. And I switched to sociology and women's studies. I did a minor in women’s studies. So I ultimately ended up taking a lot of courses and really became super mobilized and angry around being, what it meant to live in a white supremacist culture. I started to understand all of it and in just this huge way, and I just went for it. I went for the anger. I went for all of it, and that was a very intense experience. But I transitioned from coming out of this white space and to moving into predominantly people of color spaces on campus, which were, there weren't a lot of them. I also ended up starting to become acquainted with this organization in Chicago called Khuli Zaban, that no longer exists. But they were, one of the founders, her girlfriend was going to Champaign-Urbana. And so she's, her girlfriend sees me walking around campus and rainbow flag, rainbow rings back in the day when people used to wear those. And she was like, “Hey, my girlfriend is South Asian and so, she lives in Chicago, but she went to Champaign-Urbana, I'm sure she would love to meet you”, cause at that point, this is ‘95, ‘96. At that point it was still a big deal for South Asian, South Asian queers across the country were very much connected because there wasn't that many people. And so people would know of each other, especially the more activist folk. And so the Khuli Zaban people came to Champaign-Urbana a lot of them had gone to school. There was some event, they came and they wanted to meet me. And I was just, I remember going to dinner with them and I was completely, I don't understand. I don't know how to process this. I don't understand it. I just was completely overwhelmed by it. And they were also mostly second generation. And I think there was just a lot of stuff going on for me as first generation. Someone who was trying to understand being here and then feeling like having to assimilate and then suddenly I'm thrown into this South Asian queer space and I just don't understand how to. And it was also mostly Indian, so I think there were just so many things going on that was different and similar and it was just really tough. I kind of, I'm grateful for it.

But that first meeting was very intense and I just was completely just shutting down. I was just like, “what is happening?” It was shocking to even know that something, to me, that something like that could exist because in my head, unfortunately, I think I also had conflated queerness with whiteness in some ways and that's taken a lot of years to unlearn. But I think in that moment it felt so close to home. It was just too much, because to me the process of coming out meant separating from my family in many ways, not physically, but more in my head and emotionally. I couldn't have imagined that there were other people like me, which I think is a very common experience. That feeling of I’m the only one, and not even knowing what to do if you meet other people like you, that heartbreak or that pain that suddenly someone else sees you is just too much.

I came out my sophomore year, going into junior year, became a resident advisor. And then that year, that year, the winter of my junior year, my dad died. I was 20, so just giving you perspective, I came out at 19, so at this point I was 20, and it was very sudden. It was, he was a smoker and he just, probably was sick for a long time, but was working and kind of just doing what he had to do to be in this country. So on my birthday, during Thanksgiving I went home and he had really been coughing a lot and just not well. And so my mom and my uncle took him to the hospital and he didn't come back. So my mom and my uncle came back and they were like, “he's really sick, he has lung cancer”, and they're telling us that he's got about six months to live. And so that was sort of my Thanksgiving break. And I went to see him. He was already on a ventilator and I said I'll see you soon. Cause I had to go back to school to finish my papers and this is, yeah, I remember, cause this is still my science, I was still doing my sciences. I hadn't switched officially to sociology. And then he died three weeks later. So that was that kind of just, that was a lot. So I was coming out and then my dad died. My brother started outing me, my abusive brother, to my mom as a dyke, cause I had come out to him, he had come to get me from college. And so I'd come out. At that point, I started to come out to a lot of people and he started outing me. And so I just was like, I can't stay here. I have to go back to school. I don't think I can take the semester off or anything like that because I, this is worse than going back to school, even if I haven't processed my grief. And so I went back to school, and so started my junior, the second part of my junior year in 1996. So, and I think around that time a lot of, yeah, I think I already changed my major to sociology because I remember telling my dad and he was like, “no, that's not, that's not possible”. That was probably one of the last conversations I had with him. So I, yeah, went back to school. It was really, really, really rough cause I hadn't really grieved and I couldn't, I felt I would kind of fall apart and I couldn't because there was no one to catch me. I couldn't go home. I had to kind of keep going in the best way I could. And so in ‘96, I started, went back to school.

And that summer I went back, I went to Pakistan with my mom for the first time. So, and I hadn't been in three years. So all of this, it's three years of my life in the US. I am exhausted just talking about it. So basically we went back to grieve, my mom really wanted to go back home, cause what does it mean to grieve in a country that's a foreign country to you? So, yeah, we went back and then we had another one of those terrible housing situations where my aunt, my cousin was like, “Hey, you can come stay with us”. And then it was very quickly obvious that we shouldn't. Anyway, it was just a rough time there because I was coming out. I was very unhappy to be there. We ended up staying at my mom's brother's place and my auntie was like, “Well, she might go to the West, but she still has to cook for her husband. Why doesn’t she, why doesn’t she cook?” And I just stormed off. I was like, “well he can cook for himself”. And I just left. And then my mom was crying and it was just, so it was tough, cause I was 20 so I was that right age for starting to have those conversations around marriage. And it was very, it was very scary.

Mustafa:
And you mentioned that you were outed to your mom already. What was her reaction to that?

Urooj:
Oh, she didn't believe me. I mean, she didn't know what my brother was saying. What is, what is dyke, there is no word for it in Urdu. What? Yeah. No, she didn't really, she just, no, that came later. But in that moment she didn't understand what was happening, but I had started to, I started, so speaking of. So I had this whole other thing that where I, cause I came out in a really white space, Champaign-Urbana is 20 years behind an urban queer scene. So you either saw folks who were white, androgynous, lesbian type situation, or you would see maybe more punkish kind of expression of queerness. So very limited and definitely not people of color. And I was just really wanting to be read as queer. So I started shaving my head and dying my hair and wearing Doc Martens, the whole thing, the whole look. And so my mom, I think probably was like, “What is happening? Why is she shaving her head and all these things?” But I think that came a little later. So yeah, went back to Pakistan. That was difficult. And then I came back and was really struggling because the reinforcement of marriage, and especially now that my dad had died. I just didn't see how I will have a future as someone who was queer and wanted to have independence on my life.

So I reached back out to Khuli Zaban and I was ready. And the coordinator was great and she said, “someone is actually, we're having a party. Someone is coming from Champaign-Urbana and you should just totally get a ride with him”, cause of course I also didn't have resources to be going up and down to Chicago all the time. And, but I did, I took her on that offer and then I started going back actually pretty regularly. I would just take the Greyhound, I would go to the city, I would stay with her. She was really amazing and kind of providing me with housing. And it really saved me in many ways, just gave me a possibility to think about a different kind of future, to know that there were other people like me who were struggling. No one was Muslim, I mean, there were some people who were Muslim actually, but that wasn't, again, that wasn't something that I was thinking about yet.

Mustafa:
So what were some of the events that you went to and what were they like?

Urooj:
So a lot of the events were get-togethers at people's homes mostly, and talking, just socializing and just having that space to come together. And I think they would actually meet pretty regularly, maybe every Friday. But I wasn't able to go all the time, and they managed to have, it was amazing, what they were able to create. And they did come into existence because the other group, was it SANGAT, the other group [01:00:00], that was very male and cisgender male. And so this was a response and an alternate space for queer South Asian women. And then they opened it up to more broadly the South Asian and middle Eastern women. But that was and I think that’s a story that we hear in a lot of spaces, but that's what happens a lot of times in South Asian spaces. I think that's changing now, which is great. And then the other beautiful thing that happened was that they would go to this festival called Desh Pardesh. But it was this South Asian cultural and arts space that was in Toronto that happened for quite many years, that was super queer. There was also people coming in from all over from South Asian countries. It was just the most beautiful and powerful space I've ever gone to that really centers South Asian queer and trans identities. I met so many people there that were coming from other parts of the US. It was again, one of those experiences that I think mostly I just was so blown away by it that I don't remember it. But, Khuli Zaban would drive there, they organized the group to drive there.

Unfortunately the festival ended. And I can't remember now, but I think I went three times, so there was, must be, I don't know, maybe from ‘96 to ‘97/‘98 or something like that, so late nineties. But, the festival eventually ended because I think it grew too much and the organization didn't have the infrastructure for it, but I think this is documented somewhere really well, so that is definitely a big, it was huge for the people that were South Asians in the US that were out and were able to access that space. I've met DJ Rekha there, other huge names now and we were all basically kids just running around Toronto. And that was huge, that really changed my sort of understanding of what it meant to be in the South Asian queer space that is political, cultural, and diasporic all at the same time. So that was another huge thing that happened through my interaction with Khuli Zaban. It was my larger sort of exposure to the queer South Asian community. Well, also, I went to Michigan women's festival, which is before I realized that Michigan women's festival was not welcoming to trans women. And also went to Creating Change, which was another huge sort of, I remember walking into a room and Urvashi Vaid was the ED at the time, and she was speaking to this audience of 4,000 people, and just kind of again, one of those moments where I'm like wow, this is incredible. Someone who looks like me, is speaking on the stage and is speaking to thousands of people. So these are snippets, I don't have a lot of memories from those years because I was depressed. I was dealing with PTSD probably from my dad's death, and just surviving, but they meant so much to me.

Those moments meant so much to me cause it was a reminder that maybe not now, maybe somewhere in the future that I could have maybe a same kind of agency, but it was just kind of those moments. I was just surviving and I just had enough money to be able to do this or to be able to take the Greyhound, to have other people's help to subsidize my travel. My family didn't know any of this, where I was going or what I was doing, but it helps me think about a future that was different for what I was in.

So I extended my, I had to take another semester to finish my coursework, but I graduated in ‘98 and I stuck around Champaign-Urbana for a little bit more because I didn't know what to do. I didn't want to go home, but then I got recruited, when one of those fairs, I got recruited by a union, cause I also knew that I didn’t want to stay in Champaign-Urbana. It's a kind of town where people do end up staying, so they're students and then they just kind of stick around cause it's easy. It's inexpensive to live there. But I knew I didn't want that. And so I did take the union job and moved back. So I did decide to move back to Chicago, back home with my family, because I just don't think I wanted to stay in Champaign-Urbana anymore and worked for this union for a little bit where I was in the city and I would, I learned how to drive and I was driving from suburb to the city and then doing union work and then staying back with my family. And I was outed again and again by my brother. And it's during that time when my mom did realize that something was different about me. And one day, took the Quran out and said basically, “What he's saying. Is that true what he's saying?” And I said yes, because I didn't want to, you pull the Quran out, I'm not going to lie, cause before I had said, “no, no, I'm not”, she's like “are you a lesbian?” I was like, “no, I'm not”, but that was just at that point, I was like yes.

And so that was tough, I was still living at home. And I I knew that wasn't sustainable because I was living with my abusive brother and now I was outed to my mom and my mom wasn't, I mean, of course she was extremely disappointed and sad, but she's not abusive in the way my brother is. And my concern was more that my brother, living with him long term is not good for my health. And so, I ended up getting into Public Allies, which is this fellowship that places young people with different NGOs within the city. So they have these fellowships all over the country. They're partly funded by AmeriCorps, and I had applied for it, back in when I was still actually at the career fair. It was another one of those little universe guiding me to, a friend of mine literally was like “you should apply for it”. And I was like “okay”. So, cause I didn't really, I was in a very, I didn't have a plan. A lot of my life I just kind of winged it, I feel like. And so I just, I put my name in the box for Public Allies. And then it turns out that my friend who ran Khuli Zaban, her girlfriend, worked at Public Allies. And so my friend was like, “Hey, so you were interested in Public Allies?” And so I was like “yeah, sure, you know someone who works there. Great”. And so I ended up applying and I got in and ended up, so what happens is if they accept you, then there are all these organizations that they pair you with or they match you with. And so you go and interview with these organizations and then you match.

So I put in my first choice, they put in their first choice and I got my first choice, which was basically the pre- to the LGBT center in Chicago. So with an organization that eventually will become the LGBT center. And so that's where I got placed and I ended up working with LGBTQ young people in the city, which was incredible. And also heartbreaking because I was mostly working with black queer and trans youth. But that was my introduction to sort of a career that I'm still in. So that was amazing. And so once I got in there and I was making slightly more money than the union, which wasn't much, I decided to move out and move to the city. A friend, the same friend who worked at Public Allies, had a friend who was looking for roommates. And so I officially moved into the city and that was a big deal because as a young girl, young woman, going to school and living outside of the family was one thing, but to actually actively decide to move away again for no reason except that I wanted to was another thing. And so that was a huge moment of extreme sadness and for me as well, to tell my mom that I'm going to move out was tough, but also necessary for my mental health. And so then I moved out to the city and I lived there for about two years. I worked in the same agency.

Mustafa:
So you had also mentioned earlier there was a lot of pressure to get married or you were worried about that. How did that change after coming out to your mom and moving away?

Urooj:
It didn't, for a long time my mom just kept saying, come back to the path of Islam, which meant get married. But no, that didn't change for a long time. I mean, I feel at this point I'm 44, so I'm yeah, I hope now. But I literally had a dream about something like this just the other night. I used to have a lot more dreams, when I was, just that I'm being forced or, and not physically forced, but more in that moment, it just, there was no other reality except that reality? And, and I had those dreams, how do I explain my queerness? It doesn't make sense in this reality. And so for a long time, I would say from my twenties into well into my thirties I just, and even now, if I ever go and visit any extended family, that's the first question that they're going to ask. And my mom, what is she gonna say? I think I made the decision to, I was outed to her and then I was never not out to her. Maybe sometimes there'll be stretches of years I wouldn't talk about it, but I was never going to be like, “oh no, I'm straight”, or, “no, I do want to get married”, or, it was never going to be that. So, but I also was I'm not gonna out myself to my extended family, because that's ultimately, it's going to look bad on my mom because the expectation is that my mom messed up, that she wasn't able to get me married, that it's her responsibility and she wasn't able to do it. Especially considering that my dad is no longer around so yeah, so sometimes I still have to deal with it when I've gone to visit, it's rare. I'm not very close to my extended family, but that question is always there. But it's gotten less, before my mom was like, “Oh, someone sent a proposal for you”. And I'm like, “yeah, no, not interested”. But that has kind of stopped, that kind of level of questioning has stopped and the more financially independent I got, the more emotionally independent I got, the less afraid I am a bit. But I think somewhere in the back of my mind is still there because I think it just kind of affects me. I don't have, if I go to visit somebody, I'm still my mom's daughter. I don't have an independent relationship. What am I, I'm no one's wife, I'm my dad's daughter, my mom's daughter, but I'm myself. I'm, no, I don't have a relationship on my own to myself? And so when I go into extended family circles it's taken a long time to get to a place for people to see me for what I am, not queer necessarily, but independent, able to travel and understand the world.

Those things that I think people, I think now I see that people do see that, which I'm really grateful for that I'm able to help my mom. I took my mom to London twice. We have a lot of family there and I have a lot of friends there, speaking of the Muslim South Asian kind of diaspora, and I wanted her to see that it is possible to have a life where you are called queer and Muslim and Pakistani and are very much in community with each other. And I think in London, I see it more just in the way the people live and the way neighborhoods are. And for me to navigate all of it, buy the tickets, make sure that we get to see the family and take her around. And I think she sees that and she's very appreciative of that. So I feel it's not the same, but in my own way, I've tried to build a life where she at least sees that I'm able to do all these things that maybe traditionally her sons would have done for her.

So, yeah, I did Public Allies for one year, and then my — the organization I was working in hired me as a full time employee after my fellowship ended with them. And so at that time I was still involved with Khuli Zaban. And I'm still going to their meetings and also kind of creating community with some of my friends from college, all folks of color, some queer, some not, but people, that all of us have survived Champaign-Urbana as people of color. And so it was a really sweet time, in my early twenties, to just be able to first time live independently. And all the other thing, that big thing I think that I understood about my depression in college was that I went from a very big metropolis, at this point, 25 million people, maybe a little less than when I was growing up to a very rural, rural place. And I didn't, no one told me that moving to the US is tough or that there's no narrative around it. It's only that you got lucky. You left, you got out. But I did not appreciate living in a rural area, but there was no words for it. I think it took me probably after I left to understand, or I think I started to understand that at the end of my years there, that, oh, I'm actually a city person, I come from a big city and I don't, I didn't do well in a rural area. And so moving to Chicago was just, it was so lovely. I just had been wanting it for so long and to finally, I remember even before I started, I'm trying to think of, this might have been one of my summer, maybe my summer breaks, but I was so desperate to get to the city that I would, I worked, I got some internship on the South Side of Chicago, which meant that I took the train from the suburbs, which took an hour and then took another, the local subway line all the way to the South Side which probably took another hour, two hours just to go and just be in the city, just to feel like I'm in the city.

And so I was really grateful to be able to have enough resources, and my mom did help me, she helped me to pay for my deposit for my first apartment, but that I was able to actually live on my own. Now, granted, that apartment had no heating, we, me and my roommate, we’re still good friends, we talk, we laugh about that, but it was, rent was really cheap, but we had no heating really. It was these things that looked like ovens and that you had to light them with a thing, directionally, they're literally lit. There were literally flames in it, and those were heating sources in the middle of Chicago winters. Yeah, but I loved it, it was great.

Mustafa:
So in Khuli Zaban were you going as a member, were you organizing events?

Urooj:
It was mostly as a member and then we were still going to the Desh Pardesh. So I think I had moved to the city, so probably my last, maybe the last one I went to with them was already when I moved to the city. But no, I didn't take leadership, and it wasn't as far as I remember, it wasn't super structured. I think one of the big things was just to get more people. So they had all these creative ways that it would try to get South Asian women out, outreach I think was one of their big pieces.

Public Allies, they match people at all different kinds of organizations, but it's more broadly, it could be around fighting gentrification or it could be around other kinds of neighborhood resources. So there were just different organizations and not for profits that they match them with, but I ended up getting lucky that the LGBT organization had partnered with Public Allies. So for me, that was the start of this particular work for me. So my experience there was really hard because I was working in, on the North side of Chicago is super segregated. It's one of the most segregated cities in the country. And we were in an affluent area it was white, it was adjacent to a white, queer area. And I was working with predominantly black queer and trans youth. And so I saw, in my time there, I saw how racist the organization that I was working for was. I think it's one thing to learn about theory and to be in my sociology classes, learn about race and intersections of race and sexuality and gender, but to actually see it play out was really heartbreaking. I did what I could internally as a young staff member, to support these young people, although I myself was young and then I was working with these very vulnerable young people, and understanding the intersections of policing and gentrification and just kind of understanding what racism looks like in the white gay community, I think. And so it politicized me in a whole other way. It helped, really whatever I learned in college and my early experiences within the community, white gay community and now this, experiencing this, and especially as a brown person having to navigate and witness anti-black racism in white spaces. It was all kinds of things to try to navigate and to understand, but what it led to was for me to be like I don't, this is not what I want, I'm completely burned out. And I at that time had started connecting with this organization in Washington DC that was called the National Youth Advocacy Coalition. And they no longer exist but they were a national LGBTQ youth organizing Institute basically. They organized regional conferences as well as national conferences.

