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the new kafir in the family (e.g. by giving them a different cup – not used by other family members – to sip tea, or withdrawn their invitation to visit the family home).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.