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:

http://thehumanist.com/multimedia/podcast/the-humanist-hour-108-coming-out-ex-muslim-with-muhammad-syed-and-hiba-krisht

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:

http://www.kenyonreview.org/kr-online-issue/2014-summer/selections/hiba-krisht-342846/

-Hiba

If you like the work I do, consider donating a small amount to help keep this blog running:

donate2

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…

-Hiba

If you like the work I do, consider donating a small amount to help keep this blog running.

donate2

 

 

 

 

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:

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/reem-s-journey#home

reemablba3d

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.

-Marwa

Reem studious

I don’t oppose the hijab because I was forced; I oppose the hijab because it sucks

 

That’s right.

This is a post about a common misapprehension when discussing the hijab, one that has arisen a thousand and one times (or so it seems at the end of this long, long week, since I launched the Ex-Hijabi Fashion Photo Journal). The misapprehension is this:

Reasons the hijab may be oppressive to women:

1. If there is a lack of choice.

And that’s it. That’s the list.

To be fair, some people who operate under that misapprehension will sometimes say something about possible physical detriment too, vitamin D deficiency and rickets, which does happen to some hijabis, but that’s still consistent with thinking that any damage is all incidental. That is, people seem to think that there is nothing wrong with the hijab as such unless it is forced upon people. That it becomes an unsavory thing, a matter of detriment only insofar as it is actively imposed. You know, maybe a little bit like someone forcefeeding you good food–there is nothing traumatizing about eating good food, but when you’re forcefed against your will and choosing then it suddenly becomes detrimental.

But this bypasses the possibility that there may be something toxic about the ideology of the hijab itself. To me, the list is a lot bigger and more complex–more like a web, of the possible detrimental influences the hijab can pose in various contexts.

Disclaimer: I’m talking about one modesty doctrine in particular in this post. There are many forms of Muslim belief, practice, and interpretation, and not all women who wear the hijab subscribe to this ideology or have it imposed upon them. Some of them do it for non-modesty reasons entirely. Thus this post is not about every possible form or motivation of the hijab. This post is about the reality of the mainstream, traditional modesty doctrines in large portions of the Muslim world.

And maybe you’ve heard or even expressed some of these sentiments before yourself, sentiments that bolster the above position:

  • “It’s just a piece of cloth. It’s harmless unless you’re forced into it.”
  • “Let’s just focus on the actual cause of this: the coercive actions of men upon women. I completely understand how damaging and horrible that is.”
  • “The only reason you’re so opposed to the hijab is that it was forced upon you.”
  • “Let’s not hate the wrong things. It’s the actions that were the problem, not the ideas! It’s better to be chaste than unchaste, to be decent than indecent.”
  • “It’s not hijab in Islam that’s the problem; those ideas about women’s bodies aren’t actually in the Qur’an and are just the bad interpretations of men. It’s not the REAL Islam”
  • “The hijab is as normative as a regular jeans and t-shirt; they are both pieces of cloth.”

The problem is that for far too many people the hijab is not just a piece of cloth. It is a normative doctrine that claims moral rightness, that speaks to what bodies mean and how they should be viewed and treated and displayed. There are REASONS given for why women’s bodies need to be covered up, and most of these reasons boil down to viewing people’s bodies as objects of discord (fitnah) that are imperfect (awrah) and that are a temptation to others, whose visibility is a matter of honor and shame. Subscribing to an ideology that views your body as a shame and denigration in those ways can be incredibly psychologically damaging even without the coercion. It can also be ultimately objectifying, as I argue HERE. Critiquing the hijab does not boil down to objecting to women being coerced into it. It’s about the value system and what it stands for. And plenty of women who were never pressured into wearing their hijabs in any way end up taking issue with it for completely valid reasons that are other than being victimized by a tyrant father. Don’t silence their experiences by making the entire problem about choice or lack thereof.

Now. Let’s get two things out of the way:

1. Yes, coercion can and often does pose psychological detriment.

Assuming coercion in the broad sense, to include shaming and pressuring as well as physical coercion. And no one is suggesting otherwise. That does NOT mean that it is the only possible thing that causes psychological detriment. I am saying that it is possible for a hijabi to NOT be coerced but to still suffer psychological detriment purely due to the demeaning nature of the modesty doctrine she chose to subscribe to.

