Sex and Virginity When Consent is Not a Consideration

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[Content note: Sexual assault, rape]

I’m trying this new thing where I blog more frequently, and allow myself to post shorter pieces. I’ve tended to stick to long-form essays because with them I can delve into an in-depth exploration, tussle with details, fan out layers of nuance. And I will keep writing them, but I think there is space here too for the shorter musings, the more immediate bursts of thought-emotion that come with day-to-day learning of living with this new post-Islam self. Rougher but maybe more powerfully raw.

Today these thoughts are about sex, and its constructions within, outside of marriage. It’s hard to talk to the few family members I still keep in touch with sometimes because of how utterly disconnected our views are in thinking about sex, about marriage, about rape, about love. We try to discuss, to explain our positions to each other, because I have this loving relationship and they call it living in sin, and it is a part of my life that is significant and enmeshed and that I wish for them to understand. And they try but are confused with my condemnation of sexual harassment, my feminism; they do not understand how I can both be sexual and consistently speak out against harassment. We have these discussions then, over the phone, across the Atlantic Ocean, our voices chiming together. They trumpet in intense bursts, these conversations, and are woven with smaller discussions about recipes and the blistering cold  and sore throats and politics and new social trends in Lebanon and the way the Mediterranean looked that morning, if only you saw it. And then these talks eddy into a passionate whirl as we try to speak straight into each others’ hearts describing this world we both see as so different and she struggles, struggles to understand me.

And she seems to not be able or willing to differentiate between all types of extra marital sex, forceful or not, willing or not, desirable or not–these are categories of differentiation that blend in as one for her. Consent, far from being the main or most powerful sexual consideration, barely enters the picture–how to orient these ideas with one another and not seem to speak past one another?

The way she thinks of it is thus: Yes, I admittedly have sex with a chosen partner outside of marriage. I admit this to her and ask her to accept me still, and she tries–but this means to her that I have no basis or justification for not accepting sex with anyone else who wants it with me. Because to her, there is no marital foundation for this sexual relationship, so where is the foundation to be found at all? It may as well exist with anybody as not, if I am to be consistent. That I speak to my own choosing of it seems an alien concept; and truly this manner of thinking is consistent with much of what I have experienced among the Muslim societies of my upbringing. The ideological grounding for the hijab often entails a desire not to tempt and sway men into transgression, into sin; it places men as the movers, actors, deciders, and the choice and will of women as merely a footnote. It’s almost universally known as well that marital rape is not forbidden or a crime in Islam; in fact the very the concept of marital rape does not exist in Islam, as sex is considered a wifely duty that she must submit to–

“But she has already agreed. Agreed to marry. It’s a contract.”

And thus the idea that within the duty of marriage and its act there is an entire female self whose whole will has been contracted away, such a contract granting absolute permanent right to her body thereafter. Because how can you forcefully take what is already your own? Part of this is the idea that a woman’s virginity belongs not to herself but to her future husband, that the sexual interactions she will experience during her life are predominantly male-oriented, male-centered, that it is about the desires and duties of other people and other idea-entities rather than those of the woman self, that it is not only possible but expected that she gives up her bodily autonomy to another, that it is possible and right that a woman give up absolute ownership of her body.

And she worries, she worries about me traveling to another city and staying with an old, trusted friend. 

“Why can’t you stay in a hotel?”

She knows all of the reasons, financial, personal–she asks anyway.

“What if he–you know–expects things because you’re staying?”

“Why would he do that? What has one to do with the other?”

Her answer is a mantra; the same answer for all of these questions: You have no husband. This is how men are.

And this is it; because I’m unmarried (unclaimed? unprotected? unowned?) then any platonic relationship I have with a man where he does anything kind or cooperative for me must entail some sort of expectation of sex–a woman’s friendship, companionship, conversation, friendship is not enough, apparently unworthy in its own right–and I have no reasonable grounds to refuse without being a hypocrite.

“Why? Why don’t you have sex with any man who looks at you on the street? Why? I don’t understand the difference?”

And I too do not understand how you cannot understand.

Because if the concept comes down to claim and guardianship–you would not use the words “to own” but this is what it is– then with marriage comes the security of private property but without it, the sexually active woman is as public property: all have claim to her. It is a binary. There is no third choice.

Because too, I am not a virgin and don’t have this treasured virginity status to save for a husband,  then a man having sex with me if I’m less than willing does not take anything from me that I don’t already regularly give up–my honor and shame, for these are the only things tied to a sexual act that may be lost, by this reasoning, and they have already been lost. A non-virgin cannot prove that she was pure, cannot effectively be raped–this is not a novel idea or one that is uncommon, and it is utterly terrifying, and has been used as justification to abuse women.

