In Defense of the Ex-Muslim Story as a Cultural Archetype

I believe we ex-Muslims are developing an entire genre and canon of work. 

I’ve come to think of a narrative similar to mine as the archetypal ex-Muslim woman story. The more ex-Muslims I meet, the more of their work I read, I begin to see it: the circumstances that would most likely explain such a sudden break in lifestyle arise again and again as common, classic: a person from a particularly insular and traumatized Muslim community, who has access to a good education and some connection to the West, enabling that person with powerful tools for critique and the real-world circumstances that  will allow them to come to a place where they might finally speak while also giving them a particularly powerful sociopolitical motivation for doing so.

I’ve met many people who have broken away from Islamic norms, and while there much variation in their motivations and experiences, this seems to be the most common and resonant narrative. And I have come to think that we are in the process of developing an entire genre, the collective work of people dissenting to Islam from within Muslim communities rather than purely as the work of a colonialist and then post-colonialist perspective.

I’m sure we’ve always existed, but have not always had the means to emerge with our discourse, so silenced and taboo have our issues been within our own communities. It is still difficult–looking at my own story, I am still both terrified and astonished at how different it all could have been if not for a series of lucky circumstances–I was very close to being raised and undereducated in a refugee camp. But it is more than luck that is allowing us to speak now. A few years ago you never heard of people with apostasy stories, and people like us believed we were unique because we were so isolated.

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The Struggle of Wanting to be White

I left the hijab behind, but I still use my old scarves as fashion accessories--wraps, turbans, belts, shawls--in attempt to preserve my ethnic belonging in the face of white erosion.

I left the hijab behind, but I still use my old scarves as fashion accessories–wraps, turbans, belts, shawls–in attempt to preserve my ethnic belonging in the face of white erosion.

CN: Racism

I struggle with whiteness as a person of color. I struggle to resist allowing it to define my movements, my identities. I struggle the same reason many other non-white people do: because whiteness is a pervasive force shaping this world. This means I’m constantly battling my own internalized racism, my whitewashing. It means that while I don’t hate myself because I’m not white anymore, I hate myself for still wishing I was white so that I can be ‘normal’, accepted, safe.

Some days and weeks this struggle is harder than others. It’s been particularly tough this week as I’ve delved into arguments, articles, discourse regarding blackness in America. I’ve learned much, but also found a lot that resonates with my experiences as an Arab woman growing up in a strangely white world while still in the Middle East.

I think of how I grew up surrounded by anglophone culture gob-smack in the middle of Saudi Arabia because I was an expat who went to an American school. How everything I read, saw, and watched was about the lives and concerns of white people. How my Muslim (read:Arab) presentation as one of the few hijabis in the entire school was a source of shame and pain and sadness to me because of how thoroughly I was ostracized, ridiculed for it. How, when I first discovered that I wanted to be a writer, the first stories I wrote had exclusively white characters in Western nations because those were the main actors in every bit of history and literature I was being taught as important.

For the longest time, it didn’t even occur to me that stories about brown people could be relevant, useful, or necessary.

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Like Water on a Cabbage Leaf: Islam and Mental Health Stigma

An examination of mental health stigma as a necessary product of maintaining Muslim norms

Content warnings tags also include: physical abuse, imprisonment, interrogation, forced hospitalization, and overmedication.  Also note that my analysis below concerns a quite conservative form of Muslim society as described in the below culture and context and is not to be taken as universal to all forms of Islam or temporally absolute. Also note that this is a descriptive rather than a prescriptive post. I’m describing the roots of a phenomenon. I have no solutions yet.

 

contemplationThere is no doubt in my mind that mental health stigma is one of the most serious cultural problems in various parts of the Middle East today, and that it ties in quite neatly to our conceptions of autonomy and human competence. I understand why this is the case. When I say ‘understand’ here, this means I recognize why there is ideological impetus for mental health to be viewed in the way that it is. That is a curious sentence now that I read it back, but I have come to realize, after long years of struggling with my own depression and psychosis to the obliviousness of those surrounding me, that our cultural language in my home culture is steeped in attitudes that are both necessary for the promulgation of a properly Muslim lifestyle and radically out of tune with what we know about human psychology.

