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Teen Skepchick Interviews: Sadiqah, Part 1

This post is part of the Teen Skepchick Interviews series, where TS writers talk with amazing women scientists, skeptics, and feminists about life, the universe, and everything.

Sadiqah was born in the United States but lived, worked, and started a family in a Muslim country as an initially devout Muslim woman. While overseas, she began questioning Islam, and after several years, she left the country and her religious beliefs behind, returning to the West Coast with her children.

In part 1 of this interview, she describes her personal journey: what it was like to live the life of a Muslim woman during the process of questioning and ultimately abandoning her beliefs, and the difficulties and dangers of being an apostate, not only in her former home country but even where she’s living today, in the United States.

Next Thursday, in part 2, Sadiqah will talk in general about the lives of Muslim women and girls, including feminism and sexual identity in Muslim culture as well as common myths and stereotypes about Muslims, particularly women. We’ll also discuss Amina, the Moroccan girl who killed herself after being forced to marry her rapist, and what we can do (and just as important, not do) to help abused Muslim women and girls.

Please tell us a little bit about your background before you began the journey away from Islam.

I didn’t become religious until I was about 23 or so. Prior to that, I just lived a regular American life, but I had the monotheistic belief of Islam. For some reason, when I was 23, I just got really into it, into learning, and the more I learned, the more I got into the lifestyle of the very religious Muslim. I had an arranged marriage when I was 25. Arranged marriages are the norm for Muslims, and arranged stranger marriages are common in many parts of the world. This isn’t solely “an immigrant thing.” Many native-born Americans, Canadians, and other Westerners had stranger marriages. In North America, they were more common throughout the 1990s into the early 2000s. I don’t know that they are as much now.

However, the pressure for women to marry is as strong now as it was 15 years ago. There is religious and social pressure on women to marry, in addition to familial and cultural pressure for some of us. Single and divorced women are viewed by other women as a threat, and by men as “free for all.” I mean in the religious or cultural community—at the masjid (mosque) or at cultural gatherings. More liberalized Muslims or non-religious Westernized Muslims may not think this way.

So in this context of a religious community, being married meant more social acceptance, and it was also a form of protection from the advances and sexual harassment (verbal or physical) of men in the community. Convert women are more vulnerable to this harassment than “born Muslim” women because of the fear men have of the woman’s family coming after them, or this “respect” that they have for fellow “born Muslims.” The fact of the matter is that the family of a convert woman is not respected or even considered.

So I had an arranged marriage with a stranger that I was assured had a “great reputation” and was very religious and kindly. Of course, none of this, in the end, was true. At that time especially, no one was looking out for a woman’s interests in marriage, especially women who didn’t have Muslim parents. If a woman tried to look out for her own interests, she was branded as “too picky” or “troublesome,” and the imam (religious leader of a masjid), or other people (particularly other women), would exert pressure on her to stop being so picky, would ostracize her, etc. I believe that these pressures have lessened somewhat in the past decade, particularly since there are no longer as many converts as there used to be.

Were there particular moments or circumstances that led you to realize you no longer believed in Islam or in Allah or any god?

In general, I struggled with various aspects of the faith itself, as well as practices and teachings. Struggling is not a “bad” thing, per se, in Islam, but there is a great deal of emphasis on attaining certainty and on not questioning god, the prophet, or the scholars. Many times, over the years, I attempted to approach scholars and even other Muslims about historical, legal, or theological teachings I had issues with, in an attempt to understand, and was told to “let it go,” pray over it, or even to “shut up.”

Most of my problems centered on the contradictions. Non-Muslims, new Muslims, and young Muslims are taught one thing about Islamic teachings, but the more religious you get, or the more you study the religion, the more you learn that the actual teachings are somewhat different. Some of us who were dissatisfied and questioning started to say that we felt we’d had the wool pulled over our eyes.

This was particularly true with regards to what Muslims say about women in Islam to the public; what the Quran, Sunnah, and scholars say about Islam; and especially how women are really treated in everyday life. It is particularly disheartening when women and girls are treated in a manner that is contrary to even the most conservative versions of Islam, and yet the Muslim communities remain silent because they don’t want to lose face in front of non-Muslims or—and this is a popular excuse—they say that we can’t do anything about women’s rights until “the struggles” of Palestine, Afghanistan, and anywhere else are taken care of. “There are more important things,” we often heard when it came to the treatment of women.