I do not understand, too, how you cannot understand that when it is a woman probing and exploring without consent, administering a virginity test– that this is sexual assault, regardless of the girl’s virginity status, regardless of whether it is hands or tools doing the probing, regardless of whether it is a woman’s hands, regardless of anything and everything other than consent, consent, consent.

“But it was a woman. It was a woman, and she was a doctor. How could it be sexual assault? How?”

“Because it’s not about who is doing it, their gender, and how, or why–it’s about the will of the woman. Her will. Mine.”

And always I try to bring our talking around from the will of the man and the gain of the man and the obsession with honor and shame unfairly tied up into every cell of my body, to turn this discussion back to my own will, my own choices, my own decision. But it’s not even conceivable that as a woman I am gaining something too, joyfully and willingly, that I’m not just accepting and submitting, that women can engage in sex actively and proactively without it being about giving in to the desires of a man, that her own choice regarding the matter is the first word and the last.

And I wonder to myself–never out loud, never a question I can ask–what her own experience of sex might have been to make it so convincingly a matter of submission and duty to her rather than even potentially a willing joy. I wonder whether she recognizes that the way her discourse constantly turns about to the agency of men and their desires is insulting to them too. I wonder many things.

I pull my curtains back to let the day in as the night makes her sleepy on the other end, and we are tired as we set the matter to rest to talk about it another day–I don’t want to argue, I just want to talk, we say over and over again. And if only I could say every piece that is on my mind, because there is a world I must tuck away. Some of the days when I talk to her and tug the sash of my nightgown around my ribs and feel its rustle against my heart, I wish I could out myself, could even begin to talk about the girls I love, the girls who count as much as any boy does, the girls who nonetheless have no place within this entire ideology regarding sex and sexuality.

And even though I grew up around this mindset I get exhausted trying to understand it still.

-Marwa

PS: I’ve had some pretty wonderful external support lately. See my interview about wearing hijab over at the Huffington Post, and a re-blog of my piece on virginity tests hosted by the awesome Free Arabs community weblog.

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Ex-Hijabi Interviews and the Underrepresentation of Ex-Muslim Women

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[UPDATE: The Huffington Post has published the Ex-Hijabi interviews; find them HERE.]

A few weeks ago, Valerie Tarico, a psychologist, author, and journalist, released a piece in the Huffington Post entitled “Is the Hijab A Symbol of Diversity or a Symbol of Oppression?” While I was glad to finally see a mainstream media venue tackle the issue of the hijab in a different way–without being needlessly apologetic, pandering to the sensibilities of Muslims, and giving undue focus on the perspectives of those privileged enough to have had free choice regarding the hijab and only those perspectives–I was dismayed that no women were interviewed for the purposes of this article. No women, in a piece that was about the experiences of women who wore the Muslim veil and felt it to be oppressive. No women who had been Muslims, no women who had worn the hijab, no women who could speak for their own experiences. Instead, as the trend seems to be in mainstream media and even liberal and secular discourse, a man was consulted to speak about a woman’s experience to the exclusion of women.

I wrote to Ms Tarico offering to put her into contact with a plethora of ex-Muslim women with eclectic backgrounds and experiences to speak for themselves in future, including my dear friend Reem, whose experiences were referenced in the original article as an example of oppressive hijab without any direct input from her. Ms Tarico responded graciously by offering to provide extensive space for follow-up interviews with women who had worn the hijab for many years, to speak for themselves.

And here are the interviews with three ex-hijabis from various backgrounds–Heina Dadabhoy, Reem Abdel-Razek, and myself, speaking with care and thoughtfulness about our experiences with the hijab. And how wonderful it is that we have been given space, how unfortunate it is that we had to first point out that we were being spoken over instead of being the immediate, natural choices.

This is an essential matter for reasons beyond the obvious. To be clear, it is a wonderful thing that we have allies, friends, and supporters championing our causes to highlight and critique the circumstances that have structured our experiences. However, the status quo at the moment in mainstream media has those voices largely overpowering ours when it comes to speaking about our experiences. Despite the fact that this is less than ideal for powerful, effective critique. Why give space to secondary sources when people with more insight and knowledge are easily accessible and readily available to speak for themselves? People who have lived knowledge of the intricacies of the power-privilege and honor-shame dynamics of the societies in question, who were intimately involved in the very religious systems that are being scrutinized? Women are often the greatest sufferers under Islam, and our experiences can be very difficult to adequately imagine and capture indeed. Why forgo the opportunity to let us tell the powerful, compelling, sometimes unbelievable stories of our lives and our critiques of them? Especially when so many of us are so incredibly intelligent and articulate when it comes to these matters. To be clear, secondary sources are a strong asset to support and champion our own–but when they are magnified to our exclusion, there is something quite amiss going on.

