Halal Sex: Growing Up Devoutly Sufi and Nonbinary

What happens when Muslims from traditional families set out to pursue open and active sex lives in the West

Someone puts their hand on the leg of a person in a bathrobe.

“It’s the manly part of dinner preparations,” Azar teases, referring to their father’s plans to barbecue this evening. We’re standing around the kitchen island in the family’s suburban Wisconsin home. Azar’s mother, Fehmeeda, quietly chops vegetables for the salad as she glances over with kohl-rimmed eyes, listening as Azar and Bashir talk to me about the Islamic golden age. They’re the chatty members of this tight-knit Persian family.

Both Bashir and Fehmeeda are initiated members of Sufism—or, as the mystical sect is often thought of, the hippies of Islam. Azar chose to be initiated into the order as a young adult, though they’re hesitant to label their upbringing as religious. “I identify as a Muslim. I identify as someone who has a religion and believes in that religion,” they acknowledge. “But Sufism is not as strict of a sect. It’s more spiritual.”

Over the next hour, the dining room table fills up with dish after dish of Persian cuisine—koobideh and joojeh kabobs, khoresh bademjan, a steaming plate of polo ba tahdig, and a large chilled bowl of mast-o-khiar. Once everyone is seated, Bashir puts up an index finger and exclaims, “Enjoy, but you must eat it all!” Azar chuckles and quips in my direction, “No, not really. You don’t have to.” I’m entertained by the generational gap.

Azar was a good kid who never caused their parents any trouble. By the time they got to the eighth grade, they developed depression. “I wasn’t diagnosed until I was in college, but puberty was rough on me. I was a very ugly tween and teen, and I knew it,” Azar says matter-of-factly. “It devastated me and was not good for my self-esteem.” They also knew there was something off or uncomfortable about their gender identification, but back then, they didn’t yet have the knowledge or language to articulate these thoughts and feelings.

Academically, they excelled. Having two overachieving parents led Azar to set high expectations for themself. At their inner-city high school, they pursued the International Baccalaureate program, an advanced curriculum for excellent students, and made friends with like-minded, studious peers. They adhered to the rules their parents maintained: a 9 p.m. pickup at the latest if they were invited to a party and no sleepovers.

With the onset of puberty, Azar noticed that they were one of the first to develop breasts and begin menstruating. “I really wanted to have a boyfriend,” they recalled. “But none of the boys I liked liked me.” Their best friend, a similarly introverted girl, had shared with Azar that she believed she was bisexual. Over time, Azar noticed that their feelings for this friend weren’t strictly platonic. One thing led to another, and one day, the two fifteen-year-olds made out on Azar’s bed. “I was very overwhelmed. I had a lot of racing thoughts. And I was just like, ‘I don’t even know if I’m particularly enjoying this,’” they explain. Azar couldn’t stop worrying that their parents could come home at any moment and barge into their room. When the two paused to check in with each other, Azar, lacking the vocabulary to share what they were feeling, started to cry. For years, Azar took this limited experience to mean that they must be heterosexual.

Now thirty, Azar is finally confident about their sexual orientation. “I generally identify as queer, more specifically as biromantic demisexual,” they say. And when it comes to their gender, they’re equally comfortable with their nonbinary transness. “Accepting being nonbinary was very easy for me, because this is the label I’ve been missing my whole life. And soon after that, it was pretty easy for me to just start using queer as a catch-all.”

Being content and grounded in their identity and sexual desires hasn’t come without growing pains. It took about ten years for Azar to understand how fluid and wide the spectrum of human attraction and gender identity is. It wasn’t until they discovered the term demisexual, only a few years ago, that they realized desire operates similarly for a host of others. “I don’t experience sexual attraction to people unless I have a deep emotional connection to them. And even then, not often. But I’m definitely attracted to men, and I’m definitely attracted to women as well.”

Growing up within a devoutly Sufi family, sex was never discussed. “When I was eight, I remember coming into the living room and my parents were sitting on the couch, and for some reason, I asked them about sex. And my dad said, ‘Sex is kept within a marriage.’ That was my sex talk,” they say and laugh. They learned bits and pieces from their friends and from pop culture. They have vague recollections of being briefly gender segregated in fifth grade for an educational film and, after changing schools in the seventh grade, being told that they’d missed sex ed. “And then in high school, my first year, we had a health section, but the teacher was a pastor and so he just talked about abstinence.”

