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

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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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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?

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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

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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

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Join the Ex-Hijabi Fashion Photo Journal!

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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.

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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 [email protected] !

-Marwa

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Don’t Judge a Woman by her Cover: the Hijab and Unethical Judgments

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Please don’t judge hijabis for reasons pertaining to their hijab.

And I know this is a request that might make us all start with the ‘but theys…’. Let’s hold off on that for a minute.

Because I’ve done it too. I do still, sometimes, and catch myself. Even though I wore the damn thing myself for 15 years and knew what it was to be painted in whole swaths of ugly colors because of it.

It’s just so easy to other.

And no, it’s not a request reducible to ‘you never know; she might be forced into it.’ Yes, that’s some of it– you can’t tell by looking at hijabi if she’s a closeted atheist or a devout Muslim woman or somewhere in between. There are so many problems with saying “what’s on her head is a reflection of what’s in her head”, to say the least because the hijab as such doesn’t reflect one common belief or set of beliefs for all women who wear it.

But that’s not even close to being entirely it at all. It’s about much more than those who are physically forced to wear the hijab. And even that gets tricky, because physical coercion doesn’t preclude ideological conviction. Sure, a hijabi might be beaten or worse for showing some skin. That doesn’t mean she must have any individual desire to independent of that.

It’s about a lot more than conviction in any case.

It might seem like a paradoxical request–after all, the hijab is a publicly coded way a woman arrays herself, seemingly inspiring also-public commentary. It’s the way she is seen in public and only in public, for the eyes of others–a little different than women who fashion their own clothing styles for themselves, whether or not others see them.  It’s a purposely and exclusively public mode of dress (even if particular stylistic choices in conjunction with it are not), perhaps even a statement for some, of belief or identity. You might know hijabi women who have liberal families who wouldn’t impose it upon them. You might know hijabi women who live in countries where they are free to dress as they please. Yes, I’m talking about them too.

I’m also talking about women in some floating in-between place, who wear the hijab but behave and interact in ways that seem to be at odds with the traditional understanding of it. Yes, I am talking about judging them as hypocrites too.

Let’s talk about the in-between cases, because they carry the burdens of both sides of judgment.

Tonight I learned a new term used to denigrate some women who wear hijab in Muslim communities in the West. The term, ‘hoe-jabis’ is used by some to describe girls who wear hijab in public but who will text and snapchat boys without their hijabs in private, or engage in other ‘immodest’ behavior.

And yes, this is offensive to hijabis.

But I also find it offensive to women. What problem is there if a woman who (I assume chooses to) wear hijab in the general public wants to privately show her hair and body to a boy she cares about? The two desires aren’t mutually exclusive for her actions to be hypocritical. After all, we as humans regulate our levels of intimacy and comfort in revealing parts of our hearts and bodies in many, many different ways, including barring the general public from what we reveal in private to those close to us. To suggest that a woman needs to line up her public and private performativity to suit the preferences of those looking at her is a fundamentally controlling and patriarchal viewpoint.

And snapchatting some boy doesn’t make her a ‘hoe’, which is a denigrating, slut-shaming slur you shouldn’t call any woman, regardless of intent (ie saying things like I don’t mean she’s an *actual* slut ffs does not actually absolve you). Dan Fincke over at Camels With Hammers perfectly expresses how and when intent is relevant when it comes to insults and slurs here. I thank him for taking care of that part of this argument so I don’t have to.

And if she wears hijab because others make her in some way, it’s even worse, because she’s basically being denigrated and attacked for trying to have some freedom within difficult and damning constraints, for trying to carve some sort of meaningful connection and expression within an already-limited life.

And let me stress strongly how incredibly unfair and ironic it is that hijabis are judged with harsher standards than everyone else for showing their hair. Non-hijabis aren’t attacked and called ‘hoes’ for walking around with their hair showing, but a hijabi is for snapchatting a boy her hijabless photo? And when hijabis have it all so much harder in terms of the scrutiny to begin with–and yes, they do, even the ones who choose it–that’s just the icing on the cake, isn’t it?

But, you might say, ‘I know these girls. I’m not judging them for their immodesty, I’m not slut-shaming them–I just don’t like hypocrisy, and it’s not like I’m judging them without knowing them. I know that girls X and Y come from liberal Muslim families that don’t make them wear hijab.’

If that is the case, perhaps you should ask yourself why they do it. And indeed you do, you say, well, why are they being fake? Why, why, do they do it, if they seem to care about modesty so little that they’ll snapchat boys in private? Why not just be immodest if that’s who they really are?