Especially, since, as seems to be the case, the positions we are attempting to critique do not fall into the same negligence of representation. There seem to be a plethora of Muslim women  in popular mainstream media venues within the last two years alone who are represented concerning Muslim feminism, their empowering choice to wear the hijab,  how they resist being appropriated or misrepresented, how they are not oppressed, how they do not need Western feminism and do not need to be liberated, and the injustices they suffer as Muslims in the West.

It is odd that, in attempt to critique many of those positions as hardly representative of Muslim experience and grossly unfair in their depiction of the goals of “Western” feminism, there is a dearth of representation of these women’s ex-Muslim counterparts. It is incredibly easy for people to then turn around and discount these critiques. And they have, and do, saying (again, within the last two years, in popular mainstream media venues) that the critique of Islam and of Muslim oppression is nothing more than white Western feminists, especially white men, speaking in ignorant, petty ways on behalf of people and cultures they insist on viewing with Western eyes, that the privileged white spokesmen of New Atheism are promoting anti-Muslim hate and bigotry, that white men  are being exploitative in their support for Muslim woman activists, that white people have savior complexes regarding Muslim women, and that white Westerners are reducing problems of violence to religious influence and telling lies about religious-based oppression, as this white Western woman ironically argues.

Yuuuppp…

Now imagine if the largest liberal platform regarding this issue was given to Ex-Muslims, who are largely people of color who were socialized and lived enmeshed lives in Muslim-majority countries and societies, who have the requisite knowledge and experience to discuss these matters in informed ways, who are far less likely to fall into mistaken generalizations. Who also cannot be easily discounted as ignorant appropriators–who have incisive, eloquent critiques to give about being marginalized, who refuse to be swept aside using the No True Muslim fallacy. Who will not stand to have their legitimacy to speak about their own lives challenged without powerful retort.

Imagine that mainstream news and media venues normalized our voices. Imagine that BBC’s wonderful interview with British Ex-Muslims leaving the faith was joined by other such endeavors.  Imagine that the wonderful Ali Rizvi was not Huffington Post’s only regular ex-Muslim contributor, and that the often-represented Ex-Muslim ally Faisal Al Mutar was joined by a plethora of other voices who lived Muslim experiences of many varieties, especially those of women. Imagine that Ex-Muslim voices were considered legitimate and acceptable, to the extent that everyday Ex-Muslim writers are no longer kidnapped and jailed and threatened with death. Imagine that uber-famous critiquers from Muslim backgrounds such as Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali did not face disproportionate amounts of danger and threat for simply speaking out.

Imagine if, for instance, Kiran‘s pieces were giving a place in mainstream media: she’s gathered testimonies in 7 parts highlighting the powerful voices of 17 ex-Muslim women–who else has published anything like that? And one of the contributors was a transwoman, and how happy I was to hear her speak about her experiences of being nullified by Islam when I had heard nothing of the sort from anyone else before. Imagine if mainstream venues highlighted those 17 women’s voices and their brave testimonies were not left in obscurity.

Kiran also weighs in on the UK gender segregation uproar with incisive critique, providing the perspective of an ex-Muslim who cannot be accused of being a white Western appropriator of brown peoples’ struggles, representing a side that has been continually silenced in that discussion, which pretends that brown people, Muslims, and Ex-Muslims were not part of the anti-segregation movement and protest, painting it as a movement of white feminism. She also evaluates criticisms of so-called white exploitation of Malala Yousafzai in a careful, nuanced manner. How wonderful would it be if an ex-Muslim woman’s voice was added to the white voices and the Muslim voices weighing in on these issues in mainstream media?

Or Reem, who grew up between Saudi Arabia and Egypt and has a strong feminist voice and speaks to her own undeniable experiences of religious-based victimization with articulate candor. What if a mainstream media venue made space for Reem to talk about the religious influences of sexual violence in Egypt, as she does here and here, instead of devoting the entire space to a back-and-forth between Muslims and Western feminists arguing over Joyce Carol Oates’ tweets on the matter?

Or EXMNA blogger 1GodlessWoman, a Saudi medical doctor who powerfully tells the story of her horrific experiences in the Kingdom–imagine she was given space to weigh in on the perpetual conversation on how oppressed or empowered Saudi women are that is rolling and rolling and rolling in mainstream media with few contributions from Saudi women speaking of the injustices they have been dealt.

Imagine, in all the discussion about white feminism, intersectionality, the hijab, body image, and brownness, Heina Dadabhoy, the hilarious woman of color who grew up overweight and Muslim in America, was given space for her candid discussions of body image and being fat, adding on to the conversation of what the hijab does and does not do to brown bodies and fat bodies, what brownness does and does not do to fat bodies in mainstream media. Imagine too that her Skeptic’s Guide to Islam, written from the inside perspective of a former practicing Muslim, became a landmark text on the subject.

