Urooj Arshad is not one to shy away from a challenge. In her capacity as Director of International Youth Health and Rights Programs for Advocates for Youth, she tackles issues of racism, homophobia, and islamophobia as she develops programs that address the sexual health needs of Muslim LGBTQ youth both here in the U.S. and in places like Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Nepal. Oh, and in her free time, she co-founded and volunteers for the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity, which fosters understanding of the intersection between Islam and the LGBTQ community.
Weighty as these topics may seem, for Arshad, they are a natural extension of her own identity and the struggle she’s faced in carving out a place for herself in the world. Born in Pakistan, she and her family immigrated to the Chicago suburbs when Arshad was just shy of 17 years old. At that tender age, she had already experienced a patriarchal and misogynistic regime, but as she grew into a young woman and came to terms with both her sexuality—she identifies as queer—and religion, she began to realize that there was never a place where she felt truly safe and at home. Her life’s work since then has been about creating that space, both for herself and for the next generation of marginalized populations, be they LGBTQ, Muslim, immigrant, or—like herself—all three.
While that’s been an uphill battle, Arshad has made truly remarkable strides, garnering honors like the Latino GLBT History Project’s annual Mujeres en el Movimiento award the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance’s Community Catalyst Award, and the Young Women of Color HIV/AIDS Coalition’s We Speak Award along the way. She even served on the US delegation to the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women.
In our ongoing look at the women who inspire us, we recently chatted with Arshad about what set her on the path of advocacy, what keeps her moving forward, and her vision for a world that accepts one and all.
The Window: People are often shaped for later success by something in their childhood. Can you tell us a bit about growing up female in Pakistan?
Urooj Arshad: I grew up in Pakistan until I was almost 17, and I began to understand my difference as a young woman early on since I grew up with two brothers. I began to see how they were treated, like being able to go to the market alone and having more independence. While my parents were very supportive of my education, my mobility was much more restricted than my brothers’. As young women grow older in Pakistan, access to public spaces decreases until you’re relegated to the home. I started to feel very ogled in the streets—street harassment and being groped are very common experiences for women there. Because it’s a very gendered society, there’s a lot of tension around sexuality. That’s part of the reason my parents curtailed my movement.
I was also expected to learn how to cook and do other household tasks, with the expectation being that I would eventually do that for my husband. From an early age, my understanding was that I was a guest with my own family and that my real home would be my husband’s. Even though I was studying in a very rigorous academic program, I was still expected to have domestic tasks that my brothers didn’t. I began pushing back against that at an early age, saying that I wanted to study rather than learn housework, and my mom let me, for which I’m really grateful.
Was your family always that supportive, relative to the surroundings?
Yes and no. I remember that when I got my period, I didn’t know what it was. There’s no sex education in schools, and all I knew about sexuality was that it would be really terrible if I became pregnant before marriage. So I thought I was pregnant, even though I’d never had sex, because I didn’t know what else could have happened. I was really scared! My mom told me that this was going to happen for the rest of my life and that I should be ashamed of it, hide it. Later, once I realized it was something very natural, I got very angry.
Understandably so! Did those experiences affect you in other ways?
As I began struggling with all of these factors, I began shutting down and withdrawing. The last few years before we immigrated to the U.S., I began wearing all white, the color of mourning in Pakistan. I was trying to strip myself away, trying not to show up at all—if people couldn’t see me, then they couldn’t see me as a sexual object. Even though I love fashion, love bling, and am super femme, I took all of that away in an attempt to control my body and the way I was perceived. But more importantly, these experiences gave an early understanding of feminism, even though I didn’t have a word for it at the time. I didn’t have access to any feminist points of view, but I knew how I felt and later found the word for it.
It sounds like you really needed the resources that you now work to provide. What experiences pushed you further down the path in seeking them out?
It really happened in college, where I started out as a bio/pre-med major, like so many other South Asians. But as part of my more general course work, I somehow ended up in a Women’s Studies class, and it ended up changing my life. That first Women’s Studies course is where I began to understand what I’d been struggling with in Pakistan and to learn that it had meaning, that it was called feminism. I eventually changed my major to Sociology with a minor in Women’s Studies. I went to my first Take Back the Night event and was awed by women taking a public space. That gave me the courage to come out, which I did when I was 19. Through that process, I truly began identifying as a person of color.
Initially, I just understood myself as Pakistani, but once I came out, I didn’t connect with the white LGBTQ community. There were so many issues I had that were more about being a person of color, as I began to identify experiences from my high school and early college years as racism. I started to connect more with the LGBTQ people of color on campus and started to understand what that meant as a political identity in this country. Most of my work since then has been about serving this community. My college years were very formative in making those connections back to what I’d experienced in Pakistan.