Did it not occur to you that they have reasons you are perhaps not privy to?

For one, people are not binaries who are/want only one thing all the time. Public modesty and private exhibitionism are not at odds. In fact, the first might make the latter even more wonderful and exciting. And that’s pretty okay.

But again, I ask, so what if their parents don’t make them?

Well, what does make them mean? Do you mean their parents don’t physically force them? Is physical force the only type of coercion? Is physical safety the only important consideration? If a person can choose to not wear hijab without being physically harmed, does that suddenly make it such that all requirements have been met for a choice to be considered not-coercive, free-enough?

Consider that parental pressure isn’t the only social force governing the quality and worth of a young woman’s life. Consider too that internal family dynamics are often not what they appear to be for the outsider, and you may not know as much as you think you do. 

Consider that there are myriads of ways in which a young woman’s body is scrutinized and controlled by her family that are not expressible in an explicit desire that she cover her hair, but that covering her hair alleviates many of those pressures.

Consider that you may be assuming too much about the options the girls you know have to begin with. Consider that you may be making value judgments as to what they ought to consider important, what they ought to care about. Consider that a young woman in a Muslim community in the West might find herself  better off trading in personal expression for social acceptance, and that she knows best what considerations she’s had to juggle to do that. Consider that there is a marriage crisis among American Muslim communities and stringent spouse competition, and women might choose hijabs because it helps them start a family. Consider that the difference between wearing hijab or not might be the difference between having friends, being loved, being less scrutinized, being more trusted and given more freedoms, being eligible for funding or educational opportunities.

Consider that the women in question are trading some freedoms in for access to rarer or more valuable ones, while trying to secretly salvage some of the freedoms they gave up. Would you blame them for trying to make the most of their circumstances?

Consider that wearing hijab might provide a woman suffering from a body image disorder with a socially-acceptable–even lauded–escape from scrutiny, and that by judging her for snapchatting some boy you might be denigrating her for being able to love and admire her body enough to share it with a few people who make her feel good enough about herself–that you might be denigrating her for becoming healthier, for being in less pain.

Consider that the woman you are shaming might be in transition from a hijabi life to a non-hijabi life, pulling her courage and conviction together bit by bit as humans must sometimes do, because we cannot erase the effects of a lifetime of enclosure on our bodies at the flick of a switch. Consider that by judging her in-between phase, you are making it harder for her to want to show her body to more and more people. Consider how ineffably difficult it is to begin to reveal your skin to other people when it has always been treated with shame and vicious scrutiny. Consider that the very things you blame the hijabi for doing might be tender, new, hesitant explorations at having a body that others can see, and see with kindness.

And oh, as an ex-hijabi, I can only say if only you knew how racking and painful it can be to try to reconnect with a body obscured for a lifetime.

Consider that the woman you are judging might be trying to come to terms with a choice that a younger version of herself made, that she may have felt differently about her hijab at one point in time, but that she made a near-socially-permanent decision branded in other people’s image of her, their treatment of her, and it is slow and difficult for her to build up the courage to break away from it under the massive scrutiny of a society that has already decided what she is and who she can be because of decisions she made in her past.

Consider that some people are ineffably shy, and shyness often manifests according to social norms, and covering might only be natural to a shy person in a Muslim community. Consider that you might be judging a shy, quiet person who is hesitant to let most people close to her body, but would balk at barring all from it, because she, like you, craves intimacy, craves love, craves essential human bonds.

There are ten million million possibilities that you cannot know.

No, even if you wear hijab or wore it, you cannot know. In my 15 years wearing the hijab, with all my intimacy and used-to-it-ness with it, I still encountered situations and environments I couldn’t imagine before they came upon me, that I reacted to in ways that would have surprised a former version of myself.

Consider that for many people, there are things more important than being able to bare your legs to the warmth of the sun and let your hair ripple in the wind, as amazing as those things can be.

Here you might say that, well, even if there are all these pressures, one doesn’t necessarily have to conform to them if they don’t have full conviction. Why cave? Why give in to the demands of society?

Because, dammit, people have to live. And living means a heck of a lot more than food and drink and physical safety. Continuity between ideology and action is a luxury in a misogynistic society.

And really, maybe they do have conviction. Perhaps consider that you are assuming that they don’t have conviction in their version of the hijab just because it doesn’t line up with the traditionally Islamic one, as if people don’t redefine and adjust social and religious norms to their own preferences, or agree with some values and not others, on a regular basis. Consider that the hijab she wears or doesn’t wear sometimes or all the time is *exactly* the practice she might have conviction in, and she’s not being a hypocrite at all. Consider that she might be wearing hijab for reasons other than modesty or averting the male gaze–I have friends who wear hijab for non-modesty reasons, and they are the same friends who are constantly hounded because their hijab is not-modest enough…despite there being no contradiction in having an immodest form of hijab if you’re not wearing it for the modesty.

