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Pakgaystani: bringing badass queer hijabis to your Instagram

An interview with queer Shi’a creative Arzu, a.k.a. Pakgaystani.


December 28, 2018


I first stumbled upon the work of Pakgaystani late one evening while thumb flipping my way down the Instagram rabbit hole and was struck by one of her scroll stopping illustrations - two queer hijabis in a romantic embrace.

After finishing a series of interviews in Lebanon on queer art I was eager to hear more from queer identifying Muslim womxn creatives in other parts of the world. Pakgaystani was a serendipitous find landing literally in my lap - albeit via smartphone. Of course, I immediately did what millennial’s do and slid into her DM’s asking for an interview for Queer Here and to our delight, she enthusiastically agreed. 

Pakgaystani, whose real name is Arzu, is a 24-year-old Canadian-Pakistani artist who identifies as bisexual and Shi'a Muslim. Arzu is an incredibly humble, non-pretentious mix of contradictions, when she isn’t working as a barista she can be found playing video games, drawing in cafes and listening to anything from Ed Sheeran to metal. 

Similar to platforms like DeviantArt (the arguable OG website for creatives outside the binary) and Tumblr, Instagram has become a haven for artists like Arzu to show their work and express their identity. Many of Arzu’s illustrations feature queer Muslims, usually adorned with tattoos, third eyes, and antlers. She isn’t particularly concerned about whether they fit into what Islam deems as acceptable, and it seems neither are her followers. Her admirers flood her Insta comments section with the full spectrum of heart symbols available on emojipedia, so it’s safe to say she is creating art that wants to be seen and I for one want to see more of it too!

ALEXIS STERGAKIS: Firstly a bit about you, you are based out of Sarnia, Ontario Canada (if I researched correctly)! For those that aren’t familiar it’s a small city of roughly 72 thousand on the US Michigan border. Only .76 percent of the population identifies as Muslim. What has been your experience in Sarnia as a visibly queer visibly Muslim woman, and how has that shaped the art that you make?

PAKGAYSTANI: That’s correct! I’ve only lived in Sarnia for a little over a year, most of my life was spent in Ottawa, Ontario. Being visibly Muslim in Sarnia hasn’t been all that terrible, I know I am perceived as different, I certainly feel people’s eyes on me when I’m out and about, and I get well-meaning (or so I give them the benefit of the doubt) but ignorant questions or comments every now and then but that’s just ever been my life, really. I’ve always been very aware of my brownness and how being Muslim sets me apart from a lot of my peers in ways, but the feeling is super amplified here in Sarnia compared to Ottawa. Sarnia’s a small city, predominantly white, generally conservative, where I’m pretty sure honest and open conversations about race, religion, and sexuality aren’t being had as often as they should (although I can’t confirm this personally, as I haven’t lived here for very long). Overall, it’s as if I’m piercing a bubble by simply existing, and the reaction to being a slight disruption to the norm hasn’t been hostile, but I’m doubtless considered “foreign” here.

Feeling foreign has always been something that fueled my art in a way. My first drawing featuring two hijabis embracing each other lovingly was a product of my little gaybie self, in my room at 3 AM, struggling with religion being very much imposed on me while trying to manifest connections to my queerness which I couldn’t express in the way I hoped to. I always felt really alone in that sense. Here in Sarnia, I’m more open about myself than ever, but seeing so few Muslims (especially hijabis!) as well as seeing the lack of diversity in queer spaces here brings its own sense of loneliness; sure, folks here may accept me for who I am, but I still feel entirely unrelatable to everyone. I feel like I’ve connected and grown comfortable with my queerness, and now it’s all about being unapologetic. Unapologetically queer, unapologetically Muslim, and knowing that no one can take either of those things from me no matter how I present or express myself.

AS: ‘Pakgaystani’ is a very clever pseudonym. Did you adopt this pseudonym because of a fear of backlash on you and your family because of the art you were publishing, what’s the story behind the it?

P: Thanks! It’s a little lame, but the pseudonym actually came about when this sort of trend erupted on Tumblr to incorporate “gay” into literally every word possible. I had thought of “Pakgaystani”, because well, I’m gay and Pakistani! It clicked so dang well with me, especially in that time where I was connecting really deeply with my relationship with my queerness and my religion, and so it quickly and quite intimately became something I identified with and encompassed what I feel most passionate about.

I do have a small fear of my family finding my art, as well as other folks connecting my art with my family (even though they really have nothing to do with it, not even my most supportive family besides my spouse knows about my art). It’s just something I don’t want them to deal with.

...the bottom line is that no one can revoke my identity as a Muslim and as someone who is queer just because they don’t like it. I’m in full control of it, as are other queer and trans Muslims. The only people with power over us is ourselves.

AS: You’ve only recently taken to Instagram with your art and it has already gained a sizable following, I think that speaks to how queer identifying Muslim women are aching to be seen. Tell us a bit about the responses to your work and this inner calling as you put it to “draw more gay hajibi’s”?

