Miriam hid her sexuality from her strict Muslim parents for years. When she eventually did come out to them, she found it impossible to translate “lesbian” into Punjabi or Urdu. She explains how the conversation put an end to her double life “playing the straight woman” but caused a rift so deep that her father disowned her.
“I always knew I was attracted to the same gender – as young as four or five, when I kissed my best friend in the cloakroom, I knew then.
“But it wasn’t until I was in college that I first started exploring. We got the internet at home and there was a dial-up computer in my brother’s room – it had a lock on the door.
“I used to go on Yahoo chat, I remember sometimes I pretended I was a man, for the sake of speaking to women. Then from 18, 19, I [thought], ‘maybe I need to look for lesbian women’.”
Miriam* grew up in a traditional Muslim family in Bristol where her grandfather “ruled the roost”, with Islamic sermons and prayers five times a day.
Despite knowing from a young age she was gay, she knew telling her parents would cause a rift that might prove insurmountable. She went to great lengths to hide it but found an outlet in which to explore her sexuality by speaking to women in chat rooms.
It was only when she went to university that she built up the courage to meet other women in person, travelling hundreds of miles so she wouldn’t be seen by anyone she knew.
“I went as far as Manchester or Hartlepool, as long as it was a minimum of two hours away.
“I was absolutely [terrified] of having a relationship with someone in the same city as me. These scenarios used to play through my mind – what if someone sees me at the station?
Fearful as she was of being caught out, these relationships gave Miriam freedom.
“I made sure that my girlfriends didn’t visibly mark me, so I didn’t come home with [love bites] on my neck. But while I was there, it was thrilling – I thought, ‘Oh my god, I’m doing this, I’m having a sexual experience with another woman, this is amazing’.
“At the time, the people I met didn’t question the fact it was long distance. One woman in particular I only saw every other month. I used to go up on the train, meet for a few hours, go to a pub, have some food. We were quite open, it felt massively liberating.”
Some went on for much longer: for a year she went to Burnley, near Manchester, to visit a Muslim woman who was married with a child.
“I used to stay in the B&B down the road. Her husband worked nights and at 18:30 he would go to work and I’d go through the back door. I’d set an alarm for 05:30 and go out the back door again. It was ridiculous. Her family knew of me but I was a ‘friend who was visiting’.
“It didn’t occur to them I could have been a sexual partner and her husband never caught me. There was a naivety to it all, I didn’t think it was my problem to bear because I was so used to living this closeted life. Even thinking about it now chokes me up, because I think, ‘how did I do that?'”
Under the guise of friendship, Miriam did, on one occasion, take her lover home to her parents’ house in Bristol.
“She was Muslim – if it was anyone else but her, it would have been difficult. But because she looked Asian it was easier [to explain her presence] than [bringing home] a white girlfriend. She had the cultural and religious understanding – she knew how to behave.
“My room had two beds it, my parents never came in my room anyway so we slept in the same bed. We were exploring this new world, it was amazing and refreshing. In some ways it was so easy, it was almost a relief.
“But it was so whirlwind, she had to leave – her plans were premade for her and she went home to Saudi Arabia. It was heartbreaking, knowing we were so close to something so perfect.”