Consider that even among those who do value modesty, it is quite possible for someone to have recurring but not constant desire for modest expression. Consider that by denigrating these women’s understanding of what they want their hijab to be as hypocritical, you are objecting to the evolution of social norms to more progressive alternatives.

And let me tell you, maybe you should ask yourself why you are so harsh upon those who you see as doing nothing but conforming to social pressure (as if that were an easy, burdenless thing!). Consider that when you denigrate the need for social acceptance, you are denigrating a need that you might not have because you may have never lacked it, or that you might be denigrating a need that is essentially human, that makes us happy and whole and well, connecting to others. Because isolation kills, and that is not a metaphor. Consider that when you denigrate the need for companionship, community, friendship, you are being superior and condescending about those who have less than you.

Even if you were once where they are, and hate who you were or what you did, even if you think you know what it is like to be there, and think that you yourself were a coward, a hypocrite, two-faced–do not project that upon others whose lives and circumstances are not yours, whose stories you don’t know. (And though this is your business alone, perhaps you might consider being kinder to your younger self).

Here you might say, well, can’t they conform in only the most necessary ways, instead of going to certain extremes? After all, even though plenty of non-hijabi Muslim girls are continuously hounded and harassed about the length of their sleeves and the scoop of their necklines, their hair is subject to less scrutiny, so why would they go as far as the hijab?

Well, consider that there are dual purposes for choosing something like the hijab. Hijabing up might immediately remove those harassments and pressures while at the same time filling a niche of acceptance within Muslim communities that is mercifully invisible in ways that a neither-here-nor-there dress code might not be. A woman wearing long pants and long sleeves with a hijab on her head is known to fit an established role,  while a woman who dresses like a hijabi in every way but her hair is likely to stick out, to be subject to puzzlement, scrutiny, and even mockery. Societies have spaces that are well-worn, that are easier to groove into. People who fill those spaces tend to flourish in easier ways than those who straddle in-between, and that is worth a little extra hypocrisy. Again, because people have to live, dammit.

Consider that when you do use these labels as negative value judgments–fake, coward, hypocrite, weak–you are considering submission to power structures a matter of unique moral wrongness in one way or another, when the fact of the matter is that we all adjust our public personas to social norms and expectations all the time–that in various ways, whether we will it or not, we are all hypocrites, we are all pretending, at least a little. And for good reason. It is not practical, efficient, or safe to be all of ourselves to all people all the time. And though you might call this hypocrisy, it is not a shame.

Consider that those women might not want to be all the things you judge them as being–do you think they want to think of themselves as weak or fake or hypocrites? Do you think this is not a struggle for them, that your voice is not one they echo to themselves often? Consider that they choose, for instance, hypocrisy or submission over greater evils, to gain a less difficult life.

Consider that you are denigrating people for, whatever reason, making sacrifices that you don’t have to make, and then condemning them for trying to salvage a little bit of what they gave up in small ways, on their own terms.

Consider that you are participating in an ages-long patriarchal tradition of scrutinizing and labeling women for what they do with their bodies, when, how, and for what reason, and adding on to the labels and scrutiny of others: of the anti-Muslim bigots, the traditional, religious patriarchs slut-shaming even covered women, the hawk-like eyes of society in general.

Consider that when you stop judging her, you help her a bit. You help relieve some of the strain of constant judgment she inevitably suffers from.

It’s a little bit like fat-shaming. Fat people commonly encounter scrutiny and aggression and are even man-handled wherever they go from people who know jack-all about them and their bodily history. It does not help a fat person to be told they are unhealthy and need to lose weight, as if that is some startling revelation instead of being a constant, constant message reinforced at every turn all over media, social media, by friends and family and strangers. Your message is not unique. It is not a revelation. And you’re kidding yourself if you tell yourself it’s out of concern for that person. It is not original, insightful, or helpful. It is nosy, inappropriate, unkind, and often very cruel. Same goes for women wearing hijab in the West, same goes for women slut-shamed in a myriad of ways in the West.

And here’s the thing: it’s none of your business how women clothe their bodies, in public or in private. The publicity of a hijabi woman’s dress does not make it your business. She is not on the street for your perusal. She is on the street to live her damn life.

