A memoir of hope, faith and love, Samra Habib’s We Have Always Been Here starts with growing up as part of a threatened minority sect in Pakistan, and follows her arrival in Canada as a refugee, before escaping an arranged marriage at 16. When she realised she was queer, it was yet another way she felt like an outsider. So begins a journey that takes her to the far reaches of the globe to uncover a truth that was within her all along. It shows how Muslims can embrace queer sexuality, and families can embrace change. She identifies the book as a continuation of her photography project, Just me and Allah, which examines what it means to be Muslim when you’re queer. From Toronto, ahead of her appearance at WOW – Women of the World festival, the former fashion journalist talks home, writing about her past, and the history of queer Muslims.

Has it ever been hard to call Toronto home?

There are moments when I feel like Toronto is home, but I feel like I’m still searching for a place I can call home, that just feels like home. Maybe that’s an experience familiar to a lot of people who have to uproot their lives to go somewhere else; you had a home and you had to leave it.

Do you ever go back to where you were born?

I have not been back since I moved to Canada with my family, and I don’t know if I would feel safe to go after this book. Not only have I publicly talked about being from a minority sect of Islam, and people from that sect are so often persecuted, but also as a very openly queer person.

Have you been pleased with the response to We Have Always Been Here?

Really pleased and also kind of surprised. I thought I was writing the book for a very specific audience, maybe young people like myself who were looking for someone like me to validate their existence. I’m always pleasantly surprised when people who are seemingly nothing like me – for example, 70-year-old white women – come up and say that the book really resonated with them. Perhaps it’s because the language of joy, pain and suffering is universal. Everyone can relate.

Which segments were especially hard to write?

The sexual assault part was really, really difficult. It also required me having to talk to my mum about that very specific incident – there were some details she shared with me that I did not have. I wrote about it just enough so people could understand the harm it did to me and the impact it had on my life. I didn’t want it to be like trauma porn, I didn’t feel like I needed to give more detail than necessary. I really wanted to protect myself but had to think and write about that experience – probably one of the most challenging things about writing this book.

It’s LGBT History Month. Has it ever been hard for you to find the history of LGBT Muslims because they’ve had to hide who they are? 

Yeah, absolutely. When I think about my personal queer Muslim elders, they’re not that old. That’s a problem I had working on the photo project – a lot of the people I photographed are very young. That’s because often when I would reach out to people in their 50s or 60s, at one point in their lives they had to make a choice to either be visibly queer or really religious. They didn’t feel like they had that option where they could be both. It’s a different time now and younger people are more open about embracing both their identities. It’s really hard to find queer Muslim role models who are older, who could teach us so much about what it was like.

You’re coming to Southbank Centre for WOW – Women of the World festival. What will you be talking about?

I want to talk about how much my experiences shape my work and why it’s so important to talk about things from a queer Muslim lens, and why it’s so important to speak up and encourage other people to speak up – so that it’s not just a couple of people out there who have a platform, it’s a choir of voices.

Are there any other projects cooking away?

I’m laying the groundwork for my next book, which will be fiction. I kind of want to get away from talking about myself because that is not my comfort zone.

What are you reading at the moment?

One book I’m obsessed with right now is The Gentrification of the Mind by Sarah Schulman. It talks about how the Aids crisis in the 80s contributed to gentrification. It’s amazing. I think it’s also super timely because – I don’t know if you’re experiencing gentrification where you live – but in Toronto it is pushing a lot of the creative community out of the city.

©Yuula Benivolski

©Yuula Benivolski

6 March, 1.45pm, Royal Festival Hall

Desi: Out and Proud

Part of WOW – Women of the World

Be inspired by the courage, resilience and all-round awesomeness of the UK’s thriving Desi LGBTQ+ scene at this panel discussion. Leading Desi LGBTQ+ activists discuss everything including cultural taboos, Club Kali, family dramas, drag queens, stigma, sharam and sex. The panel go beyond Bollywood and discuss the high, lows and laughs of life as a member of the Desi LGBTQ+ community. This event is chaired by Sharan Dhaliwal and panellists include Urooj Fatima, Samra Habib, DJ Ritu Khurana and Asifa Lahore.

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