From The Saudi Kingdom to EXMNA (and back)
I am determined to achieve what I had never dared to dream of before; a life where I can be true to myself. It is the biggest gift EXMNA could have possibly given to me.
During an evening out on my very last weekend of a six month trip to the United States, I took a moment to observe the group of people I had been hanging out with for the past couple of hours. This was a group that in some ways felt closer to me than my own family, and with each of whom I felt a kinship I had never felt before, even with some of my oldest friends. We were from all over – different backgrounds, different upbringings, and different cultures – and we had not met by chance.
We were Ex-Muslims.
My whole life, I have lived in Saudi Arabia. Like any child born to a reasonably conservative Muslim family, I was taught how to read the Qur’an, do my prayers and live my life according to the rules laid down by God and Prophet Muhammad. My life as a child was a dichotomy of secular and religious education. Being an expat, I attended an international school with students from many different religious backgrounds. I was an excellent student and my parents pushed me to be as good as I could possibly be. After school, I attended extra Islamic classes that taught us about the Prophet’s life and the lessons we could learn from it.
When I was nine years old, I found myself sitting in an Islamic studies class, listening to my teacher lecture about how only Muslims (good ones at that) would be allowed to go to heaven. I walked out after that lesson to my next class and sat down next to some of my friends who were most decidedly not Muslim. I looked at them and thought, why is it that they wouldn’t go to heaven for following a religion that their parents taught them the same as I did? I came home from school and spilled out my concerns to my mom, who tried to explain in very simple terms: everyone gets a choice at some point in their life to accept the message of Islam. Those who dismiss it will not be granted heaven. And yet, I thought, I would never leave Islam because it is my parents’ religion. Why would my friends leave theirs?
Several years down the line, I had mostly acknowledged to myself that I did not believe. I performed many an umrah with the family, whilst praying not for my wishes to come true but for god to give me a sign that he’s out there. That I’m not crazy to question him when nobody else around me seemed to. Even through this questioning phase, I never actively sought any kind of websites or online groups that would reaffirm my disbelief. It was difficult to overcome the idea that the shaitaan was somehow influencing me. My faith was flimsy enough as it was; I knew that if took deliberate steps in walking away from Islam, I would never be able to go back to it.
It was when I accidentally stumbled across an online blog by an ex-Muslim girl that changed everything. I remember getting chills while reading through it; she talked about leaving behind the Hijab after years of yearning to do so and leaving behind the faith she had always been felt imprisoned by. I could empathize with this girl’s experiences intensely- I knew exactly what it felt like to be denied being able to move out of my parents’ house or drive, because any semblance of independence for girls is not allowed under Islam. It was a big part of what had led me to question it in the first place.
With some trepidation, I opened up Google and typed the word: “exmuslim”. One of the first results was the Ex-Muslim forums on Reddit, a place where people could anonymously share their experiences and frustrations with leaving Islam behind. It was an incredible eye-opener for me. For the first time in my life, I realized that I was not alone. Through these forums, I discovered that there were regular meet-ups in western countries and even once or twice in Saudi Arabia, an idea that thrilled me immensely. It was unlikely that I would ever get a chance to go to one – casual meetups between men and women are illegal in Saudi, anti-religious ones even more so. And yet, just the idea that there were people in my vicinity that questioned Islam the same as I did was enough to give me hope.
As it happened, within a few months of stumbling across this forum, I had the opportunity to visit the US for a business trip. It had been difficult to convince my family to let me go on this trip. I would be there for barely a month, but I knew I might possibly never get this chance again. I reached out to the Ex-Muslims of North America (EXMNA) and asked to be able to join a meetup. I had known that this was a private group that you could join only after being screened, which I was grateful for. The last thing I wanted was for my hidden Ex-Muslim identity to become public, knowing that I would have to go back to my family that would not be able to accept it and a country where apostasy is a crime punishable by death.
I had no idea what to expect during my first ever meeting with EXMNA members, but I was excited and not nervous. I felt starved of ever having been able to share my true thoughts about Islam with another human being. To talk to them, listen to their experiences and share some of my own was exhilarating. There were some members who were open about their apostasy with their friends and family and accepted. There were others that were in the closet just like I was. I felt comfortable – for the first time, I had taken off my hijab in a new city and I could just be myself around them. And of course, my first experiments with alcohol were with this group; experiments that were guilt-free because I had no longer caged myself mentally with Islamic rules. I was free to try and decide for myself if I liked it or not, around people that I knew I could trust.
Fortunately, I was able to go on another business trip back to the United States within a few months, a much longer one this time. I was incredibly excited to see everyone again, and this time around was able to meet a lot more members, both online and offline. I participated in Google Hangouts where I had the chance to meet members from all over the US and Canada. We had many local meetups where we met in person, just hung out, relaxed and had fun, trying out different drinks, and of course foods where we did not have to care about halal or haram. For many of us who have had to worry about it before, these experiences were very cathartic. We would always gather for special occasions like birthdays and holidays and celebrate them. We went to charity events together. We attended a political rally which was a first for me – I had never been to one before. Over time, the group felt like a second family to me. When it was time for me to leave, the outpourings of support, both from the people that I knew personally and from members online that I had never met, were incredibly touching. I had people reach out to me and share their stories about how they moved away and give me advice and offers of help, financially and emotionally, if I ever needed any.
As I was sitting with my friends on the last weekend before I was due to fly out back to Saudi, I reflected on all the times we had spent together and thought about what I had hoped to gain when I first reached out to EXMNA. Initially, my intent was just to be able to talk to people I could relate to; to be able to express my views on religion and life freely without fear of being reprimanded or judged. A way for me to make new friends I could be myself around and have good times and memories with.
But it has changed and inspired me in more ways than I realized. I am no longer content with being in the closet forever. I am no longer resigned to live a life of pretense driven by rules and ideas that I don’t believe in. I want to move out to a country where I can live according to my own ideals and not by those devised 1400 years ago. I want to be able to give back to the group that reached out to me when I most needed them. I am now determined to achieve what I had never dared to dream of before; a life where I can be true to myself. It is the biggest gift EXMNA could have possibly given to me.