2. Yes, the doctrine in question is incorrect, not least as demonstrated by sexual harassment rates in Muslim-majority countries and the prevalent existence of counterexamples where it is more than possible for women to walk around with bare skin without being irresistible temptations; ie, the modesty doctrines in question simply rest upon false grounds.

But the fact that these reasons are false does not suddenly mean that they are not still actively used and taught as ideology, does NOT mean that the doctrines don’t exist, aren’t normative, and aren’t active motivators of people’s actions-whether you acknowledge that they are truly ‘Islamic’ or not. That is irrelevant. It doesn’t render them without damage. It doesn’t erase their detriment if you call them by another label.

And YES, these are normative doctrines because they have moral content that other modes of dress do not. There is no doctrine or creed surrounding wearing jeans and a t-shirt that hashes them in terms of moral incumbency.

This is why it’s relevant to many who have voluntarily chosen to subscribe to the ideology of the hijab. Yes, one can be shamed and pressured into bodily conduct harm by purely being coercive. And the thing that is being coerced does not itself necessarily have to be a matter of shame and self-worth.  But it certainly can be. And the ideology behind the hijab as presented here *inherently entails* concepts of bodily shame and denigration by definition. That is to say, it is not only about conduct, about putting on or taking off pieces of clothing. It’s about putting on pieces of clothing in service of the goal of covering up one’s body, because it is the body that is the problem, and the clothing is there only as a means of hiding it. And when women’s bodies are viewed as problematic, that is where the oppression ensues. 

Structural oppression stems from dehumanizing ideology. It never exist in vacuum.

And here I will get a little bit personal. I’ve been told that people ‘completely understand’ why I find it necessary to speak about the hijab so much, because I was coerced into it, of course! Of course!!! To them I say: I don’t know what you think you understand about me, but not even nearly half the damage for me has come from the fact that I was forced to dress in certain ways. Much of it came from the fact that the reasons for that coercion shamed my very existence and reduced me to a dehumanized object of discord. You do not get to deny basic human psychology that has proven conclusively that this sort of shaming that seeks to convince people that they are inferior can lead to psychological damage as severe as PTSD at times. If you insist that my damage came from only the coercion then you do NOT understand, will NOT respect what I say about an experience that I have had and that you have not and thus you canNOT effectively conceive of, and that you care more about abstract ideological defense than the actual reality of what it is for women. You are committing the ‘No True Muslim’ fallacy, along with the common generalization errors, the detriment of which I lay out HERE. 

And if you think you know because of who you know, I’ll remind you that what you see externally does not map onto internal lived experience. You can’t SEE everything. You clearly can’t see what this experience is like if you are denying half of it and contradicting the lived experiences of women, the testimonies they have about their bodies and lives.

In line with that, I should stress that I am not at all suggesting that all women who wear the hijab, whether by conviction or coercion or a complex combination of the two, must necessarily or do suffer any sort of psychological damage whatsoever. Again, clearly not all women who wear the hijab wear it for the reasons stated, or subscribe to the ideology I’ve presented–there is significant variance. Plenty of women find it to be an emotionally fulfilling experience, and that is all well and good. But I’m not talking about those other more benign possibilities. I am rather suggesting that we take the damaging potential of the hijab as ideology seriously, and to listen to how it has actually affected people’s lives. I’ve known women who have had no choice regarding the hijab and have not viewed themselves to have been any the worse for it,and who am I to say any differently? On the other hand, I also know women who HAVE suffered detriment due to the ideology of the hijab and they are being silenced and that is oppressive. The point of this post is to oppose to the assumption there is nothing problematic in the doctrine itself, that it cannot at all pose psychological detriment to anybody by virtue of its ideological content.

