My Escape to Freedom

Lubna Ahmed Yaseen

My name is Lubna. Very recently, I was a twenty-five-year-old Iraqi student, living in Baghdad and working toward a master’s degree in chemical engineering. I was raised by my mother, a mechanical engineer driven by the values of goodness, science, and reason. As a rationalist, she believed that the human mind, rather than God, is the key to life and knowledge. Not the most popular view in this part of the world—and one that caused her to be scorned by her family. So, my mother married not out of love but to escape her family and the terror and abuse meted out to her by her father and brother.

Unfortunately, my father didn’t turn out to be much of an improvement. He was lazy, selfish, and irresponsible. My mother worked hard to take care of her family while my father sat at home like a king taking her paycheck, treating her poorly, and repeatedly subjecting her and my older sister to beatings. After many years of abuse, my mother applied for a divorce, which in most parts of the Middle East requires a woman to surrender her rights and her reputation in the community. Nevertheless, my mother did what she needed to do in order to raise me and my siblings. She taught us to rely always on our intelligence and hard work. A brave and intelligent woman, my mother always rejected Islam. She has always been a role model to me, instilling the importance of believing in myself and my own sense of reason and justice.

In 2004, Islamist militias took over government buildings and companies in Hilla, Iraq. They controlled virtually every aspect of life in the community. They also controlled social customs, for example requiring women to dress modestly and wear a hijab. One day as my mother went to work, an Al-Mahdi militiaman ordered her to don a hijab or she would not be allowed to work. My mother always refused to wear a head covering, and in this case her passionate rebuff created a stir. Soon the militiaman’s superior joined the fray; he joined the militiaman in mocking, then physically abusing my mother. Her instinct was to fight back, however futile that would have been. Fortunately, her fellow employees held her back and protected her. Though she did not tell us at the time, I soon found out about it from other students who were laughing about it and insulting me in school.

A couple of years later, in 2006, my mother and I had to pass through an Al-Qaeda checkpoint on the way home. As the bus pulled to the side of the road, a number of passengers admonished her to put on a hijab for fear the militants might execute her as an apostate. Again, she refused. Instead she looked at me, fully aware of the consequences she faced, and declared, “Lubna, I’m sorry, but I will not do it!” Her convictions were more important to her than her life.

In that moment, confronting the real possibility that she might be executed, she not only refused to surrender her principles but scolded others for urging her to do so. I will always remember that moment vividly. It may be the most significant in my life.

From that point forward, I wanted even more to emulate my mother. My sense of curiosity and justice prompted me to ask more questions about religion, God, and Islam. Of course, we were forced to study Islam in school, including the Qur’an and Hadiths. But the teachers would always get angry when I asked questions or refused to accept that girls should be forced to wear headscarves when boys had no such obligations. For this I was kicked out of two different schools. Instead I studied Islam on my own; I quickly found its teachings ridiculous and as nothing compared to science, reason, and the possibilities of the human mind.

While my mother understood this well before I did, she encouraged my siblings and me to attend the required religious instruction in order to focus on completing our education. I resisted initially, but later I understood and accepted her advice. Still, I felt the need to declare my nonbelief to my friends in high school and elsewhere in the community, which caused a great deal of conflict. I lost almost all my friends and became a somewhat hated figure. Despite this impediment, I was a good student and managed to gain acceptance into the college chemical engineering program, in which I ultimately enrolled.

I had hoped for at least a minimal level of acceptance for my views in college, but when I declared my atheism to fellow students I was once again isolated and subjected to repeated verbal abuse.

Though I live amid very dangerous and poor conditions, I refuse to renounce my atheism. I refuse to be escorted by my brother in public. And I refuse to wear a hijab. Predictably, I have been subjected not only to verbal abuse but physical violence, having been assaulted many times, not only because of my refusal to wear a hijab but because I am not particularly shy about arguing for my rights or criticizing the Qur’an and Islam, which of course is illegal under Sharia law. There have been many circumstances where the Al-Mahdi militia asked me to wear a hijab and, like my mother, I refused. On one particular occasion, I was slapped for telling a militia member that he had no right to tell me what to believe. Like my mother, I tried to fight back until others intervened to separate us.

