It didn’t stop me from leaving Islam because I wanted my freedom to work and live independently. I’ve been disowned, but I’ve never felt so at peace.
If Islam wants to remain viable in the modern world, it can’t keep making life hell for women. That should be obvious; certainly, it is obvious in secular societies. However, in many Muslim-majority countries today, it’s not. According to the World Economic Forum, Yemen, Pakistan, and Syria top the list of the worst countries for gender equality.* Naturally, these are all Muslim-majority countries.
Speaking as an ex-Muslim woman, I (Zara Kay) have a message for these countries: Women might have been second-class citizens a few thousand years ago, but things have changed. Nothing you can do can stop the rise of ex-Muslim women speaking out and standing up for our fundamental human rights and freedoms. Not even apostasy laws, whose violation is punishable by death, can stop us. The desire for freedom remains too powerful an instinct.
Punishment for apostasy has been around a long time; it’s a practice common to Islam and other faiths. It may be easy enough to leave the Presbyterian church these days, but renouncing Christianity was painful several hundred years ago. The Roman Catholic Church has a colorful history of punishing heretics and apostates. Even today, examples of religious groups punishing or ostracizing apostates are frequent. These include Scientology’s ruthless tactics to keep members from leaving the church. “For the very few who do manage to escape and forge a new life outside the church,” says Ron Miscavige, the father of Scientology’s demigod leader David Miscavige, “There awaits a special form of punishment: disconnection. That’s the church’s policy of requiring its members to shun family members who dare to leave the church or even criticize it.”***
Church policy for punishing apostates is bad enough. However, a state-sanctioned law against apostasy is much worse. It rises to the level of an actual violation of fundamental human rights and freedoms. According to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNHCR), the ability to adopt or to leave a religion is a protected freedom. Explicitly, “Article 18 protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief.”
Despite the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, today, thirteen countries still uphold capital punishment for renouncing Islam. In practical terms, this means that millions of people currently live in fear of expressing doubt about any of the central doctrines of the Qur’an. If you live in one of these thirteen countries, you can forget about openly renouncing your faith in Allah, for to do so—even to members of your family—would almost certainly result in social ostracism, corporal punishment, or even death.
By and large, the victims of these apostasy laws are women. Unlike most men in Muslim-majority countries, the women are often restricted from wearing what they want, pursuing certain job opportunities, obtaining a divorce, or achieving a truly free life outside the home. Even then, that leaves out honor killings, prevalent in the Islamic world. Often, they occur as a direct result of apostasy laws. Recent cases of honor killings that have been under-reported by mainstream media include those of Tara Fares, Qandeel Baloch, Rauda Athif, Samia Sarwar, Nusrat Jahan Rafi, and Arooj Shahzad. There are many more. These are clear examples of patriarchal oppression that have been imposed on women in Islam. Many Muslim women try to rationalize it. Most have never been exposed to what Islam really says about the role of women in the religion. However, an increasing minority have been working toward their freedom by understanding the subjugation of women that Islam has imposed on them.
Before I left Islam, I lived in fear every day because I might commit some infraction or violate the apostasy or blasphemy laws. At a very fundamental level, I understood these laws were enforced to prevent asking the most basic questions, including: “Why can’t I show my hair in public?,” “Why shouldn’t I be wearing makeup?,” or “Why is a woman worth half a man, in testimony or even the presence of God?” In effect, these laws continue to be upheld for the purpose of keeping women subjugated as second-class citizens. This is how many women throughout the Muslim world experience these laws every day of their lives.
In October 2018, I founded Faithless Hijabi (faithlesshijabi.org). It is a platform to help ex-Muslim women share their stories anonymously online. When women leave Islam, they often feel an immense sense of loneliness, confusion, and even terror. The idea was to give women a platform and to let them know they weren’t alone; there are many women across the globe who have experienced their struggle. I hoped to encourage and empower them to exercise freedom of expression by sharing their stories and finding hope through participating in a common cause.
I began receiving stories from women who had left Islam no matter the cost and wanted to have their voices heard. Below are segments of stories that have been shared with me:
I struggled for many years with different versions of Islam. Trying to make something work because it had to be true. When it hit me that it can’t be true, I felt liberated and at peace. I felt like I could enjoy my life so much more and be a good person, not for Allah but because I want to be.
But since coming out to my family and the world on YouTube I have never felt this type of isolation before or felt so much pure hatred from Muslims. Family members that I’ve been inseparable from have cut me off without a second thought; many close childhood friends have backed away like I carry a disease that can be caught in close proximity. … The intolerance is what inspires me to speak out and speak louder.
Ex-Muslims leave Islam for several reasons, from philosophical rejection of the existence of God to specific disagreements with Islamic teachings. But there are certainly common themes. Very often, women begin their journey away from Islam by starting to question its pervasive sexism and unequal rights. When these women begin digging into Islamic teachings to understand the religious grounds for their oppression, they are often appalled by what they find in the theology and the teachings.
Both the Qur’an and the Hadith have unambiguously misogynistic stories or verses. When you live in an Islamic society and see how these specific verses directly impact your relationship with your family and society, how can you not start to question the legitimacy of these texts? One woman wrote from experience:
I started questioning my faith when I was around 9 years old. I was shut down for the questions I asked in Islamic Studies [because] I was disrespecting God. I was silenced but it didn’t feel right. The more I learned about Islam the more internal struggle I had with following its teachings. It was a gradual process, leaving Islam.
The price for leaving Islam, for many women, cannot be exaggerated. So, why have women been leaving the religion despite the threat that doing so poses? I hear responses like this again and again:
[For] freedom, equality and [knowing that] I am more than an object that needs to be covered from the lustful eyes of men.
After having read a multitude of stories from former Muslim women, I realized that achieving a healthy society all starts with the empowerment of women who seek equal rights and freedoms. When women begin to understand that they should be equals, but aren’t under Islam, they start digging more into the reasons behind the issues. There follows a domino effect, and the basic worldview holding women back begins to crumble down—from the history of Islam to the theology.
Over time, Faithless Hijabi expanded from simply publishing women’s stories to taking an active role as an advocate for women’s rights. Currently, the organization plans to expand with a focus on helping women from various backgrounds achieve the funding they need to overcome immediate challenges in their lives. While the content is primarily in English, Faithless Hijabi will soon be working to translate materials into different languages spoken in the Middle East.
Through this work, I have learned precisely how overpowering the forces arrayed against women truly are in Muslim-majority countries. Yet I’ve also witnessed how, time and time again, forces like these can be overcome. This is how I know that apostasy laws will ultimately fail. When women are determined to leave Islam, and they’re given the proper encouragement and resources, very often they can overcome the most incredible odds. Their individual stories bear this out.
When you empower and educate women to seek more than what has been set for them unfairly in the society, you empower the movement that enables changes.