Open ~ Voices of ExMuslim Women ~ Solidarity on International Women’s Day
In this final part of the International Women’s Day project, I want to share five ExMuslim women’s writings who wrote open-ended pieces.
Like any other person in the world, Muslim women have dreams, hopes, ambitions for what they want to do in this world. They tell you that you’re free to choose, you’re born Muslim and no religion affords you greater freedom as a woman than Islam. Then they teach you about your obligations to marry a man, to protect your sexuality, to bear children, to learn to keep house, to give back to the community by being a shining example of a Muslimah. Then they start to limit your dreams. They don’t tell you but they expect you to dream no further than your wedding day. Eventually, you learn to fight every step of the way. But when you fight for those dreams, dreams to become anything more than what they want for you, there’s no one on your side. The female Muslim friends you have don’t understand when you want to dream for silly things that would probably put you in haraam situations.
“What is so wrong about cooking every meal for your family?”
“What is wrong with commuting three hours every day to class? At least you are safer living with your parents!”
“What is so bad about having your parents give you a selection of men to pick a spouse from?”
You have to fight so hard, every step of the way to have the career of your dreams while knowing every single day the things you fight for, your parents don’t approve of. They love you, but they don’t approve of you. You stay chaste. You come home at the same time every day. You learn every meal they teach you to cook. You don’t keep male friends. You always lower your gaze. You give in to every one of their desires hoping that today maybe they won’t tell you how worthless and useless you are to them.
They don’t approve of your dreams. Your dreams are a burden on them. It never feels worthwhile to keep fighting but for some reason you do. You start losing friends because they don’t understand why you don’t accept the proprietary rights that Islam has given parents. Eventually, it is just you and your dreams for something better. And then your dreams… they slip. You can’t work as hard as you’d like or you can’t focus long enough and right now you can’t have goals. There is so much fear, what if you achieve all the things you dreamed of and all the things you set out to do?
They’ll still never love you because you disobeyed Allah by disobeying them. Everything that goes wrong in your life wouldn’t have gone wrong if you had just done as you were told and followed the path of the righteous momins. Study the things they tell you to study, believe the things they tell you to believe, dream only the things you’re allowed to dream.
I want you to know there is hope for your life. You’re worth something. I’m in your corner now. I want to see you succeed. I want you to become every ounce of the amazing person you can be. I think so highly of you. Maybe you’ll fall a hundred more times. Maybe you’ll want to die on some nights. Maybe you’ll try to kill yourself just once more.
But I know, truthfully, even on the days your dreams don’t feel like they are worth having that you’re going to fight for them. You know you’re worth fighting for. On days you can’t fight, I’ll fight with you and for you.
The life of a transgender woman in Islam is one of self-enforced hiding—hiding from everyone you know, everyone you love, every single person you interact with in your life. It’s the life of an actor imprisoned to his role.
This endless charade is one you play from birth. From an early age you are taught how every facet of your life must reflect the perfect image of the pious son, the Muslim man who carries the pride of Islam as a shining example for others. Any transgression of this is anathema. Any hint of feminine preference or inclination is swiftly chastised. This is not acceptable behaviour for a young man, you are told.
My confusion as a child about why simply playing with my friends was so inappropriate did not stop me from learning that I, as a Muslim boy, was not to be seen playing with the neighbour girls. I wasn’t to show any interest in ‘girly’ toys or games. I should remember to think of the example I was setting for other Muslims and non-Muslims alike. I was being disgraceful.
Because women are disgraceful.
To be a woman is to have no pride. And I, as a man, was better than that. While much of this wasn’t overtly stated, it was the message that I received. “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women.” This was the role I was to fill.
As I grew older, listening in the mosque, I would occasionally hear things that spoke of femininity in men. Homosexuality. Gender confusion. Transsexuals. Not only were these disgusting sins in the eyes of Allah, they represented the deeper problem of the feminisation of men in Western culture. Our surrounding culture degraded the status of men, lowered it. It was our duty as Muslims to raise our boys to be proud Muslim men—men who would stand for the Islamic values Allah had blessed them with: honesty, nobility, and pride; the ability to guide and provide for women, to be righteous and steadfast.
All this was said with the air of equality. Men and women were to be ‘different, but equal.’ This was the same argument that was once used for racial segregation. But separate can never be truly equal.
Of course, this meant the feminisation of men was in some way ignoble. Feminine men are not to be admired. This scarred me deeply, as someone who had never been comfortable with the male identity thrust upon me from childhood. This reinforced my belief that I was, at some very fundamental level, disgraceful. I did not live up to the values Allah had established for men. I was defective. I was disgusting.