Discussions about sexual orientation weren’t really welcome in the family either. Bashir preferred to avoid these topics. And although he’s become much more open minded, for a long time, he saw heterosexuality as the way things naturally ought to be. Azar, however, didn’t accept this. On their twentieth birthday, they initiated a quarrel with Bashir about what it means to say heterosexuality is natural. “I was trying to argue that there are instances in the animal kingdom of homosexual behaviour,” they say. But other than infrequent intellectualized debates or short answers to close the topic, Azar’s family doesn’t talk about sex or sexuality.

Azar is familiar with traditional Islamic views on queerness, though they’ve never received any negative messaging from the Sufi faith itself. They’re strongly against the idea that the God they’ve been raised with could be so basic. “I don’t feel like somewhere there is a god sitting around judging me for being queer. I just don’t believe in a god that would sit around thinking about that kind of stuff.” They chuckle. But they’re also aware that this type of ideology has contributed to the lack of discussion about sexuality in their family. And that this, in turn, has indirectly informed some of Azar’s opinions and decisions.

By age twenty-three, Azar was filled with shame about being a virgin. Most of their friends were sexually active, and Azar still had a lot of anxieties around sex. They met a man on an online dating platform and spent a couple of weeks getting to know him through friendly conversations, cementing a sense of respect. “I felt that he would treat me fair, so I slept with him for about a month or so.” The boundaries and expectations in this relationship were well defined, and Azar appreciated this. Over time, they realized that they wanted a deeper relationship, and this man did not.

Back online, Azar reluctantly tried their luck again despite dwindling motivation. Two weeks later, another momentous relationship began in Azar’s life. They met Dante.

Dante stood out because his message was thoughtful and intimate. They decided to meet him in person. The plan was for Dante to join Azar on campus, where they were busy working in the lab. They were in the middle of an experiment and ended up being forty-five minutes late, but Dante waited. “We had a great conversation for, like, four hours in this coffee shop. I asked to kiss him when we left,” they say with a chuckle. A few dates later, Azar and Dante knew they’d fallen in love. Within three months, the couple moved in together.

The couple have been together for six and a half years now. Dante makes Azar feel like they can be completely themself, never asking them to pretend to be anything else. The fact that they both grew up in Chicago and come from immigrant families is a shared experience they’ve deeply bonded over. He’s been a grounding force in Azar’s life. Azar has always appreciated that Dante wants them to comfortably be who they are within their relationship. This means a lot to Azar, who has struggled to fit in ever since childhood. At seven years old, Azar heard the word tomboy and identified with it. “Then when I started going through puberty, I had an immense amount of hair growth. Being from West Asia, it happens. And that’s the first thing that triggered my dysphoria,” they explain. “I didn’t feel like a girl; I had so much facial hair and body hair.”

And although Azar started waxing at twelve, to exert some control over their presentation, they were convinced in a very visceral way that they couldn’t be a girl looking the way they did. That they possessed traditionally masculine characteristics—headstrong, stubborn, and determined—only reinforced that sentiment.

By high school, Azar was saying that they felt like a boy in a girl’s body. And because they believed they were only attracted to men, that statement slowly changed to “a gay boy in a girl’s body.” They remember meeting a trans man in high school and noticing that even though he had breasts, he used he/him pronouns. “And then in university, I met more trans people and continued to think of gender in binary terms. I didn’t even think there was a possibility of something that was not binary,” Azar says. “But I felt like I was in this in-between place.”

They wrestled with these ideas more intensely after finishing undergrad; at that point, they had a friend who was transitioning and identified as bigender. Sometimes their friend would use feminine pronouns, and other times they would use masculine ones. This idea of being both intrigued Azar. They shared these thoughts with their best friend from high school, who reminded them that they used to feel like a boy in a girl’s body. Azar slowly began to realize that this sensation of not identifying clearly as either male or female was deeply rooted.

The summer after they began their master’s program, Azar came across the term nonbinary for the first time on Tumblr, the microblogging site. “I was so stunned that other people felt how I do about myself. It clicked. There were a couple different definitions. Ones that resonated with me at the time were demiflux and demigirl—somebody who sometimes identifies as female and sometimes as this in-between. This was exactly how I felt.”

