On gender segregation – “You either help us or quit being part of the problem”

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The latest entry into the tragic chronology of gender segregation at British universities is the unsettling incident at London School of Economics (LSE). The LSESU Islamic Society decided to hold a segregated event (with cleverly personalised invites to “brothers” and “sisters”) for their members and unsurprisingly some LSESU officers happily joined in this sordid affair. The General Secretary of the LSESU Nona Buckley-Irvine was very pleased about the event and declared that as a feminist she saw no problem with this gender segregation. I mean, I guess if brown Muslim women want to have their rights reduced, why should she care? As a privileged white feminist she clearly has no concern in this matter – for her it was a simply colourful cultural exchange where cute Muslims sit separately in case some lustful event take place between the opposite genders. Inequality against brown women is not a concern. Anyways, this is another incident in the long list of gender segregated events held at universities with the blessing of the NUS or its Officers.

The scores of gender segregated events by ISOCs at British Universities is a national disgrace. Campaigners have fought hard and gained some victories such as the over-turning of the ridiculous gender segregation guidelines once set by Universities UK. However, evidently there is more to be done. This isn’t a case of only the culture set by the leaders and administrators of the institutions, but also about the culture and mind-set of the young people at universities in UK. It is depressing to see so-called liberal and lefty feminists, such as Nona Buckley-Irvine, support gender segregation and really seem aghast that someone would complain against that. She is an example of the illness that has creeped into the minds of many young people at university. Any criticism of discriminatory religious traditions (such as gender segregation) are vilified as Islamophobia. This is dangerous because it sets a precedence that one cannot criticise a religion separate without it being conflated as attacking the follower of the religion. It also alienates many people of Muslim heritage who do not adhere to and frankly find it disgusting to segregate people on the basis of their gender. When non-Muslim students at universities support discriminatory behaviour they highlight the weakness in their understanding of the nuances within the cultures they claim to support. What they perceive as a fun cultural exchange is the trauma and subjugation of many from the colourful cultures. It is frustrating to see this happening.

However, maybe it’s not all gloom and doom. Thinking about gender segregation reminds me of my own experience with this. Today we are in a fortunate place where at least some are speaking up against it. The culture is changing in that some are able to see that it is gender apartheid and that it mustn’t be accepted. I guess with all the frustration it is sometimes easy to forget that change IS happening in comparison to how it was 15 years ago. I give you a snippet of my experience with gender segregation. When I was a young impressionable 15 year old, my exposure to the world of universities was through my HT (Hizb ut-Tahrir) sister who took me to ISOC & HT events held at university lecture halls. Obviously they were gender segregated as well. Mostly the “sisters” would sit at the back, and if you’re lucky, on the left side. I found it odd, but also I thought something like “oh wow look they are accommodating us and my, my, one day the glorious Khilafah will be here and we can be like this everywhere!” It was fascinating for me to see the marriage of young aspirational Muslim students being all political and engaging on this platform in an “Islamic” way. But I also remember it made me feel uncomfortable in that why was being a woman so lustful? I felt ashamed of my body and thought this was God’s way of reminding me of my potential fitnah. This was back in 2000. Now you may wonder why I went along with it back then. Well a) I was quite a radicalised and Islamist young girl, b) this was my first exposure to the intellectual world of university, c) in my strict Islamist eyes gender segregation was obligatory to maintain lest we become lustful. I remember the sexual tension palpable in the air as “brothers” and “sisters” gaze at each other a split second and look away. Back then no one at the institution thought this was wrong or spoke up against it. I wonder if there were older women there who felt the way I do today? Such gender discrimination was able to go on unnoticed and unchallenged.

Anyways that was at university. At home I was intent on making this go as Islamically as possible too. Never mind it was undermining my rights – but hey we do what God askes of us slaves. At my sister’s wedding that year I created a big fuss at home over gender segregation at her wedding. My sister and I went to lengths to hire a hall which would accommodate our gender segregation aims. On the wedding day we managed to upset most of our uncles (with whom we had grown up with and known since childhood) because we didn’t let them enter into the “sisters” area to see the bride. Our uncles (non-mahram kind) were cultural Muslims and found our new fundamentalism astonishing and disrespectful. They were so upset they decided to boycott the wedding! Back then I thought how awful and rude of them. But thinking about it now – perhaps they were onto something. Again as a young kid following my sister to uphold the banner of Islam felt like a mighty privilege.

