Women in Secularism in the Times

The New York Times religion reporter Mark Oppenheimer did a big piece yesterday on ex-Muslims at Women in Secularism 3. 

Anyone leaving a close-knit belief-based community risks parental disappointment, rejection by friends and relatives, and charges of self-loathing. The process can be especially difficult and isolating for women who have grown up Muslim, who are sometimes accused of trying to assimilate into a Western culture that despises them.

“It was incredibly painful,” Heina Dadabhoy, 26, said during a discussion called “Women Leaving Religion,” which also featured three former Christians and one formerly observant Jew, the novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. “My entire life, my identity, was being a good Muslim woman.”

That was a great panel – it was a week ago, Saturday morning, before the one I was on, about multiculturalism.

There are few role models for former Muslims, and although the religion’s history contains some notable skeptics, very few of them are women. Today, Muslim feminists like Irshad Manji and Amina Wadud advocate more liberal attitudes toward women in Islam, but neither has left the faith. And many atheists resist identifying with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-American (by way of the Netherlands) whose vehement criticism of Islam is seen, even by many other atheists, as harsh.

One group that seeks to bridge that gap is Ex-Muslims of North America, which had an information table in the exhibition hall. Members of the group, founded last year in Washington and Toronto, recognize that their efforts might seem radical to some, and take precautions when admitting new members. Those interested in joining are interviewed in person before they are told where the next meeting will be held. The group has grown quickly to about a dozen chapters, in cities including Boston, Chicago, Houston, New York and San Francisco.

One of the group’s founders who was at the conference, Sadaf Ali, 23, an Afghan-Canadian, said that she had once been “a fairly practicing Muslim.”

But she was a rebellious child – but she also struggled with depression and thought the Quran would help.

But as a university student, her feelings began to change.

“As I started to investigate the religion, I realized I was talking to myself,” Ms. Ali said. “Nobody was listening to me. I had just entered the University of Toronto, and critical thinking was a big part of my studies. I have an art history and writing background, and I realized every verse I had come across” — in the Quran — “was explicitly or implicitly sexist.”

Quickly, her faith crumbled.

And now she is free.

The members of Ex-Muslims are adamant that they respect others’ right to practice Islam. The group’s motto is “No Bigotry and No Apologism,” and text on its website is inclusive: “We understand that Muslims come in all varieties, and we do not and will not partake in erasing the diversity within the world’s Muslims.”

But they are equally adamant that it is still too difficult for Muslims inclined to atheism to follow their thinking where it may lead. Whereas skeptical Christians or Jews can take refuge in reformist wings of their tradition, religious Muslims generally insist on the literal truth of the Quran.

“I would say it’s maybe 0.1 percent who are willing to challenge the foundations of the faith,” said Nas Ishmael, another founder of the Ex-Muslims group who attended the conference.

It was thrilling to meet them all, with Taslima as the magnet.

I talked to Mark Oppenheimer on the phone yesterday, about a different subject.


  1. quixote says

    Tangential, but this surprised me: “I realized every verse I had come across” — in the Quran — “was explicitly or implicitly sexist.” I’ve never understood how women can participate in the world’s big religions when they’re all so desperately anti-women. This was the first time it dawned on me that one could not see it. I’m not as smart as I think I am.

  2. says

    I had a discussion once with a woman who claimed that Islam gave her dignity and made her feel valued as a woman. She struck me as very intelligent and had obviously thought about her religion and her relationship to it.

    It was only later that I realised that, from a psychological point of view, there is something in what she said. It seems to me that if you are a woman brought up in a society that regards you as virtually worthless and this becomes one of your background assumptions then religion can indeed appear to be giving you dignity; it gives you a set of rules to follow and if you do follow them then you become accepted as a woman; you may even become a good or holy woman. It becomes easy not to see the misogyny of the religion and its holy books partly because that seems to be the natural order of things and partly because the religion actually has provided shelter and comfort, of a sort, and to renounce it would lead to a very scary voyage into the unknown.

  3. quixote says

    “this becomes one of your background assumptions”

    Yikes. Scary shit. Horrible to think of absorbing that message as a given. That’s the connection I missed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *