Life Stories: Hafsa Qureshi, Stonewall Bi Role Model 2019
*This interview took place before the awful events we've seen unfold in Christchurch, NZ in the past few days. But it comes at an important time to challenge Islamophobia - and colourfull aims to do that by celebrating people like Hasfa, a positive role model across all her identities (queer, female, PoC and Muslim). There is no 'Us' and 'Them' - we all are 'Them'.
To be honest, I hadn’t heard of Hafsa before she won her Stonewall Award. But after talking to her, it was clear to see why – she is warm, optimistic and recognises the privilege she does have and uses it to make a bigger difference to the lives of other queer BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) individuals. I was struck by how she navigated the intricacies of faith and sexuality on a daily basis to bring about more understanding and acceptance for our community.
25, cisgender, queer/bisexual, Indian and Muslim
Life Right Now
Life has been great since receiving the Stonewall Award and I’m looking forward to what the future holds. It’s a real privilege to be recognised, but I couldn’t have done it without the support of the Spirit Network (the LGBT Network at the Ministry of Justice) who provided me with different platforms to be more visible – and the response has been really positive. It’s great that there is a category for bisexual role models, as there is biphobia in the LGBT community with certain assumptions and perceptions that are limiting.
People have been much more receptive to my thoughts and ideas since I won; I guess it gives me credibility and recognition in the eyes of others. People don't take me at face value and see me as a diversity tick box exercise – such as I’m Muslim and wear a hijab doesn’t mean I can’t be bisexual and vice versa. I’m just excited to share my experiences and get people talking about queer PoC.
In my early teens, I identified more as a lesbian but as I grew older I became more confident in my sexuality. I remember it being National Coming Out Day and I told my sister that I like men…. and then I took a long pause, after which I added that I liked women too. Growing up, I wasn’t particularly attracted to men or interested in dating, yet I noticed women and found them to be pretty. When I began having relationships, my sexual orientation did evolve which is normal as you figure yourself out. Now I just see this as a part of who I am and that it’s important for me to talk about it because of the lack of visibility.
While I also identify with the terms queer and pansexual, I’ve been purposeful in identifying as bisexual as I want to break down some of the negative attitudes and beliefs that are held against us.
My Family & Culture
It’s one of those things where it’s known but it doesn’t really come up. While it’s not openly discussed, there is no direct pushback - more of a quiet acceptance. Although it’s not barred from discussion, it isn’t something I choose to bring up. I’m lucky in that I’ve not been rejected because of who I am, but I balance that with the sensibilities of my culture. My family’s main concern is related to my safety and wanting me to be careful, to be aware of what I’m doing so that I’m not an easy target for someone.
Culturally, people who don’t know me make assumptions about me about who I am or how I live my life. They assume that I must not be religious, not respect my family and be sexually active. Frankly, I’ve reached a point where I don’t really care. I’ve always been outspoken, confident and am not ashamed of who I am. If people within my culture (or in general) assume things such as ‘you must be a disappointment to your family’, I often find asking a question to challenge their perspective helps, such as ‘what makes you say that? I’ve definitely had some interesting/awkward questions; it does depend on how people ask them!
I feel connected to my culture and consider myself religious. I read the Quran, I pray and I like to attend talks; it is a big part of my life. Funnily enough, my religion makes up more of me than my other parts.
I am very privileged because it felt easy for me. When I was younger, I was asked if I am a lesbian and so it wasn’t a complete surprise, rather a gradual process. I’m lucky to have people around me who love and support me, and vice versa. Everyone assumes I’m receiving backlash – I’m not. In fact, it’s usually external sources that criticise me the most. Queer media places a big emphasis on coming out, however more thought needs to be given to this as for many in our community this may not be an option. For me, I’m lucky that I work somewhere inclusive and can also be myself at work – perhaps this is a step forward for those who feel unable to tell their family. I find when I talk about my work/activism, it gets people talking about their sexuality and gender identity which has to be a positive thing.
Initially my identities didn’t have an impact on my career. I was conscious of positive discrimination and being regarded as a diversity tick box (as opposed to valued for who I am and my skills as an individual). I’m also careful as to how I use my platform within the MoJ to advocate for the work we do as I don’t want it to hold me back. However, since being involved with the Spirit Network, it’s helped my career, reach more people and do more for diversity & inclusion generally. In the past, I’ve worked at places where I’m the only POC and it can get awkward, such as struggling to connect with others, having your name said incorrectly and people making assumptions.
Diversity is important and an ongoing effort in the workplace – I’m proud to my part at work in furthering inclusion.
Love, Dating & Relationships
I very much believe love is love – and I love love 💕! I am currently in a relationship with a white, Catholic man. As you can imagine, I get lots of questions about that! (Cue: how does that even work? Are you not bisexual now?)
I’ve talked about my experiences growing up and finding my identity. I think the spectrum of love, relationships and identities is always evolving. I mean we talk much more openly about LGBT issues and now, are rightly focusing on those who identify as trans and non-binary. Who knows what the future holds for all of us in terms of how relationships will work!
My experiences in the past were mixed; there was a sense I couldn’t talk about my religion and it was viewed negatively – which I get as many people in queer spaces had very negative experiences with religion, but I feel less conscious of it now. Religion isn’t seen as something cool, so it can be difficult to explain how to be queer and religious at the same time. Recently, my experiences have been positive - but still with lots of questions.
As a community, we need to be able to have a conversation without an agenda; by that I mean sometimes just having the conversation is an achievement in itself rather than expecting it to lead to specific outcomes such as more ‘out’ BAME people. I think this gives us space to really explore what it means to be BAME and queer, and what we can do to make further progress. I also think data holds the key – Stonewall does some amazing research to really understand what is happening within our communities which can be used to make even more progress against live issues.
I really look up to Lena Waithe, her episode 'Thanksgiving' on the show Master of None really emphasised how difficult it can be for people of colour to come out to our families. She's also the first queer black woman to be on the cover of Vanity Fair. On a more light hearted note, YouTuber nisipisa talks about makeup, beauty and consumerism and is also bisexual. I love makeup, and it's nice to see bi representation in the YouTube beauty community.
Words of Wisdom
Don’t feel pressured to follow an agenda – if you don’t want to come out, don’t. As queer PoC, we can feel pressure to act a certain way but if you’re not comfortable with something, simply don’t do it.
Calling out behaviour when/if you feel able to. This doesn’t have to be aggressive, but ask people why they hold certain beliefs and assumptions and why they feel that way. I try hard to see the best in people as usually their opinions are formed on ignorance as opposed to hate.
Be aware and educate yourself about what is happening within our community and across our identities. Try to understand different aspects of yourself. Importantly, also learn about the things you’re not e.g. trans issues.
By the end of our conversation, I definitely knew who Hafsa was and am all the better for it. Her bravery, empathy and energy was inspiring as was her dedication to using her platform and privilege to make life easier for others. And she is only 25! I have no doubt Hafsa will continue to make waves and is exactly the kind of story colourfull loves to share!
Follow her on Twitter @HafsaQureshi16