#AnApostatesExperience: Why I Declared My Apostasy

Content notice for body image.

The other day, we at EXMNA made #AnApostatesExperience happen in response to Reza Aslan — who utterly missed the point.

He wasn’t the only Muslim responding. I got one Muslim who told me that I would’ve been better off taking off my headscarf rather than full-on coming out to my family as an atheist. This person is hardly alone. More than one Muslim has asked me why I didn’t tell my parents that I wanted to de-veil and stop practicing Islam rather than to declare to them that I had deconverted.

Given that I went from being a devout Muslim to being an atheist without detection but am a terrible liar, pussyfooting around my atheism would have been a pointless strategy.

Before I deconverted, I was a pious bookworm. It was hardly uncommon for me to respectfully teach my own parents things about religion. I followed every tenet as much as humanly possible. I was, for the most part, a biddable and obedient child. I earned mostly As in school, read lots of religious books, and strove to please my elders.

I started wearing hijab off and on at age eight and full-time at age ten. Though hijab isn’t required of pre-pubescent girls, I both wanted to become accustomed to wearing it and didn’t want to suddenly take it up full-time when I started my period. To my childish self, the idea that people might know via the signal of hijab that I had started my period was a deeply embarrassing thought.

black and white image of JC Chasez from *NSYNC
Could you have blamed me, though? JC is so handsome.

The biggest adolescent rebellions I pulled were reading (the rather harmless) ym magazine on the sly, anonymously chatting with men and boys online, and listening to music as well as keeping pictures of ‘N Sync (especially JC) in my notebook. At various points, I’d stop and repent of those fairly tame actions of my own volition, begging Allah for forgiveness.

My faith was not blind. I worked on becoming fluent in Quranic Arabic and devoured any and all literature that came my way. In Islamic Studies class, I took copious notes and asked question after question. Though they were intended for adult women rather than for children, my mother took me to her weekly religious classes; the teacher knew I was a keen pupil and welcomed my attendance.

As a teenager, I became afraid that my face might tempt men into thinking impure thoughts and wanted to cover it. This was not because I fancied myself a great beauty, but because everything I read said that a woman’s face is the seat of her beauty. The well-meaning cousin who consoled my anguish at being fat with “but you have such a pretty face!” didn’t help. I wondered what was I doing covering up my disgusting body but showing my pretty face. To my chagrin, my father refused to consent to my taking up the niqab.

My parents also refused to send me to a British Islamic boarding school. Barring that, I would have probably asked them to get me religiously married as soon as possible had the request not seemed to shamefully imply that I couldn’t control my libido. Right before I reached the age when I would become legally eligible to marry, I lost my faith.

As soon as I realized that I had become an atheist, I also realized that I had no idea how to tell my parents what had happened. I resigned myself to a double life and fantasized about a university transfer to a faraway institution. As I’ve always been a terrible liar, I was careful to equivocate and omit as much as possible rather than fabricate stories. I lived in terror of discovery.

A few months into the big lie, my mother came to me in tears. She told me that my sister had said that she no longer wanted to wear hijab. I was her good girl, she implored. Couldn’t I say something to convince my sister to keep wearing it?

My already-unsteady resolve to live a lie was shattered. It broke my heart that my mother felt she could rely on me for something that I was in absolutely no place to do. I couldn’t keep deceiving everyone every day right to their faces.

Still, I did all in my power to avoid coming out. I went so far as to buy a junker car, rent a room, get hired at a workplace willing to have me work three days a week (with the other two set aside for a full courseload), and move my things without my parents realizing that anything was going on. On the chosen day, I told my parents that I needed my space and was moving out. I breathed no word about hijab, let alone atheism. That night, after much cajoling on their part, I finally admitted that I was not a Muslim anymore.

ancient depiction of a saint causing a demon to be cast out of someone's mouth
Body-snatching is the modern sci-fi version of possession.

Their reaction? Initially, they said they accepted me. Later, the truth set in. They were shocked. They wondered what the hell had happened to me. They wondered if I’d been drugged or brainwashed or body-snatched.

Sure, they had more to contend with than if I had simply told them I didn’t want to wear hijab. But think back to the girl and young woman that I had been. If you were a devout Muslim parent and your child were like that, and she suddenly approached you to tell you that she no longer wanted to cover herself, what would you think?

You would be shocked. You’d wonder what the hell happened to her. You’d wonder if she’d been drugged or brainwashed or body-snatched.

In short, my telling them that I no longer wanted to cover or engage in other Islamic practices would have been very close to as panic-inducing for them as the revelation of my apostasy.

There were other benefits to my honesty as well. Had I slowly retreated away from my practice of Islam, what answers would I have had for their questions? How much of a lie would I have had to live and how many lies would I have had to tell? How long would it have taken for me to direct my life onto the path I ultimately wanted for myself?

Any benefit from my easing away from Islamic practices would have been minimal. I’ve paid a heavy price for my honesty, but the price I would have paid for living a lie would have been much steeper.

And given my ineptitude at such meta levels of deception, it probably wouldn’t have lasted very long in the first place.

#AnApostatesExperience: Why I Declared My Apostasy

15 thoughts on “#AnApostatesExperience: Why I Declared My Apostasy

  1. 2

    Thank you for telling this story. I think in general religions don’t look very good to smart people once you get educated about them. I ony have anecdotal evidence for this and not much of that either, but it’s my working theory. My personal experiences were with (christian) religious schools, hypocrisy on parade, and a general “be good, be nice or face divine punishment” approach everyone mouthed along to in church coupled with self-serving oppressive nonsense outside of it that did nothing to help with any real problems. I started doubting early but second-guessed myself and helped with masses for years afterward. The more I poked at it the less substance I found. I think I took a lot longer to escape though. I was done with it years before I could move out on my own.

  2. 12

    Sure, they had more to contend with than if I had simply told them I didn’t want to wear hijab. But think back to the girl and young woman that I had been. If you were a devout Muslim parent and your child were like that, and she suddenly approached you to tell you that she no longer wanted to cover herself, what would you think?

    Their first question would be Why??? And of course, if you were deeply devout and had sometimes taught them things about faith they didn’t know themselves, they would expect a deeply detailed, theological answer. If you wanted to stop wearing Hijab but not come out as atheist, you would have to invent a complex faith-based or Quran-based reasoning for why you had suddenly changed your mind–a reason you didn’t really believe yourself. This is an awfully big lie for someone who says she doesn’t like to lie and is no good at it.

    That’s why for a few years there, I was terrified to mention gay marriage or creationism or anything in conversation with most of my friends–especially with my parents. I had become an atheist, and I couldn’t bear the thought of them finding out, but I didn’t have any “Christian” reason to support gay rights, and I didn’t want to invent an entire theology of lies.

    Thanks for your honesty and your willingness to share.

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