I hated the way I was treated, the way my friends and female relatives were treated. I came to believe that if this were truly the religion of an all-loving, all-knowing god, then it wouldn’t allow for this treatment of women and girls to exist in its name—or at all. I found myself wishing, and then finally carefully saying to close friends, that I would rather be jahil (ignorant, non-Muslim) and have more rights and dignity and freedom than to be Muslima and live with the restrictions, abuses, and constant teaching that by my very nature (being a female) I was trouble (fitnah). I was so tired of living with the beliefs that women are seductresses by nature; that it’s your fault if men can’t keep themselves from harassing, touching, or raping you; that it’s your responsibility to keep your husband happy lest he abuse you; and so forth.

I couldn’t accept the cruelty of a god that would create this situation for women and girls. I also could not accept the capriciousness of a god that would grant talent to human beings in painting, dancing, sculpture, and music, and then deem these things satanic, sinful, and forbidden.

Were there other sticking points you couldn’t get past?

One of the big issues I could never “get over” was the consummation of Muhammad’s marriage to Aisha when she was nine years old. I figured that if he were the “perfect human being” and an example for all people in all times, as we were taught, then God wouldn’t have allowed this problematic event to occur, knowing that it would disgust and horrify people in later times.

I was deeply troubled that this consummation established a Sunnah, or prophetic tradition, and was used—is still used today—to justify allowing a marriage between a prepubescent girl and an older male to be consummated. The Islamic position is that if you truly have faith in God and his messenger, then you have to accept that the non-believing society, the corrupt society will go against God’s “natural way,” and that this is an area in which modern society is at odds with God’s will or what God allows. For example, Muhammad said: “Satan comes to one of you and says, ‘Who created so-and-so?’ till he says, ‘Who has created your Lord?’ So, when he inspires such a question, one should seek refuge with Allah and give up such thoughts” (Bukhari).

I also had problems with praying to God through dead saints—tawassul. In talking to friends of mine who are no longer Muslim, I have found that tawassul was a huge stumbling block for many. It is not something that is advertised in the dawah (missionary) materials or talked about to non-Muslims. This practice is condemned in Wahabism and Salafism and therefore may not be familiar to your average Muslim in the West, but it is very much alive in Muslim cultures and is taught in the orthodox sects of Sunnism.

Other religions, particularly Catholicism and Hinduism, are condemned for their saints and prayers to people other than God. In studying this practice and trying to understand it, when I asked how it was any different than Catholics praying to a saint, I was told, “It’s different because we have the right religion and they don’t.” In other words, shut up and do it, and don’t ask questions.

Another issue that is nearly taboo to ask questions about is the incident of the Satanic Verses. There are many Muslims who don’t even realize that this is actually taught as a historical event in Islamic history; they think it was a made up story by Salman Rushdie. The incident of the Satanic Verses calls into question the very foundation of the faith, and so I think it is seen as dangerous to think about, let alone ask about and discuss.

I also had issues with some of the more mystical or fantastical teachings of the Quran, Sunnah, and traditions, such as the one where Muhammad rode a winged horse to heaven, or the teachings of Muhammad that palm trees can weep, rocks can talk, and that there are giant mountain goats in the sky, that Adam was 90 feet tall and many other fantastic tales.

Muslims often claim that their religion is compatible with science, and the centerpiece of their mission work in the West has centered around the idea that Islam embraced scientific research and even predicted modern scientific discoveries 1400 years ago. Then you actually start reading the Quran and Sunnah and learn that this is not quite so. While it is true that the Islamic golden age was one where scientific and medical knowledge was sought after and taught, as one digs into Islamic history, one learns that the people in pursuit of these things were often at odds with the ruling powers, including (especially) the religious establishment.

Finally, I had a problem with the superstitions of Islam. You are taught that superstitions are for people who don’t have true religion, and the rituals and superstitions of other religions are mocked or condemned, but then as I learned more and more about my religion, I found that it was chock full of superstitions and rituals that had to be performed, lest some horrible fate befall you. It starts when you wake up and doesn’t end until you fall asleep. There are rituals for entering the bathroom and leaving it, for starting your car, for putting on new clothes. There are superstitions about sneezing, yawning, which hand you eat with, even how you sleep. The more religious you or your community is, the more people police each other to ensure that all of these rituals and superstitions are being followed.

So at what point did all of these problems become too much to ignore?