My supervisor was on the board and so I got to go to that conference and really saw this incredible, and I think at that time, this pre marriage, there was this beautiful movement that I just got to see and be part of, of social justice and of people of color who were young, who were coming up in their communities and movements and really thinking about sort of a larger LGBTQ youth of color movement and what that looked like. And I got to see it and just really fell in love with that work and also understood how my experiences in Chicago were feeding into the sort of the larger narrative. And so I decided that I wanted to move to DC to work for them and I applied for a job there and I got it. And that is what got me to DC because I really was hoping that I could bring to the national level what I had seen on the local level in terms of how racist these gay spaces can be, and they're the ones with the resources and how if you're not actually integrating intersectionality into your work it's not enough. That's not enough. So I went to DC and so that was sort of the next huge jump in my career was to move to DC and to start working on the national level.

And it was a year before 9/11, and also in 1999 when I'd gone to the conference, their conference, and I was still in Chicago is where I met Faisal Alam, who was my first, not the first gay Muslim Pakistani I had met, but certainly meeting him changed my life because he had already, by that time, started the Al-Fatiha Foundation. And I'd heard of it, and at that point, I, that's the first time I'd heard someone talk about being gay and Muslim at the same time, I'd never heard it before. And then to meet him, it was just, I just will never forget, we were in the same workshop and we all went around and said we were, and he had said, who he was, then I said who I was, and then I was like, “Hi!”. Because even in those spaces, it was so rare to find Muslim people, and then two of us Pakistani, queer folks in the same workshop, it was mind blowing. And so I met him in ‘99, and we started, and at that point he had started organising Al-Fatiha. And of course then sort of having to connect with other queer Muslims who were out was a big deal because not that many people were out. And so, it was very exciting for us to meet each other. And so I, we started staying in touch, but I, at that point, wasn't sure. I was like my Muslimness, does not, I feel like I didn't really struggle around it. As I said before, to me when I was in my early years in college, I had kind of put Islam on hold and after my dad died, I think there was a sense of spirituality that I started to integrate back into my life because I had to, after experiencing that kind of loss and also grieving for him. But religion itself, to me, and Islam, and sort of the struggles with it has been about my family, especially about my mom and her understanding of Islam. So I didn’t feel, I thought it was so important, but I didn't feel like, oh, I'm not struggling the way other Muslims are struggling. I know that. I'm not sitting there thinking, how would Allah love me? How would I ever be at peace with these identities? That wasn't my struggle. And so meeting him was amazing, but I also was maybe the space for gay Muslims is not a space for me. More not because they don't want me there, but more I don't want to take up space because I feel maybe someone else who's really struggling should take that space. But that was before 9/11 and then 9/11 happened and that's really where everything changed for me around my involvement and my understanding of myself as a queer Muslim. So that happened the year after I moved to DC and that was really a huge shift in my understanding of my Muslimness and really it came back, at the forefront of my identities in a way that hadn't in all that other time that I'd been out.

So I had gotten the opportunity to go to the UN conference against phobia and racism and other related intolerances conference in Durban in 2001. And it was this huge, huge conference. It was, Bush was the president. And it was such a, and I just happened to go because my organization where I was working, they had two slots and they wanted to send young people, the youngest staff members, because they're a youth organization. And so it was such an incredible opportunity to meet, at the international level, all these queer and trans people who cared about these issues and have a huge representation from the US of NGOs ever trying to advocate the US government. And then the US government was like, “we don't care about these issues”. They, the delegation at some point walked out, it was this huge moment for me as a, I was 25, as a 25 year old to travel to Durban and to experience this amazing global mobilizing on these issues that are so powerful. And then I came back and then I immediately had to fly to Miami for another conference, an HIV/AIDS conference. And while I was in the air is when 9/11 happened. And so when I landed, I remember walking out of the gates and seeing the Twin Towers and just walking, just continued walking cause I, it's like I don't know what's happening, but I have to, I didn't understand what was going on. And then when I, my colleague collected me from the airport and that is where all the shit hit the fan, where at that point we understood what's happened. And I desperately tried to call my mom and eventually reached her and she was like, “Oh my God. I didn't know if you were okay.” And then she told me that she was working in a daycare center in the kitchen. And she said that the white management of her company had come and asked her why her people were doing this to our country, and that's how she found out about 9/11. And she was like, “my daughter's in the air and I don’t know if she’s okay”. She had no idea. And so I'm just trying to get a hold of her. And then we were stuck in Miami, me and my colleagues, for a week at least I think, because everything was closed so we couldn't fly. You couldn't drive out of the, you can't rent a car to drive out of state. And so we were just waiting around and I was so worried about my mom because we're starting to hear about all the protests that were happening to where, at the mosque and people, all of the, all of it, just all of it. And in that moment, everything shifted for me and my colleagues kept checking in with me, making sure I was okay. Even after we went back, we drove back from Miami to DC after we were able to rent a car. And those were really scary times. I remember going to New York a few months after for a conference and someone, a taxi driver was like, “be careful”. And so that was the initial, kind of just the fear for my mom, fear for my communities. And then of course when the war was announced against Afghanistan was another huge moment around my politicization and about how feminists, white feminists were. I was, those were times when I just, there were points I had to turn off the news cause I was so angry in the way that what was happening and in the way that white feminists were complicit in the war. And organizations like Feminist Majority, I remember they had little pieces of burqa they were giving away as tokens of liberation of Afghani women and their complicitness in the war. And at that point I was politicized enough to know that that was so problematic that they were using this framing of what gendered Islamaphobia, we're saving Muslim women, we're saving Afghani women.

You can’t save women by war right. So those early years were really just how I became so politicized around being a queer Muslim, because I was like, not in my name. And you can't tell me that I'm oppressed by my own religion, you don't get to do that. And I think that as my sort of understanding and my work with LGBTQ Muslims grew, a lot of it was rooted in sort of the initial war on terror and practices and all of the ways the civil liberties of Muslims were under attack and were used as a, and this anti-terrorism framework was used to really target Muslims. And it just changed everything for me in terms of my own identity and sort of what I felt about it.

Mustafa:
Was it important for you to organize with queer Muslims specifically or Muslims more generally? And what were some of the ways in which you did that organizing?