Imagine that in addition to all the personal blogging in mainstream media venues about being a Muslim woman and a parent, and a student, and a teacher, and a person of varying professions and experiences, space was given to Sam I Am’s awesome blogs about Parenting Beyond Islam. Imagine then that Ex-Muslim lives with their everyday, normal paraphernalia were normalized and humanized, that we too were seen as contributors to society, as educators, parents, part of the fabric of the places in which we live.

Such diversity of experience already there, and so much more potential hidden.

Imagine that the dozens of other ex-Muslim women that I alone know, many closeted, anonymous, marginalized, were able to speak of their rich, varying experiences. Including the amazing ladies with their whip-crackingly spot-on critiques at Muslim and Ex-Muslim Women for Secularism.  Imagine we were allowed to demonstrate that what we say about the dearth of discourse surrounding direct Muslim acknowledgement of religious-related suffering is due to a dangerous, active silencing of the apostate voice. Imagine these women were sought out and given assurances of safety and fair representation–I feel like so many of our voices would blossom. I wish I could see more of us discussing what it’s like to be trans and queer while Muslim too. That’s a subject that as a queer woman even I, outspoken as I am, have been afraid and hesitant to do more than touch upon.

How powerful would the movement aimed at reform, commentary and critique of Islam become when the most incisive and relevant voices are sought out and highlighted in addition to secondary sources?

See, EXMNA is a movement that is very conscious of equal representation of women and making space for the voices of strong, diverse thinkers. In their own time, using their own personal resources, its members have created space for these voices, building among other projects an entire blog network devoted to the Ex-Muslim voice. The Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain also publishes pieces on its own Twitter Blogs. But these will remain obscure platforms until the work showcased there is normalized and enters its proper place in conversations regarding the very people and experiences that are not consulted.

Imagine too, that secular, freethought, and skeptic venues make the wonderful move of giving more space for the Ex-Muslim voice especially in equally representing women. Already there are have been many steps taken for our support, and we are very grateful. Shout-out here to the atheist organization representatives and thinkers who met with Ex-Muslims to offer help last September in Washington DC. The Center for Inquiry has been especially active in promoting the Ex-Muslim voice. Shout out here to Hemant Mehta of The Friendly Atheist and Dan Fincke of Camels and Hammers on Patheos Atheist for repeatedly sharing/promoting my work and the Ex-Muslims of North America, as well as to the multiple bloggers on the Freethought Blogs network who have also reblogged my work or hosted me as a guest-blogger. Shout-out to the FtB network for recently adding an Ex-Muslim atheist blogger to their network–*waves at* Kaveh Mousavi. Shout-out to PZ Myers for promoting EXMNA and interviewing one of its cofounders, Sarah Haider. Shout out to my former professor and continuing mentor Daniel Dennett for continuing to support and share my work. Shout-out to the multiple bloggers on the FtB who have repeatedly discussed the problem of silenced critique of Islam, especially Ophelia Benson and Alex Gabriel. Shout out to The Atheist Nomads for that awesome podcast with EXMNA leaders (one man, one woman, Ah yisss equal representation) Muhammad and Sadaf. Shout-out to the Centre for Secular Space for repeatedly hosting the guest-blogs of atheist feminist Reem Abdel Razek–this very small organization has promoted women’s voices with greater dedication relative to its size than most popular mainstream secular venues. And all those who I’ve failed to mention. You’re doing things right, but this is just the beginning.

Imagine instead of filling up erstwhile and guest spaces within the skeptic movement, we became an integral part of it, regular, established contributors to it. Imagine too, that within those guest representations of our voices, there was greater striving to fairly and equally represent us, especially in terms of gender. Imagine if, when you are an atheist venue creating a (pretty awesome) podcast called “I Am An Ex-Muslim” that you try to do better than representing one woman* to four men, one of them not an Ex-Muslim (although these men exhibited bravery and eloquence–I salute you, especially my “boss” and colleague Muhammad Syed of EXMNA, who totally rocked it).

Imagine if atheist and secular organizations allocated some sponsorship and funding to promoting Ex-Muslim organizations, who provide a rich network of many powerful voices, over continuously endorsing only isolated individuals within the movement.

Imagine that within atheist/skeptic blog networks, Ex-Muslim blogs were given a little bit more space as minorities, and within those Ex-Muslim blogs, men and women were equally represented. Imagine if, in addition to the 20 blogs that Patheos Atheist already hosts, there was even one Ex-Muslim one. Imagine if among the 36 Freethought Blogs, more than four were blogs belonging to people from Muslim backgrounds, and more than three regularly focused on Ex-Muslim issues (the very recent addition of Kaveh’s blog and the 2:2 women-to-men ratio here should be noted; it’s much progress, but I insist not enough). Imagine if the only women represented from Muslim backgrounds, Taslima Nasreen and Maryam Namazie, did not need to be famous and have incredibly impressive credentials to qualify when many, many other Freethought Bloggers are considered worthy with modest resumes and great writing. Imagine if secular websites and podcasts interviewed more of our voices–so many of them already do such a great job with interviewing Faisal Al Mutar, who is one such voice with powerful experiences, but unfortunately only one such voice.