These were, truthfully, the first seeds of doubt taking hold in my mind, seeds that would only grow with time. As I continued to realise things about myself, my sexuality, my gender identity, it became increasingly clear that someone like me was not welcome within Islam. As someone who loved Allah very much, this was incredibly traumatic, and led to me becoming increasingly withdrawn. By my early teens, I was a very broken person. My grades in school suffered. I didn’t socialise with anyone. I spent my nights restlessly staring at my ceiling. And I often cried myself to sleep, begging Allah to either fix me or just kill me.
This self-hatred was something that would only intensify until I left Islam, and the scars remain to this day.
This is no way to live.
Transgender Ex-Muslims are real. We are real people and we are not to be ignored. Our voices demand to be heard.
No child deserves to live with the constant fear and self-hatred of pretending to be someone you are not. It’s easy to get lost in an ocean of doubt, and it’s easy to feel alone when you see no support, but there is a whole world outside of Islam. You do not have to live life as a prisoner in your mind. It’s a hard road, but there are so many people you will find on your journey—people who will love you and value you for who you are, not what you are.
There is more beauty in freedom than you can imagine.
We are all waiting for you.
I opened my closet door and I heaved myself among the pile of pillows and blankets. I slept there most mornings in 2008 until my parents left for work. My daily routine started with hiding my runners, my jacket and my backpack so as to avoid giving my family any visible clues that I skipped school.
Nearly every classmate of mine applied for universities and colleges since everyone was on track to graduate high school this year. They spoke excitedly of visiting prospective campuses with their parents.
My parents told me I would never attend university. I would never attend college. I should stay at home. Or maybe I should be a dental assistant because I had no brains and I should be cleaning their teeth.
Everyday, my parents walked through the front door in the evening. If any dishes were in the sink, I would make a poor daughter-in-law. If my bed was not made, my husband would divorce me. If I failed to have chai ready for them and dinner was not cooked, I was an ingrate, stupid, a bad daughter, a girl that no good Muslim man would marry.
I applied to schools after the school administration gave me an ultimatum. If they suspended me, my parents and brother would have another reason to beat and taunt me. I brought my marks up and forced myself to attend class.
Soon enough, I received acceptance letters. When I told my father about the news, to prove to him that nothing he said was true, he stared at the television and continued his program without an utterance or acknowledgement. He continued to pretend I never existed for several weeks after.
My mother pinched her hand around my arm and pulled me aside several times. With a menacing look, she told me she would not let me attend any school other than our local university. She would rather let me starve on my own and live with dirty men than to let her daughter leave sight of her home. The family honour rested on me, their only daughter. What horrendous things would I involve myself with should I have the opportunity to not come home right after school every day and not work for them like I had since the age of 13? Would I have sex? Would I speak to men? Would I have a sip of alcohol? Would I do hard drugs? The kuffaar are not to trusted. And neither should women. They are, after all, condoned to be treated forever like children, unable to make decisions for themselves without their walid, unable to divorce unless given permission from their husbands and lead men astray, as the prophet said.
As time came for university, I had no money. When I asked guidance counsellors how I could pay for tuition, they told me to go to a bank with my parents and ask for a private loan if they couldn’t afford it but most of the students I went to school with, their parents paid for their tuition and housing. I was not allowed to get a job outside of the “family business,” the restaurant my parents owned that fed and housed us for years. My parents chose my hours and I was never allowed to have a weekend off, even if I requested it. I had no say, no agency.
My brother meddled, as he took it upon himself to control every aspect of my life, and told me it was now my time to finally take on the responsibilities they endured and to work just like they did for my parents when the six of us we lived in cramped apartments to subsidized housing that was infested with mice. I declared I no longer wanted to be paid less than minimum wage. I declared I wanted to find a job. I told him I wanted him to leave me alone. He had the courtesy to pull off my glasses, which he snapped in half, before he threw several punches to my face. If a woman disobeys her husband (i.e., owner), beat her, states surah 4:34. Women must be obey. I did not want to.
I prepared to escape to university. My brother slipped snide comments when he could. He told me I should not go to school. It would be a waste for a person like me. He asked, “Why can’t you be like the girls I knew growing up? They saved up money for years. Now they’re going to medical school. What do YOU want to go to school for?”
What right did I have to seek an education? Women around the world are expressly denied their right to education systematically. The number is in the millions.
Invisible as I was, I am not as invisible as the many women in the world who lived and continue to live through similar conditions and much more severe ones too. I, unlike most women, have access to means to help me escape, to make a life for myself and to have agency. Most women in this world do not have this privilege to be in a first-world country.
No matter what religion that divides us, no matter what race we are, no matter what country we are from, we are all one collective group who face discrimination for who we are. I express my solidarity with any woman who recognizes this ugly truth. I send my love and strength.
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I was born into a Muslim family. I was also born male. I took what my parents taught me, and believed it one hundred percent. They’re my parents, therefore, everything they said was fact. This lead me to believe that homosexuals were terrible people, transgender people even more so. I’ve heard the words “sick”, “disgusting”, “god-hating”, “filthy”, “hell-bound”, you name it.
