This is an educational series on the experiences of ex-Muslims. The The Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain (CEMB) is one major organisation in the UK. The CEMB contingent will march in the gay pride parade in London on July 8, 2017. Those who want to be part of the CEMB contingent, please email Daniel at email@example.com. As well, the CEMB will be having an event entitled “International Conference on Freedom of Conscience and Expression in the 21st Century,” on July 22-24, 2017 in Central London. The following sessions are the stories, the personal narratives, of ex-Muslims in general. Yasmeen is the first profile. Here is her story as an ex-Muslim in America.
Scott Jacobsen: To begin, what was your family background in religion? How did this, in turn, influence your development within the religion?
Yasmeen: My parents were Christian by name. So I grew up pretty secular. As a teenager, I was an atheist by default. I didn’t have solid arguments for my atheism. I feel like that definitely contributed to my conversion to Islam.
Jacobsen: From within Islam, what was your first perception of women’s status within it? And how did this develop over time as a perspective?
Yasmeen: I don’t really like to use the term “internalised misogyny,” but that’s kind of what was happening with me as I was a Muslim. I believed women were inferior to men. I accepted my role as a woman in Islam. That only really started to change when really horrible things happened to me, like abuse within the community, abuse within my own family. It started to get me out of that mentality. It was almost like a fantasy, but that fantasy was shattered when it actually happened to me.
Jacobsen: Is this a common experience for women that were within your community, at the time?
Yasmeen: Definitely, there are a lot of women who will reassure that it is okay how your husband is acting. He is supposed to be jealous and have what is called a gheerah. Some women were forced to wear a niqab during a wedding because they were wearing makeup. They will defend wife-beating and other such things.
Jacobsen: Within the community, are the restrictions on women, in general, more stringent and numerous than on men? If so, are there any equivalents in the restrictions on men as on women, in the Islam you were living under?
Yasmeen: It is basically day and night. People will say that technically under Islam men and women are treated the same as far as things like fornication, and dressing, and doing drugs and alcohol. They will say it’s the same. In practice, men and women are not treated equally whatsoever. We’re talking about the smallest thing like household chores, being able to go outside the house, especially at night time, being able to go out alone, how much skin you’re allowed to show, if you’ll be forgiven for fornicating or doing drugs.
Anything like that, it is completely different for men and women in Islam. Also, virginity is different for men and women. Men are not really held to the same standard as women. Women are expected to be virgins when they are married. Unless they are divorced or widowed. I got off pretty easy because I was a convert, but I had my own issues with virginity and issues regarding sexuality.
Jacobsen: For women reading this in near future or the far future, who are Muslim, and are under duress or abusive circumstances, who can they contact for help? How can they protect themselves from an abusive situation, whether within the family, with the spouse, or in the larger community? For those that aren’t Muslims, but are concerned for women under religious dictates, what are ways to reach out and help them, or to support organisations already doing so?
Yasmeen: First off, they have to be financially independent because what holds a lot of these women back is not being financially independent, and being financially dependent on their families for everything. Women shelters are an option, but, unfortunately, I’ve seen many of these women turned away and dismissed as a cultural issue.
Unfortunately, there aren’t many organisations that have the resources to help these women right now. I know a few people are working on it. Faisal Saeed Al Mutar is working on his organisation. Also, there is Faith to Faithless. They are working to get more resources to help people who have left their religion. I would tell them to never accept that this behaviour is normal and acceptable, even within Islam.
Jacobsen: Were there any positives that you took from your time as a Muslim? And subsequently, what were the personal benefits for leaving Islam to you? As well, if I may ask, were there any benefits in family life for you?
Yasmeen: Of course, anything isn’t completely evil or completely good. I don’t think Islam is completely evil. There are some good things to be learned from it, like family values, being committed to family, respecting your parents, being grateful for food, shelter, water. Islam taught me a lot of patience. I think even the bad things I endured during my time as a Muslim really helped me to mature.
Leaving Islam, on the other hand, was a horrible experience, it cost me my marriage. We were divorced for 5 months. We finally reconciled. It cost me all of my friends and my community. But one positive that came from this, my husband did some research himself. he read some Hadiths. He saw some horrible things. he moderated himself. He is a lot more moderate as a Muslim. That has improved our family life. However, he is not aware of the full extent of what I do.
Jacobsen: Taking a step back out of personal experience, and looking more at a demographic trend and the experiences that come from this, are there more public ex-Muslims that are men or that are women? Because in conversation with the CEO of Atheist Republic, it was noted that there do seem to be, at least in the online sphere, more ex-Muslim men than women.