P: A lot of my art has been met with tons of positivity, love, and encouragement! It’s especially heartwarming to see the occasional comment from a cis and straight Muslim ally voicing their love and support for LGBTQ+ Muslims. Every now and then I’ll get someone spouting some petty ignorance about how my art is “gross” and insulting to Islam, God, and whatnot, as well as feeble attempts to ‘educate’ me on the matter. I always find it pretty funny when that happens because my art has nothing to do with proving what is halal or haraam (permissible or forbidden). I really couldn’t care what Islam says about queerness, the bottom line is that no one can revoke my identity as a Muslim and as someone who is queer just because they don’t like it. I’m in full control of it, as are other queer and trans Muslims. The only people with power over us is ourselves.

But the love definitely overshadows the hate and I’m forever grateful for it because it just shows me how many other queer Muslims are seeing this, which is exactly what I want. My art is for us, for the Muslims on the margins, to celebrate our existences, our love, our beings, our dreams, goals, our being wholly and truly us when there are many who so badly wish to shut us out for their comfort, convenience, or beliefs.

Left: Pakgaystani’s first illustration featuring two hijabis in romantic embrace. Right: “The Lovers”. Pakgaystani also dipicts non-hijabi Muslim women,“it’s important to emphasize that a woman’s ‘Muslimness’ doesn’t depend on her observance of hijab”.

AS: Your images intentionally reflect the narratives and images of Muslim women who wear hijab or niqab, talk us through some of the motifs and representation in your work?

P: There are a few reasons I almost exclusively draw Muslim women wearing the hijab or niqab. One is representation. It’s wonderful to see that Muslim women, especially hijabis, are likely being represented in art now more than ever before, but there can be more, there needs to be more and I’m adamant on contributing to that. I do also plan on illustrating non-hijabi Muslim women (I have in one picture, “The Lovers”), as it’s important to emphasize that a woman’s ‘Muslimness’ doesn’t depend on her observance of hijab, but I certainly believe that there needs to be more room made for hijabis as creative subjects. 

I was brought up with the idea of hijab being a symbol of purity and the “flag of Islam”, or so to speak. The idea is that Muslim women represent Islam as we are the most visible of Muslims due to the scarf, and so there’s just that much more pressure to be that perfect Muslim model to the world and the Muslim community. I remember listening to religious lectures and scholars always used this as a way to convince women (hijab-wearing women, specifically) of their elevated state, and thus why men should respect us (how about respecting us because we’re human beings with value and worth and feelings like hello?) Some folks may find this empowering, and if that’s the case, then good for them; but it was the complete opposite for me, as someone who always knew they were different and almost contradictory to what I knew Islam to expect of me. I just wanted to represent myself and be valued for who I was beyond the hijab, in all my differences. I suppose that’s why portraying hijabis with tattoos and body modifications, wearing hijabs that aren’t what folks would consider ‘real hijab’, often depicted in gestures associated with prayer and divinity, became something that resonated with me. The tattoos, makeup, body jewelry, are all things that I love but are considered ‘improper’, seen as things too ‘loud’ and expressive, and should be private or kept on the down-low. Coupling that with gestures of divinity is how I express my love and intense desire for individualism while still remaining connected with faith as well as feeling worthy and exalted for all of me, not just the ‘acceptable’ parts.

AS: To me, a lot of your work really addresses this idea of duality, and that you can inhabit both identities simultaneously. Growing up did you have the experience or feeling like you had to choose between being Muslim or being queer?

P: Yes and no. There was a time where Islam meant more to me than it does now, but even then I didn’t feel wrong about my queerness. I was just confused about how certain my feelings were at that time. It was really just a “well, shit.” moment when I realized that I was very into women (and that I was really questioning my attraction to men at the time) and I didn’t know what to do with that information. I only felt like I had to choose when it came to thinking about exactly what I had to lose if I decided to embrace my queerness openly and honestly. If I factored out the fact that I would very likely lose my family if I decided to be fully open about my queerness, I didn’t really feel the need to choose whether to be Muslim or queer. I’ve co-existed with it for so long, it didn’t feel strange to me. To me it was more like, it is what it is. The fact that Islam says homosexuality is haraam hasn’t stopped me from feeling the way I do about women and femmes. I’m queer and Muslim, and nothing can actually change that nor make me feel bad for being both at the same time.

That being said, it’s been several years since I considered myself religious and have, admittedly, drifted away from putting importance on being a thoroughly practicing Muslim. I have in no way denounced Islam, but I’m not super into my faith anymore, which makes it easier to just be like “Islam says I’m haraam, but fuck it, who cares.” Perhaps unknowingly this has helped me prioritize and validate my feelings about my queerness without feeling like I’m sacrificing my faith because my faith isn’t that deep anyway.

AS: There is a general lack of visibility of queer Muslim art in mainstream popular culture, though we are starting to see incremental changes with this in the USA, Canada and in parts of the Arab world  - particularly as a response to rising political hostility towards queer and Muslim communities. But what about the representation of ‘hajibi’s’ in queer Muslim creative spaces, you seem underrepresented even within the Muslim queer arts scene - in the margin of the margins. What are your thoughts on this, do you think this is a fair reading?

