Queer Muslim Sex Worker: These are labels that aren’t supposed to go together, but in the life of Maryam, a genderfluid Pakistani Muslim person living in London, they do. A newly released, independently-funded podcast with this title by journalist Amy Ashenden aims to shed light on how Maryam’s different identities are sexualized, vilified, and ostracized in their own ways.
As she navigates her various forms of closetedness “like a maze,” Maryam’s candor lets the listener in on how stressful this life is. In fact, it is so stressful that she’s often had suicidal thoughts because of it. At the end of the podcast, Maryam relates how since finally being disowned by her family after hiding her sexuality and her experience in the sex industry from them, she’s been unable to focus on her responsibilities, dealing with the trauma of abandonment by numbing out with alcohol and partying at strip clubs. I feel for her because I can relate to that sense of hopelessness.
In a culture with highly communal values, your life is not your own. Your life actually belongs to your family, and anything you do or say can either bring honor or shame to them. For this reason, it’s extremely rare for Muslims to talk openly about gender and sexuality.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t Muslims who are LGBTQ, it just means they’re not welcome in the Muslim community. As Maryam observes, “I’ve never seen a queer Muslim person who came out to the community and was welcomed with open arms.”
If being gay is bad news to the community, being a sex worker is even worse. However, the Muslim community itself creates the necessity for survival sex work by rejecting members of the community who are queer. As Maryam explains that she is saving the money she earns from webcam work to support herself in case she is rejected or disowned by her family for being gay, she illustrates how Muslim youth are not exempt from one of the most typical ways young people first become involved in sex work: by being disowned by their parents for being gay. The ability to take ownership of our bodies and sexuality is even something that draws people like us to do sex work.
My recommendation to Muslim youth who ask me about coming out is always to wait until they’re financially self-sufficient. We already know what happens to people like us. “I think I’d be sort of exiled from the community until I changed my ways,” Maryam says sarcastically when asked what would happen if she came out.
When traditional Muslim family values clash with the individualism that is the hallmark of Western culture, we take up a new fight beyond oppressive regimes and occupation back home and racism, xenophobia, and anti-immigrant sentiment here. Now we’re fighting for the freedom to be ourselves, beyond those labels and intersecting identities.
From the beginning, you can see this struggle as a part of Maryam’s narrative, as she laughs while recounting the odd clashes in her life between fucking her girlfriend one minute and facing homophobia in the mosque the next. It almost comes off as something lighthearted, as if she is playing a game. Anyone who has ever done sex work knows that it works best the more fun you make it for yourself. And there is something fun about rebellion. To take that freedom for yourself is liberating in a way that makes sense to anyone whose body, virginity and sexuality has been policed since childhood, the way that Muslim girls’ and women’s bodies are policed by our families and communities. That policing even extends outside of our communities, as non-Muslim people often feel compelled to tell us what we should be and how we should act based on their perceptions of our community’s mores. Maryam relates, “I’ve had … white gay people ask me how I sleep at night because I’m sinning. It’s just really intrusive.” When people have been taught cultural values which mandate that women’s bodies don’t belong to them, Muslim women are inherently oppressed, LGBTQ Muslims don’t exist, queer people are immoral, and sex workers deserve to be abused, to get them to see a Muslim LGBTQ sex worker as a multi-dimensional human being is next to impossible.
Growing up in a Western country means we are fetishized by people outside of our communities whose colonial indoctrination has given them a perverse white savior/conqueror complex. This is a dynamic we Muslim sex workers can use to our advantage at work. But sadly, this same dynamic is found within the queer community, and it alienates us from an LGBTQ community that we need desperately when we are rejected from the Muslim community. In spite of everything Maryam relays to the interviewer about her experiences in her Muslim community, from encountering homophobia at the mosque to finally being physically thrown out of her family’s home, when asked about inclusion, she still states unequivocally that it’s easier to be queer in the Muslim community than Muslim in the queer community.