I can make assumptions about various premises that might build an argument as to why, but I can’t necessarily state one way or the other. So your experience and insight would assist in rounding out this perspective on the demographic trends in the ex-Muslim community.
Yasmeen: Yes, there are a lot more men. I think this is because it is more acceptable for men to leave the religion. Because they can pretend it never happened, because there aren’t as many restrictions on them. Whereas, for women, it would be very difficult to lead that double life. They are also more likely to be stuck in marriages that they don’t want to be stuck in, and also more likely to be stuck with children to take care of.
I think those factors keep them in the religion, even though they don’t want to be. I think you are also a lot more scared of the consequences as a woman. You don’t know if somebody is going to beat you, disown you, or, in some cases, kill you. Even as somebody who was a white convert, I use a fake name online because I receive death threats constantly. I think converts are more likely to leave Islam, but less likely to talk about it.
I knew two girls just in my community who alluded to me that they were going to leave Islam, but then they disappeared off the face of the Earth.
Jacobsen: In America, I talked to a woman named Marie Alena Castle in an interview. She has been around through the 60s, the 70s, the 80s, the 90s, the 00s, and the 10s for the women’s rights movement and the human rights movement, and the atheist movement, at least in America. She described the progression of women as earning the right to vote, earning the right or privilege to a career of their choice.
Following this, she now sees the current battleground against the “religious Right” – I believe that’s the proper term for the United States. She sees the fight against them as abortion, equitable and safe access to abortion, and reproductive health and rights, especially for women. What do you see as the current battleground for women within Islam, women that have left Islam, and women in general in Britain? A big question, but I think it is an important one.
Yasmeen: Both as a Muslim and an ex-Muslim. I feel we are fighting the Left and the Right. If you’re a Muslim that deviates even slightly from what is acceptable within the community, you’re not only attacked by Muslims, but you’re attacked by the Far-Right. They’ll say, “You’re a secret Jihadist. You’re practising, Taqiyyah.” Then as an ex-Muslim, you’re fighting the Far-Right, who will say, if you are not bigoted against Muslims, “You are just covering for them. You are a Jihadist supporter.”
Then, of course, you are fighting against Muslims. Some of whom want you dead, and you’re fighting against the Far-Left, who see Islam as a brown person’s religion. If you criticize it, then, somehow, you’re bigoted. The Far-Left seems to be siding with Islamists now because they are picking the most stereotypically Muslim people to support. So Liberal Muslims, ex-Muslims, cultural Muslims, all get thrown under the bus by Far-Left.
I do think abortion rights and some aspects of women’s rights are under threat by the Far-Right, but I also think our freedom of speech is under attack by the Far-Left. I remember when I was wearing hijab. I really didn’t want to. I didn’t have much choice to take it off. There were a lot of Far-Left people supporting World Hijab Day. They refused to recognize that a lot of women are forced, even in the US, within the community are forced to wear hijab.
Jacobsen: One of the more devastating effects on women through cultural, and easily arguably religious as well, practice is female genital mutilation, clitoridectomy, and so on. How is this viewed within the community, even within developed nations?
Coming out of the Muslim community as an ex-Muslim, how does one’s perspective shift on, not only a woman’s right to wellbeing with regards to her body, especially reproductive health, as well as access, equitable and safe access to that reproductive health technology?
Yasmeen: In my community, I never met anybody who has female genital mutilation done to them. I think it varies from country to country – the level of acceptance. I definitely did read some Hadith about female circumcision, as you would call it. I do think it is loosely related to Islam. I think there are some cultural beliefs surrounding it too.
In Islam, people differentiate between female genital mutilation and female circumcision, which is taking a piece of the clitoral hood off. Of course, now, ashamed that I ever supported something like that, but I don’t personally support circumcision on males either. As far as birth control goes, that also depends on the person in Islam. Some people do say that birth control is allowed as long as you aren’t on it indefinitely, as long as you plan to have children in the future. Some people say it is completely haram.
Other people say it is up to your husband. Personally, my husband was against birth control. So I wasn’t given access to birth control. Abortion is also technically allowed in Islam, kind of. If it is done before 120 days, it is not considered murder, but it is still haram. It is still considered a sin. I actually have a daughter because I wasn’t given access to birth control or an abortion.
Jacobsen: Changing gears a bit, and thank you for that, to some of the beliefs in the belief system, how many people adhere to supernaturalist beliefs such as angels, and jinns, and the Devil, and the myriad assorted beings that are purported to exist, as well as to the efficacy of things such as prayer, for instance?
