Welcome to the second introduction to Poly Pocket, a new series about polyamory! When there aren’t any models for how you want to move through the world, it’s harder to move through the world. There’s no one right way to do ethical non-monogamy, just as there’s no one right way to do ethical monogamy, and no way is better or worse than any other, just better or worse for those involved. Poly Pocket will look at all the ways queer people do polyamory: what it looks like, how we think about it, how it functions (or doesn’t), how it feels, because when you don’t have models you have to create your own. Poly Pocket is opening with more than one post because I love getting meta; after today, look for this series twice a month.
Zaynab Shahar is a queer, black, Muslim (Sufi), fat, femme, cis woman living in Chicago. She is an academic the@logian and first year doctoral student at the Chicago Theological Seminary, an activist and a creative writer. She practices solo poly.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
Carolyn: When did you start to explore polyamory?
Zaynab: I knew about polyamory as a teenager. I vividly remember seeing the first edition of The Ethical Slut at Women & Children First when I was 16 years old. But it wasn’t until age 20/21 that I started exploring polyamory for myself as a viable option, reading books and trying to understand it better. After that I started identifying as polyamorous.
The first time I began to practice it was my senior year in college. I was having a casual relationship with another black femme that I was introduced to through mutual friends. We both were in a space of not wanting to be monogamous, not wanting to put labels on what we were doing, but also having those conversations about what it would mean for us to be sexually and/or romantically active with other people and how we would navigate safer sex and jealousy.
Carolyn: Where did those conversations lead?
Zaynab: It led to us being able to process those things at various moments. Granted, it didn’t always go well, but we made the effort when jealousy arose to acknowledge it and work through it.
Currently I am solo poly. For me this means I don’t have a primary partner nor am I dating with the goal of placing people on a hierarchy of primary/secondary/etc. I’m dating multiple people to have relationships and see where it goes and not really focus on having hierarchy right now.
“When I look to the future, my relationships play a role but are neither the sole thing on my horizon line nor the largest.”
Carolyn: What attracted you to a non-heirarchical approach, and to solo poly?
Zaynab: I realized how often within poly culture, especially now that it’s mainstreaming, hierarchical poly seems like filling the slots in a march madness bracket. I feel it creates a pressure to have a primary and secondary and fill the rows down the line in order for it to be seen as “legitimate” in the eyes of a monogamous dominant culture. But there’s not a whole lot of emphasis placed on actually being present in a relationship and developing the skills necessary for it to be healthy. For example, I’m currently casually dating someone who is really intent on hierarchal poly but from my perspective doesn’t have a working definition of what it means to have a healthy/unhealthy relationship, and I’ve seen the unhealthy relationships play out in various ways. Meanwhile, this person is constantly asking me, “When can we be ‘official’?” and in my head the focus shouldn’t be on making it official before doing that hard work, it should be on beginning to do that hard work in the process of getting to know one another and as part of deciding whether you want to be official in any sense of the term.
Now as for solo poly, I think that fell into my lap given the state of my life. I’m a full time graduate student, which is very demanding. I’m also a full-time organizer for Third Coast Queer Muslims as well as other various queer faith and liberation oriented projects. In terms of priorities I felt the need to prioritize myself and my wellbeing over trying to say “this is my primary, this is my secondary,” etc. It gives me the freedom to acknowledge that at this point in time “settling down” really isn’t on my agenda in the way it might be for others. When I look to the future, my relationships play a role but are neither the sole thing on my horizon line nor the largest. I still see myself as having an academic career, being a thriving activist and even artist, and having people around me who support that while understanding how demanding that can be.
Carolyn: You mentioned to me earlier that your poly is heavily rooted in anti-oppression praxis. What’s the theory behind that for you? What does it look like in practice?
Zaynab: Quite a number of things written about polyamory out there fail to really take oppression seriously as something that impacts the ability to have multiple relationships. So when I say my poly is rooted in anti-oppression praxis, I’m saying I want to be mindful of the way that dating another person might visit forms of oppression on me or how I’m able to do that to another person.
For example, one of the people I’m casually dating is younger than me. I try to constantly be aware of how age is a form of power that can be wielded oppressively. There are older people who date younger folx for epically predatory reasons, particularly to manipulate and control them, groom them into the ideal submissive partner. And when I think of my poly being rooted in anti-oppression praxis I think of how Thich Nhat Hanh essentially says that part of understanding and eradicating oppression is acknowledging the potential everyone has to be oppressive.
It may not manifest exactly in the same way along the same axis of power, but being a person who experiences oppression doesn’t exempt me from understanding how those things show up in my own behavior and learning how to change that. So yeah, I want to wake up every morning and believe that I’m not one of those older people who dates younger folx to be manipulative. But in order to do that I actually have to understand how that manipulation can show up and constantly check myself, reflect on my own behaviors, and be accountable for the things I say and do.
Carolyn: What about that is a struggle? What about it excites you?