As for the “let’s just focus on the important thing: coercive actions” bit, I reject the idea, too, that a focus on actions presumes a lack of focus on the cultural ideology that motivates and inspires those actions. We focus on ideology precisely in service of affecting people’s actions, because actions are motivated by justification and ideology. I reject any presumption that certain modes of bodily conduct for women are ‘better’ than others. That is normative. Hell, that is the definition of normative, and by placing a matter of bodily autonomy into a category of moral superiority, you are pitting rights against perceived ‘duties’ and are treading unstable ground. To be perfectly clear: I AM rejecting the idea of chastity or modesty as an absolute moral good. I AM focusing on the hijab itself instead of the coercion, and I AM doing it deliberately instead of out of confused hurt resentment because someone made me wear the hijab therefore I must always irrationally hate it, oh noes. I’m not a confused, traumatized victim who has unjustified but understandable sentimetns, like someone who has an irrational phobia, or like I’m too stupid to differentiate between hating the attacker and hating the tool used. Seriously?

No, I am objecting to the ideology behind the hijab because it offensive and demeaning to women AS SUCH. I am rejecting chastity and modesty as useful or correct norms. That is PRECISELY what I intend to be doing. I am not chaste and I do not want to be, and there is nothing wrong with that. I am not ‘decent’ and I do not want to be, and there is nothing wrong with that. I’m not rejecting these attributes because modesty is forced upon women. I’m rejecting these attitudes out of ideological conviction, because they are nonsense, and gender theory acknowledges them to be so completely independently of any structural coercion.

That being said, I oppose attacking and demeaning those who do wear hijab, even if I think the ideology behind the hijab is a toxic and detrimental thing. (See my essay ‘Don’t Judge a Woman by her Cover for more on why it’s never okay to judge an individual for their clothing choices).

In short: my ideological opposition to the values of the hijab are precisely because clothing and baring of skin are morally neutral matters, and one’s self-worth or value or morality does not rest in them. That does not mean that I think that it is ‘better’ if people do not wear the hijab, that baring your head or skin is somehow morally superior in turn. It means that I think that clothing should not be a matter of ‘better’ or ‘worse’ to begin with, and that is where the problem lies. The objection is at the meta level: it’s not that it is morally wrong to wear or not wear certain things; it is morally wrong to place moral value and human worth in whether one wears or does not wear certain things. It is morally wrong to devalue human bodies as such unless one dresses in a certain way. Because it leads to coercion, mistreatment, and power inequalities, yes, but it also because it is a fundamentally flawed notion in itself.  Upholding the values of bodily autonomy means rejecting particular personal modes of bodily conduct as normatively required, not as discrete personal choices. I hope I don’t need to spell out that this also means rejecting a normative claim that women ought not to wear the hijab or value modesty for themselves. Everyone has the perfect right to think what they will and do what they will about their own bodies.

That being said, the presence of free choice, of bodily autonomy, does not render all ideologies of bodily conduct equal.

-Marwa

donate2

Why I now have a ‘Donate’ button on my blog. 

The World Behind the Veil: What Listening to Women Taught This Man

image

 

This is a guest piece by Mazen Abdallah, an ex-Muslim, comedian, and teacher. He is an American of Syrian-Lebanese origin who lives in Lebanon, and would like to talk about how reading the Ex-Hijabi Photo Journal–which you should go check out if you haven’t already–has influenced his perception of the culture around him, and the drastic differences in the ways female and male bodies are perceived. 

I’ve never really asked veiled women or ex-veiled women about their experiences with the veil. There are a number of reasons for that. The first is that I come from a culture where the veil was totally normal. So asking someone about it would be really weird, it’d be like asking why someone wears shoes. The second reason was that I assumed I knew the story already. To me, there were two categories: Women who were forced to veil and women who did so by choice. I never really thought past it at all. Over time I saw the nuances more and more, but for some reason I didn’t really ask anyone for the full story. I debated the veil’s societal role, I passionately argued with people about the rights of women, but I never stopped and asked a woman ‘Hey, what is/was it like for you to wear a veil’. Even when I thought I was this progressive, cultured guy advocating the rights and critiquing a society that would curtail the freedoms of women, I didn’t make an effort to actually understand the lives of women who had worn the veil for any reason whatsoever. To me, it boiled down to ‘someone is forcing you to do something that you do not want to do’ and it became this basic matter of personal freedoms. But there was so much more that I wasn’t seeing. The fact is, many women develop a complex relationship with the veil because it represents so many different things: identity, family, spirituality, personal development. It was so much more than either doing something or not doing it.

