It’s not often (enough) that I (have the time to) come across non-academic books that articulate and reflect some of the most complex intersections between religion, gender, and sexuality. Those that do are commonly produced in the Western hemisphere, often representing the voices of Euro-American cultures and religious traditions. That is why I want to give voice to Bareed Mista3jil, a book, or collection of “41 true (and personal) stories from lesbians, bisexuals, queer and questioning women, and transgender persons from all over Lebanon.” Bareed Mista3jil was published in 2009 by the organization Meem, a community of lesbian, bisexual, queer women and transgender persons (including male-to-female and female-to-male) in addition to women questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity in Lebanon. The purpose of the book is to give voice to those in Lebanon with non-conforming sexualities and identities in order to give hope to this under-represented, often silenced population. Here is a description from Meem on the origin of the book:
The original idea of publishing a book like this came on a spring night in 2006, while driving down Hamra Street in Beirut. We were having over a conversation about the lack of publications by and about queer people in Lebanon. At that time, we wanted to write a book called “Gay Lebanon” and to include in it submissions from Lebanese queers. I remember us wondering where we were going to get any lesbian stories because we knew very few lesbians at the time. Over the three years that passed, we witnessed the rise of a remarkable lesbian community that brought a powerful new meaning to queer solidarity, understanding, and grassroots activism, and it became clearer to us that these were the people whose stories needed to be heard. It took a little over a year to get this project together and while the initial proposed titles were picked from lesbian terms or experiences, we decided on the more ambiguous “Bareed Mista3jil” as a name for our book. “Bareed Mista3jil” has a very close meaning to “Express Mail” but a better translation would be “Mail in a Hurry.” It reflects both the urgency of getting these stories across and also the private nature of the stories – like letters written, sealed, and sent out to the world.
Because these narratives are deeply personal, needless to say they evoked in me a variety of emotions – empathy, frustration, anger, peace, empowerment, bitterness, even confusion. But more than that, these stories are about competing identities and the difficulty of negotiating the many parts of oneself, a task that anyone who grapples with religion, gender, sexuality experiences. So I wanted to give a preview of some of the stories in this brilliant collection as a tribute to these individuals. Though these narratives deal with a variety of themes like family, relationships, discrimination, and self-image, religion is a theme that I find disproportionately arises in many of these struggles.
In the story, “My Faith is About Love,” the author struggles with anti-homosexual teachings in Christianity. After two years of painful anxiety over her sexual and romantic relationship with another female and simultaneous feelings of guilt and sin, the narrator realizes that “religion is fluid” and disavows homophobic interpretations of literal biblical texts, resulting in a more personal understanding of faith. She says, “I see gays and lesbians sometimes throwing out religion altogether because they cannot reconcile it with their sexuality. For me, it is not logical to live without spirituality or beliefs. I had no reason to reject spirituality altogether, to reject the beautiful principles of love and forgiveness. My faith is not based on the details of how to live or on limitations of how you are supposed to behave. My faith is about love.” This narrator, then, refashions her religious lifestyle in order to align with her sexual identity.
The narrative that I find most politically potent for our time is “My Hijab and I.” Growing up as a Shiite Muslim in Southern Lebanon, the narrator struggles for years with the view that her hijab is antagonistic towards both her fashion and lesbian identity. However, she eventually concludes that, “Either I had to take off my hated veil or learn to love it. The easiest choice was to learn to love it. Taking my hijab of nine years off was out of the question. That would have been like ripping out a part of myself.” Much like the narratives neighboring this story, the reconciliation between sexual identity and the hijab can speak for a greater reconciliation between two contrasting (at times) affective and embodied practices of identity.
In the procession of narratives in Bareed Mista3jil, the story last in line ends with the words: “I didn’t want to run anymore. I wanted to be overwhelmed.” Perhaps overwhelmed by catharsis, I felt that this ending was one appropriate metaphor for many of the struggles that were at once both uplifting and tragic. Reading with a lens of reconciliation implicates a stronger push to view the sometimes optimistic and sometimes unfortunate implications of religious practices and beliefs in conjunction with sexual orientation. Neither wanting to “run” from either identity, many of these narrators profess the overwhelming pressures of their lifestyles. This project, then, discreetly unmasks the impossibility of discovering a causal relationship between religion and sexual and gender oppression, while at the same time gazes towards the possibility of dismantling arguments of religious discrimination on the basis of sexual freedom. If anyone is interested is purchasing this book, you can go to this link.
Amy Levin is a graduate student in Religious Studies at New York University with an interdisciplinary focus on American religion, gender and queer theory, secularization, spirituality, and consumption. She is a regular contributor to The Revealer and a practicing feminist.