“Hijab Butch Blues” Is a Captivating Journey of Identity and Resilience

While “Hijab Butch Blues” has been tapped for several prizes, it's bigger than the sum of its accolades. In a year that has presented challenges to both Muslim and queer rights due to ongoing legislative attacks and bans on inclusive books, there’s a wealth of strength to be found in literature.

An illustration of a person in a hijab faces away from the viewer with their hand in their hoodie pocket.
A queer, brown, nonbinary Muslim immigrant survives her coming-of-age by deriving strength and representation from the Quran in this provocative debut memoir.

As the end of the year approaches, so too does the time for awards and end-of-year lists in the world of publishing. One book that is anticipated to make rounds this bookish award season is the memoir called “hopeful and uplifting” by Kirkus Reviews, “Hijab Butch Blues” by the author pseudonymously known as Lamya H (she/they). 

And while yes, the book has been tapped for Vogue’s Best LGBTQ+ Books of 2023 list, as well as the Brooklyn Public Library’s 2023 Book Prize shortlist, “Hijab Butch Blues” feels bigger than the sum of its accolades. In a year that has presented challenges to both Muslim and queer rights due to ongoing legislative attacks and bans on inclusive books, there’s a wealth of strength to be found in literature, and one could make a home in this memoir.

In "Hijab Butch Blues," Lamya H explores a radical perspective on gender and spirituality, challenging the notion of God having a specific gender. The memoir draws inspiration from Leslie Feinberg's "Stone Butch Blues" to weave a narrative of gender and labor politics in 1970s America.

Lamya's story begins with their childhood as a 14-year-old in an unfamiliar, affluent Arab country after their family's move from an Urdu-speaking nation. Feeling trapped in a system marked by unspoken racial hierarchies, Lamya grapples with their identity and discovers their attraction to a female economics teacher, though they lack the language to understand their sexuality.

The memoir unfolds in three parts: childhood and gender questioning, challenging traditional views of the "authentically gay experience," and navigating life as a brown, hijabi Muslim in the U.S. Lamya's struggle with bureaucratic hurdles and the threat of deportation underscores the fragility of their life in the U.S.

As the memoir continues, Lamya begins to understand and love their life as a queer Muslim, drawing parallels between their experiences and stories from the Quran. Their self-discovery begins with the story of Maryam in the Quran, and throughout the memoir, they reinterpret various religious stories to navigate their identity. In a particularly powerful moment, Lamya asks their teacher,  "Did Maryam say that no man has touched her because she didn't like men?" Her teacher says no, but for Lamya, the answer is clear. "Isn't it obvious? Doesn't it make sense? ... Maryam is a dyke."

In the final section, Lamya confronts their internalized homophobia and comes out, seeking to reconcile their faith with their queer identity. They embark on a journey of studying the Quran's challenging verses and reinterpreting them in a progressive light, questioning traditional interpretations of gender inequality and homosexuality.

Two major themes stick out over the course of “Hijab Butch Blues.” The first explores queerness from a non-Western perspective, emphasizing the intersection of religion, race, ethnicity and culture in one's identity. The second challenges the concept of coming out by advocating instead for "inviting in," highlighting Lamya’s journey to self-confidence.

"Hijab Butch Blues" is not just a must-read but also a study guide on Islam, as well as a queer manifesto. It encourages critical thinking, emphasizes activist self-care and celebrates the diversity of queerness, offering a fresh perspective on spirituality and identity. Ultimately, Lamya's debut is a captivating memoir that resonates with those seeking a sense of belonging.

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