First of all I realized that, a lot of the time, it wasn’t necessarily forced upon the children by their parents. Some women decided to wear it as part of a philosophical decision in their exploration of Islam. Some were emotionally blackmailed, pressured by their families and their communities. Some came into contact with pro-veil ideology. Others wore it to fit in. That’s one of the things I learned: The veil means different things to different people.

But one common narrative came about as a result of it. I realized how much emphasis was placed by Islamic culture on conservative dress and being presentable in a certain way.

Every kid is forced to do things by their parents. Like, put on this sweater before you go outside, do your homework, etc. At the end of the day, that’s what parents do, they put their feet down. So if you think about it that way, maybe the veil isn’t so bad. But when I started reading Ex Hijabi Fashion, I realized that parents don’t just walk in, hand the kid a scarf and tell them they’re wearing it now. They’re giving them a philosophy, an ideology. They’re telling their girls that they need to cover themselves up, to be modest, to avoid attracting attention from boys. In some cases they’ll get in the heads of these girls and make them feel shame because of their bodies. I was forced to do a great many things when I was a kid. I’m a grown-ass man and my mom still puts her foot down. But I was never made to feel conscious of my body or exposing it.

image

I never really looked that much into the veil. To me, it was about covering up your parts so that men wouldn’t be tempted by you. And once the veil came off, boom, not religious anymore, not veiled anymore, problem solved, let’s move on. But the women I read about on Ex-Hijabi fashion had gone through so much more than covering up. They had been made to look at their own bodies in a shameful way. To feel self-conscious and uncomfortable in their own skin. Even some that had veiled of their own volition would start to feel this way about themselves.

We all have body issues, hell, I have a bunch of my own. But I never felt this need or desire to cover myself up and obscure a part of me. Like, I probably should. I’m overweight, and fairly conscious about my man-tits, but past that I have like no problem taking off my clothes. Even if I’m in company, I end up taking off my shirt or (if I’ve been drinking) at some point my pants and I have no problem with it. Obviously guys have a threshold for that sort of thing so I’m eventually asked to put my clothes right back on, but past that I don’t really mind having them off. And I realize, I’ve felt embarrassment about my body plenty of times, like you would with a house you haven’t properly cleaned up. But I’ve never really felt shame. I’ve never really felt that it was wrong of me to expose my body. I laughed like a madman every time I made a dick of myself in public in a way that involved nudity, and it just didn’t matter. And hell, a lot of guys I know were also like that, whipping their dicks out for comic effect or mooning each other. We never had anyone tell us we should be ashamed of our bodies.

image

 

The veil isn’t the problem here, the problem is the culture that the veil emerges from. What surprised me in some cases was that the family wouldn’t really be particular about the veil, but they would have their own strict set of modesty rules that shamed women. You didn’t need to have a veil on to feel shame.

Ultimately my eyes were opened to the diverse range of experiences women faced with the veil. It opened my eyes to the way that being asked to cover up and be modest, demure and conservative affected them and changed their outlook. It opened my eyes to the fact that veiling sometimes had little to do with their families but had more to do with their own body image or ideology. And I think, before we start talking about the veil and what it means in society and who can wear it and ‘oh look at this fatwa’, we should maybe ask women what they think.

image

 

Giant thanks to Mazen! If you’ve been wondering where I’ve been these past couple of weeks, I’ve been focusing a lot of my energies on the Ex-Hijabi Fashion Photo Journal. Regular posts to resume shortly. I love you all!

-Marwa/Hiba

donate2

 

Why I now have a ‘Donate’ button on this blog. 

My interview with VICE about the Ex-Hijabi Fashion Photo Journal

My interview with VICE about the Ex-Hijabi Fashion Photo Journal

I’ll take a moment to note that this interview is the first time I publicly use my real name in conjunction with my ex-Muslim work!

Here’s an excerpt:

 

But my body is not an object of discord to be covered up. Many of us have left Islam or rejected its modesty norms because we refuse to be treated as such, refuse to have our hair and limbs hypersexualized to the point that we are considered a danger and temptation simply for having them where eyes can see. The move to celebrate the body and reject doctrines of modesty is one that I have seen openly embraced by many religious people as well.