Once Azar found some footing regarding their gender, they began to think about their sexuality as well. Back in high school, their failed make-out session with their best friend made them quickly shelve the idea of bisexuality. “I was like, ‘I didn’t really enjoy that, therefore I’m straight.’” They chuckle at the flawed logic. So Azar let themself pursue this attraction they’ve always had to women. After developing a couple of crushes on women in their master’s program, they understood and admitted to themself that they are not straight.

“Generally, it’s hard for me to orgasm,” they say with a sigh. “And I don’t know if it’s because of the anti-depressants or what.” Azar usually has to rely on clitoral stimulation whether penetration is involved or not. Luckily, they have a partner who enjoys giving them pleasure, which makes sex intimate and gratifying regardless. But it’s exponentially harder for them to experience an orgasm with a partner than it is on their own.

Masturbation is the easiest route. “When I was sixteen or seventeen, I was with somebody and they talked about masturbation like, ‘You, too, with a vagina can masturbate,’ and I was so shocked by that and was very timid to try. But that’s kind of when I started masturbating, although it’s always been a touch-and-go thing in my life.”

Azar and Dante have sex as regularly as they can, considering his job takes him away on fieldwork for weeks on end. But Azar admits that sex is much more vital to their husband than it is to them. When their desires don’t align, they’re both fine with him masturbating instead. “I tend to do it less frequently. I don’t know if it’s because I worry that if I want to masturbate, he’ll see that as a sign—‘Oh, we should just have sex!’—when I don’t really wanna have sex. What’s important to me is the feeling of intimacy and the sensual aspect of sex. I’d be happy to have more of those things if the sex part didn’t happen.” But when they go for long stretches of time without it, Azar becomes acutely aware of a disconnect from Dante that can only be remedied through intercourse.

Azar has had two sexual partners and is aware of their own limited experience. But they knew enough to notice that sex with Dante took on deeper meaning. “We had sex after I told him I loved him for the first time. I have a lot of positive associations with that,” they reminisce.

Although Azar loves Dante and enjoys being intimate with him, they don’t have a straightforward relationship to sex. Azar wonders if navigating how their queer identity fits in with their sexuality might also affect their sex drive. “As I’ve gotten queerer, I’ve wanted my sex to be queerer,” they tell me. Being married to a straight man presented Azar with a dilemma.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that Azar made the official switch to they/them pronouns. For a long time, they stuck with she/they, unsure if they/them fit. Azar was never particularly feminine in presentation—they never wore makeup, for example. “‘She’ felt fine as long as I could say I was a nonbinary woman. I recognized that I walked through the world and people assumed I was a woman.”

For a long time, Azar fought to learn what it meant to be and to fit in as a girl and a young woman. When they fully embraced being nonbinary, they had to actively let go of the concept of womanhood they’d built over the years. “It was a falsehood. I’d been clinging to this womanhood thing for most of my life and trying to figure out why it didn’t fit. I didn’t want to move through the world as a woman, because I’m not, but I didn’t understand that,” they say. The more people used they/them for Azar, the more Azar felt seen.

These realizations coincided with a big change in Azar. They announced to Dante that they identify as trans, using they/them pronouns. Dante took Azar’s decision well and was supportive. He was prepared, after all—they’d been talking about this throughout their relationship. But he began to have moments of struggle as he worked to reconcile what it means for him, as a straight cis man, that the “woman” he married and loves is not a woman. His concerns first began when Azar suggested that they might be interested in top surgery. “That triggered in him a panic, because he realized that he had wanted to marry a woman, that he had always imagined marrying a woman. And when he met me and we got married, I still identified as a woman, even though I was nonbinary,” they explain.

For a time, their relationship felt rocky and unpredictable. They went to couples counselling and tried to understand each other. “He was just like, ‘I wanted a woman.’ And I said, ‘When I met you, I identified as nonbinary!’ But he said, ‘You identified as a nonbinary woman,’” Azar recounts. The reality of what the label meant for them as a couple became apparent to him only when it threatened to change Azar’s physical appearance. Azar explains to me that a period of instability and uncertainty after one person transitions within a couple is very common. But knowing that it was normal didn’t make it less of a heartache. The couple questioned whether they should stay together.