P:  Queer hijabis are so easily overlooked it’s not even funny. It’s even sadder when I think of how hard it is for us to make ourselves ‘physically’ open about our queerness. Have you ever seen a queer person out in public and you just want to telepathically be like “ME, I’M GAY TOO I’M ONE OF YOU PLEASE NOTICE ME”, but instead you just look like a hijabi in plaid flannel with a staring problem and now you’re worried they think you’re mad homophobic when really you wanna be their friend/sort of smooch their face really badly? It fuckin’ sucks.

Anyway, the point is I really feel like it’s a similar case within queer Muslim art circles, only I haven’t really been a part of said art scenes long enough to really make a personal comment on it from experience. There are a few things I’ve sort of mentally noted based on discovering fellow queer hijabis online. A lot of queer hijabi creatives seem to operate quite sparsely if that makes sense. Like, you’ll find a queer hijabi artist, and then it’s like forever until you find another one. We need to congregate into our own little queer hijabi creative island so everyone can find us all in one place and be like, okay, they do exist.

Another thing is that I find a lot of queer hijabis aren’t particularly open about their queerness online, for whatever reason they may have. Similarly, I really wonder whether folks don’t trust our queerness. Like, seeing a hijabi ID as queer and immediately think like, “Okay, but are they really queer or just an ally?” I remember folks being really confused about my being at our campus’ Pride Center every day. I was a volunteer, and I think a lot of people assumed I was an ally unless they knew me.

So I’m not sure if I even answered the question properly, but TL;DR: this is a more than fair reading, and I think it simply speaks to the difficulty queer hijabi creatives face in trying to make themselves known, seen, and trusted as queer for a variety of reasons that may even include not ‘looking’ the queer part. We are here though, and if you’d like to check out a couple of queer hijabi artists who I adore, search up Jannah Inftifada (or @doctordoomdoom on Instagram) and @inahur. You won’t regret it!

Above: The subjects of Pakgaystani’s illustrations are often adorned with tattoos, makeup, body jewelry alongside symbols of divinity. The coupling is intentional and aims to communicate her “intense desire for individualism while still remaining connected with faith as well as feeling worthy and exalted for all of me, not just the ‘acceptable’ parts”.

AS: You’ve mentioned on your Instagram a desire to create spaces for LGBT+ inclusive sex ed in mosques and for Muslim women - you got an overwhelmingly positive response with many agreeing that there was a huge need and that they wished they had access to something similar in their early years. What was your experience with sexual and reproductive health information and access growing up - how did it (or did it not) speak to your queerness or your faith?

P: I only received the mandatory sex-ed classes through our public school system here, which started in grade 7 or 8 I believe. They were pretty generic, talking about family planning and sex organs and such. It was helpful, I think, but it wasn’t particularly queer/trans-inclusive. I only really began to learn about queer sex in university, where resources were made available. My mother also was really quite open about sexual education and answered questions I had (but also made a point to make sure I knew what things weren’t permissible in Islam, like masturbation, even though she answered any questions I had pertaining to those things.) I feel really lucky that I had a parental figure who knew how important it was to have these discussions and it made me all the more comfortable with talking about sex, learning about safe sex as well as learning more about my own sexual needs.

I suppose this is what sparked my passion to learn and hopefully educate folks about sex, especially in Muslim communities; because not everyone is so lucky to have grown with parental figures who teach you the importance of being aware of sex and sex-related matters. I vividly remember a Sheikh (priest) being chased off the mimbar (a sort of elevated seating that is used by Shi’a religious leaders while delivering speeches) during an event where he was meant to perform a series of lectures for the duration of a week, strictly because he mentioned something sex-related, and literally said “hey, I know you guys won’t like this, but if no one is going to talk about it, I need to be the one to teach you.” I’m pretty sure it was something about consent and the myth about the hymen (which is huge coming from a male priest, you guys). I shit you not, he got chased off his seat, angry uncles in tow, and forced to leave our mosque. Now I’m sure not everyone’s experience with trying to introduce meaningful discussions in Muslim centers turn out so dramatically, but there’s still a taboo around talking about sex that needs to be addressed, like yesterday.

AS: What’s next for you, what are your upcoming projects and how can people support your work?

P: Honestly? Trying to be a whole lot more consistent with chugging out more art, haha! I’m currently keeping things a bit more laid back, focusing on commissions and personal art series’ that I’ve been hoping to get into the works! I’m hoping to start a series of drawing portraits of real queer Muslims who are comfortable with me drawing them and posting the portraits to my profile. As great as it is coming up with queer Muslim characters, I think real queer Muslims deserve recognition and love, and other queer Muslims need to see that there are more of us out there, real living people full of love and hopes and dreams.

If you’d like to support me or just keep up with my painstakingly slow art process, follow me on Instagram at @pakgaystani! Feel free to share my work on whatever platform of your choice with credit, and if you’re interested in a custom commission or a print, just shoot me an e-mail me at pakgaystani@gmail.com! 

For commissions and to follow the work of Pakgaystani check out her instagram, you can also donate to support her work through ko-fi.

Words by Alexis Stergakis (she/her/they/them), digital media producer and founder of Queer Here. Twitter @lexistergakis.