Zaynab: It’s a struggle because I live in a social justice world, and I encounter so many folx who believe that just because they read the right things and say the right things that they understand what anti-oppressive relationships look like and therefore don’t have to do any work. I’ve dated people, primarily masculine black women and women of color, who thought just because we were both women there was no need for them to check their femmephobia, internalized misogyny or patriarchy at the door. I’ve ended relationships because those partners were not willing to do the work necessary to make me feel safe as a black femme within the relationship. So it’s a lot of loneliness involved in finding people who understand that if your anti-oppression praxis is only in the streets but not in the sheets, chances are you’re not really about that life.
What’s exciting to me is the new levels of queer intellectual and/or praxis production being done to combat these things. There was no The Revolution Starts at Home or Learning Good Consent when I was in emotionally abusive and toxic relationships as a teenager. The only thing available to me was the whole “mums the word” because people didn’t want the “dirty laundry” of interpersonal violence to tarnish efforts for marriage equality. I dealt with being emotionally abused, being stalked, being gaslit alone. So I’m excited to know that people are fed up enough to air the dirty laundry so loudly that people can’t help but hear it. And I want to play a role in not only airing the dirty laundry but having the conversations about healthy non-monogamous/polyamorous relationships, especially from a queer black feminist lens.
Carolyn: Turning to those healthy relationships: What for you is the key to doing that work and having those conversations within relationships?
Zaynab: The key for me is having conversations about tangible definitions and praxis. As an academic, I try not to assume everyone who’s reading my writing understands all of what I’m saying. Subsequently saying the word “consent” or “healthy relationship” means dramatically different things to different people. So it means actually sitting down and finding a working definition of consent that works for both of us, and understanding that it’s going to evolve as we grow and our needs change. It means being willing to share resources with each other to find shared language so mutual and individual needs can be met.
Like I’m not above having people read whole books if that’s what it takes. I sent my younger partner a link to Learning Good Consent. I routinely tell people who are new to poly to read Franklin Veaux’s More than Two. And the critical polyamorist is one of my favorite blogs hands down.
“Not leaning into change is a lot like staring at your house while it’s on fire.”
Carolyn: Within your relationships, how do you negotiate conflict? How do you negotiate change?
Zaynab: Conflict is something typically dealt with through conversation. Change for me is something I have to lean into because I’m not good with it. So when things change rapidly I don’t always respond well, so I’m trying to get better at meeting it where it is.
It is hard. But not leaning into change is a lot like staring at your house while it’s on fire. Staring at it burning doesn’t put out the fire. The act of putting out the fire is not only to stop it, but I think part of it is acknowledging what once was is no longer in the way you’re used to.
Carolyn: That’s such a good way to put it! Are there any logistics within/around your relationships that you’d like to discuss? Some people get really excited about ical, for example.
Zaynab: I think text messages are my digital logistic so to speak. I’ve yet to embrace calendars, and I think that has to do with having chronic pain and nothing for me really being set in stone. I can make plans ahead of time, but if I’m having a flare up then all bets are off. Subsequently, I enjoy carving out time to myself, so I’m reluctant to say “Tuesday is partner #1’s day” or some shit like that ’cause I don’t know how I’m gonna feel that Tuesday.
Carolyn: How does polyamory function within your understanding of yourself?
Zaynab: I don’t know that it really does. I’m not one of those people who thinks poly is the ultimate expression of queerness or radicalism. I’m poly because the thought of being monogamous puts me to sleep.
“The collective narrative around Muslims in society is that we’re monotheistic and dualistic. But I’m not, and that tends to be reflected in how I exude my faith and my polyamory practice as well.”
I will say, I do think being poly is a huge expression of my faith. I’m a Sufi dervish, I’m a heavy believer in non-duality, which is having more a both/and perspective verses either/or perspective on God and theology. So you’ll never catch me saying “There’s only one God.” I’m a little bit more of “There’s God, and then there’s Buddha, Spirit, the Orishas, some goddesses and some other things I’ve yet to encounter, and they’re all equally meaningful in expanding our view of the universe and the world we live in.” I recognize that’s a fairly unconventional view for a Muslim to hold, especially because the collective narrative around Muslims in society is that we’re monotheistic and dualistic. But I’m not, and that tends to be reflected in how I exude my faith and my polyamory practice as well.
So the way I see it, being polyamorous is at times the most honest expression of being a believer in non-duality the@logies out there. It means “I can date you, and you, and maybe even you and there’s no contradiction for me” the same way I can read the Qu’ran, zen koans or books on witchcraft and find meaning in all of them as they are, from the traditions and localities they emerge from.
Carolyn: You mentioned above that academia, activism and art are likely to be the biggest parts of your life on the horizon. But in terms of relationships, what do you want your future to look like? What vision are you working towards or hoping for?
Zaynab: In my perfect world, my futuristic poly utopia, I want to have an off-the-grid urban farm that supports the periods of my life where I want to live solo but also accommodate partners who want to live with me, whether permanently or for the duration of our relationship. I’d love to have live-in partners in the future, because I want to raise children in a radically green poly homestead.