I consider myself very lucky in the sense that I was not indoctrinated into any specific religion as a child. I never had to cast aside the shackles of religion or fight to escape religious persecution. I was free to decide if religion was right for me and I didn’t have to give up family when I did that. But most people are not so lucky. Most children have the path of their life set by thousand year old books and superstition that creates control, ignorance and in the worst of situations, fear of death.
The following interview is a story of one young women, who despite the odds, managed to not only escape the clutches of religion but she also escaped the clutches of a violently abusive family.
Noor’s story is inspiring and she has some very good advice for others who are hoping to escape a terrible situation.
Do you identify as atheist, humanist or something else, why?
I identify as an agnostic atheist. I don’t believe in any God, but I cannot be completely sure that one does not exist, so I don’t like to rule the scenario out. I am not particularly hopeful though.
What religion did you leave and what was the reason for leaving? Was there a moment when you decided you had to get out or did it build over time?
I was raised a Shi’aa Muslim, I always had my doubts growing up, but did not fully understand the hypocrisy and extreme sexism in my religion until around age 13. Having a brother very close in age with me, and constantly having the distinction between who we were and what we were allowed and expected to do shoved in my face was really a defining factor in my rejection of Islam. There were doors that were open to him and not me, and the only distinction between us was what we had between our legs. Once I realized why I was being denied the things that were important to me (being allowed to go to college away from home, having friendships with non-Muslims, being encouraged in my education, etc.) I started to challenge my parents. This was considered very insulting to their honor and their response was abuse (both physical and mental) and threats.
You had a very tough time escaping the grasp of your religion and in particular, your family. Can you tell us a little about that?
I come from what you could call a broken home. My mother is bipolar and my father is abusive. Most of the parenting I received was heavily influenced by the Qur’an and advice from multiple religious leaders. Muslim God is all merciful, but he will still burn you alive indefinitely if you don’t kiss his ass, and it’s all for your own good. My parents were the same way, they beat me for little crimes, (like not obeying orders to do household chores and asking too many questions) but whenever they were confronted with their abuses they argued that they had done so much for me, clothed me, fed me, kept a roof over my head. I was too naive and brainwashed to realize all these “favors” were just things parents are expected to do when they decide to bring a human into this world.
When my parents kicked me out I was told to stay away, and that if I was seen again I would be killed. The Qur’an commands its followers to kill apostates, which coupled with their history of abuse towards me convinced me that the threat was real. I never went home that day, and I will never go back.
Looking back, I can recognize that I was groomed, much like a cult member. I was trained to put my mother and fathers needs above mine, to do as I was told, to serve them just like I would one day serve my husband. Like a good Muslim woman. I could not do this, so I was rejected.
Do you think it is more difficult for a woman to leave the Muslim religion than for a man?
Definitely. I am not the only member of my family to leave Islam, just the only female member. It defined how I was treated growing up, my gender has defined the reaction to my “coming out” as an apostate. I have two atheist uncles, they both drink, eat pork, have relationships with non-Muslim woman, and hide none of it; and they are both loved and accepted by my family.
This is partially because it is not as frowned upon in Muslim cultures for men to bend and break the rules as it is for women, and partially because Islam recognizes men as the smarter sex, they are not to be questioned by the likes of women. A man leaving religion is simply a man “straying” for a bit, but a woman leaving is a shameful whore walking out on her people to go slut it up with The West.
Do you have any contact with your family, now?
I have spoken to my brother twice since I was kicked out, on both occasions I could clearly hear the disdain and judgment in his voice. It hurts me so deeply because we were best friends growing up and I miss him terribly. Not the brother I spoke to on the phone, but the one who had burping contests with me and held my mother back as she lunged at me all those times, I miss him.
My parents have sent me messages through other people, but none of them were apologies so they go unanswered. I have gained self-confidence since I’ve been away from them, and I respect myself too much to respond to anything other than a sincere “I am sorry”.
How have you turned this obviously extremely difficult situation into positive activist work?
I am so happy you asked this question! I am involved in an amazing organization for former Muslims, called Ex Muslims of North America. We are basically a support group for those who have left the religion and face ostracism from their families, friends, and communities. We have meet-up groups all over North America which meet regularly. I jumped at the shot to become a group organizer because I have felt the dark loneliness of having absolutely zero family and friends and I hate to think that someone else feels the same way. I have realized that the best way to get back at my family is to become massively successful, and EXMNA has played a huge part in helping me achieve that.
How can people get in touch with you if they need support?
I like to stay as anonymous as possible, for obvious safety reasons, but anyone can find EXMNA on the web: http://www.exmna.org/ and shoot any of the organizers an e-mail. We are a very active community and we have meetups both in person and online (for those of us not near a live group). I want former Muslims to know that they are in good company, and there is no reason to walk this road alone if they prefer not to.
If you could give one piece of advice to other young women who wish to escape the clutches of religion, what would that be?
HAVE A PLAN. If you are in a less than ideal situation, you NEED TO HAVE A PLAN. I cannot possibly stress this enough. You cannot just leave if you do not have a source of steady, reliable income, a place to live, and a Plan B, just in case things fall through. Many women in Islam are made to rely on the men in their lives, so much so that if they did need to escape, it would seem near impossible. It’s not impossible, just really freaking difficult and I don’t want to advocate
trying it without having a plan first.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions, Noor. Your story is an extremely important one that I hope can help and inspire other young women in similar situations. And I can say from personal experience that the EXMNA group is a wonderful bunch of really kind and kick-ass people. Everyone I have met who is involved has been great. If you are an ex-Muslim looking for support I can not recommend them more.
All photos © Amy Davis Roth