I say this because Britain is one of the nations that has developed quite past other countries such as the United States, even Canada, in terms of reduction in anti-scientific and supernaturalist beliefs in the general populace to more scientific and naturalist beliefs.
Yasmeen: Pretty much everybody believes in jinn, sehir – which is black magic, angels of course, and of course dua – prayer. I haven’t met a single person who doesn’t believe in these things. In fact, they believe in possession by jinn. One time, I had a friend tell me about these teenagers who were practising sehir, which is black magic. They were executed. I said, “Isn’t that a little intense? They are just teenagers. Maybe, they are a little rebellious because they are teenagers.” She said, “No, because they were practising black magic.”
Jacobsen: With your husband having the final say on contraceptive use, and the daughter you had as a result of not being able to have a definite, a final, say in your own body with regards to reproductive health, what are the emotions that come up knowing this as a truth while being a believer? What are the feelings as you are raising the child as a result of this? What are the feelings raising the child outside of Islam?
Yasmeen: Okay, so, my husband didn’t approve of birth control because he thought it was haram to prevent a family, but what we did practice was something called Al-‘Azl or coitus interruptus. He told me that if I did get pregnant that I would probably be able to get an abortion if it was early on and that it would be okay. But when I got pregnant, that went out the window. I remember begging for an abortion because I didn’t want to have a child.
He and his family basically told me, “No.” That really affected me as a believer. That was a big, big turning point. It almost drove me crazy. I remember the whole pregnancy I was begging for an abortion. After she was born, I was so crazy. Maybe, it was postpartum depression too, but I almost abandoned her. Now, I accept my role as a mother and I love her, but some days it is still hard to accept it because I didn’t want another child to begin with. I do have another child from marriage.
Jacobsen: What is the different of marriage in Islam compared to civil marriage or a secular marriage, or other religious marriages? Because your own is not a legal marriage, as you have noted to me, off tape basically.
Yasmeen: Marriage in Islam is similar to marriage in any other religion. The man is basically the head of the household, and the woman is supposed to be subservient to him. As far as the actual process of marriage, you basically write up a contract. You have what is called wali for the woman, which is a guardian who she goes through to set up her marriage and pre-approve of her marriage. It could be a parent or somebody else.
Then the rest is pretty similar, you agree to the terms and say, “I do,” and then have a dinner. The problem within the community is a lot of these marriages are not actually recognized under the law. The reason for doing this is so the men don’t have to fulfil their actual legal obligations towards these women. It is also a loop hole to have a second, or third, or a fourth wife. That’s what happened with my marriage.
My husband initially told me that he would fill out the legal paperwork. “Let’s do it Islamically, and we’ll do it later,” and it never happened. I can’t say how many marriages aren’t done legally, but it is the ease with which it is done that concerns me.
Jacobsen: This leads me to some final thoughts with next steps. You have a unique perspective with regards to the ex-Muslim community, as a minority within that “minority within a minority” – to use Maryam Namazie’s phrase. You are a woman within the ex-Muslim community, which is, as noted earlier in the interview, not the dominant demographic of ex-Muslims.
The dominant demographic are men as ex-Muslims. As well, you described your own narrative as well as issues within the community from superstition to reproductive health rights and access, abortion access, approval of those by the community, social pressure, the man having the final word, and so on.
This makes me think, “What can be done next to move the conversation forward? How can we translate that conversation into action? And who can be an ally? And who have been allies?”
Yasmeen: I think we need to get this out there into the mainstream. I think the only people that are going to be completely honest and more unbiased will be ex-Muslims. I think we do already have a lot of allies in other apostate communities, like the ex-Jehovah’s Witness, ex-Mormon, and others. I think it would be a great task, but I think we need to get the Left on our side.
I think it could be easy with enough awareness because we are a minority within a minority. Why would the Far-Left not listen to us? I think if there were enough of us. I think they would come around to listening to us, but I don’t know how realistic that is.
Jacobsen: I appreciate you taking your time today. Do you have any feelings or thoughts in conclusion about the conversation we have had today?
Yasmeen: Yes, Scott, thank you so much. I wanted to remind people that whatever us ex-Muslims and Muslim liberals say. We’re not saying this because we hate Muslims. We have Muslim family. Sometimes, we have Muslim spouses and Muslim friends. We love them. We just think that what we’re doing is not only helping them but also helping people like us. When I say we’re trying to help Muslims also, what I mean is that most of the time, ex-Muslims are one of the only people trying to bridge the gap between the Far-Right and the Far-Left, and protect not only freedom of speech, but also protect Muslims against bigotry.
Jacobsen: Thank you for your time today, Yasmeen.