Reprinted from YCteen, with permission by Youth Communication, a nonprofit publisher of teen-written stories and curriculum to help educators strengthen the social and emotional skills of youth.
Editor’s note: Names have been changed
My mother is a devout Muslim from Ethiopia, and when I was 5, she briefly sent my older brother and me to after school Quran classes. I remember feeling that I did not belong, and learning about Quran history and writing in Arabic did not interest me.
After we quit Quran school, my mother taught my brother and me the fundamental belief of Islam, that Allah loves everyone. We prayed five times a day and before we ate. Before praying, we washed our hands and feet. We wore clothing that wouldn’t be haram — which my mother said is anything deemed a violation of Islamic law — like turtlenecks and baggy pants, so we could maintain modesty.
My mother made strict rules regarding my personal life, like no dating until you are 30, no male friends, and no hanging outside with friends. So I spent my days in my room studying or on my phone. Although I wanted to disobey sometimes, I never found the courage because I knew she would take away my phone, which was my only source of entertainment.
When middle school started, I stopped praying as much because I spent so much time at school. I had also discovered my love of dance and that class kept me after school a lot with rehearsals. But I also prayed less because I didn’t feel a connection to Allah.
Haters Call Me ISIS’s Daughter
When I was 11, my mother and I traveled to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, to visit our family. When we all sat down together and communicated in Amharic, I felt like the odd one out. I hadn’t realized how separated I felt from my background until this trip. And so with Ramadan approaching, my goal was to fast and wear a hijab when I got back to New York.
Ramadan came in June of 8th grade. I left the house without eating and for the first time, I was wearing a hijab outside. Smiling, my mother said, “Look at you! You’re making it up to Allah.” I finally felt like I was doing something right as a Muslim.
When I was waiting for the bus after school, a few kids came up to me. “I didn’t know you were Muslim,” one of them said. “So what’s it like being ISIS’s daughter? Are you a part of their terrorist organization?” The other kids laughed as I stood there appalled with my jaw dropped. Fortunately, my bus came. I cried my way home.
I thought: Is this really how the outside world views people like me?
That experience took away my motivation to be a more observant Muslim. I didn’t want people to even know I was Muslim. I just wanted to be seen as a human being.
It’s Haram to Be Gay?
One night a few months later, my mother and I were watching a TV show where two men kissed. My mother was disgusted and quickly changed the channel.
“They are gonna go to hell. You can’t date the same sex! It’s haram!” my mother said.
“But didn’t you tell me that Allah loves everyone for who they are?” I asked.
“If you do something haram, it increases your chances of going to hell.”
I never thought about how my actions could affect my placement in heaven or hell when I die.
I pondered her words for the rest of the night. I was close friends with a girl named Aria who I felt attracted to. We bonded over Billie Eilish songs, having curly hair, and gossip. Every day, we traded jackets in the morning and returned them to each other on our bus ride home.
My mother encouraged me to have female friends, but this was different. I felt butterflies in my stomach every time I saw her.
I had no idea if Aria felt the same way about me. Still, I felt protected and safe when I was with her. One bus ride home, she looked out the window and said, “You know, you are like a sister to me.” I thought I was friendzoned, so I just nodded my head.
While it was reassuring to know that she felt close to me like a sister, I wondered if she’d be weirded out if she found out I was romantically attracted to her. I decided to tell her how I felt by the end of the school year.
A Cupcake and a Confession
June quickly approached and all my classes were dedicated to Regents prep. In my living environment class, we were reviewing protein synthesis. I was trying hard to stay awake when I saw Aria peeking through the door window. My teacher opened the door. “Aria! So nice to see you. What do you need?” Aria told her that our drama teacher needed to talk to me. I stepped outside in a panic.
“What did I do?”
Then Aria held a cupcake out to me. “This is for you.”
“How did you know I was starving? Thank you for this, really. But I actually need to tell you something.”
“You can tell me anything,” she responded.
“So I … I like you!” I ran back to class without seeing her reaction.
She came to the library during lunch, and I was so nervous to look at her that I ran to the bathroom and hid for the rest of the period. When I peeked out and saw the empty hallways, I ran to my next class. But she was waiting for me outside after school. “I like you too,” she said.
Life Feels Magical
Ever since that day, my life felt magical. When summer vacation finally arrived, Aria texted me, asking if we could meet up. Once I started high school, my mom would occasionally let me go out with female friends. When I asked her she said, “As long as it is not a boy. You two have fun!”
I met Aria at a neighborhood park. We talked about how we were both discovering our sexuality and hiding this from our families. For years, I thought I was alone in these experiences, but learning that Aria was going through the same thing felt comforting. I told my mother about my friendship with Aria, nothing more. She was happy to hear I had a friend like her, and I felt a rush of guilt for lying to her.
But that did not stop me.
So Happy, Yet So Guilty
The following day, Aria and I met up again and went to a basketball court in my neighborhood to play. After that, we went to eat at a nearby mall and watched “Stranger Things” on her phone. When it was time to go home, Aria walked me to the back of my building and kissed me. The unexpected gesture made me freeze. But I kissed her back. I’d never felt so happy, yet so guilty.
The next week, my mom and I went shopping. As we drove home, she continued her condemnation of socializing with boys.
“Do you have any friends that are boys?”
“I have some male friends but it’s only because they are in my class.”
“Can I trust that you won’t date any boys?”
Although I had told my mother the truth, it felt like I was lying. But I was OK with it. I knew in my heart and mind, that there was nothing wrong with this relationship and it would not send me to hell.
Confident in My Choices
My romantic relationship with Aria continued for a few months and then we decided to just be friends. Although I still feel conflicted sometimes, I recognize that the religious beliefs my mother imposes on me aren’t my own. What’s more, I am confident in my choices and they’ve led to me feeling healthier and happier.
Also something unexpected has happened. Now that I am no longer trying to be someone I am not, I am gradually developing a connection with Allah. I pray more. Rather than being focused on Allah sending gay people to hell, I focus on the knowledge that Allah loves everyone. I watch videos on YouTube about Allah loving gay people.
I know that lying to my mother isn’t good. And I don’t want to lie to her about my sexuality forever. Lately, I feel like my mother and I are connecting and understanding each other more, and that makes me hopeful.
Even though my mom still feels being gay is haram, we continue to deepen our connection. With this in mind, I know I will slowly develop the confidence to tell her about my sexuality in the future.