Global Citizens of America is a new series that highlights Americans who dedicate their lives to helping people outside the borders of the US. At a time when some world leaders are encouraging people to look inward, Global Citizen knows that only if we look outward, beyond ourselves, can we make the world a better place.
In America, it can be hard to exist on the margins.
Two minority groups in the United States — Muslims and LGBT individuals — are not often thought of as being traditional allies.
Urooj Arshad is hoping to change that.
Arshad, a Pakistani immigrant who is queer herself, is a longtime employee at the reproductive rights group Advocates for Youth, where she heads up the group’s international youth health and rights work. The job has put her in contact with both Muslim youth and LGBT youth throughout her career, and led her to realize that the two overlap more than most Americans probably realize.
Now, Arshad is launching the nation’s first Muslim Youth Leadership Council, which will bring together young LGBT Muslims and their allies who are already leaders in their communities to come together and discuss how to create more safe spaces and access to resources for their peers.
The council will also serve as a meeting place for kids who often feel marginalized from both Muslim and mainstream LGBT communities, as well as broader American culture, Arshad said in an interview with Global Citizen. This fall, 15 young leaders will attend the first conference in Washington to discuss their ideas and their identities. Arshad spoke with GC about the council and her work; Global Citizen campaigns to achieve the global goals, including Global Goal No. 5 on gender equality.
What’s your background? How did you end up doing this work?
I originally am from Pakistan, and lived there until I was about 17. I immigrated to the US with my family, came out in college at 19, and have been doing work around — initially it was communities of color and LGBT work, the intersection of that, but then 9/11 happened and it changed the way I thought about Islam.
Growing up in Pakistan, I grew up Muslim, a Sunni, the majority sect in Pakistan. But I grew up secular, and had questions about my sexuality and identity, but I didn’t feel like I was a minority or oppressed. That changed on 9/11. I was in the air when it happened. I couldn’t get ahold of my mom, and when I did, she worked in a daycare in the Chicago suburbs, and her bosses came up to her and said, “why are you doing this to us.”
Everything changed for us that day. For secular muslims, we go to prayers maybe once a year, but then it became a larger political identity. So I was doing this LGBT work and realized there wasn’t a big Muslim voice, at this Muslim LGBT intersection, and the right wing was using this gendered Islamophobia that women are oppressed. So I felt passionate about my story as a queer Muslim.
Where did this idea come from?
This project was launched soon after the election but the context for it is much longer. The idea was to push back on the idea that Muslims are somehow not inherently interested in issues like LGBT issues and women’s rights, which feeds into an Islamophobic narrative.
Meanwhile, if you think about Muslim youth, there are so many challenges talking about these issues, especially within immigrant communities, which often look at these issues as white or Western, so there isn’t always a space for them, even within mainstream organizations or schools.
And why did you think it was important to create it?
The idea of the Muslim youth project was to provide a platform for Muslims themselves to take ownership around these issues, to have resources from the national level to elevate their voices. I myself am queer and am from Pakistan, and I really see a lack of talking about this issue on the national level among organizations doing work on reproductive sexual health.
So the Muslim Youth Leadership Council was talked about as a way to push back amid all the hatred that came after the election, the hate crimes that started increasing so much, which was sort of the same as after 9/11. There was heightened Islamophobia, and the rhetoric that Muslims are backwards, so we decided to have this council and make it part of our larger youth organizing efforts.
What is the goal of the council?
The idea of this youth council is to create opportunities for Muslims to talk about these issues themselves. A lot of times they’re not very connected to each other and feel isolated in their multiple identities. They don’t have space in the LGBT community or the Muslim community. So there are 15 people who will be coming on and nine of them identify as LGBT themselves and the rest are allies. The main thing of the project is really to be able to bring them together and have a sense of community together and go out into their communities and work on projects themselves.
What do you have planned, and who is on the council?
we just selected them a month or so ago and are having our big youth conference in September in DC. They range in age from 17 to 24. There are two 17-year-olds who are still in high school which is incredible to me. They’re doing amazing work already. This one person, he lives in some small town in Colorado, and his family, they’re Iranian, they’re the only Muslim family in the neighborhood and community, so he’s been doing these Get-To-Know-A-Muslim days, raising basic awareness of how they’re not these terrible awful violent people.
What do you hope the youth leaders get out of this and bring to their communities?
One of the biggest issues for us will be talking about LGBT issues and access to reproductive sexual health care and how it affects the Muslim community, too. These issues are not always talked about in the Muslim community. These young folks, since we’re focusing on Muslim youth, they don’t always feel they can to go to a mainstream provider, or in a school system that they necessarily get the support. The assumption is that they’re not going to be affected by this, there are assumptions about what Muslim folks are dealing with.
The worst thing you can say is this isn’t happening in our communities, there’s no one who is LGBT, no one is having sex, so where do you go if you’re someone who’s coming out and need support?
I think sometimes when I talk to LGBT Muslims and young people, they don’t feel they have a connection with the LGBT space and don’t have a space in the Muslim community. That’s why it’s important to figure out and build resources to build a safe space for people who are at these intersections.