 

And after having our bodies treated with such denigration and restriction, I feel it is very apt for us to have a space to celebrate our bodies in all their shameless glory, publicly, to tell our bodily histories, publicly, to adorn ourselves in beautiful things, publicly. To finally be able to determine how we want to present our bodies, how we want to look and be and feel.

 

Check the rest of it out! And don’t forget to visit the Ex-Hijabi Fashion Photo Journal too!

WTF *happened* to the Arab World?

File:Suad Husni.jpg

 

Full disclosure: I’m a bit more than sufficiently intoxicated right about now, and it’s roundabout 5am, when perhaps I ought to defer to better judgment and keep from posting these things. But WTH, perhaps this blog deserves *one* impassioned drunken post.

So yes, I’m drunk, and my normally amusical self started with Nancy Ajram, feeling the Lebanese throwback blues–even activists get debilitatingly homesick– and then shifted straight into our folk-goddess Fairuz, and then found myself lost in the glamor and sexiness of the Arab  50’s and 60’s.

And beejeebus, wtf happened to the Arab world when the fervor and spirit was all alight with veneration of the womanly form and body? When Egyptian movies had this sexy, sexy retro oddly Shirley Temple-esque vibe, when Souad Hosni was all flirtily admonishing the stand-offishness of her boys in 1966, when skirts slit up to the hip and belly dancing graced the golden screen in Egypt and beautiful women with rich, deep voices like Asmahan, a princess with expectations and responsibilities from the deepest mountains of Lebanon, could transcend their dutiful roles and were all the rage and everything was lustrous and joyful?

When Um Kulthoum shed her hijab for a noble head-knot and enticing handkerchief on stage and people almost sank to their knees in worship of her glory? I mean, not only did she shed her hijab and transcend emboldened stigma and ostracization for it–she became a fucking *idol*.  Can we dream today of a woman shedding her hijab and escaping the hate and peril of others, let alone being near-deified thereafter? Wtf happened to the time when women bared their shameless bellies and danced and danced in power and grace?

So many rhetorical questions. But we know this, don’t we? So many people think that the Arab world and ex-Muslim movements and people from Muslimland are new to discover englightenment, modernity, that we come from a tradition irrevocably steeped in humility and shame. But watch Souad Hosni decades ago here, not some oversexualized extra, but an idolized star, her pride in her voice, her belly, her tits, and tell us that we have never known enlightenment, dare to:

It’s not that we don’t know, we who our parents only became religious in the 70s and 80s after a frantic revival of faith in the face of poverty, subjection, and imperialism, in the face of being othered. Sure I was brought up with religious fervor attached to every movement of my limbs, but my mother and grandmother were not. My own mother and grandmother, from the deepest South of Lebanon, mere miles from the Israeli/Palestinian border, didn’t don the hijab and start cleaving to Shia doctrine in earnest until the mid to late 80’s. What happened? What happened, I say?

But of course we know, we know. We know it even in recent pop culture, from TV series like Al-Ghaliboun that chronicle the history of the rise of Hezobllah and deep religious sentiment in the deep south. And yes, my native South Lebanon, predominantly Shia, witnessed a particularly powerful resurgence of religious sentiment following the Iranian Revolution in the late 70’s and the Israeli invasion in 1982. My mother’s entire family, including her mother and siblings and aunts etc, began veiling in adulthood circa the mid 1980s, and began to more strongly cleave to religious doctrine and more seriously practice as they never had befoer, as did the entire South at the time. My mom attended a Catholic school run by nuns in her childhood in Southern Lebanon. Not ten years later, her family fled from the civil war to the States in ’78, and they felt a huge sense of connection to the Lebanon they’d left behind by, in a new country, where, Francophone as they were, they did not know the language. And strangely enough, they cleaved to a religious belonging that had been merely tangential when they were in the Middle East, listening to Khomeini’s speeches on audio cassette tapes in basements in Detroit. They pinned photos of clerics up like other teenagers do movie stars while they struggled to learn English, almost contradictorily beside pinups of Princess Di preceding her tragic death. 

