A Couple of Comings-Out

I’d just like to quickly announce two things that have come out today that I am quite excited about.

The first is my appearance in the American Humanist Association’s Humanist Hour alongside Muhammad Syed, Director of Operations of the Ex-Muslims of North America. We talk at length about being ex-Muslim, creating community, and challenges, struggles, and misapprehensions facing Muslim-majority countries and communities today. We talk about interfaith interplay in Muslim-majority countries, about anti-Muslim bigotry and apologism preventing critique of Islam, how both of those manifest, why and how they both need to be resisted, and more. Check out the podcast here:


The second is a little personal. Not many of my readers know this, but in my personal and professional life, I was a writer and editor of fiction before I started getting into the sort of literary-narrative nonfiction critique I do in this blog project. Today I have a short story out in The Kenyon Review, one of the world’s leading literary journals, and I’m bursting with pride. The story takes place in my hometown Beirut and explores Muslim-Christian tensions surrounding a rape. Enjoy:



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Calling All Closeted Ex-Muslims Forced to Fast During Ramdan

The following is a message from Kiran Opal, Editor, ExMuslimBlogs.com – Twitter @KiranOpal:

There is still one day left to share your story. During Ramadan, many people from Muslim backgrounds are under immense pressure to avoid eating food or drinking water from the break of dawn till sunset. This can mean up to 19 hours of not eating or drinking. Those who believe in Islam and believe this is required of them may do this of their own choice, but for many, many Muslims who have doubts about Islamic teachings, and those who no longer believe in Islam (Ex-Muslims), Ramadan is a time when they suffer from hunger and thirst NOT out of their own choice, but because their families and Muslim communities often pressure them into it. Many such people end up being forced to lie, and hide food and water from their families. They are forced to drink and eat in secret, as if it were a crime. In fact, in some Muslim majority countries it IS now a crime to eat or drink during Ramadan.

Those Muslims and Ex-Muslims who are forced to fast during Ramadan do not have a voice in the public yet. My goal is to create a space for them to have that voice be heard. This is why I initiated this project, and I am inviting all Ex-Muslims and questioning Muslims who are forced or pressured to fast/starve/stay hungry or thirsty against their choice, to take part in this project.

Please see this link for more information: http://www.exmuslimblogs.com/mehfileskeptics/blog/2014/07/08/calling-closeted-ex-muslims-forced-fast-ramadan

You can send in your responses to the questions there (or write your own piece) by end of day 16 July 2014 to be included in the upcoming piece. The compilation piece including many voices from different people will be published on ExMuslimBlogs.com soon.

Yes, I’d like some Baklawa…but only if you insist: Why saying ‘Yes’ is shameful and saying ‘No’ is insulting


I have a very distinct early memory of the first time somebody didn’t say ‘No’ when they really meant ‘Yes.’ I’m not talking about a sexual context, either.

We were still in Saudi Arabia, and I had one of my friends over for dinner. When my mother offered her seconds, my friend said ‘Yes, please.’

I was startled, even taken aback, at those two little words, so accustomed was I to the sacred ritualistic exchange: “No, no…” and “I insist, you must,” and “I really can’t” and “I’ll be very sad if you don’t” and “All right then…it looks delicious.”

I knew the process well from the perspective of the guest; I’d followed the ritual closely time and time again during afternoon visits with my mother, sitting on living room couches as aunties offered trays of goodies. I’d always say no first even though my stomach was growling and I knew I wanted that piece of baklawa or cake that was being offered to me. Why? Because it was polite. Because otherwise I’d be thought a greedy, rude, presumptive little girl who did not know how to respect the hospitality being given to her.

It had exasperated me but never confused me before the night my friend so casually said ‘Yes, please’ and I wondered why accepting hospitality was at odds with respecting hospitality. I had to process my feelings about it. There was so much going on!

I realized that I had been trained to feel–and in fact did feel– a sort of blaming negativity towards my friend for saying Yes, she really did want seconds, that–at least for a moment–I viewed her as the disrespectful greedy little girl my mother so often warned me from being.