I understand that it can be very frustrating to see women engaging in dress codes you consider to be socially harmful, because you believe they bolster patriarchal norms of modesty, that they reinforce purity myths, because you lament the state of affairs that pressures women to conform to doctrines that reduce their values to their bodies or that treat an uncovered body as an object of social discord.

And I hear you.

But the enemy is not the woman who conforms to these imposed social norms, or who even chooses them in agreement with their values.  Judging her for her dress not only does nothing to dismantle the purity myth or modesty doctrines–it only reinforces the values behind the patriarchal practice of scrutinizing and policing what women do with their bodies. You want to challenge the power structures that pressure and trap women, not blame women for caving under pressure, for making difficult choices. If you oppose the violation of a woman’s bodily autonomy, then you must oppose it regardless of the reasons that woman has for her bodily choices. There is far greater danger in policing bodies as a means of policing values than there is in preserving the freedoms that allow people to choose even regressive values for themselves.

And yes, I get frustrated too, to see women adhere to modesty doctrines, despite all of my empathy from my own 15 hijabi’d years. I have to fight my frustration sometimes when I see a hijabi on the street (speaking of hypocrisy! I am ashamed), but then I remind myself that I don’t know her story, don’t know her struggle, don’t know her reasons.

She could be me.

The point is that even though the frustration is understandable, it doesn’t justify judgment. It sure as *hell* doesn’t justify slut-shaming.

And you can’t imagine what it is like. It’s not like walking around wearing the hijab, even when you choose it, is easy. It’s not like women who wear the hijab don’t have difficult, challenging lives. Consider that when you judge a woman wearing hijab for being weak, or a follower, you are completely discounting the monumental struggle of it. Wearing the hijab is not borne of weakness. It is taxing far beyond all the judging, in ways that I haven’t the space to articulate, but that you can find here.

But the judgment is a plenty hefty cost on its own. It *isolates* you. It brands you. It turns your body into a beacon that everyone believes they have the right to judge because you arrayed it in a  way that people think is a code for something they understand.

I wore the hijab myself for 15 years and every time I met a new person I admired, all I could do was hope and wish they weren’t judging me for the hijab on my head. Being closeted, it wasn’t exactly a thing that I could bring up to explain. I had to establish rapport, build trust with a few very close people before letting them know, know it all. 

And damn is it difficult walking around with a supreme disconnect between what you are perceived to be and who you are. I feared the judgment of teachers I loved, professors I practically worshiped, department visitors whose talks I went to and had conversations with. People whose esteem and respect I wanted very much, who I didn’t want to be othered by because of an assumption that I held an entirely different worldview. It was one of the biggest struggles I had, trying to be close to people who shared my values while projecting the outward Muslim image and not being able to explain it away for fear of my own safety. And living in sectarian Lebanon, facing college classrooms full of judgy teenagers fueled with sectarian biases and knowing that I had ‘Shia woman’ branded all over me and they were evaluating me according to that information before I even started teaching them– that was almost as bad.

And with a lot of people I met and befriended, I didn’t realize how much anxiety I’d been holding in about the fear of judgment until I was in a position–often YEARS later–to explain it to them. I took a course with Dan Dennett when he was Visiting Prof at the American University of Beirut in 2011, and carried that fear around throughout the semester, although he showed not a smidgen of hostility or discrimination towards me for my hijab (in fact, he was immeasurably kind–one of the kindest professors I’ve ever had. He did me a great favor that semester that I shall always be grateful for–if you are reading, thank you, Dan). But understand, even when people are as welcoming and respectful as they can be, there is still a fraught existential discomfort attached to being compelled to present your body as not only other from what you are, but obscure it, present it in ways you hate–when you are, in the most essential ways, nothing more than your body. And it is constant, overbearing.

Not to mention heavy, heavy. I went on departmental trips, had dinner with Dennett and my other professors, attended an awesome conference on the metaphysics of evolutionary naturalism all without him knowing I wasn’t Muslim. I remember I used to deliberately be more vocal than usual about my agreement with concepts challenging religious values when they came up tangentially in our Philosophy of Biology course. I wanted him to know that I wasn’t a bigot–I wanted everyone to know that. I remember the *huge* anxiety that lifted from my chest when I began corresponding with him about being ex-Muslim and my blog stuff 2 years later. I still almost cry in relief when I get warm emails from him and other friends from that part of my life who finally know who I really am and who love me for it.

And this is important: It is anything but easy, anything but a frivolous choice to present yourself as other than what you are. The costs are weighty, long-lasting–I haven’t even begun to articulate half of the personal costs for me in this blog. I have so many half-written pieces trying to tease it out, but suffice to say that the lines can get fuzzy after years of splitting yourself between a public fictional self and a private true self. Consider that the women you judge might have good reasons for putting themselves through this.