Although I was compelled to when I was a child of eight, my own mother did not veil until she entered college in 1980’s Detroit, because this sense of needing to turn to religion didn’t come until she needed to put together a life and a home that had been torn apart by aggression and displacement, in adulthood. By contrast, a decade later as expats in Saudi Arabia, still Shia, still a minority, still silenced for it, she and my father had me start veiling before I’d begun to even articulate a sense of self, and they viewed it to be absolutely morally incumbent that I do so, child that I was, and spoke to me of it in terms of it being a matter of pride and identity. My sisters and girl cousins were all the same. And when we moved back to Lebanon a few years later–I was 13– back to the culture that all of this kind of tied into, I learned a lot about how Hezbollah’s control and support among the Shia demographic very closely ties into rhetoric that continuously couches religious adherence in terms of standing up to aggression and not having the values and identities of the aggressors thrust upon us, all of that built into a narrative of divine deliverance with the coming of the Mahdi. It’s not dissimilar to rapture narratives among some Christian folks, and is not too difficult to understand if one does not continuously take an othering stance towards Muslim women.

Surely the imperialism does not excuse our falling into violence and bigotry as a result, and we must be responsible agents with all of our constraints and struggles, but it does do very much to explain a whole lot of what is going on. I’ve written about it before, what it is like to grow up, really, in Hezbollah culture, how it is reminiscent of deep Christian conservatism that I’ve encountered in the US.

But still, knowing my family’s history, their struggles, these reasons, I pull up videos of Souad Hosni dancing and dancing with her unabashed body ablaze with beauty and reverence, and wonder, wonder, what happened to my Arab word that the decades should thrust us back so instead of moving us forward.

Most days it is hard not to weep.

-Marwa

donate2Why I have a donate button on my blog.

I’m not exchanging my hijab for a bulletproof vest

Happy, free ex-hijabis!!!

Happy, free ex-hijabis!!!

 

This post is for a subset of my allies.

It’s been building up for a bit but sort of crescendoed with a lot of the responses to my Ex-Hijabi Fashion Photo Journal project, which is fabulous and you should totally check out before you read another word, go go go go: http://exhijabifashion.tumblr.com/

Alright… now, what I have to say might sound harsh, but I feel it needs to be said. It does not mean I do not value you and your support. It does not mean I do not want people to be concerned for me or to care about me and my community. But I’d like to challenge some of the assumptions inherent in that concern. I invite you to really think about why you continually express concern for our safety carefully and thoughtfully, trying to look at it from our perspective.

So here’s the issue: One thing that I’ve noticed and that really bugs is me is that almost every time an ex-Muslim publicly does something, writes something, begins a project, inevitably there will be allies commenting something like “I’m happy for them, but I’m worried about their safety,” often with iterations like “They will be hunted down, there will be a fatwa over their heads.” Some people try to get pithy, saying things like “they’re exchanging hijabs for bulletproof vests.”

We hate it when you do that. It is insulting and counterproductive in the most important ways. It often devalues many of us as people of color and as women.

Yes, we know that violence in response to free expression is very often a huge problem among Muslims and in Muslim-majority societies. In fact, we know it dearly in ways you cannot imagine. You do not need to inform us.

But that also doesn’t mean that every time ex-Muslims and progressive Muslims publicly engage in free expression in any way anywhere they undertake the risks they would under a Taliban or ISIS-controlled area. In fact, odds are that if they are publicly engaging in free expression, they are at low risk. In fact, many of us are in no danger at all.

And it bothers me that you assume we would be, especially with such regularity, especially often as a kneejerk reaction, as the first sentiment you express when you hear of something we’re doing. Why is that the first thing you think about our endeavors, our work; that we are in a position of weakness because of it?

Here’s the thing: Did you think that potential danger did not occur to us? Did you think we have not accounted for it?

Did you think–and excuse me for a moment while I try to quieten my intensity about this–did you think that, given the lives that many of us have led, the suffering we’ve had, the pain and oppression we’ve been subjected to, that we warrant other people explaining the risks of our behavior to us? When it is we and only we whose bodies and lives are at stake, who actually know what it is like to be controlled by Islamist powers, and you do not?