First let me trace out the extent of the problem, before I tackle its roots. Here is an anecdote for you. The following had to happen before for my parents to finally cave and get me medical help:

I ran away from home. I was an adult, though barely (I left maybe 2 months after my 18th birthday). My dad was in the States for work and my mom got Hezbollah involved right away. It’s a long story, but with a lot of deception and trickery, they had found me and had me holed up in an apartment in the middle of the Dahiyeh, Beirut’s southern suburb and the Hezb’s stronghold near the capital, basically keeping me there until my father could come claim me.

He did. In the subsequent weeks, my parents began their interrogation process, because the explanation I gave for running away was unacceptable. After all, I lived in a society where leaving home is unthinkable for an unmarried Muslim girl. I told them I wanted my own life, wanted self-determination, that I was depressed living among them–none of this made any sense or was acceptable to them. Note that I was still Muslim at this point–none of it was about leaving Islam, though of course my definition of Islam at the time would have been shocking to their understanding of it. But my actions were in such violation of what was permissible that they did not even question the use of force, control, and extortion to try to get to the bottom of what was going on.

They kept me locked up in a tiny room in the dark for weeks, taking me out only to tie me up, beat me, and much worse in attempts to extort ‘the truth’ about my motivations from me. My dad asked if I was a prostitute, pregnant, etc. Those were the sorts of confessions they tried to wring out of me, because depravity was the only explanation in their minds for my actions. I was already depressed. I was already psychotic, and had been for a few years at that point without telling anybody; strangely, the voices at first were a comfort, the only thing I had that was my own, that nobody at all ever anywhere could access or influence or touch. Being locked up in a tiny room meant I was sitting in my own blood and shit and urine sometimes. Unsurprisingly, over the course of weeks and eventually months, I withdrew so much into myself that I even stopped physically reacting to beatings. I was like a rag doll. It was at this point that something clicked in my father’s mind: maybe I was not responding because I was incapable of doing so.

Up until that point, he thought I was just being stubborn, willful, cruel. That I was being a vicious, evil woman by not submitting to the interrogations. He quite literally could not conceive of another reason.

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A Post Wherein I Publicly Thank Alex Gabriel

You might have noticed that my new banner is up, courtesy of Alex Gabriel. I think it’s beautiful, and captures my spirit perfectly. Alex knows me, and knows what’s up.

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Glowing, calm, Arabesque. Isn’t that something. He created that typeface himself, painstakingly shaping the letters.

But it’s not the only masthead Alex designed; he did Heina’s too. In my inaugural post, I cracked a joke about being commonly mistaken for Heina, as we are both queer, polyamorous, ex-hijabi ex-Muslim women with similar names who just joined the Freethought Blogs.

Luckily, Alex turned the masthead-making into an anthropological project of sorts, knowing that he wasn’t just branding our blogs, but our selves. He made a point of capturing each of our very different differences in ways that gave both of our characters justice. A quote:

Heina’s persona is distinctly ironic, dripping with snark. Hiba’s is known for being gutwrenchingly sincere. Hiba’s apostasy plays against the backdrop of her middle eastern taste in art, food, clothing, even grammar; Heina’s aesthetic – lipstick, heels, polka dots – is hard-femme Americana.

How do you represent these sorts of differences in two 728x120px images?

Alex almost has me believing that people have essences. He writes beautifully about his methods, inadvertently giving the most touching testimony to both our characters in the process. At least, I’m sure it wasn’t on purpose. I’m sure you didn’t plan this entire thing, Alex. I’m sure you didn’t turn a couple of women of color into your guinea pigs on purpose.

I kid. In fact, Alex gives remarkably astute thought to our respective racial representations, given the stereotypes and conflations Heina and I are always struggling to subvert in our daily lives; yes, even with our clothing, our writing styles, in every way we publicly present ourselves. His commentary on his thought process is fascinating and incredibly on-point.

Go take a look at Heina’s kick-ass masthead and read the rest. The writing is just as well-crafted as the banners.