And the isolation is toxic. The isolation of having judgment from both the religious and non-religious sides, of being accepted by neither, of being in-between, of it being extremely difficult to trust anyone and have friends, human connection, intimacy, love….that’s the worst. The worst.

And truly, far too many people are somewhere in that in-between–scrutinized both by the stringent religious powers around them and the critical non-Muslim observers.

So think again, next time you move to judge a hijabi on the street or in your social sphere.

There is so, so much to consider.

-Marwa

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PS: My transition over to the Freethought Blogs is imminent! More soon.

PPS: Thanks to those who took part in our #TwitterTheocracy campaign yesterday. If you haven’t already, please sign our petition against Twitter blocking ‘blasphemous’ tweets from Pakistan. Use a fake address if you must, but SIGN ITTTT!!!!!

PPPS: This will have its own post soon, but I’m going to start an Ex-Hijabi Fashion Photo Blog soon! It will feature ex-hijabis with awesome hairstyles and tattoos and piercings. Ex-hijabis in bikinis and little black dresses. Ex-hijabis who are femme and ex-hijabis who are butch. 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, finally. If you are an ex-hijabi with a desire to be featured, email me at [email protected]

An Open Letter to Closeted Ex-Muslims

before after

To my closeted ex-Muslim friends,

It’s summer time, a time when a lot of you have to go back home and into the closet again. And it’s difficult and damning, especially for women and LGBTQ individuals. I have something to say to you in this situation:

I’m sorry for what is happening to you right now. Thank you for reaching out to people like me; I hope you can always find those who will understand what it’s like. Even having been there, it’s hard to imagine how exhausting and difficult it is to be where you are now.

You’re an adult whose agency is being denied constantly, your movements and desires and identities and values hidden like secrets, and the price of secrecy is weighty; it is only dwarfed by the price of the truth being known. You have to hide things to be safe. You have to hide things to continue to enjoy the few freedoms given to you. And the things that you hide are fundamentally the things that you *are*. You are forced to suppress your own *sense of self*, to erase your emotions and expressions, to subdue yourself. These are two too-crucial things to pit against each other, safety and identity. To complicate that, you’re under constant scrutiny from people who have the strange relationship of both having undue power over you and who you may love, feel bonded to.

You have to obscure your body, police your dress, your tone, the content and involvement of your speech. You have to carry out rituals you find repugnant and nonsensical because they are required of you and you are being watched. You have to struggle with hating how you are presenting your body, hating the things you do and say, without hating yourself. You have to consistently lie and hide, lie with your face and your actions and your words, and struggle with the guilt and disgust of having to do that.

You struggle because you are good and you have integrity.

You have to listen to attacks to your sense of self, your value as a person, as a woman, your intellectual beliefs, without talking back. You have to listen to generalized condemnations of people who think and feel like you do, to homophobia, transphobia, ableism, bigotry without talking back. You are treated as a child, you are treated like an object, you are treated with blatant misogyny, and you have to sit down and accept it.

And people wonder why you’re in so much pain.

I want to tell you that I recognize your struggle, that it is powerful, real, and more than anyone should have to bear. I want to tell you that I admire your fortitude, your ability to do all that, and that I find you utterly blameless in whatever choice you make. If you choose the path of least conflict it’s because you know that you’re not obliged to handle the inherently unfair repercussions, it’s because you know what you’re up against and have made your calculations according to information and experiences only you are fit to assess.

I want to tell you that I am sorry that sometimes I grow impatient and exasperated for you, that I realize how out of touch and arrogant it is for me to do that when you are carrying around this level of pain. I am sorry that I have wondered why you cannot be more assertive, why you can’t come out and move on and never go back to that place. I’m ashamed at those instincts, because I have forgotten so quickly what it’s like to be where you are, and how every choice is damning, every choice has supreme costs that you and you alone will have to bear. Even if my impatience comes from a place of love, it does not come from a place of understanding, it does not come from a place of respect for your agency, and I apologize.

And I love you. I love you very much. And I will be here no matter what you decide to do.

-Marwa

Related:

What it’s like to be an Ex-Muslim woman

What it’s like to be a Muslim woman, Part One

What it’s like to be a Muslim woman, Part Two

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Islamophobia? Muslimophobia? Anti-Muslim Bigotry? A discussion between Ex-Muslims on appropriate neologisms

Me and some of my ex-Muslim community during the Women in Secularism con in DC this past weekend. Credit to Bruce F Press Photography: http://www.brucefpressphotography.com/

Me and some of my ex-Muslim community during the Women in Secularism con in DC this past weekend. Credit to Bruce F Press Photography: http://www.brucefpressphotography.com/

Have you ever had the desire for a sneak-peak into ex-Muslim groups to see what we commonly talk about together?