Though I am consistently stopped at checkpoints and verbally and sometimes physically abused, and though one cannot help but experience moments of gloom and despair, I am proud and happy to be the person I am today. I choose not to worship an imaginary being but to respect and emulate human beings such as Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Stephen Hawking, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Carl Sagan, Sam Harris, and the like. My beliefs are fortified by my upbringing and the values imparted to me by my mother. My passionate embrace of science and my contempt for an oppressive and irrational belief system work in synergy to foster a relentless pursuit of logic, reason, and the imperative to learn.

Following this path, I came to realize the follies of the Qur’an and Hadiths and the obvious fact that the Qur’an was written not by “Allah” but by human beings—at that, human beings of very limited sophistication. Where I live, women are reduced to slaves; we are encouraged to believe in absurdities rather than to ask questions and to fear and hate non-Muslims. Everything in Islam seems designed to freeze the brain rather than to allow it to flourish in its own natural logic.

Unlike religion, science compels us to believe not because of faith but because of reason and evidence. And while science does not explain all phenomena in nature, religion explains nothing. There is in fact nothing more to learn, whereas in science the search is never-ending!

I spoke my mind, my thoughts, without fear. I discussed my opinions about how religions were affecting our lives. I criticized Islam as an aggressive and radical ideology that was destroying our lives and Iraq’s future. I tried to expose how it built the darkness and fear that has shadowed lives for centuries and still does so today. I openly shared my thoughts. I believed then, as I do now, that it is our duty to speak and to show people that we can compel change. We can build a free space where everyone has the right to choose what they believe in, even if that is to chart our way through life and the universe in the light of logic and rationality. And why not? Each of us is born knowing nothing of “God” or religions. Our families, our communities, had to teach us what “God” is—what religions are. We get taught to fit what others want us to think. That kind of upbringing can destroy one’s sense of curiosity and one’s respect for intelligence. Nature brought us to this world to discover the endless secrets of this universe and to use our human brains, the key to knowing this beautiful universe we live in.

In Baghdad, I was widely known for my opinions. I openly discussed atheism and criticized Islam. I called it an ideology of terrorism, the source of the discrimination under which we had to live. Because of that—and because, perhaps especially because, I was female but insisted on continuing my education without fear—I began receiving numerous death threats. In Baghdad, strangers would hit me just for being a girl not wearing a head scarf; imagine their outrage that I was a girl and an atheist!

A girl and an atheist: where I was living, those were quite dangerous things for one person to be. You might wonder why I insisted on declaring my atheism despite the danger. But why should I have to hide my true identity, my principles? Why should I hide myself in a society where Muslims are free to kill atheists and freethinkers, where they are free to condemn and discriminate against Christians and Jews—and, for that matter, against adherents of every religion or belief that is not Islam? For me, it was vitally important to proclaim my identity openly. If I behaved dishonestly just to survive, I would be in many ways like my religious oppressors, and I could not live like that.

Each of us has the human right to express his or her own identity and principles and to express them openly.

But living that way had its price. I faced death threats in person, threatening messages on the phone. Voices promised to kill me and to kill all the atheists and seculars—whoever dared speak against Islam. For a time, I tried to focus on my studies. But even then, I couldn’t sit and do nothing. I’m just one individual, but I believe that when one individual starts to talk and inquire, that can lead others to do the same. Down that road, just maybe, lies movement for my country. Down that road might lie change. So I continued doing what I believed in, sharing and speaking out and posting on social media. Looking back, I recognize that in many ways, my life then was horrible. Too often death and darkness were all I felt. But I didn’t let that stop me. Only by speaking up, I reasoned, only by taking action now can people save what’s left of our sense of humanity. Together, just perhaps, we all can save the future for the generations that will follow us. If that must start with one person speaking out, I concluded, let that person be me.