Thankfully I grew up and wanted full equality as a woman. Today, I stand firmly against gender segregation because it is discriminatory. While I once participated in it and enforced it, my personal journey has led me to now reject it. I was a child when I did such things. When I left Islam, this was one of the associated beliefs that I also happily let go of. The UCL debate between Laurence Krauss and Hamza Tzortzis was the first time since I left Islam that I gone to a debate at a university and I was faced with enforced gender segregated seating. That day my feelings were so mixed. Here I was 12 years later and I didn’t want to sit in the “sisters” area. I didn’t want to be discriminated against for being a female. I wanted to sit with my partner and friends. The events of that day will be etched in my mind forever. I remember I wanted to get up and move to the men’s area, in Rosa Park’s style, but I felt crippled and afraid. I was afraid of the stigma attached to this act. At that point it was so vividly clear to me that all those years ago when I went to HT talks at universities perhaps there were woman there like me today, who didn’t want to be discriminated but felt ashamed to speak up against it on the day.

Times have now changed and I will speak up. I will speak up against it at home, in public and most definitely to the non-Muslim women and men at British universities who make it their business to support gender segregation. To them I say: You are not part of this community, you have no understanding, so please mind your business. Either help us reform our communities and spaces or refrain from making it worse. It is not islamophobic to criticise human rights violations promoted by the Islamist ideology. It is not an attack on Muslims. You either help us or quit being part of the problem.

We cannot stop – we must continue to fight

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Lately I have been thinking a lot about the recent Vice documentary on the rescue of an ExMuslim Atheist from Saudi Arabia – it was incredibly heart-breaking and yet uplifting. The documentary follows the story of Rana, a woman in Saudi Arabia who upon leaving Islam went through a turbulent journey to escape her homeland leaving behind her family and threats of violence since leaving Islam allows the state to enact the death penalty. Rana did not “come out” in her homeland because it was impossible for her as a woman to express her views freely without dire consequences. Rana had bravely tweeted a photo of her declaring her atheism in Mecca which alerted a group of ExMuslims in the UK and US, and the Atheist Republic organisation to raise awareness of her plight and some funds to help her make the journey. Her determination and courage saw her through some difficult and uncertain moments in her long journey to Western Europe.

It was a timely reminder that many people in the world suffer so much because they are pressured into following the societal norms and codes of behaviour. In some places, such as Saudi Arabia, the cost of speaking up is high that many seldom escape. In this backdrop, the triumphant and turbulent journey of Rana was so powerful because she escaped a world which kept her a prisoner. Both physically and mentally. She was unable to speak out and be herself. Her crime – disbelieving in Islam. Hardly an earth-shattering revelation you may say, but for Ex-Muslims it is a fundamental aspect of their life. Rejecting the Islam can seem akin to leaving and rejecting the family. How tragic a circumstance, because often the person leaving Islam doesn’t reject or want to reject the family – rather by disassociating with the religion, the family reject them. Or at the very least, display their ritual dislike for the new kafir in the family (e.g. by giving them a different cup – not used by other family members – to sip tea, or withdrawn their invitation to visit the family home).

Rana so bravely shared her powerful story. It is so innocent and sweet, and so harmless. She only wanted to proclaim her rejection of Islam and thereby not be expected to follow the behaviour codes of the religion. She only wanted to take the hijab off and feel the breeze in her hair. She only wanted to listen to music and dance to the rhythms in joy. She only wanted to be equal to a man and not have to need a male guardian to accompany her at all times. Hardly a reason for her to go through such difficult lengths to finally gain her freedom. Yet, she had to because she had no other choice. Either find her own path or remain oppressed in Saudi Arabia. Her positive nature and desire for a better future led her to meet other ExMuslims who gave her much needed help and support. Her networking with ExMuslims gave her more courage to continue her journey despite the high costs. Her prized freedom was at stake and she did anything and everything she can to find a way out. At the end of the documentary, you can see that she is in Europe and is happy despite the turbulent and uncertain journey she had to undertake. Her motivation to keep on going and fighting for her basic human rights had underpinned everything. Today she lives freely, but she is estranged from family and fears for her life. Most apostates have few common rotten choices; get killed, become estranged, become ritually hated. In very few cases, they are accepted. If only that were the majority.

Watching the journey Rana had to endure to find her freedom resonated so much with me. I shed tears watching her anxiety, her trauma and her unwavering resilience. Such a powerful story of bravery. It was apparent from the beginning that this young woman was so determined to live and had such strong self-belief. She was afraid yet she felt the fear and found the courage to march forward. She clearly misses her family; noting key aspects such as her mother’s food, but she smiles away the pain by feeling the breeze in her hair. She talks about her new life and freedom, and she talks about her sadness and isolation. When basic human rights are hard won, the joy of achievement is just so thrilling. It was an entangled experience I was all too familiar with.