During the last day or so, community members at the Ex-Muslims of North America have been having a discussion regarding the terminology we ought to use to differentiate between undue discrimination against Muslims and reasoned critique of Islam. The idea is that the term ‘Islamophobia’ has become a catch-all phrase used to silence legitimate critique of an ideology in addition to condemning bigotry towards Muslims, and the two concepts need to be differentiated, perhaps deserving their own neologisms.

For the sake of attribution, here are the members who took part in the conversation. Some identities obscured for safety reasons:

  • Abdullah, EXMNA member.
  • Farid Sheikh, EXMNA member. You can find him on Twitter here.
  • Jnt, EXMNA member.
  • Kiran Opal, EXMNA co-founder. You can find her on Twitter here.
  •  Luke Clark, EXMNA member. You can find his blog here.
  • Muhammad Syed, EXMNA co-founder. You can find him on Twitter here, you can email him here.
  • Teslabear, the verified meetup organizer for EXMNA Chicago
  • Me.

Below is a transcript of our conversation. I’m not sure we reached any conclusions, but there were a lot of very intelligent and thoughtful points made that I think merit sharing with the larger atheist/skeptic community and whoever else is interested in the matter. The conversation really gives a sense of just how complex this situation is. I think an ever-recurring question among skeptics and humanists who care about social justice is ‘How can we critique Islam without enabling discrimination towards Muslims?’ This is a very relevant subtopic within that larger conversation.

I would like to note that our community largely operates under the assumption that bigotry towards Muslims is a real and prevalent form of discrimination that we want to condemn. This is not the space for denial of that fact; go elsewhere if that is your objection. I am not obligated to host such comments.

Muhammad asked the original question:

Guys I had a question
We’ve been pushing back against the term Islamophobia
I’ve been using Muslimophobia , over the weekend Marwa was using the term anti-Muslim bigotry, we’ve also used plain old xenophobia.

One issue is that its actually more targeted towards certain perceptions of Muslim, those wearing the hijab or the swarthy bearded dude etc

Any ideas on a catch phrase or word that would encapsulate the concept?

Abdullah :

Why should it only be limited to a certain type of Muslim or look? We’re all affected by it, even ex-Muslims.

Me:

I do like using the term anti-Muslim bigotry because it clearly delineates those attitudes as bigoted, setting them apart from the reasoned critique we try to engage in.

I also think, as Abdullah indicated, that the racism is much less discriminant and more insidious than just extremist stereotypes. I think a mild affiliation is enough. Remember the anti-Muslim and anti-Arab slurs directed at the non-Muslim non-Arab Miss America strutting around in a bikini, because she’s brown? Soraya Chemaly was telling us too that she gets read as from a Muslim background purely because of her name, despite it being a Lebanese Christian family name. One of my friends with the family name Nasrallah, gets stopped in airports regularly because of her last name, despite Nasrallah being a common Christian name in the Levant too. I’m sure there are myriads of other examples.

At this point an anonymous member asks why we don’t refer to it as just xenophobia, because those who are bigoted against people who are or appear to be Muslim are also bigoted towards other minorities and races, so xenophobic would be a more accurate term.

Me:

But why would we want to use a catch-all term such as xenophobia for that sort of racism when we’re talking about it in the context of critiquing Islam? Yes, anti-Muslim bigots are often more broadly xenophobes too, among other things, but we’re specifically trying to address their anti-Muslim attitudes as contrasted with our own discourse.

Teslabear:

I think it’s strange that Ex-Muslims have to come up with terms to separate ourselves from those that are bigoted or xenophobic, in general. I think creating a new term for it is useful for our circles, but it might not be helpful in the long run to create more divisions in terminology.

The gist of the issue seems to remain that if one critiques Muslim behavior or beliefs (Islam, then), one is considered a bigot or racist, which makes absolutely no sense. The issue that really needs to be resolved is that people need to stop equating Muslims with a race. Plenty of Muslims are born into or convert from varied racial backgrounds. Another issue that underlies the problem is that people think religion is somehow absolved of critical analysis, and that one should “respect” religions by not saying anything negative. Da Fuq?

We shouldn’t cater to people being fearful of being called racist/bigots when we are clearly not while criticizing a religious belief.

