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.

I cannot sufficiently express the astonished delight I felt in discovering the Ex-Muslims of North America, when I had believed my own life story to be singular-as-deviant, so heavy with stigma, fear, and suffering radically imperceptible to those around me. Nor can I sufficiently communicate the significance of the commonality of this trend, how each of us seem to go through a stage of supreme isolation where we cannot conceive of being anything but an alien aberration before we discover there is an entire world of people like us, but we have been kept out of touch.  Nor can I sufficiently express how frequently I have been floored by the empathy, intellect, and wisdom of my community members–we operate on a caliber of sociopolitical consciousness that is impressive for our small numbers. And I believe that, ironically, the circumstances that have suppressed and silenced us for so long have contributed to our strength in that manner. In a sense we have all begun individually to create our discourse, in near-vacuum, before coming upon other internally dissenting influences–we have had to do much work for ourselves by ourselves without resources, and have come out of our trials with perspectives that are truly self-formed, truly unlike what the world has yet seen.

The stigma is still very real, the ex-Muslim still an odd sort of myth in the consciousness of most educated people, because we have not yet developed a canon surrounding our existence. I believe we are doing so organically, gradually, and in twenty years people will be able to reference the ex-Muslim narrative with a body of work in mind. This will include memoirs and essays, yes, but will also include novels, poetry, and film. VICE interviewed me about my tumblr project showcasing the stories of women who have left the hijab, and the interview went viral, translated into several languages, and led to my being contacted by the presses of countries I never considered would care about this simple endeavor. And the reason is the same reason anything is news-worthy: that is, it is interesting because the world has yet to experience stories like mine as a collective, a trend. This is literally the first site ever made devoted to the ex-hijabi story, and that is what makes it news-worthy.

But it will soon become common. It shall. And that is a good thing.

It seems that every week I get some strong indicator that these stories are emerging as culturally recognizable narratives in so many places in the world. It is news of someone’s film project or novel project regarding stories like ours. And immediately, immediately, I am in an uproar of excitement at seeing these stories (so hauntingly close to mine) become potentially popular pieces of literature with a unique power to show the world what our lives have been like by letting the events unfold before readers, because it is so very complex and difficult, and people recognize the need to create discourse commensurate with the complexity. Right now I think it is still an amalgam of isolated individual effort, but the urge is there within us individuals. The feeling that I am always at loss to relay the impossible complexity and humanity of the life I’ve lived, because women like my mother who have had to make incredibly difficult, damned choices that most people in the West have never conceived of–these are the types of people I see painted as ‘oppressive Muslims’, demonized within even liberal Western discourse, and I do not have the capacity on my own to communicate why this is so grievously wrong and all the reasons my esteem and love for people like my mother–my own people, though I differ *intensely* on so many significant counts re: religion and norms–is well-deserved.

And there will be these novels and stories, and there will be my work, which is different and complementary. I choose the essay form because it is the most honest way I am capable of writing, in long arguments–for all its virtues, my work decidedly lacks the gripping conciseness and subtlety story needs. It is strong in its own right, but in general a less appealing, more intellectually demanding, more alienating form with far less potential for reach in terms of affecting points of view. If I had any real conviction that I was capable of writing fiction about these subjects that is what I would be doing. My work is too overt, too complex, to obsessively introspective, too passionate on its very surface, stinging-hot, for it to be channeled into believable fiction. Which is not a bad thing; it only means my style and focus demand something else. I will try to market my memoir, and it will be narrative also imbued with sociopolitical critique, but I believe it will be a wholly different experience than a novel. But other people with the drive to highlight these most human issues will channel that drive into other work, as best suits their own styles.

And I believe that in 5 years there will be more writing, more art, more discourse from people like me, because we keep emerging as our resources expand…more of us are able to break out of silence, and I can’t imagine the hidden troves of intellect that will come out of these members of some of the world’s most traumatized and marginalized communities. I don’t know what young person will burst out, seemingly from nowhere, and start a blog or make a film in a year or two, as this gets easier and easier. Heck, I have a friend who has written and staged the production of a play based on ex-Muslim experiences–the first time I’ve ever heard of anything of this sort–at her university, precisely because she felt it to be an essential space to be filled.

We are building a CANON and it will be our OWN. In 15 years girls like me will be able to grow up reading novels with stories like mine, and it will change their LIVES. We will no longer find only white sources critiquing our own community practices and cultures. We will no longer only have a white cannon of work to look to about our own lives and communities. This is the future. We won’t grow up reading stories about little white girls in the West and wishing that was us anymore. Not if we can help it. This is happening. We’re making our own thing.


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  1. says

    Wonderful piece! I can only echo what you’ve said. I’m filled with hope each time I read about women finding their voice and the strength to break free from the control of oppressive dogma. I did just that several years ago but its only recently that I’ve felt capable of articulating my experiences, and that’s partly because I realize (thanks to sites like this) that I’m not alone. I’m currently writing a book about my experiences, I hope I manage to convey them as well as you write!

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