February 23, 2017, by admin

Marginality is a gift

In a recent talk in Barcelona, on the topic of lived and everyday Islam and sexuality, I turned to Jemimah again. The conference organisers wanted me to sensitise the audience – consisting primarily of practitioners and policy makers – to the complexity of lesbian and gay Muslims’ management of homophobia, Islamophobia, and racism within the Western context. In situations such as this, the story of Jemimah, a lesbian Muslim I met through a research project several years ago, often makes a prominent appearance. Sometimes, I wonder why I keep returning to Jemimah. But every time I do, I am certain of the answer: I am simply a story-teller, a channel, through which her story unleashes its own inspiring and uplifting energies.

Jemimah’s journey of identity making and unmaking – as a woman, a British-Pakistani, a lesbian, a Muslim – meandering through a challenging terrain of politics, has taught her a life lesson, which she passed on to me when I came across her as a research participant. The intersection of her multiple identities – with its enabling and constraining potentials – has taught her that, in her own words, ‘marginality is a gift’. The marginal space is a space of darkness and coldness, which generates debilitating effects on the occupant’s life. Jemimah endured that. But she also learned that there was always a glimpse of light in darkness. She just had to learn to see the darkness differently and trust her new sight. Then, the totality of the darkness cracked, and a shimmering and flickering light emerged. But that was enough, for a start, to convince her that her life would change for the better. She knew then that, despite the long road ahead, she would slowly but surely ride the transformative and life-altering wave that would take her to a different shore. All she needed to do was to fix her gaze on the light, unwaveringly and trustingly.

Benefitting from online and offline stories of people with similar experiences and struggles, and a re-oriented spirituality, Jemimah learned that the weight of the marginal space did not have to break her. She had a choice. She could enact her agency, fumbling and doubting along the way, to engage with the unique standpoint that marginality offered, to learn – and unlearn – her spirituality, her sexuality, her humanity, amidst the swirling hurricane of politics that surrounded her. She said to me: ‘I think there are particular gifts that come by being in a sexual minority and having to remake your spirituality outside of the mainstream of a faith. I think the gift in that is that we have to learn to love and to practise our faith in a different way… I think there is always a gift in being marginalised and that gift is always a way of transforming the notion of identity altogether into something higher, it’s actually to transcend stuff…. So actually the identity of being a lesbian or the lived experience of being a lesbian or the combination of the two has made me search for a more inclusive spiritual path’.

People like Jemimah, whose paths I am fortunate to cross through research, is the primary reason I keep returning to stories; lived life stories. In stories, I learn about the social world; and I learn about myself, flaws and all.


Andrew Kam-Tuck Yip is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Nottingham and Director of Doctoral Studies in The School of Sociology and Social Policy. His research interests include contemporary religious/spiritual identities; contemporary sexual identities; youth culture and identities; Islam and Muslim communities in the West; human rights and citizenship; intimacy, care, and relationships; and ageing, bereavement, and end-of-life care. Andrew can be contacted via email at: Andrew.yip@nottingham.ac.uk

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