-Hiba

What it is like to be a Muslim woman: Muricaversary Edition

Today is my ‘Muricaversary’, marking 2 years to the day from my landing in the US from Lebanon. Since this also marks my first ‘real’ post at FTB, I thought it would be fitting to publish a new version of the first essay that went viral on the old Between A Veil and a Dark Place. This piece won me many of my loyal readers and brought in hundreds of comments and messages from people who found that this piece spoke to them, resonated with them.

That’s not the only reason I want to re-issue this piece. This piece is iconic for me, in many ways. It marks the first time I was able to write about trauma as a Muslim woman with any measure of success. It is also grapples with the struggle to realize that things have actually changed, to come to terms with having autonomy and the right to self-determination–things I never thought I’d have to struggle to come to terms with. It is in that sense definitely a piece on Freedom. It is a piece of learning and growing, which is why I think it’s apt for today.

This is an edited, expanded, and more philosophical version of the original essay. You can also find the new version in print at 580 Split, which is sold online and in Bay Area bookstores. I also later wrote a Part Two, a defense/rationale of the title, and a sister essay on being ex-Muslim.

Enjoy.

What it is Like to be a Muslim Woman, and Why We Know What Freedom Is

By Hiba Krisht

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I have keys.

When I moved to the United States around two years ago, it took me several weeks to grasp this.

I have keys.

I have keys to my own front door and I can open this front door and walk down the street whenever I like.

I can walk down the street without being watched through the windows and without anyone calling my parents and telling them their daughter is roaming loose.

I can walk down the street, sit down on a bench under a tree, and eat an iced cream cone. Then I can stand up and walk back home.

There will be nobody waiting for me at my house to ask me where I have been, refuse to let me in, to call me a liar, to use my walk as renewed incentive to rifle through all of my possessions.

Because the simple desire to take a walk cannot but hide something deviant.

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Ohai! Your resident queer, poly, ex-hijabi, ex-Muslim here!

I’m the one who isn’t Heina. Don’t worry, people mix us up all the time, and we’ve decided to blog alongside each other just to further your confusion (ALL THE WELCOMEZ, MY FELLOW NEWBIES HEINA AND AOIFE).

And hello, readers! I’m excited and delighted to be a new Freethought Blogger! Too many wonderful writers I’m too excited to work alongside to count, especially the ex-Muslims. May I say how wonderful and wise it is that the secular community is expanding to give space to valuable ex-Muslim voices. It’s been a long journey to get here. For those of you who know me from the original Between A Veil and a Dark Place I welcome you and salute you for staying with me this long! You may know me either under the name Marwa Berro (my pen name for a good chunk of my blogging) or Hiba Krisht (That is Hiba with a short ‘i’, like in ‘him’ or hip’ and it is my real name, which I recently began to reveal in media appearances, the first of which was this interview in VICE). I am in fact both people, and the same person. I am going by Hiba now and hopefully will successfully merge the 2 identities soon. Others might have seen me appear fleetingly in guest posts or mentions on Ophelia’s, Kaveh’s, and Alex’s blogs among others. My presence on FtB will be fleeting no more!

For those of you who do not know me yet, here is a quick summary:

I’m an ex-Muslim freelance writer and translator from Beirut. I moved to the US about 2 years ago (actually my Murica-versary is in 3 days, wut. PARTY!!), and in my past life I belonged to a very conservative Shia Muslim family. I came of age in Southern Lebanese guerilla warfare culture, with the predominant religious and political power governing my social spaces being Hezbollah–I write about growing up in Hezbollah culture here. I wore the hijab for 15 years, from the ages of 8 to 23. I write about that experience in several places: including here in a Huffpost interview alongside the amazing Heina Dadabhoy and Reem Abdel Razek (you can sense the self-plugging pretty hard, no?), and here, and here. Here’s a lovely photo from my past life, taken when I was about 17 years old, which Alex Gabriel has helped me reclaim by dubbing it ‘A Fabulous Woman with a Massive Gun.’ I like it:

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Now I’m a queer, kinky, polyamorous heathen who ‘can’t just leave religion alone’. I’m vocal, feminist, and vocal about being feminist. I’ve had a very difficult life to date, growing up with a lot of violence and control (neither my family nor Hezbollah took kindly to the whole attempting-to-escape-and-have-my-own-life thing) and I think it’s all worth talking about extensively. This is what I look like now:

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Follow me on Twitter here, and ‘Like’ my Facebook page here, if you’re into that sort of thing. I post blog updates and links in both places but that’s really the extent of my involvement. Sorry I’m not more present.