This documentary highlighted one very important point. The importance of marching on and continue fighting for our basic human rights. To do something and make some difference, than sit back and do nothing. If Rana from Saudi Arabia can fight for her right to make her own choices, than surely in the West (where we are granted liberties by the state) we can also do something? I think about myself; I am an ExMuslim Atheist in the West. I have a good job, a loving and stable relationship, good set of friends, etc. Yes, I also have incredible trauma with my family and battling mental illness. Yet I feel that with the privileged position I have in the West, I cannot sit back and do nothing. When I say to do something, I don’t mean having to go out in the public and speak up and protest, etc. No, what I mean is, keep on battling in your personal lives; whether it is in a personal capacity with your family or on a social capacity with the public. Small incremental changes in each one of our lives makes a collective difference in our society. The very fact that you struggle to be heard and to be free to live by your own choices, is making a stand. Watching other ExMuslims from Muslim majority countries bring change makes me realise that in the West there is more we can do. It is no doubt very difficult, but if we build allies we can rise up in numbers.

It is also inspiring to know that many other secularists of Muslim heritage are also speaking up in high numbers. Every time I hear something from secular feminists such as Deeyah Khan, Mona Eltahawy, Karima Bennoune I am filled with joy and courage. These woman speak up for me. They are fighting for rights within their communities and that we as ExMuslims are a part of that community. They may not agree with all of my thoughts on God or Islam, but that is actually not important. What we all agree upon is the fundamental right of a human being to be able to make choices for themselves and then be free to act upon their choices. Coexistence is the key here. We fight for women to be able to stand equally in society and make a difference to their lives, and for our future generations.

This makes me feel nostalgic. Ten years ago when I left Islam, I only knew about the Council of ExMuslims of Britain (CEMB). Today there are so many more around such as Faith to Faithless, ExMuslims of North America (EXMNA), and many other underground ExMuslim networks which prefer to stay hidden to protect those who are not ready to come out. It is amazing to see that when one of us “comes out”, it propels a few other to also take that step. This snowball effect is amazing to see in action. Of course, it also means, we are on the frontline and the casualty is high. But, something new and something wonderful is happening. No doubt painful – but nothing worth fighting for is gained easily.

This is certainly the key motivator for me.

Time heals?

I visited my parents last week after 5 weeks. This was also the third visit to my parents since the big reveal. The visit was a very interesting one and I must say, expectedly, much better.

I arranged to accompany my mother to a routine hospital appointment in the hope that we’ll get some time alone (without my dad around) and perhaps rebuild some of our relationship. My mum too was eager to see me, like me she missed me, and she had hoped she can talk me back to the “right path”. She told me so on the phone. When I got there my mum greeted me normally, and my dad seemed to be pretty routine too. I was a bit startled by that. I was expecting sorrowful faces and requests for change. Instead, my mum offered me to eat and spoke about the weather, her health, etc. This was oddly nice and felt happy about it. Then my mother made some comments about whether I had given more thought to her requests to change and think about God. I nodded and told her that I do take note of her requests, but that change was up to me. She mumbled her disapproval and then went away. I giggled at this. Had it already healed? Has my mum come to accept it to some extent? She didn’t cry. She wasn’t shouting. She wasn’t even angry. She was sad, but sad and in denial. She was hopeful that maybe shaitaan will release me some day.

As the day went by, we had not discussed my apostasy much in a dramatic way. Rather, it was mentioned in passing and with a few sighs and disappointed looks. In fact, my mother confided in me about troubles with my other siblings. It made me realise that, while she is upset with me, she is also upset with the others. It also seemed like my issue was not her biggest worry – or at least the most impacting at present. She worried about my “afterlife” more than my actual life! While my mum was happy with me for a bit, I took the liberty to remind her that I had a lovely partner in my life and that they mustn’t forget that. That we are a package now and that they will have to come to accept him and my choices. I showed my mum my partner’s photo and she smiled. She said he was handsome, but obviously needed a god too (apparently)! This was progress.

My mum reminded me something that day. She told me she hasn’t and won’t disown me. But that, she can only accept me if we abide by her rules. She kept on muttering that. But her actions showed something else. She was, somewhat, accepting me without me abiding by her rules. It is a tough decision for her to make as it goes against her way of life – but love is stronger. I hope it remains this way.

I came home smiling that day. This was the first time in 2 months that we sat together and talked and ate food. We did not cry or argue. We disagreed but it was civil. I know there is more to battle ahead, but this gave me some hope. Perhaps time and space does heal wounds – or at least become less pronounced. In any case, I wanted to share a good experience in my life.