It’s not to say there aren’t risks, and there aren’t costs. The costs of apostasy are heavy and often pass very few people by, but often they’re not too different than things you might deal with in your life: social costs, familial tension, estrangement, poverty, the struggle to gain independence and chart your own path. For many of us, there are or have been costs of violence as well–violence that is not foreign to those who are abused, especially women, anywhere–domestic violence, beating, assault. Yes, the risks are often there, the costs are there–but so is our capacity to assess those risks and make decisions as to whether we want to engage in public apostasy work.

Expressing fear that we will be hunted down, maimed, killed for our work can be incredibly paternalistic, presumptive. It implies that Ex-Muslims and progressive Muslims are doing stupid, dangerous things. It implies that the work of Ex-Muslims often does not merit the risks. It also disempowers us–it does not even acknowledge the possibility that we might have power over our bodies and lives, that even on the small scale of our own lives we are able to transcend the oppressiveness of the big bad Islamist demon.

It also implies that we either have not taken the time or do not have the capacity to assess the risks and benefits when we deliberately go about creating projects and movements. It does not acknowledge that we might have the capacity and resources to take the requisite measures to safeguard our security.

And our work is very deliberate.

And when this is a kneejerk reaction, a first reaction when you see an ex-Muslim or progressive Muslim challenging and subverting Islamic norms, then it is based by necessity on zero knowledge of what that person’s life, family, and circumstances are like. It assumes that you somehow have more knowledge about the lives of strangers than they do about their own. It also judges them for what they are doing even while attempting to support and praise them, an almost begrudging sort of support. It often smacks of that’s nice and all but what are you doing, you silly brown woman? think of your safety!

I’m sure you consciously know the blatantly obvious: that not all brown people or people from Muslim societies are the same and have the same circumstances, that not all Muslim societies have the same norms regarding religious expression. But even though you consciously know that,  your sentiment is based on a generalization. And the fact that it happens with more frequency regarding the endeavors of women than men is telling; it reinforces these implicit memes we all struggle to fight in our everyday interactions; that women are less capable, less independent, less informed, less reasoned, in need of concern and protection. Especially brown women.

And it is othering. That’s really one of the most bothersome things about it. It suggests that we are not like you, because people do not think to suggest that you might be in extreme physical danger when you express things freely. It does not sufficiently entertain the possibility that we might live in safe countries with human rights, that we might not be other than you, that we might identify as Americans etc too, that we have belonging and stake in the same places you do. It does not entertain the possibility that we might actually have similar circumstances and capacities, that we might have human rights that we can utilize fully, that we are in no more danger than you are for writing critique of religion, that we might live non-exotic, boring, white-fence lives outside of our online presence. But the default assumption–also implicit in the brown woman narrative–is that we don’t live like you, we don’t have the rights you do by default–that we must be in imminent danger, in hiding, in fear, with an aggressor waiting to entrap us behind every door when we dare speak a word–and this assumption is implicit before even asking who we are, where we live, what our living circumstances are like.

But we are here, and loud, and are speaking. Why must you unnecessarily paint us as victims when we have somehow transcended circumstances you project upon us? Have we not been victimized enough?

So I ask you: please; give us the benefit of the doubt. Set aside your protective instincts for long enough to acknowledge that we are rational, informed adults who have achieved wonderful things, and that we are more than qualified to make decisions with the information and outlook we have that you not only are not privy to, but are likely at least somewhat misinformed about. Because you don’t know what my country is like, what my family is like, what my living situation is like except for in the ways that I have shown you and taught you.

Do not let your expression of concern be a front for painting the ex-Muslims who are taking charge of their bodies and lives as helpless victims. Yes, religion often victimizes–but when your desire to express your sentiments about Islamist oppression ends up undercutting and devaluing the work of ex-Muslims, you might want to take a step back and reassess why it’s so important for you to voice your tired assertion that ex-Muslims are at risk for violence in that context. Instead, you can express support for and help promote our endeavors.

It doesn’t help for you to talk about our dead bodies and potential violence being done to us as a product of our work. That is not how we want to be thought of. If we are fortunate and empowered enough to be in safe places where we can articulate our experiences, make beautiful new projects and expand our safe places within our communities–why would you have a desire to project horrible circumstances upon us instead of celebrating the fact that we are doing what we are doing, openly and freely?