At the old BaVaaDP, whose archives I will import soon, I wrote critique of Islam with a feminist bent, but also about common experiences/stories/circumstances concerning women in Muslim-majority countries. There is quite a bit of personal narrative up there, woven into a broader critique of Islamic rhetoric and its influence on patriarchy, power, and politics. My academic background was in literature (BA), political philosophy and meta-ethics (MA), and fiction writing (MFA…ish. I dropped out). I taught logic, ethics, creative writing, composition, and rhetoric at the college level for a few years, and I still translate academic sociopolitical theory, so I definitely carry those influences forward in my blogging. The work I do on this blog is more lay-person and less academic (for links to my academic work, ask within the coming weeks; I have a few scholarly articles being published in a new initiative focused on marginalized communities in the Middle East). This is intentional. I like to adapt my work as best suits the spaces hosting it.

I also have a side project, a tumblr photojournalism thing called the Ex-Hijabi Fashion Photo Journal where I showcase the stories, photographs, and voices of people who have left Islam and its trappings and would like the space to talk about their own experiences on their own terms, in a gesture of autonomy and self-ownership many of us have always been denied. Find it here. It’s super empowering.

Here’s my own mandatory before-after photo:

before after

I warn you, I really, really like being able to show off my stuff after years and years of being shrouded and obscured. This means I do take selfies, and will post them sometimes.

And for some nice, personal ‘meat’ to this blog post, here is a glimpse of one of the post-religious struggles I still contend with today. This was on my mind this morning, approaching my Muricaversary.

I call it On Freedom (cue *giggle*):

The first time I had any real freedom in my life was when I started college. I lived in the outskirts of Beirut so I attended a university about an hour away (in traffic) from home, and it was too far for me to go home between classes, and I was the only one in my family who attended so I didn’t have anyone there watching and controlling my movements. I also couldn’t drive and my family found taking public transportation to be too immodest after a bunch of harassment incidents in my first year (the irony), so even if I only had one class, I’d get to go to campus at 8am and come back in the evening because my dad dropped me off and picked me up on his way to and from work.

So throughout undergrad and grad school, I got to stay on campus the whole day without anybody monitoring my movements while I was there. It was exhilarating to me, because I could do things like choose what I wanted to buy for lunch (non-halal food ftw!) and walk around Hamra and hang out with guy friends between classes without anybody watching me. I grew up in a household with no value given to personal privacy, where my things were searched through routinely, where I habitually deleted all my chats, emails, and texts as soon as I read them and where I always assumed people would be listening on the other end if I used the phone. I was working through my last couple of years of undergrad and grad school, but my parents had access to my finances, which also really limited my capacity to act. But even with that, I had so much more opportunity to do ‘sinful’ things once I started college, and naturally the hiding and lying also became more concentrated.

It is, to say the least, dehumanizing to be under so much constant suspicion and scrutiny. When my sister started attending the same university 5 years later, my dad would try to use me as a tool to spy on her (little did he suspect that with my sister what you see is what you get, and that I was the ‘bad’ one who secretly thought and felt other than what I presented). He’d routinely tell me to pop into her department and check to see that she wasn’t doing anything ‘wrong’ or taking her hijab off at school. I never did, and would just make up a story about doing so and would tell her to corroborate it. It was almost routine, almost something I didn’t question because it was just the way we had to do things in order to get by. It’s only now that I’m hyperaware of the levels of control, how demeaning and fucked-up it was.

Now I obviously have levels of freedom that are almost incomparable to what I had in my former life (especially as I don’t have a boss to answer to), and have absolutely nobody with power over me scrutinizing my dress, conduct, eating habits, movements, beliefs, or personal belongings. And you know what? I still can’t get over it. I still can’t process having so much SPACE and SAFETY. I still feel paralyzed trying to decide what to do with my time, what to write, where to turn to next.