Clearly, we bear responsibility as well for trying to make ourselves heard, and we must continue to reach out, to email people we think should know about us and represent us, to follow up on those opportunities, to collect testimony, to band together, to write, write, write and read, read, read. And we do–on our own time, at our own expense. We do not have sponsors or funding. We build these websites and write these words on our own time, with no payment, while simultaneously struggling with the challenges of apostasy. We are trying to network and make ourselves more known. But the onus is also on journalists and concerned organizations who claim to be concerned with our cause and want to support it to make adequate effort to be ethical and thorough–to find the most relevant voices to speak for their own experiences–a simple Google search reveals many Ex-Muslim writers and bloggers, many of whom are women–and not continue to only represent the most well-known ones even if those voices happen to be secondary to the topic at hand.

Imagine all the possibilities.

Don’t forget to read the ex-hijabi interviews, which we hope will be picked up soon by a mainstream venue. Warmest of wishes.

-Marwa

*full disclosure: I was originally contacted to potentially be part of this podcast, but I had to follow up several times to get replies, stressing the importance of representation for women. After an interview time was suggested and I agreed upon it, the offer was retracted and I was told that there were already enough interviews recorded, though my colleague at EXMNA was in fact contacted and interviewed after mine was cancelled. I was given the offer to write a letter to be read on air instead, which I fully admit I did not manage to complete in the two days before the show aired (I was not followed-up with concerning the air date of the podcast). Even if I had appeared on the show, that still would have made the ratio 2 women to 4 men, which is pretty weak.

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Virginity Tests and the People of the Internet

People are obsessed with women’s virginity. AND HOW, are they obsessed. And it’s fucking disheartening. I wrote a blog post about the time I was tested for virginity and because of that, the highest single search term to lead people to my blog ever is “virginity test”. Multiple times more than any combinations of my name, my blog’s title, or Ex-Muslim related terms. And I’ve blogged about a shitton of things. Because for some reason people are so obsessed with a piece of tissue and with invading the bodies of women to make sure it’s intact that they google how to conduct virginity test. This is equivalent to googling how to rape someone, how to assault them, how to stab them. What the fuck, fucking fuck fuck fuck the fuck off are you fucking kidding me? There are a lot of really weird things that people google–it’s the internet–but nothing comes up with this strange sort of obsessive frequency.

I’ve compiled a screenshot list of all the search terms of my blog in the past month–the past 30 days alone. The stuff in red are virginity test related things. The green and purple things are general WTF strange and sad things, respectively. Enjoy (or not).

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oh, also!!!! Here’s a screenshot of what you get when you google “virginity test”. My blog post is hit no. 4. What an honor :/

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-Marwa

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What it is like to be an Ex-Muslim woman

Life and love post-hijab…

…wherein also I reveal a bunch of my faces

[Content Note: Body image, dissociation, mental illness, also small spoiler from Disney’s Frozen]

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Some nights, I wish for remnants of that old Muslim self who governed her body with unwavering direction, powerful in her command of the movements of her hands, her legs, her body, teaching herself how to play a perfect role, to stay observably in line no matter what injustices rattled her insides. To keep form, to protect herself. She had undeniable discipline, believably forcing her body through rituals and routines repugnant to her spirit but necessary for her survival.

I thought, when I moved to the United States, that this discipline would redeem me, this ability for incredible control cultivated through years of mistakes and violent punishment and learning, that it would help me build a new life of strength, fortitude. I did not expect to discover that this incredible control I had over my expressions, my movements, my very line of vision was as fragile as it seemed strong, dissipating almost immediately when there was no longer need to suppress myself. I let my body go, in many ways. In giving myself an inch to feel, make moves, to feel, to try out new experiences, to feel, to touch, to taste, to run, to feel— I took ten thousand miles: of the wind, the rain, the sun that I drank into all the parts of my skin.

Have you seen Frozen? This 25 year old academic with a master’s degree cried watching Queen Elsa let loose and make an ice fortress on a mountaintop, reveling in the power and magic and splendor of a body newly freed from a lifetime of isolation and suppression, a lifetime of having to control and limit that body and the feelings that moved it, to negate her own self only because others thought her body was too dangerous and threatening to be free.

Who would have thought a Disney movie could perfectly encapsulate what it is like to be a Muslim woman who escapes the suppression and bodily control of the hijab and its behavior codes?

A woman who must then learn anew how to understand, direct, and connect with her body in healthy and healing ways. Ah.