The title of the podcast, in its use of the language of identity politics, indicates the faux-objective sterility with which the subject is approached throughout. Maryam is othered and her lifestyle is subtly sensationalized. I found myself wondering what this podcast would be like if it was a conversation between two queer Muslim sex workers instead of a documentary on the life made by someone who never lived it. There is a voyeuristic tone to this project that made me uncomfortable. The caption for the podcast reads, “The unashamedly intersectional podcast telling the incredible story of Maryam, a sex worker who juggles being Muslim, queer and non-binary,” using language reminiscent of a tabloid or even a circus sideshow act. In some ways, the documentarian is no better than Maryam’s judgmental family or her perverted clients. The only difference is that Ashenden claims to take an “intersectional approach.” She says she wanted to ensure “that Maryam was telling her story in her own words and not misrepresented. [She] wanted to avoid simplifying the narrative or putting her into boxes, as that would erase the fascinating intersections of [Maryam’s] identity.” Yet part of the problem lies in that fascination. While it’s illuminating to hear Maryam’s story, the overall tone of the work towards queer Muslim sex workers is objectifying and not centering.
For example, Ashenden enters Maryam’s home and expresses shock and disbelief at how she was just downstairs wearing hijab and now she’s upstairs chatting online with clients. These are the realities of living in the intersections that this podcast claims to support and respect, yet clearly has a blind spot around. Ashenden goes on to call in Queer Sex Work author and University of Birmingham lecturer Dr. Nicola Smith to give her two cents on sex working LGBTQ people in Muslim communities on the podcast, although it’s not clear what, if any, connection Smith has to the Muslim LGBTQ community. It seems as though Ashenden doesn’t trust Maryam’s expertise on her own experiences, feeling she needs to turn to a non-Muslim white academic authority to add credibility to the podcast.
Maryam never says anything to indicate that she feels empowered by her sex work experiences, although, arguably, they have provided her with some form of empowerment by providing her a means of supporting herself. To Maryam, webcam work is just what she has to do to survive. “Sometimes I feel ashamed of what I’m doing and I don’t think I could do that…I don’t think I could handle that, I don’t think I’m strong enough to do that,” Maryam replies, when asked if she would consider doing porn. Ashenden then betrays her bias when, in a voice dripping with judgment, she comments, “her answer in some ways contrasted with what she previously told me about sex work being liberating,” as if there can’t be any nuance in Maryam’s lived experience as a queer Muslim sex worker. Pakistani American adult entertainer Nadia Ali was banned from Pakistan last year for performing in porn wearing hijab. When Ashenden and Maryam have this discussion on the possibility of doing porn, Maryam’s parents are still looking for a suitable husband for her. So while anonymous sex work helps liberate Maryam by providing an income for her and allowing her agency over her own body, going public with it could infringe upon her freedom of movement within her community and even get her hurt or killed, given that as queer Muslim sex workers, we come from a culture where honor killings actually happen and domestic violence is sanctioned by most interpretations of our religious text. Ashenden’s judgment of Maryam’s choices demonstrate her complete lack of understanding of the complexities of being a queer Muslim sex worker.
As Maryam says of the vulnerability she experiences with her clients, “I just feel ashamed because I feel so naked and exposed, and it’s like, do these people see me as a nice person or do they just want to objectify me?” I wonder the same thing about her interviewer.
Maryam is clearly under intense pressure as she tells her story. Anyone with a modicum of compassion can hear it in her voice, especially after she is kicked out of her parent’s home and ostracized from her beloved Muslim community. She doesn’t have a lot left to believe in and is just struggling to make sense of it all. When you’ve crossed so many cultural barriers that you exist in the borderlands in between, it produces a deep sense of dysphoria, and that’s evident in Maryam’s depersonalized musings towards the end of the podcast.
What Muslim communities don’t understand when they shut us out is that now we have nowhere to go. What those who sexually fetishize us don’t understand is that we are real people and we don’t see ourselves the same way they see us. What documentarians from outside our communities don’t understand is how hugely important we are to the other people in our communities. One person was represented in this podcast, but there are untold others out there who are also queer, sex working, and Muslim who feel alone. When we speak we are speaking for ourselves and for them. We give young people in our communities an example of what they can be, so they have choices. That’s exactly why those of us who speak out are so dangerous and punished for it with exile. Our stories matter. Our stories matter to us, and they need to matter to those who make media about us, too. Better yet, we should have the means of production in our hands to control our own representations.
I’m grateful that this podcast exists. I’m grateful for a platform for another queer Muslim sex worker like me to tell her story. But the critic in me wants more. Media about us made by outsiders can only take us so far, can only tell so much of the story. Queer Muslim sex workers need to control our own image. If we leave it up to people outside of our communities to document us, we will not be shown in a humanizing light. It’s not because the people on the other end of the lens or the mic want to dehumanize us. It’s because they can’t help it.