There are approximately 1.8 billion Muslims in the world, with Islam being one of the fastest-growing religions (Pew Research Center, 2017). However, as fast as it is growing, there is a crisis of faith among young Muslims with a group of people emerging from the shadows of their beliefs. They are a minority group that is largely unheard of and do not receive the media attention that they deserve. They are ex-Muslims: individuals who have left the religion of Islam due to a change of beliefs. A lot of ex-Muslims are ostracised by their families and their communities, leaving them isolated and depressed. However, I want to draw attention to the experience of ex-Muslim women in particular, and the difficulties they face. There needs to be more awareness about this issue because ex-Muslim women are often subjected to harsher treatment and more restrictive principles than ex-Muslim men.
A lot of ex-Muslim women are leading double lives. This is usually because their families impose religious ideals upon them, such as wearing the obligatory hijab. Ex-Muslim men are often able to escape controlling family life outside of the home because in Islam they are not always expected to wear clothing that is definitive of their Muslim identity. Whereas, articles of clothing such as the hijab and the veil prevent ex-Muslim women from the opportunity to define their own identity because it is imposed upon them. If you were to walk down a street and look around, you may think you would be able to identify some Muslim women due to their religious attire. However, you are never going to know if anyone of those women is being forced to present themselves in this way. Sometimes the easier option for them is just to conform to their family’s wishes in order to prevent conflict from arising and to avoid the potential repercussions of being isolated; disowned; and shunned by their family and the community.
Upon reading this, it may be presumed that the blatant solution is to free one’s self from the authority of their family by moving out and being financially independent. However, It is important to take into account that, despite these solutions, a lot of women have been emotionally manipulated into being dependent on their families. Emotional abuse is often brushed under the carpet compared to physical abuse, but the consequences are just as harmful (Familylives.org.uk, n.d.). Women may come to believe that they are physically incapable of being financially independent or living on their own, or that it is deviant or sinful to do so. Even if they desire to be financially independent, they may not be allowed to do so by their family. Furthermore, independence may come at the risk of being disowned. The emotional burden and weight of being disowned or cut off by family is huge and could lead to even further regression of mental health. There is no easy way out in this situation. For a lot of ex-Muslim women, the choice seems to be staying with family and repressing their beliefs or leaving the home and being disowned (Vice, 2013).
Beyond the West, apostasy is a much graver issue. In 16 out of 49 Muslim countries, apostasy is punishable by death (En.wikipedia.org, 2020). In addition to this, a 2013 Pew Research Center report mentioned that 88% of Muslims in Egypt and 62% of Muslims in Pakistan that were surveyed, favour the death penalty for people who leave Islam (Anon, 2013). Some ex-Muslims from countries like Saudi Arabia attempt to find safe passage to the United States, or other Western countries, in order to gain some kind of freedom. This used to be impossible for women under the guardianship system which made them dependent on approval from their male relatives to travel. However, one claim to victory is that since last year guardianship laws have been removed, allowing women the right to travel without the need for male authority and approval (Graham-Harrison, 2019).
This information is not just based on speculation but instead it is based on the real-life lived experiences of ex-Muslim women. There are women who have detailed their experiences in the media despite the potential backlash they could face. This is how far it goes: a prominent and outspoken ex-Muslim woman is Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She is a Somali-born Dutch-American activist and a former politician. Ayaan’s upbringing in East Africa was rooted in religion and patriarchy. After experiencing female genital mutilation and almost falling into an arranged marriage, Ali fled to the Netherlands seeking asylum. Hirsi Ali is outspoken about her denunciation of Islam and is critical of the misogynistic ideals that she believes to be pertinent within the religion. Despite her very public persona: attending interviews; writing books; giving speeches; as well as having been a respected politician in the Netherlands, she is under 24-hour police protection. In 2004, she was the scriptwriter and voice of a film called Submission directed by Theo Van Gogh. Months after the film had been released, Van Gogh was assassinated, and the perpetrator Mohammed Bouyeri left a note. He carved a note on to Van Gogh’s chest with a knife that said Ayaan would be next (Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d.). Hirsi Ali’s persistence in delivering her opinions in the face of danger is admirable. It is also terrifying; amongst incidents like this, it is not a surprise that so many women fear being openly ex-Muslim.
Another example of a woman leaving Islam is Rahaf al Qunan. Rahaf was an apostate; a crime punishable by death in Kuwait. She escaped an abusive family situation by fleeing to Bangkok in order to seek asylum in Australia. Whilst transitioning from Bangkok airport to Australia she was detained and almost forcibly returned to Kuwait by authorities and airport security under the instructions of her family. She locked herself in her hotel room so that the authorities could not reach her and made a desperate statement on Twitter, claiming to be an apostate as well as announcing that she had received death threats from her family for her apostasy. After receiving widespread attention, the United Nations got involved and she was safely given refuge in Canada (BBC News, 2019).
Simon Cottee is an academic and author who wrote The Apostates. The Apostates is one of the first major studies of apostasy within Islam. Cottee interviewed several ex-Muslims from the UK and Canada. A lot of the women he interviewed had their name changed in order to protect them from their families finding out. These women tell stories of maintaining an undercover life as an ex-Muslim whilst trying to conform to their family’s values simultaneously. It is the fear of being talked about; being seen as dirty; being stigmatised by the family and the community that keeps them fearfully dutiful to their parents (Vice, 2013).
Some of these accounts can be considered success stories, somewhat. However, these are just a few stories of women who have been brave enough to publicly address the situation that they are in. Others are still haunted by the potential shame that they will have to face if they come out of the ex-Muslim closet openly. There are also countless stories that have not been told. There are so many ex-Muslim women that go undetected and are never able to live the life that they want. There are organisations such as Ex-Muslims of North America and the Council of Ex-Muslims Britain that is raising awareness about the situation and supporting ex-Muslims. It is important however that the plight of ex-Muslims, particularly ex- Muslim women become well recognised and discussed in mainstream politics and media, questioning a system which allows this abuse to continue.
- Anon, (2013). [online] Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2013/05/01/64-percent-of-muslims-in-egypt-and-pakistan-support-the-death-penalty-for-leaving-islam/?arc404=true
- En.wikipedia.org. (2020). Apostasy. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apostasy#Islam
- Encyclopedia Britannica. (n.d.). Ayaan Hirsi Ali | Biography & Facts. [online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ayaan-Hirsi-Ali
- Familylives.org.uk. (n.d.). Domestic abuse violence – Family Lives. [online] Available at: https://www.familylives.org.uk/advice/divorce-and-separation/domestic-abuse-violence/advice-if-your-partner-is-violent-or-abusive/
- Graham-Harrison, E. (2019). Saudi Arabia allows women to travel without male guardian’s approval. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/aug/01/saudi-women-can-now-travel-without-a-male-guardian-reports-say
- Vice. (2013). Leaving Islam Behind Is a Scary Prospect for Britain’s Ex-Muslims. [online] Available at:https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/3b7zjj/leaving-islam-behind-is-a-scary-prospect-for-britains-ex-muslims
- BBC News. (2019). Saudi woman granted Canada asylum. [online] Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-46844431 intlink_from_url=https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/topics/c5m8966zkpnt/rahaf-mohammed-case&link_location=live-reporting-story