Urooj:
For the first several years it was with LGBTQ Muslims because there was nowhere else for us to be than to be with each other because we couldn't go to access, and that's still true, right. Accessing LGBTQ spaces were hard because then it's all this conflation with terrorism or stuff like “why would you be part of a religion that hates you?” Or there was such a flattened understanding of what it means to be Muslim and then going to Muslim spaces was also very difficult because it's, I think a lot of times in Muslim spaces, and this has changed over time, but I think that, in the early years of Al-Fatiha organizing, and I think Faisal can talk more about that, but it was really tough. I mean there was a fatwa against him. There was a lot of ways that there was a lot of community pushback, Muslims pushing back on LGBTQ Muslims claiming a space for ourselves. And so I think that, for many years just being with each other and being able to talk about the nuances of what it meant, what has meant for us to be together has been huge. And so, Al-Fatiha kind of ended in 2005, because Faisal stepped down and then there was a lack of leadership, poor leadership that led to Al-Fatiha closing. And, that was the only national organization in the US I mean, and speaking of lack of resources for organizations working on intersectional issues, it's really hard. And so in 2011 I think is when me and Faisal came back together and brought a group of LGBTQ Muslims together that dimensionally founded the Muslim Alliance For Sexual and Gender Diversity in 2013. And so there was a huge gap from 2005 to 2011 where there was nothing really happening, but all that to say that in, during those times, I really was mostly focused on supporting LGBTQ Muslims and supporting any kind of formal organizing because there's such a huge need out there to have that, that network together because there was, otherwise there's nothing else for us, in sort of any of the spaces that are supposedly for us. There, there isn't.

But I would also say that in 2011 I did apply for a fellowship. It's called American Muslim Civic Leadership Institute, and it's a fellowship that brings together Muslims that are in civil society. It's a space for Muslims to come together and to take a break. What they were seeing was that after 9/11, Muslim leaders were so at the front lines and completely exhausted and burnt out, and there wasn't a space for them to reflect and to really deepen their sense of wellbeing, their sense of their own leadership, their sense to their community, that connection to community. And so this fellowship was a year long fellowship where we came together three times in residencies that really connected Muslims to each other. And I applied for it and I got in which was huge because I was the first out queer Muslim to be in it. And then of course that led to a whole other set of kind of difficulties and what that meant for me to be in that fellowship. But I think around that time I had decided that I am so tired of the LGBTQ mainstream organizations not getting us, not really actually doing anything to really work on the intersectional issues that affect Muslims. And that maybe, it's important for me as a leader in the community to really think about what it means to be aligned to the Muslim community, that is my community. And — so that is when I decided to apply for it. And, and so that was the, where I really started more actively trying to build with mainstream Muslims who are not LGBTQ.

It was interesting, it was a group of 20 some people and they were actually a very, a small minority, which was interesting cause I actually wouldn't have known that going in myself. I was very nervous about going to that space as the only queer person. Some people just were like I shouldn't be there because I don't belong in that space. And that became very obvious as time went on and led to sort of more of a conversation, a more explicit conversation around ‘homosexuality in Islam’, and it's the same kind of arguments, right? There's some people who are like, “well theologically…”, and it's well, their interpretation of theology who don't believe that I should be part of that group. But there were so many other people who were allies, who I didn't realize that they were until they spoke up in that conversation, which was a very hard conversation to sit through, and just gave me so much hope. And I think one of the good examples is that when Orlando happened, the whole other huge piece of LGBTQ Muslim history, that the first call I got was from one of the people that I was in my fellowship. And she's a donor in the Muslim community. And she called me and she's like, “what do you need? And can you get on this call that we're about to organize with Muslim civil rights leaders? And we would love to hear what you all need.” And I feel that could never have happened if I hadn't been in that fellowship and had that kind of comradery and that, kind of, the things that we know that help us do the informal relationship building that is there a way to, when a crisis like this happens, that we could lean into each other? And that made a huge difference because ultimately that led to us being able to work with a not for profit media company that made sure that our, we were ahead of the narrative or we were at least responding to the narrative that the media was doing. And all the ways that Orlando just really kind of highlighted all of the ways that the differences that the media or even the narrative can be oppositional LGBTQ versus Muslim and we were right in the middle of it. So it was just really helpful to have their resource. So that's just an example of the good things about being in that fellowship.

Mustafa:
How did you, during that fellowship when you were getting this pushback and then just throughout all of your organizing, how did you personally withstand those that pushback? What resources internally or what connection with other folks did you rely on to be able to support yourself through those challenges?

Urooj:
So I think that I was able to do that fellowship because I had this whole community of LGBTQ Muslims behind me. I really felt that if that wasn't there, if I wasn't able to know why I'm here, that would've been really hard. So I think just leaning into those resources for me was really important. Even Faisal, who's a dear friend now, we organized, after the formation of, around the same time in 2011, we also organized the first LGBTQ Muslim retreat. And after that we became, this is what we knew each other for. After that we just became BFFs. And to this day, we text every day. We talk all the time. And having his support specifically just has meant so much too. But I remember the second residency they were doing this exercise where they read a statement and you go stand by the sign that you, whether you agree with the statement, you don't agree or you are in the middle. And the statement they read was, “I feel comfortable practicing my faith in public” or something to that effect. And I went in the disagree line thinking that other people would feel the same way and most people actually were, sorry, I went in the agree line that I don't feel comfortable. Most people went into the disagree line and the, and it was shocking that I was all by myself. And that kind of exercise was very illuminating around that. How people position themselves and for me to be on the other side of most people was really hard. And when the person facilitating asked me why I was there, I just started crying. I was like, “we have to try so hard for spaces that we create to be safe. Our retreats are not disclosed. We're afraid that they'll be compromised in terms of safety. Our people are so afraid to come, all are worried that what if the space is disclosed and can be a huge target”. And at this point we have no idea that white supremacists are going to be other Muslims. What is it going to be? But it doesn't matter because our safety is very compromised when we meet. And that's always been true for LGBTQ Muslim organizing. And it's only recently that some spaces disclose publicly what their location is. But our best practice for our retreats, which is up to a hundred people, is that we don't disclose the space that we're in.

And that's just the reality for us, and I think just talking about that just made me so sad. And I think it stirred something in other people and even people who were opposed to me being there. And I think that's what led to the third, the rest of the conversation in the third residency, that was let's talk about this issue. And, and only because they wanted to win the argument, right? It wasn't that because, it was only because I was there. It wasn't like, “Oh, let's just talk about this interesting topic”. No, it was just cause “why, why is she here? And we need to talk, talk about it.” Not supported by the organizers, but sort of an ad hoc sort of space. So yeah, I think to me, having a community that sees me, that I know is valid, that I know struggles, that is what keeps me going in terms of when I go into spaces where they're like, “what are you doing here?” Or we, we don't, you're just, I mean the kind of comments, even recently there was a space, I didn't go to it, but someone was telling me he was the only queer Muslim in this Muslim space and someones like, I didn't know that you all existed or something ridiculous. But that's the level of engagement. So it's like what are we supposed to, how are we supposed to live like this if our communities are just so oppositional to who we are? So I think the only thing that helps us to know that we're not alone, that there are others like us, thousands of people like us.