I’ve written so much about the experiences and challenges I’ve faced growing up in a conservative Muslim society in the Middle East—the repression, the bodily control, the lack of privacy or self-determination, the dehumanization, the physical abuse, the kidnapping, imprisonment, all of it. In doing so I’ve only touched upon and hinted at what it can be like to try to build a life after all of this, after a lifetime of this—to salvage a sense of self, a wholeness of being, to pick up the pieces of this person bound up so tight that she has cracked and splintered in a thousand and one places—

and I decided to try to write about it tonight. Tonight has been another night of this  struggle, one of what I term my “badbrains” days, shrouded in blurriness of spirit and an unsettling disconnect from this body that was, in my years of Islam, perpetually hidden as an object, made invisible, whose worth was thoroughly negated time and again.

It is true that I now own my body in ways I always should have had and was never given the right to. It is true that I’ve had some time and space to adjust—I’ve been in the US for about a year and a half now, and am surrounded by supportive and loving people, people of great wisdom and understanding. But still, I find that these challenges of self-making take up most of my thought and energy, and have led me to make drastic life changes, including quitting my job teaching college to attempt to make a living doing freelance work in the safety and flexibility of my own home instead, just to safeguard my health from the stress of academia. This struggle is borne too, I think, by many people who for a plethora of reasons feel hostile in their own bodies, but I’ve noticed that it is one that many of my Ex-Muslim sisters contend with post-Islam, and can trace its effects to the smothering influence of bodily regulation inherent in many Muslim codes of living.

There is hardly a time in my memory when my body has not been shrouded in the loose, flowing clothing of the conservative form of hijab espoused by my culture. I started wearing it when I was a child of 8, and wore it for fifteen years. I’ve written about this before, but inherent in wearing  the hijab in my family’s from of Islam was a behavioral code of modest bodily interaction and conduct, even at home, that hypersexualized and shamed my body and at the same time suppressed and made my body invisible, all beyond the obscuring nature of the wide, loose clothing. I never learned to think of my body as perceivable, my own thing that I could love and take pride in, whose appearance and style I could control and create for myself; ever it was meant to be hidden away, unadorned, insignificant, unnoticeable, worthy only for the restricted use of others.

And now, I’m consistently hyperaware of it.

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I obsessively adjust my clothes and touch my hair and skin in public, certain that there is something terribly amiss with these ways in which I am presenting my body. I watch everyone around me very closely, and notice that, even with the body-shaming misogyny that structures many American cultures, nobody does the same obsessive self-checking with anything resembling comparable frequency. I recognize that I am still out of touch with the reality of being an actually visible human subject, one who interacts and can interact with others. I have never dressed my body to be visible and have rather tried my best to obscure it with cloth. Beginning to play dress-up as an adult, it is hard for me to assess whether I’m wearing something incredibly trashy and ugh or just showing a normal amount of skin. I feel like everyone can see through my obvious discomfort with my body and my ignorance regarding how to dress it.

And it does feel like playing dress-up, without even the redeeming quality of being a curious, exploring child reveling in discoveries and choosing what she wants for herself. It is hard to feel like a person; I feel like I am aping, like a literal ape playing dress up, like there is some weird human secret to choosing clothes and learning how to do my hair and put on makeup and how does nailpolish work? and the whole experience of learning these processes that twelve year olds can run cycles through in their bedrooms with their similarly not-adept girlfriends. I feel like the best I can muster is a crude imitation—although I have developed tastes and opinions, and on some level believe they reflect some part of my self—I love bright colors and curling, fluttering patterns and vintage styles and cute, quirky shoes, shoes, shoes, and smoky eye makeup and plum lipstick shades and feel like green, blue and purple bring out the creaminess of my Mediterranean skin

—yet even in writing these words a deeper, hesitant part of me wonders if all of these opinions are a joke, a sign of me desperately trying to be normal and at the same time trying to figure out what my own style is, because these opinions seem to change with the seasons, and I am so inexperienced and so young, and none of it feels like it belongs with this body that I haven’t even fully understood how to claim as my own.

Some days, I am incredibly self-conscious of my hair—so foreign in its curly, puffy unruliness but also thinning and torn-up from gods-know what combination of hair-pulling and bad water and genetics and binding under scarves. On those days I feel like I cannot stand to have it seen, and I tie it up in a scarf—the same scarves I used as hijabs for years—and carefully arrange the ripples and folds of it, and walk out of this house. And it is not my head, my hair, it is not me—it is a sad, broken creature who keeps playing at emulating the concerns of those who have always had the privilege of connecting to and choosing their bodily appearance, because she can neither manage her own comfortable style nor the “normal” clothes (what my partner Jame ironically dubs “white girl clothes”) in this place where slim, hipster-y white bodies are normalized, where her curves are beacons of both shame and orientalist desire—ah.