Me:

It’s not just for us. It’s a problem that exists with anybody whatsoever whose critique can be brushed aside using the Islamophobia accusation. Whether or not it’s unfortunate that this need is there, it’s still there and practical considerations say we address it. Whether it’s fair or not that we’re lumped in with the bigots, we need to address that circumstance by creating and *grounding* the distinction in *mainstream discourse* until it is normalized. There needs to be a better term that creates a distinction between bigoted and reasoned claims or arguments. The concepts within a term [ie, Islamophobia] already used to silence us and people like us need to be separated. The only way we normalize changes to problematic discourse is by creating distinctions, using them, and trying to spread them further. Which is why unified terminology is important; so we’re not all talking about it with different terms. Soon our work is going to be elevated to mainstream secular blogs. We’re also working on getting into mainstream media venues beyond the purely secular.

And I have to disagree that bigotry towards Muslim behavior is not racism. Let’s not forget that lumping ethnicities and cultural practices together because of a pre-conception tied to Islam is racist. Racism lies in generalizations about PoC, and conflation is one of the worst forms of generalization. Racism is almost never a direct discussion of something on explicitly racial grounds. Most racist attitudes are at the surface level not towards explicit races. Racist attitudes about single moms, rap music, food stamps, hoodies, football mascots abound. None of those are races per se. Racist discussions of them are reducible to generalized beliefs regarding the customs and communities of those who engage/partake in them. Anti-Muslim bigotry is very, very much about race. Even discussion of white converts involves concepts of theft and seduction by brown people taking over white values. We do no one favors by hiding behind the ‘Islam is not a race ‘ card as if that was relevant in whether it is or can be discussed in racist ways. Least of all ourselves, because the racism that allows others to assume that we adopt Muslim sentiments or beliefs because of our ethnicities and despite our actions and words is the same racism that Muslims suffer from.

Luke:

Because the anti Muslim sentiment is just window dressing for the bigotry and hatred against those deemed “foreign”; the specific anti-Islam rhetoric is nothing but window dressing. The same people hate brown folks from other parts of the world for the same reason while giving a different bullshit reason for doing so.

I’d be down with calling it racism, too. I just think xenophobia gets around the Islam is not a race card.

Me:

I mean, yes. And I don’t really need to point out that the problem with equating Muslims to a race is that it’s RACIST. And it is prevalent. Brown people and Muslims are often uniformly reduced to stereotypes about Arabs. People don’t fucking know that South Asia and MENA are two completely different geographical areas. Racism of that sort is already there and we need to both condemn it, reclaim our stake in its detriment, and set ourselves apart from it.

Abdullah:

Islam is not Muslims. Islam is not a race; that doesn’t mean Muslims are not a racialized group.

Kiran:

Some Hindus and Sikhs have gotten attacked/harassed by white supremacists (esp. right after 9/11) who thought they were also Muslim (or ‘Paki’ which is a derogatory term in the UK for anyone brownish).

On the other hand, some Hindus (i.e. brown people) also *hate* Muslims (esp. the brown ones) with a passion.

So, this is a very complex issue.

I do think people presume that anyone who is Muslim thinks a certain way, especially if they are wearing hijab and especially if they’re wearing a niqab, a thobe, a salafi-style or long unkempt beard etc. This presumption includes things that even some of us may consider when we first see e.g. a Muslim man in a thobe and a 6 inch beard walking with 2 women in niqabs and 6 children behind him. Does that mean anyone deemed Muslim should be treated as less than anyone deemed non-Muslim in civic matters? No. I don’t think they should. BUT, the fact is, that when *I* see a scene like what I just described above, I DO judge the people involved. I DO think that they are living in a way that is oppressive to women, that is supremacist, that is abusive to LGBTQ people, to religious minorities.

I think similarly when I see e.g. a Hassidic Jewish family, or a group of obvious Mormons walking around.

Does that mean I am Islamophobic, Hassidophobic, Mormonophobic?

I do think that this matter should be made to be *more* complex. We can not simplify this with just finding one right term, unfortunately. I don’t think one word or phrase can do justice to the matter.

I personally use ‘anti-Muslim bigotry’ and plain old bigotry/xenophobia when referring to the particular brand of hostility that *anyone presumed to be Muslim* faces at the hands of those who think all “Muslims” are alike or that “once a Muslim always a Muslim” (the latter type of prejudice is what we as Ex-Muslims also face).

Muhammad:

That’s exactly the point I was trying to capture, post 9/11 a sikh man was killed b/c he was ‘perceived’ to be Muslim. Generally speaking yes *it is a complex issue* but for something to get mainstream traction it has to be more sound-bitey, one can then expand on it and highlight how complex the entire issue is.