Why? It was clear to me that both I and my mother wanted her to take what we offered, that in fact it might be an insult to our hospitality, cooking, and generosity of spirit if she ultimately refused. So why the game in which she must demur and we must insist and she must reconsider and eventually be wheedled into admitting something that she may have felt all along? What was so wrong in saying she wanted something?

And, more interestingly, why did my friend seem so oblivious to these rules, so quiet and sure in what she wanted without exhibiting any shame for it?

I later chalked it up to her having an American mother, because I learned from my limited experience with Americans that they did not offer you food or a ride unless they truly wanted to give them, and did not expect people to say No unless they really meant it, and that they’d take your words at face value if you said No and not offer again.

Such a simplistic conception of American culture was later shattered as I realized that there were strikingly similar parallels with hospitality in various conservative and/or Southern US cultures. I also realized just how many situations there were where girls shouldn’t or couldn’t say they wanted to do A Thing that was somehow Not For Them, or that held some shame for a woman. I learned that sex and womanhood were treated with different standards than hospitality, where there is an entire culture of expectation surrounding the games of playing hard to get, saying No at first to mean ‘try harder’, of women shamed for admitting they wanted things that were assumed to be not for them, concepts that the clothing and appearance of a dissenting person might indicate that they really, secretly want “it” despite their words–in short, a culture where shaming consent and ignoring non-consent is normalized in various ways–but only in some contexts.

What is it, I’ve been wondering, about some forms of American culture, that makes it okay to say ‘Yes’ when you mean it and take ‘No’ at face value in the contexts of hospitality but not in the contexts of sexuality? Why is there such shame attached to a woman who admits she wants sex, why such flippancy towards a statement such as ‘No, I’m not interested?’, and why do those two things interplay in such a way that if a woman has sex and wants it sometimes that makes her less credible when she refuses it with other people or at other times?

Here are some broad cultural differences I’ve been thinking of as potentially related: America is a place where general self-sufficiency is prized, where taking charity is often full of shame and stigma and never a virtue, and where individualism is heralded as a sort of master value.  In the Arab world, in contrast, being dependent in various ways is prized, taking help extended to you, as long as it follows the correct ritual, does not bear the stigma of shame and is in fact expected, as it honors those who extend their generosity, and, for men, supporting your family, being in a dominant parental or familial role, and giving to charity is a consistent marker of the same virtues of hospitality and generosity prized so much.

It’s also generally true, I noted, that the same things are often markers of deficiency or shame when women do it, implying the lack of a male presence to take on those proper roles. In short, in Arab culture there is a sort of undercurrent that– although you are expected to refuse at first in order to not seem greedy or disrespectful–you must, yes, you must, be open to receiving what others seek to ‘give’ you in various ways circumscribed by rule or law, without ever acknowledging that you really want those things.

Regardless, in fact, of whether you actually do. That’s what I missed when I was a little girl thinking over this problem–I wondered why it was so horrible to say you wanted a piece of cake if someone offered it to you. I didn’t realize that you would be both obliged to say No even if you meant Yes…but also eventually say Yes even if you meant No…that many, many times people ended up eating an extra bit of something even if they really were too full or didn’t actually like it, for fear of insulting their hosts. I realized, too, that accepting food out of politeness would later, for a woman, come to be at odds with remaining trim enough to be desirable, a worthy match…and thus a further dimension of tension would ensue, where mothers and aunties would tsk and say just this once, and do you really want to be eating that? in tension with the hosts’ insistence. And even later on I’d come to realize that women were, in various ways, expected to say Yes to things they did not like or want all the time, including marital choices, career choices, bodily choices, clothing choices..all the way down to the sexual advances of their husbands, as a matter of course.

In short, neither consent nor nonconsent is even a relevant consideration for all these things. (See my post about Sex and Virginity for more about that side of this issue).

And oh, what a horrendously destructive set of values these are, that have ultimately worked towards silencing and marginalizing women and children, forcing them to be dependent and choice-less, and hashing those things as virtues.

How dare you refuse what someone is so generous to offer? How dare you not want what is given with such magnanimity?

And if you do want it…how daring, bold, and without shame you must be to admit it!

