Self worth, self image ~ Voices of ExMuslim Women ~ Solidarity on International Women’s Day
What do you know now about your self worth or self image as a woman that you didn’t know when you followed/believed in Islam?
My body is mine and mine alone. My body is not an object of discord to be covered up. My body does not maim, corrupt, and tempt others into sin. I am not responsible for the failings and transgressions of men who cannot keep themselves from violating women who they fail to control. I cannot be made to keep silent because my voice is considered temptation. I cannot be made to enclose myself between walls because my body is considered temptation. I have the right to determine what I do with my body and what happens to it without suffering punishment. I do not have to hide, limit, and obscure myself for the convenience of the bigotry of others.
My self-worth is not tied to a piece of tissue between my legs. I am not broken, ruined, or marred if this piece of tissue breaks. I do not have to wait for a man to give me access to and pleasure from my own body; it is mine, not his. Enjoying my body is not a crime. I do not deserve punishment, shaming, and violence for my sexuality. I do not deserve punishment, shaming, and violence for loving with my body, for loving a man, for loving a woman. I do not deserve punishment, shaming, and violence for refusing to bow down to patriarchal norms. I do not deserve punishment, shaming, and violence for any of these imagined sins. I am not a criminal. I am a woman.
My body belongs to myself and not to my family, clan, or the Muslim Ummah. My body is not responsible for the honor and shame of the men in my family and society. My self-worth is not reducible to my relationship with men. I am not worthy for being a mother to sons, a sister to brothers, a daughter to fathers—I am worthy for being myself. My self-worth is not reducible to my marriageability or fertility. My testimony is not worth half of a man’s, my right to inheritance is not half of a man’s right. No man ever has the right to strike me for any reason. I am a whole human being in no need of guardianship from my husband or father. I refuse to be told I am given the right to closet myself at home and not work when this very “right” is used to deny me the agency to make decisions regarding my home and person. I refuse to have to seek permission to work, invite people into my own house, to file for divorce, to go places, to get educated. I refuse to be tracked like an animal when I am travelling. I refuse to be offered “rights” that are only masked forms of control and limitation. I refuse to have my bindings be referred to as “honor” and “dignity”.
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When I wore hijab, they told me that I have control over my body and whose gaze I allow on it. When I took it off, I realized they meant that Islam and Allah were in control, not me.
When I was Muslim, I believed that Islam and Allah saw me as an equal to a man. I was told that the Western world view women’s bodies as objects and that men have a natural tendency to view women’s bodies as objects. When I left Islam, I realized that women’s bodies are, and have been, objectified globally throughout history (including Islamic history!). The concept of veil was a symbol of ownership by a man, and still is. Sugarcoat it as much as you like, it is not you who chooses to wear the veil, it is your religion’s *burning* expectation of you.
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I need not feel shame. I had never thought of it consciously prior to leaving Islam, but as a woman I always sat with some shame – of my body and my voice, for example. I was always learning to hide myself. I could not be too outspoken, too bold. I am still struggling to let myself speak. And I still find myself thinking I am a burden. But I have lost so much shame. I realized there is no reason to hide myself. For who? For a man? For all men? Why? I refuse.
Islam has had little to tell me about being a woman because Islam generally doesn’t recognize me as one to begin with. The denial becomes internalized and I spent years convinced I would burn in hell for feeling like I’m a woman. Becoming an ex-muslim just set me free to be honest with myself and to pursue a life that I could actually live.
I don’t think a Muslim version of me would be in any different a position. The choice would still be between exile and getting disowned by family or living as a woman.
When I was Muslim, I thought it was my duty to prevent men from indulging in their “animalistic” nature by covering up my body. If a man looked at me in the wrong way and committed sin, it was his fault too, but it was mostly my fault for attracting his gaze. The blame fell disproportionately on women. After leaving Islam, I know that if my male cousins look at me the wrong way for wearing weather appropriate clothing in the summer, the burden is on them, not on me.