Mustafa:
Can you talk about the retreat, what it was like organising the first one and what your hopes were for the retreat?

Urooj:
Yeah, organizing the first one was interesting because there hadn't been a space since 2005 and this space was going to happen in 2011. And so there was a huge gap in between. And I remember Faisal, so we co-organized it and Faisal had sent out a poll to see what kind of space people were looking for. And what we got back was that people were really interested in a spiritual retreat. And it wasn't a religious space necessarily. I mean, it could be for people who wanted it to be, but it really was sort of a retreat from everyday life and the incredible burdens that a lot of our members, LGBTQ people are facing in their lives, navigating it every day. So it was a really humbling experience. I mean, we were both volunteering for it. Now there's a little bit more investment, but for a long time there hasn't been investment in these spaces that people are, most LGBTQ people Muslim are working as volunteers to organize these spaces on top of full time work or whatever it is that they're doing to make ends meet. So just to be able to create the space was, it was very humbling. It was knowing that there is no way that we could possibly meet everyone's needs, but still wanting to try, knowing that a lot of people don't necessarily have a lot of resources. Also trying to do scholarships, and mind you raising all the money for it, and not getting paid for it. It was beautiful, it was a beautiful experience to do that. [01:40:00] And also just exhausting too, so, and that's partly why I think me and Faisal just became really good friends because you can go through that and you’re either gonna be like, “okay, I'm never talking to you again” or it's like, “yes, we got each other”. So, but also just feeling, so that the retreat space has continued to happen. I mean, that hasn't happened in the last few years, but for quite a few years after that, after 2011, the retreat did continue to happen, so then I didn't organize the next one, but I did go to it as a participant. And what was also interesting, was to be called an elder. So I'm 44 now and I was under 40 then. And that was another humbling experience because I was like, “Oh my God, well, what do I do now with the rest of my life?” if I'm already an elder, but I think it just speaks to how young the community is not, and not necessarily in years, although we do have a lot of young LGBTQ Muslims, but more in terms of just the organizing years, just by being, having been doing this work for over a decade means that we have so much under our belt in terms of experience. Our community is new to organizing and has not had as long as a history. And so, I think that's also sometimes difficult because I'm like, who is ahead of me that I can look up to for support, for guidance, for mentorship, and we're just kind of making it up as we go along, kind of thing.

So that feels difficult at times as well. Sometimes I don't want to be at the sort of, at the head of the movement, but it is what it is. But sometimes it's humbling to just be able to go in and learn from other people and just kind of, and I actually stepped down from MASGD after my seven years, which is the maximum that we're able to be on it, which I think it's great. So I stepped down, I think over a year ago. And it feels really great to be able to step away from the direct organizing and just kind of see what all, what the new organizers are doing and sort of their understanding of the work.

Mustafa:
What were some of your highlights working with MASGD?

Urooj:
Working with such brilliant people, working with other organizers who are LGBTQ and Muslim, who come from different backgrounds who come from just different ways of understanding their relationship to Islam and their queerness. So I think that's the other thing about these spaces is that it's a continuum of where we are around our understanding of Islam. I'm secular and I see myself more as a cultural Muslim, but there are people who are much more religious and to me, what's beautiful about these spaces is that you see the diversity in the room of both LGBTQ experience as well as relationship to Islam experiences. Many people are converts and their relationship to Islam is very different from my experience as someone who grew up in Pakistan, so I think to me the highlight is that I see myself in so many ways and other people, but also learn from the differences that we have too. That has been really beautiful to see, to be, to have the honor of organizing national spaces for LGBTQ Muslims. Not perfect, but the only space of its kind in the country, it's amazing. And also having, we work a lot with our London counterparts, our UK counterparts, that have also been organizing around the same time that Al-Fatiha has been. And some of them come to our spaces. Some of us go to their spaces, just having sort of a cross all of these identities, having a way to understand each other, I think has been really beautiful and definitely a huge highlight for me. I feel I've learned so much about myself by being with them. And knowing that they're a family, my family, my chosen family and that the network of chosen family is so strong and so beautiful that you might not talk to each other for a while and then when you do, you pick right back up. That to me feels really beautiful too.

Mustafa:
What are some of the major transitions that have been an opportunity to learn from or in terms of what future directions you're seeing with needs for queer Muslim organizing?

Urooj:
What I'm seeing is a lot more from the years that I, when I first started getting involved. I've seen a lot more intersectionality within the spaces themselves, which I think is really important. So now there is more understanding of trans communities and non binary people, which I think is great. For MASGD we've really had to look at addressing our own anti-blackness. That's been a huge piece for us. And, and so, because just being like, yes, our spaces are very South Asian and Arab heavy, and what does it mean that a significant number of Muslims in this country are black and that that anti-blackness and Islamophobia have always been linked because of enslaved Africans who are Muslim, who were brought to this country.

The process of enslavement has also been a process of Islamophobia, stripping people of their religion. And I think that that's not a conversation that we have very often, especially in South Asian and Arab spaces, cause we have so much anti-blackness built into our own communities. And so I think that has been really something that I think is really important. And I know MASGD is working on a specific retreat for black LGBTQ Muslims that I think is going to be really important for the future of our movement and several movements. So I see those as highlights and hopes that to me, as a cisgender South Asian Pakistani woman, I feel the best thing I can do is get out of the way. And that to me has actually been really good to get out of the way and to be like, yes, I did seven years in MASGD and now it's time for me to step down. I'm happy to step down and I'm happy to support whatever I can and to support that work moving forward, but not necessarily as a member of the steering committee. So I'm really excited because I mean, well, MASGD was supposed to, and I don't know what's going to happen with Covid-19, but they were supposed to do two retreats this year, one specifically for black Muslims and one for the larger community, which was very exciting to see that that was moving forward. But I think that overall, that to me is really, really exciting to see that that is where we're at in these conversations.