This small bit of existential panic made it so that today I forewent (forgoed?) my loosely-defined ‘plans’ to work on this one piece for Alternet and translate a few more pages of that horrible book and instead ordered Indian takeout and smoked a bowl and started watching Shankaboot:

I like watching Shankaboot because it speaks to being so quintessentially Beirut to me, and it lets me get sucked into those familiar streets again. So there I was with my chicken tikka masala dripping down my chin when I realized that holy shit… what I WANT when I long for Beirut is to be a BOY in Beirut–obviously only in the sense of having a boy’s privileges. Because only boys have all those glorious freedoms. The protaganist Suleiman obviously hasn’t any class advantage, but despite that, look at him streaking all over those streets on his bike wherever he wants whenever he wants forming casual bonds with people without being under suspicion for it! so jealous! because that’s the best way to experience a place. And that’s how I want to go back, if ever.

So there you are… a little glimpse into my life and thought-processes. If you don’t like critique of religion that incorporates institutionalized systems of power and privilege, then this may not be the blog for you. If you are skeptical of the importance of social justice activism and of theories of intersectionality, this many not be the blog for you. If you don’t take the dehumanizing powers of racism and colonialism seriously, this blog may not be for you. And if you want to use this blog as a dumping-ground for generalized insults to Islam and Muslims, especially as those tend to be highly racialized (can you hear the chorus of little crickets screeching ‘but Islam is not a race’?!), be prepared to have your sentiments challenged and scrutinized. You will not find them applauded here. Insults without purpose are not critique, and I will ask what on earth you are attempting to accomplish if all you want to do is shit on Muslims here. Anti-Muslim bigotry is a very real, pervasive problem that ex-Muslims and brown people perceived-to-be Muslim (eg, Sikhs) are not immune to, and sentiments that enable it will not be tolerated in this space.

And now some less-fun nitty-gritty: some FAQ’s. I’ve decided to skip over the common questions re: Islam and apostasy that I’ve answered already here, and focus on some  particularly pernicious (read: often recurring, triumphantly pursued) ‘questions’ that have been raised as the result of, I can only assume, some serious digging:

Yes, I am technically Arab-American though I hardly identify as such. I was born in the US but my parents took me back to the Middle East when I was very young. My parents were immigrants who had not absorbed the culture or been in the US for very long before leaving again (in fact, my mother’s family experienced a religious revival while in the US, in the 70’s and 80’s following the raucous discourse of Khomeini and Shia uprisings in South Lebanon), and I did not grow up with anything resembling an American experience. I grew up between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. I am open to questions about both places, and have written about what it was like to live in both places too. I think the question comes up because people think they are being super smart by scrutinizing my story on the grounds of ‘if you are who you say you are then how come you speak English so well and can stay in America hurrr durrr’ (as if Arabs cannot possibly be educated, have dual nationality, or immigrate), or else question my belonging to my home country on the grounds that I was born in America, etc. As a dual national who moved to her home country in her teens, I’ve always had my national and cultural belonging questioned from one side or the other and it’s not going to disarm me if people continue to do it again and again. Some people have also tried to catch me not-knowing Arabic (???), despite the fact that I run/own my own translation business. Oops. Luckily one of the first things that comes up when you Google me is my 2012 commencement speech at the American University of Beirut, which corroborates me being in the States for about 2 years. People haven’t been able to catch me in a lie yet (not for lack of trying). It could be because *gasp* I am telling the truth.

Yes, I have a weird in-between familial belonging to both Lebanon and Palestine. My father and his family were born into the UNRWA camps in Tyre with no nationality save Palestinian refugee status, having fled from our family’s hometown Tarbeekha, which was taken in ’48. Legally, women in Lebanon cannot pass on their nationalities (one of our many patriarchal human rights trainwrecks in my beloved homeland) so my Lebanese mother couldn’t help me out on that front. Lebanon decided to naturalize refugees from Tarbeekha and 6 other ‘in-between’ villages in the mid-90’s, so that’s when I gained my Lebanese citizenship. I was in Saudi at the time. Naturalizing Palestinian refugees is not a common practice. The reason for it was the Lebanese government officially recognizing the 7 Villages as actually Lebanese in dialect, religion, and culture (for one, they are Shia, and there is no other record of Palestinian Shia existing) despite being taken in the original occupation. It’s an odd situation to be sure, since almost nobody can claim to have been born a refugee then naturalized Lebanese but have been Lebanese all along just the same, so I understand why people have questions about it. Here is the Wikipedia page confirming the historical info given here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shia_villages_in_Palestine

Despite (given?) this history, I identify as Lebanese and not as Palestinian, though the second-class status of Palestinian and Syrian refugees in neighboring Arab and Muslim countries is very close to my heart.