As a young child of ten or eleven, I remember my dad driving me through the LGBT friendly areas of where we lived, and pointing out the transwomen, and telling me things like “See that? That’s actually a man. He is upset with Allah and wants to go the opposite way just to displease him. These people are sick.” The worst part is that I believed him and agreed. I was disgusted by transgender people. He talked about homosexuals in the same way.
Growing up, I started noticing men, and this was incredibly hard for me, as I have learned to despise them. It took a long time, filled with depression and intense self-loathing, for me to finally accept it. However, I still believed but had my doubts.
I was still very unhappy. I figured it out. Why am I still not happy? Why couldn’t I even look myself in the mirror? Why did I feel ugly? Why did I feel that way about my body? Why did I have thoughts of suicide?
I had a transgender friend online. I felt very odd when they came out to me, thinking to myself, “how can someone do that to themselves?” But I was still intrigued. After she explained it to me, and sent me links to better understand it, I was stunned, frozen for a good half hour. It all made sense. Everything she said, and the links she gave me hit me hard, and made me realize exactly what I am. My life really did flash before my eyes. I realized I was different. I really was not male, just my body was. I remembered all of the signs. My fascination with women, the moments where I would notice toys and clothing directed towards women, wishing I could play with them and wear them. My father made sure to keep me from these things, to the point of hitting me when I would wear my mother’s high heels.
Why would Allah do this to me? Why would he give me such a huge thing to struggle with, and then tell me it’s wrong?
That is when I lost my faith.
I started transitioning (taking female hormones to change my body) a few years after that, when I was in a more stable environment, away from my parents. I currently live my life as the woman I was inside, and am much happier. But I still face transphobia, and misogyny. It’s made me see the world from a whole new point of view.
When I visit my parents, or my country of origin, I have to “man up”, so to speak, since they don’t know this about me. It hurts, but it’s something I have to do, because I know my parents and relatives would never accept me.
For example, we were visiting our country a couple of years ago, only a few months after I started transitioning, but I was still presenting as male. I was harassed by the Islamic police simply for being a “male” with long hair. That’s it. They kept telling me to “go cut it or we’ll cut it for you.”
I still have a good relationship with my parents, but as a man. I still hear them talk negatively about transgender and homosexual people. I’ve even heard a lot of very sexist remarks from my father as well. He truly does think that women are lower than men. I’ve heard the same from multiple male relatives.
I thankfully didn’t have to endure the hijab, or anything like that, but I have endured more in the past couple of years after I transitioned than I have my entire life before that.
While in university I was in five different Clinical groups that were a part of my degree. We spent a lot of time together as we were doing 12-hour day and night shifts. We became very close, we asked each other for advice on how to deal with our rude and ungrateful patients, and we prepped deceased patients’ bodies together and went through some very emotional moments. So the fact that on more than one occasion “friends” from my groups told me that I was completely different from what they had expected hurt. They told me they were surprised by the fact that I joked with them and talked as much as I did. They were essentially assuming that I was a person with no original thoughts, no personality, and no humor. I wasn’t aware that in our first couple interactions I was proving myself to them. I was just being myself but they couldn’t see that because they were so blinded by a thing I wear on my head.
Fast-forward to the month right after my graduation where I finally decided that there was no way to reconcile my faith in Islam and finally removed my hijab. I was walking down the street alone, random strangers smiled at me, made conversation with me in the Starbucks line up and even in the elevator on my way up to my apartment. When I got home I felt so good because I suddenly realized that people were actually so nice! This happened the next few times I went outside without my hijab and it suddenly dawned on me that people were treating me differently without my hijab. There was no barrier sending out preconceived messages to these people on how to treat me and what kind of person I am. It was liberating, but at the same time it made me sad that women wearing the hijab are all put under one label that is almost impossible to escape. However, Muslim women are not completely innocent of this because they do the exact same thing. Only, they do it to girls who either never wore the hijab or girls who used to wear it and later decided to remove it. My friends and most of my family have no idea that I removed my hijab, so when they talk to me about girls we know who have taken it off the comments they make give me chills and make me want to crawl under my blanket and never come out. It terrifies me of the day that I come out and tell them because of the way I’ve seen them treat girls who are open about it. “What’s up with her?” “She’s probably doing it for a guy” “I knew it was coming, her clothes were always so tight” are just some of the comments that I’ve heard. The attitude that accompanies these statements is horrible. The judgment in their voices and the way they treat the girl like she is less of a person, now that she doesn’t cover her head is crippling. These girls who judge and shun us don’t know how difficult it was for us to make that decision and the courage it takes to face the judging eyes of our family and friends.
Both sides need to stop judging each other. We all have a story to tell. When you look at me you see a girl who doesn’t cover her head. You have no idea what happened in my life to get me to this point and how I made the decision I made. It’s frustrating to have people judge you without even knowing you.