I started going back to Pakistan with a different kind of relationship to it in 2012. So I went back to Pakistan twice with my family, so one in ‘96 after my dad died and one in 2004. And after that every eight years or so, and I just was, I think the way Islamophobia was showing up in this country, the way Pakistan was understood in this country. I remember when I first came to the US no one knew where Pakistan was, and I, in my history class, my American history class, my teacher asked me to show where Kuwait is on the map. And I was like, “okay, I have no idea why you want me to show Kuwait but sure”. And then he was like, “now show them where Pakistan is”. Looking backwards of course, this was during the Gulf war, and Americans only understand geography in context of war, right? So it went from no one knowing where Pakistan is, to now everyone knowing where Pakistan is. Or had some idea of what Pakistan is, but it's not good. It's worse than India, which always gets to me because there's fundamentalism on both sides of the border. The way Pakistan is understood is so different than the way India is understood. For me, I felt it was all connected to the Islamophobic narrative in this country that the Islamophobic narrative here was what was fueling the war on terror, and that was making our, my people completely dehumanized on both sides of the border, in Pakistan as well as here. One of the things, when I talk about being a queer Muslim, a lot of times I, when I've written the articles, some of the comments are, “yeah, well let's see what happens to you when you go to Pakistan” or, “yeah, sure, you can talk about this here” from Islamophobic gay people.

And so I was like, okay, well actually I do want to go to Pakistan and I actually do want to see what is happening there. And so I had started meeting some friends, we became friends, people in conferences that were feminist academics and someone who was positive, who was working on LGBTQ issues. And so I decided in 2012 that this was the moment I need to do, I need to go and see for myself what it is that's happening in my own connection to Pakistan that's outside of my family's, cause I left when I was 16, so I didn't ever get to have an adult relationship with it.

I went back in 2012 with a dear friend of mine from London who’s Pakistani. And I was so freaked out because my mom was like, “Oh my God, you're going to Pakistan. You don't know what happens to girls there, what are you doing?” And I was like, “no, I'm going to go”, but I went with my friend and I was so freaked out that I first went to London, then went with him to Pakistan and then came back to London and then came back to the US, and it was a five week trip it was ridiculous. But I was like, no, I'm just going to do what makes me feel comfortable, but I started meeting friends there. I stayed with friends. I didn't tell family that I was visiting. It completely changed my relationship to Pakistan, to meet with khwaja sira activists and to wear kurta shalwars and to speak in Urdu about being queer, finally able to dissociate queerness from whiteness. It just completely changed everything for me. And I started going back every year, more and more, I became more and more independent in terms of hanging out with my friends there who are queer and trans and just seeing Pakistan through their eyes. Both people who are living there, who were maybe born and raised in the US or the UK, but also people who were raised in Pakistan. And I just have continued to do that, and it's just, and I've also worked there now, cause I, my, my paid work is doing international LGBTQI work. And for a little bit I was able to actually support some work in Pakistan and I got to do some training there and meet more and more activists, and my whole community of LGBTQI activism in Pakistan just exploded. It's just so incredible to be able to make that connection for me and to be able to live with remembering how beautiful Pakistan is, remembering the culture and art and history and language and being able to move fluidly between the two, because I think that that happens more from an Indian context, but very little from a Pakistan context because, it's hard to get visas for Pakistanis. It's harder for foreigners to, at this point, go to Pakistan.

I think a lot of that is wrapped up in the war on terror and all the ways that things have become harder in Pakistan to come in and out, in the way Pakistan is positioned in the world. Yeah, so it just meant so much to me, and I've tried to go with other folks, now that I have seen this and now I can be sort of more independent there and come in and out of the country, I want to go with Faisal and I want to go with other people who are Pakistani queer people who could, who can never imagine that that could exist for them. And I'm like, “no, no, it's there. It's absolutely there.” There was a very progressive transgender law that passed in 2018,I mean it’s really interesting that the trans community there is very mobilized and very visible, especially the khwaja sira community, but the LGB community is a little bit more underground, but it certainly is there and people are certainly living and thriving in their lives there. And it's really beautiful to see. So that's the other big thing that I would say it's happened in my life around these identities.

Mustafa:
And for you personally, and also in terms of needs, how is it different organizing or how are queer and trans South Asian organizations in Pakistan different than the South Asian diaspora, queer and trans organizations here in the US?

Urooj:
Yeah, I mean, I think in some ways it's, especially these days, I think that there is a general level of civil society pushback to civil society in general that the whole world is facing. So I think in that respect, there are a lot of similarities. For Pakistan I really have to separate out the communities. Soquite as our community specifically, it's been really inspiring to see how much they mobilize. They were very marginalized post British colonization. But it's been inspiring to see how they’ve used their indigenous ways of organizing and being and working within a Muslim context to organize for their rights. So that to me feels completely different than here. Where trans communities are pushed back to the margins where the cisgender gay, affluent, white communities are the ones at the front, you really see a very different way of being in Pakistan. So I think that to me is a huge difference and also something we can learn from here. But I would say that for queer women in Pakistan, it is difficult because of patriarchy. I think if you're affluent across the board, you're able to have a good life. But I think their class, I mean, just like everywhere else, can buy you privacy, can buy you kind of immunity, kind of a life that maybe is good. But I think that for queer women and who are maybe middle class and working class it's harder because there is so much patriarchal, it's harder to move and that is a big difference for me. I do see here versus there, whereas movement of women can be difficult. But I think that there is a lot of amazing work going on with the Aurat marches.

A lot of queer women are involved with that. There's a lot of intersectionality when I see queer women and their intersection with feminist movements and trans movements, and that's really inspiring to see. So for example, the transgender law that passed, initially the way that it was able to happen is that there were lawyers involved who were part of a feminist collective that were both cisgender straight women, cisgender queer women and trans women and trans men were all in this collective, and they were able to strategize around how, what's the best way to get this law, the bill introduced and that eventually became law. I think I would say the resources piece, I mean, I know that it's so when you look at the funding breakdown, how little global funding is going towards the LGBTQ issue anyways, and then a lot of it in Pakistan is starting to dry up because of very strict laws around registration, laws around, international NGO registration, which again is connected to war on terror and, foreign interventions within Pakistan that have really made Pakistan government ‘sensitive’ to interventions, to monitoring anything that's foreign, including people, including INGOs. And that of course makes it harder to be able to fundraise in country. So I would say that it's hard to fundraise for intersectional issues here. I was saying, in Al-Fatiha, some Muslim LGBTQ folks, they're mostly doing it as volunteers. There is even harder to be able to survive, and work professionally, especially professionally in this field, but even to find the resources and time to be able to devote to the work. So I would say there are a lot of overall similarities from where we are going globally. And I think that the fear with this pandemic is that authoritarianism is going to become more justifiable under controlling people, so that remains to be seen. But, I think there is just a lot of when I go to Pakistan and I see the movement and organizing it is also really inspiring cause it reminds me actually of when I was starting out as a queer person and sort of, there wasn't so much of a corporatization of queerness, there wasn't as much of mainstreaming to the extent where marginalized people that exist become so invisible in our communities here and there it feels likepeople are still fighting for visibility in a way, but also it just feels more grounded to me. And maybe this is cause it reminds me of when I was first coming out.

