Some years back, I compiled and edited a collection of deconversion accounts with Tristan Vick called Beyond an Absence of Faith: Stories About the Loss of Faith and the Discovery of Self (UK) that covered a range of different deconverions from around the world. I thought I would share with you part of one of the chapters (I have not included the whole piece here) for you. It came from a 17-year-old Muslim girl living in the States who was also studying to be a creative writer, and it is one of my favourite in the book. It is compellingly written.
After the Interlude
Things change. Bad memories and the recollection of laughter; everything fades.
The world passes by in a blur.
It starts with something small.
The sun is setting, and like always, my dad marches around the house pulling my siblings off computers and down from their rooms for prayer. Here they come, tramping down the stairs with frowns on their faces because they just don’t want to, but they have to anyway.
I’ve grown used to this by now. I obey in silence, zoning out like I always do, letting my thoughts wander to my novel’s latest chapter as my father does the adhaan.
And then comes my little sister in her five-year-old, princess-like glory, bouncing on her feet, her pink dress that she insisted she’d be allowed to wear every second of every day swaying with her movement.
As we spread out the prayer mats, she waddles up to my dad, who prepares to lead the prayer.
“Papa, can I stand next to you?” she asks. My mother has already tied a purple scarf around her head; it’s already coming loose. Nothing can tame her hair.
Dad gives her a cursory glance, the smallest of acknowledgements. He doesn’t seem to like her dress.
“You can’t,” he tells her. I cringe at can’t. “Boys stand in the front. You’re a girl.”
How many times have I heard that one before? Angry words come bubbling up to my tongue in passionate fury, but I bite my lips to restrain them. They are dangerous.
That wasn’t even the first time. The first time I was angry, the first time I wanted to rip the scarf off my head and throw it at my parents’ faces. The first time I questioned the existence of an almighty being who was the sole reason I was quarantined in my house. No, I’d experienced all those firsts since the beginning of awareness, since I realized there was something wrong with forcing me to stay inside while my brother roared in laughter in the backyard with his friends, and mine were turned away at the door.
But somehow, hearing my sister be told that she was a girl, that she was not good enough to stand in the front with the boys, made my blood boil. My sister’s reaction was to shrug and join my side, as if this was perfectly okay. It was not perfectly okay. And the more I thought about it, the more frustrated I got. I’d never allowed myself to dwell on such things, fearing that I’d let my thoughts go too far, that my disapproval for everything we did would destroy me.
And it nearly did.
A taste of freedom
We’re in New York, where my cousin lives. Somehow, she and I have found our way outside for some fresh air. Our mothers are not far behind, their voices loud and staccato in the silence of the night. We’re going in circles around the neighborhood, and the serenity is so tangible I want to reach out and grab it, douse myself with it.
Yet, maybe I’m doomed to unhappiness. For the umpteenth time, I adjust my hijab, pushing hair out of sight, loosening it from around my neck. Finally, I’ve had enough, and this time when hair escapes I don’t bother to fix anything. Another step, and the pink material slips further down. A few more heavy footfalls and now it’s completely off, hanging around my neck. I spread out my arms, and I’m flying. I imagine this is what freedom feels like—not living a life in eternal darkness, hiding behind a silly curtain. I imagine going to school like this, not getting scrutinized by those who don’t even know me. I think of the questions they ask. Why do I wear it? What does it prove? To me, “because God said so,” isn’t enough. My heart swells with the pain that always comes with longing.
I want this freedom to be real.
The school literary art magazine is nearly complete. We’re in the final editing process now, and after the endless sweeping through all work, after fixing the tiniest of typos for over an hour, I tug at the part of the scarf that loops around my neck, like a noose.
I step outside. A few of my friends, those who didn’t hold out as long as me, are just down the hall. They’re playing ninja. It looks like a fun game. I’ve never actually played, so I don’t know the rules. I want to join them. But pink fabric frames my face—and it’s more than that. It’s a curtain that stands between them and me. A wall that stands between their laughter and my tears. Some say, “it doesn’t bother me.” Some say, “it’s my choice.”
Well, what if it isn’t mine?
What if the mere thought of quitting sets my mother’s teeth on edge, makes my father question the goodness in me?
And if you truly believe you will be sent to the fiery abyss that is hell if you refuse to cover, if you truly think that men are savage beasts that cannot control themselves and it is up to women to protect their delicate, jewel-like beauty…
Is it really a choice at all?
It was the summer of that same year when I finally took it off. I remember feeling lost and scared for a moment there, and going to Muslim friends on Facebook whom I had gone to school with for support. I remember one particular friend who reacted to my doubts as if I had slapped her in the face. “I don’t wear one yet,” she told me, “but when I do I know I will never take it off.” She called me a traitor, someone who had been “brainwashed” by the West. I remember throwing my phone against the wall, and the feeling of someone squeezing my heart in the palms of their hands.
Then I got up and collected the pieces of my phone, and put them back together. I stared at it for a moment before sending a spontaneous message to a close friend who already knew of my liberal feelings towards many Islamic prejudices. I told her how I felt, what had been said to me.