In my early 30s I was no longer able to mentally sweep away some of the contradictions and problems of Islamic theology, law, and history. For about two years, I pondered some of my questions and doubts, but remember that I did all that deep thinking in between the hustle and bustle of life. I had a job, kids, a house to take care of. I didn’t always have the energy or time to really sit and think about these problems.

I spent about a year and a half trying to fight these things by becoming more outwardly religious or seeking out more traditions, but in the end, I didn’t care enough to keep on trying. It just got to the point where it wasn’t worth it to me anymore. My questions, and some of them were very basic, weren’t answered, weren’t going to be answered, and I was tired of wasting my energy trying to either find answers or convince myself that the questions didn’t matter. I no longer believed in Islam when I was able to admit to myself that the whole thing was ridiculous make-believe. 

I think the process of no longer believing in any god was slower. I knew in my heart for years, many years, that if I didn’t believe in God as he is in Islam, I would be an atheist, because I already had disbelief in any other gods or their possibilities. My faith in the Abrahamic god faded slowly until one day, about a year after it ceased, I was able to admit that I no longer believed in him and that therefore, it was pointless to continue dressing this way and following this religion.

How long did you have to pretend to be a believer and what was that like?

I would say it was about a year that I really, really didn’t believe in God/Islam. Most of the time it wasn’t even a big deal because, like I said, I had this life I was leading. However, over about seven years, I became less and less religious, and I had to pretend. Like, I just didn’t want to pray or couldn’t bring myself to do it, so I had to pass that off or sometimes pray if other people were around (not praying is a huge sin).

Looking back, I can own up to the fact that in my heart, I thought that the rituals of washing and the formal movements of the prayer were ridiculous and I didn’t want to be part of it. At that time, I couldn’t own up to that. It was awful.

People can get irrational and angry about religion, and someone you might not be afraid of normally could be the one who will beat you or kill you. I couldn’t take the chance that someone would find out and turn me in to the court, have my parental rights severed, or put me in a shallow grave.

Do you think there are a lot of women who are just pretending?

Yes. In some countries, apostasy is illegal. In general, in any Muslim culture, it’s a huge taboo. It means loss of your family. If you have children, you lose all custody and parental rights. Your marriage is annulled. You can lose your property. Your family members may beat you or worse because you have “brought shame” to the family by leaving “the perfect religion.”

The fact of the matter is that it is harder for women than men. There are men who pretend, but women get the rougher end of it.

What was the process like, leaving your life to create a new one?

In the end, because I was in a Muslim country, I quietly made plans to leave as soon as possible with all of the children. I was afraid that I would be found out (as an apostate) before I could leave, in which case my children would have been taken from me and I wouldn’t be able to get them out of the country. I found the Council of Ex-Muslims to be supportive at this time, but more than that, atheists that were never Muslim were supportive of me. My biggest support during this time was discovering that some of my friends were also questioning and doubting. Our email contacts during this time were the best thing I had.

Coming to a normal life was weird. I wasn’t familiar with social conventions, styles of dress, popular music or television shows and things like that. I wasn’t used to gatherings with alcohol. It took me about a year and a half to adjust. I have found that I have missed out on a lot of experiences other women my age have because I was so sheltered and isolated by the lifestyle. In my career, I am about 10 years behind where I would have been.

How have you been treated by Muslims since becoming an apostate?

I was threatened with death. I was spat at. I got nasty phone calls and emails. Crazy rumors were spread about me. A handful of Muslims that I was “friends” with have been polite or even civil to me, but because even kind people see apostasy as the worst thing you can do and worthy of a death sentence, I was considered a persona non grata, like many open apostates.

Are you still in touch with Muslim friends and family?

No. I maintain minimal contact with my ex-husband because of our children. I no longer have contact with any of my former friends or family members. I am a pariah, like a lot of ex-Muslims. In fact, the last thing I heard from a few of them was that I should be killed. I do maintain friendships with people I was friends with when I was Muslim who are no longer Muslims themselves. Those friendships have been very special to me.

To be continued.

Image credits: Hussain Al-Ahmed, Hamed Saber, Steve Evans, el7bara, flattop341, Majid Saeedi

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Melanie Mallon

Melanie Mallon

Melanie is a freelance editor and writer living in a small town outside Minneapolis with her husband, two kids, dog, and two cats. When not making fun of bad charts or running the Uncensorship Project, she spends her time wrangling commas, making colon jokes, and putting out random dumpster fires. You can find her on Twitter as @MelMall, on Facebook, and on Instagram.

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