For example in conversations with a few secularists (including on podcasts) I’ve told them to not use the word Islamophobia but to sub it with Muslimophobia. Even though i’m not convinced that is the right phrase to use.

Luke:

Muslimphobia is a neologism coined on a neologism, inelegant, and non-euphonious. If it is necessary to explicitly delineate anti-Muslim sentiments and actions, as opposed to subsuming them within the terms racism or xenophobia, I think it is better to go with Marwa’s ‘anti-Muslim bigotry.’ That also has the virtue of including Hindu hatred and persecution of Muslims (which is less racist than it is castist, though there are certainly elements of xenophobia in it).

Farid:

I have to agree with Teslabear. Bigotry is bigotry is bigotry. I don’t see how a new term will be helpful – of course I can be convinced if there is a good argument for it.

I like the term xenophobia, and it doesn’t separate us from other groups fighting bigotry/xenophobia – strength in numbers. Plus if we are against xenophobia then we are against all xenophobia not just against us, that kind of goes against the meaning of xenophobia.

This is a complex issue which will have to be explained in detail when we talk about it, doesn’t matter what term we use. My suggestion is to use a term that doesn’t pigeonhole us into the “Muslim/Islam” box. We have to appeal to more people.

Me:

I guess I honestly don’t understand the resistance to using a term specific to the bigotry we’re discussing. Nobody uses just ‘bigotry’ to talk about racism, transphobia, biphobia, ableism, or fatphobia, for instance. The same reason we don’t just say ‘humanism’ for particularly feminist issues, and object to those who would have us do so. I write about this shit a lot and a non-specific term simply will not capture the thrust of the problem. I don’t think we’re pigeon-holing ourselves or limiting our audience by acknowledging the specificity of the bigotry we face and/or are accused of. How else can we talk about it? How do we avoid generalizations ourselves otherwise? I don’t think it’s sufficient to explain the dynamics of what’s going on without highlighting exactly what kind of bigotry it is. I mean, even in this thread there have been insinuations that bigotry against Muslims isn’t about race; without using terms about racism and race-specific terms, for instance, how would one build an argument challenging that? Without acknowledging the Muslim focus of bigotry and the ways it manifests, how do we build arguments around it? At least, I haven’t been able to in my writing. Maybe those of you who write about this stuff too have been able to find a way, but I haven’t.

And yes, we are against all forms of xenophobia, but if our discourse is focused on Islam and atheism and intersectionality in between then we are not in fact addressing worldwide xenophobia. Nor should we. Just because someone has a blog about cats doesn’t mean they don’t like dogs and dogs aren’t important to them; it only means that dogs have marginal space in their blog. Any sensible person would see that.

Luke:

Anti-Muslim bigotry sounds better to me than Muslimphobia.

Muhammad:

One of my main concerns with anti-Muslim bigotry or Muslimophobia is it’s playing into the racialization, I understand that the bigotry comes from a place where Muslims are regarded as a monolith by racists but on the flip side Islamists are trying to erase that diversity as well. As always we’re caught between a rock and a hard place.

Me:

Yeah, I see how that’s a stickler– which is why I say anti-Muslim bigotry rather than just anti-Muslim racism cuz it is in fact broader than that. It is a difficult subject for sure. But if what we’re hoping to do is replace the term Islamophobia with a more accurate term, should it not be specific enough so that it cannot be distorted to condemn critique of Islam by virtue of its specificity?

I don’t know. There will always be problems with however we choose to look at it.

JnT:

Muslimphobia denotes fear more than anything. And while I believe all bigotry and racism are fear-based, the word lacks the intensity of the hatred AND fear of what they know little to nothing about.

Luke:

I don’t think that ‘Anti-Muslim bigotry’ unduly racializes things. It’s elastic enough to cover Hindu persecution of Muslims and the persecution of the ‘white’ Muslims of Eastern Europe, for example, while still not pretending that the origins of much if not most anti-Muslim sentiment IS racial prejudice.

The discussion sort of died down at that point. But there you have it, a peek into the sorts of discussions we’re interested in having, the ways in which we interact with and relate to each other. Thoughts? Weigh-ins?

-Marwa

PS: Oh hey! I was on the Godless Family Webcast yesterday alongside Heina Dadabhoy to talk about Islam. My technology situation isn’t so great so unfortunately my camera cut out a lot, but the discussions we had were great. Check it out!

Related posts:

The Racism of the White Wolf Who Cried Islamophobia

How Can We Discuss Islam in Better Ways?

4 Mistakes You Make When You Talk About Islam

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