In February 2016, I got the chance to share my story with Dave Rubin, host of the YouTube news-talk show and podcast The Rubin Report. It was my opportunity to share my story with the world. I held nothing back. I disclosed how my mother, a divorced woman, raised four children completely on her own. I described how before the divorce, my father would hit her and treat her very badly. I explained how the abuse my mother had suffered was like that oppressing countless women in my country and across the Middle East.

The interview had an enormous impact. I received positive feedback from people across the world, telling me that my words had opened their eyes to the need for freethinkers in closed societies to speak up and act. On the other hand, it made me an even larger target in the eyes of the Islamists. Death threats were not new for me, but now I was receiving them in great number, many of them more graphic and intense than those in the past. It was a horrible time for me and for those close to me. I still must struggle to convey how alone I felt at that time, sometimes spending days and nights alone, at other times with a friend or family member changing places with me. In those days I couldn’t speak out, I didn’t dare. I missed my own voice. Worse, I knew that whether I held silent or not, sooner or later I would end up being killed. Those who hated me would find their target. It was only a matter of time. Throughout those dark days and nights, I truly didn’t care about myself. I cared instead about the ones I love … and the cause. For myself, I held out no hope. Death would find me. I couldn’t think of any way to prevent it.

I began to my miss my life, though I was still living it.

From that despairing place I was finally rescued. Great people and friends were the light for me; they helped me muster the will to stay alive and have hope. Today I cannot believe how fortunate I have been that the universe gave me the chance to know these wonderful people. Quite literally, I owe them my life. For their patience, for their endless efforts and support, for their humanity, for their kindness, and for their love I will always be grateful.

I’m trying to heal now from all I’ve been through. Today I am focusing on living normally. I will continue until the end to do and speak for what I believe in. I hope all the free people of the world will keep on helping others as they have helped me. They, and I, and all of us—it falls to us to act to save humanity and our shared future.

After such a long time living with the certainty that I would be killed, I finally knew that wouldn’t be my fate once I was able to flee my country. Despite this knowledge, after I fled I couldn’t feel anything. I wasn’t happy or sad. I just simply cried. For several nights and days, I couldn’t even talk. I was isolated, not knowing what would happen next. I cried a lot, sometimes with tears I didn’t have. Somehow, I felt like a coward. I will never forget that moment, coming to such a great nation—the United States—and how it made me realize how people in my country need reform in every aspect, especially the freedom of religion. Christians had to run from Baghdad and other southern cities because they couldn’t live peacefully in those cities. The churches were either damaged or left to be damaged. Despite these conditions, coming to the United States reminded me of how much I missed life and my own voice.

I believe that the needed change must come from inside my country. People like me should fight for it, but we are alone. No one is willing to even talk about the subject. I used to discuss ideas and resist all the attacks and threats every day since I began my activities of spreading what is right and should be common for being a girl. In communities such as Iraq and in the Middle East in general, women shouldn’t even play a role in the daily life where women are only wanted to be treated like slaves. You can see girls in schools in my country but in the end, they are all under submission. They can’t have the simplest rights as human beings.

For me, being a girl calling for secularism and atheism was highly dangerous, but it was and still is very important for me to spread the word. I still can’t describe how I feel except that I’m very grateful to all the people who helped me. I’m trying to heal myself, get back to life, start a journey to advocate for all who are calling for the same principles, and get our stories out to the world.

I will never be the same after what I have been through. It taught me a lot. I want to be in this fight for those who have been forgotten. I know my voice is small, but getting people to listen to people like me will save those who are out there still facing such horrible conditions. I’m trying to heal my wounds. I still have nightmares. I can’t live a normal life anymore, but I’m a new person with more determined goals of spreading the word out there. I’m trying to cope with what I have been through and stay strong and continue what I started. It’s very important to remind ourselves the fight for freedom is what all human beings should engage in for the next generation.

Lubna Ahmed Yaseen

Lubna Ahmed Yaseen left Baghdad, Iraq, with assistance from the Center for Inquiry’s Secular Rescue project. She is now living in southern California.