And what an almost unnavigable double-bind it is, to find yourself in a place where your own desires must be neutralized in favor of the desires of those under whose power you are–under their roof, under their employment, under their provision, and where you simultaneously must not express personal affinity with those desires.

One of the real-life stories that struck me the most from the novel  Girls of Riyadh when I read it was Sadeem’s, whose husband divorces her after she has sex with him before their official move-in, because he thinks she must be lacking all virtue to have welcomed him into her body so easily. It reflected to me how often women and girls are told to show shame, to have shame, to have haya, even about those things that were lawful or permissible: sex with your husband, eating food…no, we are told to look down, to not show that we like or enjoy it…otherwise, we suffer consequences.

And it’s true, I realized–it is viewed as only natural when men eat heartily, desire sex, or speak forcefully–in the most literal of ways, with the divisions of gender roles in Muslim-majority cultures appealing to the so-called ‘natural’ differences between men and women. Very ‘boys-will-be-boys’-esque, very much reinforcing damaging myths about dominant intellect in men that naturally inclines them towards choosing, speaking, and leading, myths about the prominence and uncontrollable nature of male desire and how  those ‘needs’ pose a sort of privilege and right to women’s bodies, myths about the natural ‘weakness’ of men in resisting the wiles, charms, and temptations of the female body, myths about men needing more space, more food naturally because of their bodies…myths that are not reciprocated because women are not constructed in the same manner, do not have the same abilities, desires, and needs…

No wonder our cultural norms train women to have haya, to have shame, to neither tempt nor acknowledge ever being tempted, to neither resist the will of others nor exhibit our own will…because heaven forbid we view women as people with agency, desires, and needs.

No wonder we say ‘No’ because it is shameful to say ‘Yes’, then say ‘Yes’ because it’s insulting to refuse…


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Why you should contribute to Reem Abdel-Razek’s campaign today

UPDATE: Thanks to the generous support of others, Reem was able to raise enough money to help her until she got her work permit. She is now working and waiting for her asylum decision, and is trying to complete her education in the meantime at Queens College in NYC. She is unable to get either private or federal loans for her education due to her immigrant status, so she has built a campaign seeking help for her education. Here it is:



A few nights ago, I was frustrated at a lot of vitriolic hate spewed at my friend Reem Abdel-Razek on a public forum linking to her indiegogo campaign.

You should contribute to her campaign if you can afford it, and this post will tell you why.

If you have not heard of Reem Razek, she is an ex-Muslim apostate who has been both vocal and public about her apostasy, writing about it on her blog, Reem Unveiled, and on one of prominent ex-Muslim activist Aliaa Elmahdy‘s blogs, Echoing Screams, among other articles and interviews. This has caused her great detriment, in the form of abduction, imprisonment in an asylum with forcible treatment, ostracization, physical and emotional abuse, and repeated and prolonged death and rape threats.

Since then, Reem has been able to escape the danger and threats surrounding her in her homeland Egypt and has come to America. She has applied for political asylum, and has asked for help and support here, in her indiegogo campaign, from those willing and able, since she will be not allowed to work while her application is processed, and this is a process that will take at least many months and at most many years.

Here is why you should help her:

My friend Reem is legit, and part of my frustration a few nights ago had to do with the ignorant assertions and hate-filled comments accusing her of being a fraud and a scam.

Despite the fact that she has been publicly endorsed by the highly respectable Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain.

Despite the fact that she has been publicly endorsed by Aliaa Elmahdy, who has also had Reem as a guest blogger and happens to be her personal friend.

Why the doubt? Questions like these have been asked:

  1. How come Reem speaks with an American accent if she is from Egypt?
  2. How did she come to be in the United States?
  3. How can she be an ex-Muslim if she looks and sounds so much like a white American?
  4. How can she be oppressed and have suffered if her father is liberal enough to have worked and raised her in the United States?

People who ask these questions do so without bothering to examine their racist and stereotypical assumptions about Muslims and what they can and can’t speak and what they do and do not look like, and without bothering to take a moment to check to see if their questions have been answered anywhere.

Reem has answered all these questions repeatedly, on her blog, on her campaign (which has a wealth of links to content examining many facets of these questions), and in her open letter to the Ex-Muslim Council of Britain (all of those have been linked above, so I won’t link them again).