Maybe not every Muslim was like this, but I can’t change my truth so here it is: When I was Muslim, I was called a “whore” or a “slut” from around the age of 10 for wanting to a classmate’s birthday party or stay at school past 3 pm to do after school activities. I didn’t even understand what sex was, and I thought of myself as a whore for wanting to do certain normal things. That means every time I had a thought in my head about wanting to attend a sleepover with my friends or join the soccer team at school and wear the shorts that came along with the uniform, I thought of myself as a whore. That’s very, very powerful. A little girl who was called a whore grew into a young woman in high school who became frustrated and basically said “fuck it, I’m a whore no matter what I do, so might as well stop trying to be good because there’s no point”. When I lost my virginity, it had less to do with liking the guy I was with and more because I was really, really angry at a series of fights with my mom where she accused me of being a whore repeatedly and having immoral relations with men when I was just hanging out with my classmates. Afterwards, I came home and told my mom that for so long I had been called a whore, and now I’m officially one.
As a young Muslim girl growing up I was very aware of my role. The indoctrination starts young and it is very difficult to imagine anything other than what you were told.
“Go to the back of the room, you will distract the men”
“Cover up, men will not respect you”
It made sense to me because I was told that was what was right. Like everything else, I did not question anything that made me uncomfortable. It didn’t matter that women usually got the worst of spaces in the mosque or that we were told what our dreams were. No, none of these actions were trying to control us or to make us feel like we were less. We were “protected” and “privileged”; we had our lives planned out for us by our parents, by society. And I, like so many girls and women, believed in all of it.
That “dressing modestly” in an attempt to keep attention off of you (especially from men) can actually be more damaging than just wearing whatever the hell you feel comfortable in. It makes you focus on that point – that you must not look beautiful or sexually appealing at all – and you must cover certain parts at all times! And in that way, it makes you think that as a woman, that’s all you have going for you.
I think Islam sexualizes women much more than people realize. Also, Islamic tradition is very much against individualism. There’s no room for freedom of expression. Freedom to express yourself – from your speech to your clothing and anything in between – is important for your well-being. It helps you figure out who you are. You can be almost anything you want. In Islam, you can only be Muslim. You are defined by that, and your gender. I was considered a Muslim female. I would never be allowed to sing in public, even though I have a huge desire for music and was interested in attempting to create some of my own. “A woman’s voice is considered provocative and desirable – it can stir up lust in men!” It’s sad that traditionally, Islam views music, something so beautiful, fun, and expressive so negatively. “Stringed instruments are from the devil because they can evoke too much emotion, and the only thing that should move you should be praise to god and the sound of prayer being recited.”
With its narrow view of the world and all the limitations it places on everyone, especially women, I realized that it’s not for me. It doesn’t feel good to me. It doesn’t feel right (if anything, it feels extremely wrong). It made me miserable more than anything.
After almost a decade of counseling, I’ve come around to embrace the essentials of what it means to be a woman. Ten years ago, I thought of my body as a dirty, unfortunate vessel that just didn’t seem as perfect as that of a man. My mother used to shame me every time my period would come around. Even after I was disowned, I would shy away from my boyfriends and tuck away that dirty, bloody little secret. But recently, I’ve come to cherish the sheer beauty and complexity of the female human body. My body has been good to me, and I feel that finally I can be good to it, too.
I was constantly shamed for speaking out too loudly growing up in a Muslim community. Both of my parents would berate me as “over-reactive” and “outspoken.” I know now that those traits are not something to be ashamed of – but very rare and needed among women. I don’t let people shut me down, or humiliate me, or attempt to censor me, now. And I try to fight hard to make sure the voices of others are also spared such cruelty.
I wear bright colors and let the skin drink those delicious, warm rays of the sun. No longer are the days that I fear that my father would punish me for wearing short sleeved shirts.
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