Her response was probably what kept me going in the end. She waited intently as I banged away on the phone’s tiny touchpad, letting out my tears through words like I knew how to. And when she responded, her messages were equally as long. She told me I was allowed to do whatever the hell I wanted to. She told me that if anything, be it a measly piece of cloth, ever made me feel less than I was, then she would personally “chuck it in a bin.” She told me she was my friend no matter what I did, and so long as I was happy, she was happy.
I cried. Right then and there, on my bedroom floor, clutching my battered phone to my chest, I cried. This couldn’t be real. I’d been depressed, and I’d never been able to accept it until that moment. I’d been sad, feeling walls coming in on me. I’d been Atlas, struggling under the weight of the sky, and now it had finally been removed from my shoulders.
My mother, although reluctantly, allowed this small infraction. Suddenly, one day, I was stepping out of the house with nothing covering my head. To many this probably sounds like nothing, but to me the feeling of the wind in my hair was what heaven actually was. I was no longer cut off, isolated from the world—I was part of it. Sure, I was small, most likely meaningless, but at last, I felt like a piece of the puzzle. I was not a pale mannequin who was desperately trying to disguise herself as something she was not.After all that struggling, I could finally be me.
A new person
Summer camp. Creative writing sessions for three hours a day at George Mason University. My first time out without my scarf, with people who haven’t known me before. I enter the room with a little bit more confidence than before, as if it has filled in the missing place of my hijab. No one glances at me twice, and I love it.
Strangely enough, I hadn’t really lost faith in Islam quite then. There was anger, definitely, and other feelings—bitterness, sorrow, passion. But there was still faith. All make-believe was not quite lost. And to be honest, I can’t remember exactly when that realization struck. Perhaps it hadn’t been a realization at all, just a slow descent to the already known. Because somehow, lying awake one night staring at the ceiling though I couldn’t see it, I wasn’t quite as surprised as I expected to be, and that maybe, just maybe, death meant closing your eyes and never opening them again. That death meant falling asleep and never waking up, never knowing that you have died. An abrupt end.
But that came later. Because first, I was too happy. Suddenly, I could wear earrings. I bought fifteen different pairs and a new jewelry box. I smiled at myself in the mirror. I didn’t feel ugly.
I felt like me.
A light in my eyes
The first day of school at the end of summer. I’m wary, anxious, excited. It’s nerve-wracking. I put on my nicest shirt, a pair of jeans. I wake up twenty minutes earlier than usual to enjoy the simple act of doing my hair. I settle for a simple pony-tail. It is enough.
My creative writing teacher is the first to see me. She already knows, has already seen me at summer camp, but she smiles nonetheless. She says she likes my earrings. I grin back.
Everyone is surprised. Friends I have known since freshman year don’t recognize me at first, and when they do it is with a flourish of surprised gasps and lots of clapping. Everyone is so, so, happy for me. Because there’s a new light inside me, and it comes pouring out of my eyes. Because my laughter is more genuine, because there’s an air of positivity to the words that leak from my pen.
I talk more. I’m not afraid to defend myself from prying eyes. I stand up for friends being insulted, ex-boyfriends being douchebags. I wear heels, and I don’t care if anyone thinks I’m weird. Because when I’m doing something, it is all of my own accord. I try to come up with an allegory that suits this situation. It was as if someone had forced me to wear a Justin Bieber shirt and people had rolled their eyes at me, called me a silly little teenage girl who doesn’t know right from wrong. And all the while I wasn’t allowed to say that perhaps I didn’t like him at all, that in fact I wasn’t sure I approved of what he was doing. Instead, when people asked why I was wearing the shirt, I had to make up fake excuses.
And then I was allowed to wear something different. I was allowed to march around hallways with the Jonas Brothers smiling out at everyone who looked at me. This time I didn’t care about the stares. The eyes. The snickering. Because I liked them, and I knew why I did, and no one could make me feel terrible for something I knew I cherished for reasons they didn’t need to know.
Government class. In walks Malaika, the Muslim girl I met last year who has more lenient parents, who is adept at the best eye make-up. She stares at me momentarily, gives me a strained smile.
“Why’d you take it off?” It’s something they always ask. I shift my weight uncomfortably from one foot to the other.
“I didn’t quite feel … right in it.” It’s the best I can come up with. Because this is a girl I can’t tell. I can’t say I don’t believe in Allah anymore. She will stare, and she will no longer talk to me. So I shrug, and I hope it is acceptable.
She smiles now, more easily. “Aw, but you looked so cute in it! You inspired me.”
No, I think. I wish I didn’t. And perhaps I didn’t. Perhaps what you were feeling, Malaika, was guilt. Because you somehow thought that it was wrong of you to go bareheaded as an equal to all, rather than a lesser being because you’re a girl. Maybe you hated me inside.
But I say nothing.
They decided who I was to marry when I was thirteen. He comes from a good family, they said. He’ll take care of you, they said. I didn’t mind before. I was too young to care about my own happiness. If my mother was happy, I was happy. What more was there?
But then things changed….
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