What was the driving force that led you to taking that self-knowledge and growing it into the work that you do today?
After graduating college, my first job was working with black LGBTQ youth in Chicago. That was my first professional experience, and I found myself identifying with the racism that these kids experienced in Chicago, not only from police or the general populace, but from within the LGBTQ community as well. Seeing that, I became so disillusioned that I knew I wanted to work with an LGBTQ organization that had a social justice component and ended up in Washington, D.C. with the National Youth Advocacy Coalition, an organization that no longer exists. But it was my entry to D.C. I wanted to bring what I saw in Chicago to the national level and elevate the importance of the social justice framework within the LGBTQ community. I’ve been doing this work ever since, finding new ways to serve super marginalized communities, and I consider myself lucky to be able to do that work.
To that end, can you fill us in a bit more on your day-to-day and the work you’re doing now?
I work now at Advocates for Youth, which all about connecting people around issues related to youth sexual health, education, and rights. For example, we just wrapped up a conference at Advocates for Youth that brought together about 120 young people from across the US, and within that, started the Muslim Youth Leadership Council. The council brought together 13 Muslim youth, most of whom also identify as LGBTQ, creating an atmosphere where they learned skills like how to lobby members of Congress on issues that are important to them. It was incredible to see the impact it had on these young people, since many of them live in very isolated areas where they may be the only Muslim representation in their community. Bringing them together allowed them to make very meaningful connections.
Beyond that, my work right now is primarily working with organizations that support the Muslim LGBTQ community in the U.S and Pakistan. I’ll be going back to Pakistan in a few weeks, working there with organizations to figure out what resources and training they may need. Then outside of Advocates for Youth, I also volunteer with the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity on evenings and weekends.
Let’s talk a bit more about that. Many people might have trouble reconciling being both a practicing Muslim and a member of the LGBTQ community. Can we discuss that duality and the work you do with the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity?
MASGD is an organization where all the members of steering committee are LGBTQ Muslims, and the idea is to carve out a space where you don’t have to choose between being queer/trans and Muslim. That can be very difficult to do, finding acceptance even within our own communities. A lot of our work is to build a safe space for LGBTQ Muslims to come together. We do a retreat every year that brings more than a hundred LGBTQ Muslims together to congregate. We do workshops and talks on different themes, and the topic for this year’s retreat will be focused on black Muslims and racial justice, since that’s also an issue in the Muslim LGBTQ community. It’s very powerful to give voice to an issue like that.
We also build bridges with mainstream LGBTQ and Muslim communities. Right now, there are a lot of problematic things coming out of the current administration, the worst being something we call “gendered islamophobia.” That’s where LBGT and women’s rights are used as a proxy to advance islamophobia. For example, after the terrible shooting that happened at Pulse in Orlando, Trump came talked about the need for a Muslim ban to protect the LGBTQ community, as though we can’t be both Muslim and LGBTQ. He tried to say that we’re going to protect “real Americans” from these terrible people, but as an American LGBTQ Muslim, what are you supposed to do? You can’t make a choice among those identities. A lot of our work is holding our ground and saying that we don’t have to make a choice—we can be all of who we are.
Well speaking of the current political atmosphere and some of the issues that you deal with every day—islamophobia, homophobia, xenophobia, transphobia, racism, misogyny—which do you think is the most pressing or the most challenging?
There’s been this white supremacist unveiling. Not that it didn’t exist before, but now people feel that they can say or do whatever they want because their views are being echoed by the highest office in the land. When that’s the case, why would supremacists be scared to act out? That makes me really scared for the safety of my family. I tell my mom not to go to the mosque, just to mitigate risk. We have to think about our safety every day, especially people who are visibly Muslim and get the brunt of it, like hijabi women.
After speaking about all the challenges that these communities face, we do want to address the flipside too,—the hopeful side. At the end of the day, what does the ideal world that you’re working toward look like
I was thinking about that a lot in terms of the Muslim Youth Leadership Council I mentioned. These are 17-24 year olds, some are hijabi, some are hijabi and queer, and it’s so inspiring to see their love for each other. That’s what I want to work toward. What would a world look like that considers them beautiful, values them, and doesn’t hate them? My ideal world would also be one where Muslim women have agency and control over who they are and how they express it.
What advise would you offer to someone who also wants to work toward that same goal?
Just keep speaking your truth, no matter how unconventional your path might be. Believe in your voice no matter where you are or how much you feel like the world may be against you. Make your voice heard through whatever platform you can—you never know who may hear it or how it will resonate with them.