Why deny our freedom and agency when it’s absolutely unnecessary? Why give voice to the power of religious oppression by diverting the focus from our work and to how the Islamists would kill us for our work?

I certainly hope that it’s nothing along the lines of feeling that the existence of free, safe, empowered Ex-Muslims might undermine your ability to generalize about an evil, violent, destructive Islam everywhere. We don’t need to make things seem worse than they are to have powerful, compelling critiques of religion.

And isn’t it a good thing that Ex-Muslims can be safely out and proud?

-Marwa

donate2Why I have a donate button on my blog.

 

Join the Ex-Hijabi Fashion Photo Journal!

ex-hijabi2

 

I’m very excited about launching this new project: the Ex-Hijabi Fashion Photo Journal!

Featuring ex-hijabis with awesome hairstyles and tattoos and piercings. Ex-hijabis in bikinis and little black dresses and cargo pants and hiking boots. Ex-hijabis who are femme and ex-hijabis who are butch. Ex-hijabis who are women and ex-hijabis who are men. Ex-hijabis topless and legsome and all decked out and minimalistic and with long hair and buzzcuts and everything. EVERYTHING.

Basically ex-hijabis choosing how THEY want their bodies to look, because bodies are a joy and not a shame.

ex-hijabi

I’m thinking each post will feature a new  ex-hijabi with a small story on their background and feelings about the shift from a life of obscurity to one where they can model and fashion their own bodies as they please. Before photos for the posts are welcome but not a must, because I understand that many ex-hijabis don’t want to think about or look at their past selves. I might need private proof that you are indeed an ex-hijabi if you want to participate, though, so we can keep this a safe place for all those who are displaying such vulnerability.

Your body is awesome and not a shame!

I have the preliminary site up with a couple of posts up already but the point is to expand and diversify so that a whole lot of different people are showcased. A few women are in the process of getting posts to me, and soon thereafter I’ll start the photo stories in earnest:

http://exhijabifashion.tumblr.com/

Here are answers to some FAQ:

1) You are welcome to contribute if you used to or still do wear hijab full or parttime regardless of your reasons, or if you are from a country where you are forced to wear it outdoors by law, even if you don’t wear it in private in front of non-mahram men or when you leave your country (Shout-out to all my Iranian and Saudi fans in particular). If you still wear hijab we can obscure your identity as much as possible so nobody recognizes it’s you in your not-hijabi photos.

2) And if you are a NEW ex-Hijabi, we can even do coming-out features if/when you’re ready. It’s a moment worth celebrating! I wish someone had celebrated mine. In my culture we used to do Hijab Parties for girls who started wearing the hijab. I wish we could do ex-Hijab parties for girls who take it off!

3) If you are not an ex-Hijabi but are a closeted ex-Muslim who must live under various modesty requirements, and want to post revealing your legs and tummies and other ‘sinful’ areas, you are also welcome to contribute. I want to retain the title Ex-Hijabi Fashion Photo Journal, if our non-ex-hijabi contributors don’t feel that is excluding them. I think it’s important to acknowledge a space that celebrates the unique ex-hijabi experience, but that doesn’t mean that it needs to exclude ex-Muslim type individuals who have not had to cover their hair for various reasons but who have had modesty requirements imposed upon them and want to dissent.

4) Pseudonyms are welcome. Body shots without faces showing, such as back-facing shots, are welcome. We know the deal. Safety first.

5) We welcome photos of people freely engaging in ‘sinful’ behavior as long as it’s not exploitative or harmful others. Send us your shots with your glasses of wine and kissing your girlfriends and boyfriends or cutting up your hijabs, etc. Whatever feels right and vindicating to you. This is a space for us to glory in all that we could not do before.

6) The Ex-Hijabi Fashion Photo Blog will be a queer-safe, trans-safe zone. There will be no censorship of anybody’s body parts in any way. There will be no requirements or restrictions regarding gender identity, sexual orientation, race, age as long as you are an adult, size, style, and ability.

7) Because of potential adult content, we will however mark shots with nudity as NSFW and have warnings for viewers under 18.

Interested in joining? Have I covered all the bases? Any questions?

Email me at aveilandadarkplace@gmail.com !

-Marwa

donate2Why I have a donate button on my blog.