For those who Google me and find radically different advertisements/trails of my work: Yes, I do technically have separate lines of writing work, with my creative nonfiction being mostly focused on atheist/humanist/feminist stuff, my work-to-make-a-living being mostly technical and academic translation, and my literary work focused on the short story form, stories about/in Beirut. I recently left an MFA program in Fiction Writing, which your Google-fu skills will most undoubtedly tell you I was matriculated in. Here’s my latest released story, in the Kenyon Review, about a Muslim-Christian relationship in Beirut. Content note for discussion of rape (non-graphic, not-depicted). I’m rather proud of it. It’s part of a novel-in-short-stories I started working on in 2011.

Yes, I had a reason for using a pen name and a reason for leaving it behind. I can explain it to you if you insist but it’s really rather boring and not at all as exciting as my life being in danger for my apostasy or anything, sadly.

Yes, I am affiliated via membership to the Ex-Muslims of North America. No, I am not part of their board or administrative body. We are allied and I often choose to consult them but do not answer to them. I am very close friends with many EXMNA people and we do have joint endeavors.

And it should also go without saying, but ffs, no, I am not paid or endorsed by any right-wing, Illuminati, Judeo-corporate (??), or Zionist entity. *cracks a joke like ‘if i was, i wouldn’t be this poor!’ lol etc etc lol*

Yes, I am happy to come speak at your institution, conference, or campus! You can find my most recent interview here with the American Humanist Association’s Humanist Hour, alongside Ex-Muslims of North America Director of Operations Muhammad Syed. I think I have a talk from the last Secular Student Alliance conference coming online soon. You can find my speaker’s profile with the Center for Inquiry here.

If any literary agents are reading this, yes, I would like to sell my memoir, please and thank you. Just kidding. Not really. Yes I am. No I’m not. I may have written a query and proposal yet. Can haz book deal?

Yes, you can commission me to do non-atheist/humanist freelance work. It’s how I pay my bills and new gigs and projects are always welcome. I don’t mind the ‘overlap’ in my circles. I get most of my gigs via networking anyway! Here’s my translation website: http://hibakrisht.com/

Yes, my posts do tend to be on the long side. Brevity is not my forte, and I figure that if people are going to be deterred by the length of my pieces, then perhaps my content isn’t for them either. I am quite wary of surface-level engagement when the topics I write about are also topics teeming with popular misconception and plagued by various brands of bigotry. Care is paramount. And I have thankfully had no dearth of audience and engaged readership despite the length and complexity of my pieces, so I have good precedent for cleaving to this choice.

Yes, I am mentally ill. The only way this should concern you is if it is of contentful relevance to a post you wish to discuss, and to remind you that I am quite unmoved by ableist attempts to characterize religion or the religious as mentally ill, and will edit out usages of terms like ‘crazy’ or ‘insane’ used as intensifying descriptors to mean ‘immoral’ in one way or another.

I won’t set a further-detailed comment policy. I reserve discretion in deleting comments that troll or harass. I do not need to define either of those terms; if you feel them to be ambiguous, you are already looking for loopholes. If I feel the bounds of safety this blog circumscribes have been transgressed, I will either scrap abusive comments or engage with them in a way I find to be publicly beneficial. There is no hard policy for either. I will note the obvious: I am not obliged to host views I find deplorable. People who feel they are not given space to express themselves on my blog can go to another corner of the internet and express themselves all they like.

Thanks for reading! Let me know what you think, and if you have any questions, in the comments!

-Hiba

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oooh, ooh I forgot one thing. No, the banner I have up is not permanent. It’s just a placeholder until Alex finishes designing my shiny new one. Yay!