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These are familiar issues, I think, to what many women face for having their bodies torn down, shamed, and dehumanized. Women of color, women with eating disorders, women whose bodies have been mistreated in a plethora of ways, women whose bodies have been denied as the bodies of women—and they do not boil down to an antsy inability to feel comfortable in a certain style, with certain clothes—it’s not about belts and hats and colors and skirts. It’s about an inability to feel whole or connected to your body, the very vessel that is not a separate thing but that really is you.

And to be clear, this description is one of self-perception, a disconnect between my sense of self and my body and my ability to connect myself to other people—I full well recognize that to most of those around me, my discomfort and strangeness and ineptitude are often nearly imperceptible, and are only magnified as broken parts in my own mind. I have the good fortune to be what is considered conventionally attractive, gender-conforming, and cisgendered. While I am not thin, I have an hourglass figure and secondary sexual characteristics that are not only socially accepted but applauded.  I am also pale enough to be able to sometimes pass as white.

All of these things are matters of privilege that make it so that my actual social interactions are very probably more often than not absolutely conforming, even if people can instinctively sense an underlying strangeness that makes them pause. It is also possible to learn behaviors, of course, and I have learned to go through the motions of the behaviors that make passing possible. But the problem is not one ofa functioning exterior, but of a broken interior, a struggle to hold parts of myself together in a cohesive, internally functioning way. It is a problem born of over two decades of dehumanization and tearing down, and the willpower and discipline that my former Muslim self once had in keeping herself in good form is now clear to me a symptom of brokenness, nothing more than swaying willingly into puppeteer strings, an inevitable circumstance of mere existence, and not a healthy build-up of fortitude or strength. It hardly allows me to hold up a veneer over my shattered parts.

It took some time to learn so much about myself. When I first moved to the US, I was almost giddy in trying out new tastes and smells and touches and experiencing a world of things ever-forbidden, always demonized, glorying in my ability to say and do and be and touch and want and love. It took a while for me to learn moderation, control, and I made many mistakes. But the numbing thrills of newfound freedom could not sustain me for very long, and soon my body began to finally let itself feel the damage of years and years of isolation and control. I developed PTSD, my always-cycling depression came back with renewed strength, and I began to regularly fight nightmares, paranoia, and delusions. I live a very quiet, almost hermited life now, leaving my house very rarely, finding it difficult to make and sustain meaningful connections, trying to find a place of healing and wholeness within myself before going back to expanding my repertoire of external experiences with greater care and more wisdom.

Sometimes I go to social events with colleagues and friends, but still I carry with me this fundamental discomfort with the fact that I even have a visible body and I don’t even know what to fucking do with all these parts of it. I still often feel that I am not a person, and I am only imitating things that people do and the ways they move. Before I quit my teaching job six weeks ago, the dissociation was incredibly strong, because I’d be basically be standing in front a room of cynical undergrads, most of them teenagers still, for an hour at a time with 20-odd pairs of eyes on me and imagine that they could see right through me and the scorn I felt myself to be receiving totally undermined my authoritative confidence. And I love teaching; it broke my heart to quit for health reasons.  I work from home now, fortunate enough to have skills in demand for freelance work, and to be able to translate and transcribe interesting and compelling research on all sorts of philosophical and literary topics. I also get plenty of loving, human interaction with my partner, who I live with. I goto therapy every week, as well, fortunate enough to have accessible healthcare available to me, and I am healing. I am growing. But I wonder how many other people surviving extreme trauma and dehumanization do not have the ability to create their own flexible working environment on their own time (are they even fortunate enough to secure a job with fixed hours?) and access to healthcare. I have online conversations with members of my Ex-Muslim community and their struggles are resonant, palpable—struggles with living a double life, bearing the stigma of apostasy, building renewed lives post-religious suppression and trauma. Just tonight we had a long thread talking about our bodies and the ways they have been suppressed and controlled, and the dissociation that stems from it.

The dissociation is not only a personal bodily one; it is one of self-to-self interaction, stemming also from a lifetime of control regarding intimate and friendly interactions with others, especially those of the opposite sex. Shaming, punishment, extreme restriction. Because I am queer, this starvation of social interaction has extended to how I perceive my ability to interact with women as well, and there is hardly a time when I’m in public attempting to conduct conversations that involve understandings of social mores and acceptable boundaries when I’m not riddled with extreme anxiety and perpetually afraid that there is some deep flaw of personhood that everyone can see, as plain as an ink blotch onmy face and that everyone politely ignores. It runs so deep that I feel myself at a loss to find common ground with those around me—the issues my mind is caught up with—issues of suffering, oppression, control, abuse, survival, creating ten thousand rules and fidgets and systems and mechanisms for myself in order to keep myself treading water above the clinging darkness of depression and PTSD, mental illness and nightmares and paranoia—

—and  I look up at the wedge of lemon glinting in someone’s Long Island ice tea as they casually discuss the material they are interested in teaching the next semester. How can such a sea of concern be bridged? How can such self-absorption with one’s own pain and the lingering tastes of a trudging, worm-like life be overcome in such a moment, to open your lips and give a coherent opinion on poetics, to make eye contact and be more than an empty self as you try to acknowledge the personhood of this smart, sensible, empathetic human being staring at this body of yours that you feel you are barely tethered to, floating away, away, away from…

hold on.