“He was like, ‘I just don’t know that I can do it. I don’t know if I would be attracted to you.’ But it was such a bizarre concept for me, because I don’t experience normal sexual attraction,” Azar says. Sexual attraction for them is not based on physical appearance, so what Dante was feeling didn’t make sense to them. They struggled to accept that their husband couldn’t see them anymore as the person he first married.

And then one day, Dante made a statement that rang true and created some breathing room for them both. “He phrased it as ‘Neither one of us is our partner’s ideal gender.’” The couple recognized that if Azar weren’t with Dante, they’d most likely be dating a woman or another trans person. “But we choose each other every day, and knowing that really helped.”

The couple also reached a compromise on labels. Since Dante always wanted a wife, Azar is fine with still being called that, as long as it’s spelled wyfe. The couple has learned to understand each other, and through compromise, they’ve found their way back to each other. There’s more that brings them together than pulls them apart.

They’ve also found tactics that work for them. Sometimes Azar presents a little more feminine for Dante, and other times they’re as fully nonbinary as they like. And Dante has been open to making their sex life a little more queer. This, Azar feels, has enriched their sexual experiences by forcing them to have frank conversations about desire. It’s pushed Azar to become less ashamed of what they want. They’re increasingly comfortable voicing their nonnormative sexual desires with Dante and communicating during sex in general. Within the last year and a half, Dante told Azar that he’s made peace with their reality: he’s accepted he’s a straight man in love with a nonbinary trans person.

Top surgery is still an option, but not one that Azar is willing to entertain for now, because it’s just not worth their marriage. “It’s a big decision, and since he’s come to terms with things, I haven’t brought it up again, and I don’t know if I will,” they tell me with a smile. Their dysphoria is mostly regarding their hips anyway, and there’s no surgery to remedy that.

When it comes to the possibility of having children, Azar says that for a long time they thought they wanted to be a parent. But the dysphoria they anticipate experiencing through pregnancy is too much for them to take on. Luckily, Dante is happy to work around this in other ways. “We might adopt at some point; it’s something that’s on the table for us. But we love our pets,” they say of their two cats and hound-mix dog, laughing cheerfully.

There wasn’t a specific moment when they sat their parents down and officially told them, but Azar gradually shared their realizations about their gender with them. And although this information was given to them in bits and pieces, Bashir and Fehmeeda now know that Azar is nonbinary trans and uses they/them pronouns. Their parents still struggle with their pronouns. Although Azar’s parents are American-educated fluent English speakers, pronouns weren’t an easy part of the language for them to adopt. “Farsi has only one pronoun for she and he. It’s a gender-neutral pronoun, and words aren’t gendered either.”

Learning personal pronouns in English was extremely difficult, and Bashir and Fehmeeda are being asked to cast aside what they learned in Azar’s case. Whereas Bashir believes he has a pass from Azar and continues to use she/her, Fehmeeda is keen to respect Azar’s wishes, especially after a serious conversation in which they asked her to try harder. What helps Fehmeeda to remember to use they, she has determined, is to imagine Azar as five Azars. Azar bursts into laughter at the thought of this, but she knows Fehmeeda has come a long way in earnest.

Correcting Bashir and Fehmeeda when they speak about Azar with incorrect pronouns, however, is hard to do in the moment. Azar debates whether it’s worth it every time it comes up. “Whenever I hear them use she/her pronouns, I’ll repeat the sentence with they/them pronouns and try to reinforce it that way.” But it sometimes feels like a losing battle. Azar tells me that, as close as they are to their parents and as much as they love them, it can be very dysphoric to be back home.

Fehmeeda is watching Azar as they finish the last few bites of saffron-and-butter-crusted tahdig on their plate, perhaps contemplating the realities of her child’s life so far. She’s endlessly proud of Azar. But the look on her face, to me, seems to betray an underlying melancholy around her own experience of sex and sexuality. She mentions how little the Iranian community allowed women of her generation to explore their sexuality when she was coming of age. But the most important thing for this mother is knowing, despite the odds, she’s raised an empathetic, strong-willed, and creative human being.

Excerpted from Halal Sex by Sheima Benembarek. Copyright © 2023 Sheima Benembarek. Published by Viking Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

Sheima Benembarek
Sheima Benembarek is a contributing writer for The Walrus.