Mustafa:
I meant to ask this earlier, when you were talking about Khuli Zaban in your first exposures to queer South Asian organizing, what were some of the tools that you used to connect? So either digitally or in terms of physical, what were the ways in which you built community?

Urooj:
Internet was not quite a thing until I graduated from college. But in those initial years, I think email, I think email was around, so I was able to email with people. And, there was a lot of flyers and those kinds of ways and phone calls. Yeah, because we weren't texting, we weren't using internet. So yeah, a lot of sort of either phone calls or kinda thing, and pamphlets and flyers and stuff like that. That's how we were organizing in college, on the campus, and then kind of my connection to Khuli Zaban was phone calls, voice messages. Voice machines were a thing. I don't think that they were, we were even able to leave voice messages on phones yet, so it was machines and that kind of stuff. So I know it was kind of wild to think about that now. I was like, “Oh my God, the internet was a thing after I graduated”. That's wild.

It’s been an interesting trajectory and it feels really good right now to take a moment of pause and I'm not officially involved. I have my full time work, but I'm not officially involved with any organizing right now. But I'm just really happy to be able to support folks. I'm really invested in young people's leadership and because I think that happened to me. I was doing youth work for a long time, and a lot of people invested in me and I, and I hope to be able to do that for others. So I think that's really important. I'm really excited about folks like Khudai who are doing work on desiQ, just so many people within the LGBTQ Muslim community that are that are younger. It's hard work cause a lot of times it's also thankless work. And that is something that I struggle with is how do I continue to do the work in my own way, but also get some kind of, not necessarily recognition for it, but it's just, it's hard. Community organizing is really hard work. We have a lot of ways that people pull us down too. So I'm also trying to figure out how to balance that. We have the opposition, right? We have all kinds of oppositions against us, and then our own communities can be really hard on us and so I'm just feeling this break that I'm having from volunteer community organizing work is to just think about what is my space, and where I can do the work and make sense of it or make meaning out of it. And also get out of the way when I know that the time is right to do that.

Mustafa:
Do you have a vision for 2020? Is there any point at which you think the co-work would be done or is there a vision for where you want things to go in?

Urooj:
No, I mean I don't think the work will be done, unfortunately. I feel we're, I mean, I'm really sad about the way the Muslim community overall has not continued to show up. After Orlando, I thought, gosh, this is, this is our opportunity. Muslims are really listening, they're coming out with all these statements. And then I've just continued to see, I think what I've seen is that after Orlando and after the elections, that the mainstream LGBTQ and mainstream Muslim communities are not working together. As side by side, but not intersectionally. So the Muslim community does say, “Oh, we're working, we are working with LGBTQ people because it's a civil rights issue and we're also being attacked around the civil rights. So let's work with them together to show up”, completely erasing LGBTQ Muslims from the equation. And that to me is unacceptable and heartbreaking. And I feel Orlando screwed us up because Orlando, day zero, when my phone started blowing up, when people were like, “what is LGBTQ Muslim perspective?” And we said, “regardless of how we've been treated by our communities, we will never allow our stories to be used to advance Islamophobia”. We would never push that narrative and we fought so hard against the narrative and there were so many amazing stories that came out and so many people came out and Muslim LGBTQ people came out after Orlando just so that they can say, not in my name. You will not use this to advance Islamophobia in my name and my story. And I just feel that was beautiful and heartbreaking and really hard, devastating.

We didn't have resources. MASGD was and still is a volunteer group. And I just feel what I realized is that nothing is changing and that I think has been really hard. MASGD organized a meeting in Orlando a year after the Pulse tragedy. And we brought together Muslim mainstream allies who were interested in talking about how to support LGBTQ Muslims and the conversation between them and LGBTQ Muslims. And it's really great, and we ended up going to the Pulse site and it was, it was really palpable to be there. And I was like, I know I can't do this again. If this ever happened again, I just don't think it's in me to fight the hateful narrative that came out. It just took everything, so many of us didn't sleep, we didn't shower, we were running from one interview to the other, just desperately trying to hold back the tide of Islamophobia. But I feel it's, we're still in the same place where the only public Muslim narrative is a very mainstream theological perspective. And I just don't understand why that is? We have a lot of our private support from Muslim allies, but publicly you just don't see it. So there was actually a center, a Muslim center in Texas that a few, a month or so ago held this forum and the pamphlet was very sensational. And it was all about “how do we talk about LGBTQ civil rights. How do we deal with this thing?” And the one, so they did have someone who is gay and Muslim actually, but his perspective, I read his writing, his perspective is that it is haram indeed, and that he's going to struggle for the rest of his life. He's not going to have sex and that's his deal. And that was there, and I was like, so that is after all of this, is this the only way that mainstream Muslim conversations show up is this way of all this defaulting to Orthodox theology. And to me, it's unacceptable because it's so harmful for so many of us that are out and not even out. But if that's the only thing people are seeing, I think it's so harmful.

And so, I dunno, I just feel there's a lot of work to do, to push communities to be more intersectional, to see us as human beings, to see us not outside of Islam and for us to not always default to theology because we don't do that for other things. Why is it for this thing? We always have to default on your interpretation of theology, of very Orthodox interpretation when we know that there are other interpretations out there. And there's so much work that's happened on that. I think there's a lot of work to be done. My vision is that for more of that intersectionality, to actually put at the intersection, the LGBTQ Muslims. So we're not always fighting just to be heard in both LGBTQ and Muslim spaces where somehow we're just not centered around conversation that actually involve us. So that's my hope. And then for resources to go towards training or mental health providers, we get a lot of requests. When I was in MASGD, therapists who are like, “I have a gay Muslim client and I don't know what to do ”, so MASGD actually came up with a list of therapists and resources that could be used, but there is still much more to do because we don't know where to refer people because well, we can't refer them just to an LGBTQ center because they don't know anything about Islam and they don't know anything about the intersection of these issues. So more resources, more capacity. People are mostly having to make ends meet in other ways and also do this work. It's very exhausting, especially in moments when there's so much Islamophobia and homophobia and transphobia. So I would say resources for our communities as well is really important.


PROVENANCE
Collection: Mustafa Saif Fellowship Project
Item History: 2020-07-17 (created); 2020-09-09 (modified)

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