-Marwa

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ExMuslim Women Bear Witness for International Women’s Day

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Happy International Women’s Day,  everyone! For the occasion, my friends and colleagues from the Ex-Muslims of North America have been working very hard to create a powerful, moving compilation of Ex-Muslim’s women’s voices, a category of voices often hidden, marginalized,  and discounted. Read their words about how they view their self-worth and self-image post- Islam, the ways they were made to feel inferior,  poignant messages to their former Muslim selves, and much more.  These testimonies are strong, hopeful,  articulate,  and heartbreaking.

I can hardly express how moving and validating it is to see women who used to and still do live in silence,  fear,  and oppression be given a platform to speak for themselves.  I’m incredibly honored as well to have been included among these voices, and am working on a few more projects enabling the voices of women from Muslim backgrounds; stay tuned.

Here are some of my favorite lines from the testimonies.  Do read the whole thing;  it has many parts and is wonderful.

“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.” – Noura

“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.” – Taslima

” 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.” – Maha

“As a Muslim girl, one of the most traumatic experiences, that troubled my heart, nearly broke my spirit, made me ashamed of my female body, my female self, was that notorious saying of Muhammad standing on the footsteps of hell and proclaiming that most of the screams, and burning flesh were that of women. I asked my 12 year old self, what is it about women that makes her more deceitful, more disloyal to her god and his messenger than her brothers? Why did I have to be born within such a lascivious group? What a curse! Why does god damn some for eternity and endlessly reward others?” – Nandi

“We are treated like children. We are objects that are carried from our parents to our husbands. Why would we want to have our own careers, our own lives if someone else can take care of us? I’m luckier than most in that I’m allowed a university education. It was only recently when I realized that my education was not intended for me. It was to impress the future suitors because who would ever want a wife that didn’t have an education?” -Anon1

” I was thinking recently, that I never felt human living in Saudi Arabia, or under Islam. Nor was I ever treated like one. It is nice now to experience being human and to be able to exercise the rights given to me as one. Also, I never really understood why what I did with my vagina and having an intact hymen was everyone and their uncle’s business but mine. As a woman, this most private part of me actually never belonged to me. My mother once caught me masturbating. She placed a large spoon of Tabasco sauce in my mouth then locked me in the balcony under the Saudi hot sun for 2 hours. I remember crying and licking the walls trying to get the pain in mouth to settle… Till this day I cannot look or taste nor do I own any type of hot sauce. This was a frequent punishment for any sexual ‘deviance’ acts I committed as young girl.” – Iman

” 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.” -Z

And so much more. Read their words and be moved. I know I am.

– Marwa

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Share your story: Voices of ExMuslim Women: Solidarity on International Women’s Day

EDIT: Happy International Women’s Day! The project is up. Choice excerpts here and the whole 7-part compilation here.

The voices of women are underrepresented in the secular community as a whole, and especially among representations of ExMuslims. In an effort to make our voices and stories heard, here is an exciting new project:

The Ex-Muslims of North America is compiling testimonies from women who have left Islam for International Women’s Day on March 8.

For this, Kiran over at EXMNA would like to compile a list of testimonies that are uniquely from the POV of Ex-Muslim women. The post will go up on ExMuslimBlogs.com as a collective effort. It will be called “Voices of Ex-Muslim Women: Solidarity on International Women’s Day” and it will be about connecting our stories and our lessons with the experiences of other women from Muslim backgrounds who are victims of Islam or Islamist cultural norms. It will be about sharing what you have learned as an Ex-Muslim woman with others who are either still questioning or are deep in the closet about their doubts and apostasy.

Anonymity will be protected if so desired. If you’d like to be part of this, please email your entries to [email protected]

Here are some questions you can choose to use as inspiration (or just post your own thing if you’d like):

– 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?

– What are some parts of Islam (scripture or practices) that made you feel inferior as a woman?

– What do you wish you could tell your former Muslim self?

– What do you wish women who have never been Muslim would understand about your experiences of being Exmuslim?

– What are the privileges you do NOT have as an Exmuslim woman that you did have as a Muslim woman? (e.g. speaking openly about your beliefs, etc.)

– What are the privileges you DO have as an Exmuslim woman that you did not have as a Muslim woman?

I’ve already read many of the submissions and they are resonant, articulate, heartbreaking, beautiful, and need to be heard. Consider adding your voice. This will be posted on March 7 so keep the deadline in mind. Again, entries should be sent to [email protected]

Thank you!

-Marwa