But I will take a shot at them here from another angle. These questions are all along the lines of her story not adding up or not making sense (because she speaks English? because she ‘looks white’?), but the fact of the matter is, these questions contain dangerous assumptions about the condition and plight of ex-Muslims. Because my story is nearly identical to Reem’s in many of its details and circumstances, I want to clarify something about ex-Muslims with a strong connection to the West.

These questions are the wrong questions because they are the RIGHT questions. They are  asked as if the circumstances surrounding Reem’s apostasy and request for asylum are strange or questionable. On the contrary, they are the most likely circumstances imaginable.

Reem’s story is not uncommon.

She was born in Egypt, and her father’s job took her and her family to the US, where she was socialized in an American school system before being taken back to the Middle East while still in her childhood, expatriating to the Gulf where jobs are lucrative and plentiful. Following the veritable shitstorm of violent repercussion and punishment that came in the wake of her public unveiling, Reem hid her true self for a time and convinced her family that she had repented. When her father was relocated back to the United States, as his child she went with him. It was only when she was safely in America again that she could publicize her views once more and break away from him.

My story is nearly identical to Reem’s. I too am the child of an expat who worked and lived in the US. I too grew up in the Middle East and had to hide my lack of faith in order to be trusted enough to be allowed to leave. I know at least a dozen women *personally* with similar or identical stories as well.

It is not only a common narrative; it is a nearly-necessary one.

It is precisely Reem’s relationship with the West as her father’s workplace that enabled her to escape to begin with and make this petition, and this is why you hear of her.

It is precisely the fact that Reem had experienced another way of living and had become fluent in the world’s top information-friendly language that she was able to so quickly, surely, and bravely defy her oppression in radical ways, notably intellectually before she did so physically.

It is precisely because of those circumstances that some people find so questionable that Reem Razek was able to escape, be safe, and remain publicly an apostate.

She is lucky beyond thousands if not millions of Arab and Muslim women who do not have the avenues of defiance and escape she had, if they had chosen to want them.

She is not lucky enough, however, because she was not born in the United States, as I was. That is why she has a petition and I do not.

Now for the second reason you should support Reem in her campaign, beyond the fact that she is legitimate, beyond the fact that she is a human being and this renders her worth protecting from danger and probable death.

Reem is amazing.

Reem is brilliant, brave, determined, hard-working, exceptional, conscientious. She is a champion of rationality and justice, and she is going to be a darling asset to her community.

She is very publicly an apostate. At a very young age she wrote and challenged the powers controlling her very existence. Her writing and her photos when she chose to challenge and then leave Islam lead to horrible things happening to her. She has dared to speak out in a way that is very difficult for most ex-Muslim women, and because of this, she seems to bearing the stigma for most of us.

All the attacks and death threats that are hurled at her would also be hurled at us if we were not too frightened or too constrained or too controlled to reveal our apostasy in such a public manner. All the actual material detriment she endured we also would be enduring above and beyond what we already have and already do endure.

Thank you, Reem, for giving me voice. For giving us a voice and a face. Thank you, Reem, for your humanity.

I could not do what Reem has done. I very fearfully and carefully planned an escape in the most safe and conservative manner possible, securing my master’s degree and playing the good Muslim girl and suffering so much emotional and material detriment that I crushed my own spirit for 5 years longer than I had to because I was afraid of lashing out, stepping forward, being true to myself.

Reem’s integrity would not allow her to violate her own sense of self and conviction even to preserve her own safety.

Thank you, Reem, for your honor.

Speaking with her on the phone a few nights ago, I asked her if she would have done it again if she had known what they would do to her because of it. If she could go back, would she be public in her defiance once more? She said yes, she would.

Thank you, Reem, for your courage.

This woman, this 20-year-old woman who has known more suppression and pain and defeat and hopelessness than the stark majority  of the first world can hope to understand, this woman will be beyond an asset to whatever community is lucky enough to have her. This woman will teach those around her hope, perseverance, integrity, love.

She will teach them humanity.

She will teach them life.

Support Reem Razek today.


Reem studious