By: Zola Elrobh
In March 2019, I stopped identifying as Muslim. I gave up the hijab and became an atheist — at least, when I could.
Despite my recent transformation from a hijab-wearing Muslim woman, the identity I’ve been with since my childhood, to an atheist, legally I’m still visibly Muslim by name and picture of the Hijab on my ID.
When applying to jobs, most people who accept me are quite liberal-leaning. They would have preferred to see a sad conservative Muslim, only to find disappointment that I’m not self-inflicting my own pain. They don’t get to play out their savior complex on me. Exmuslim women are seen by liberals as having passed on their oppression, and therefore are no longer of value.
Still, I’m not any less disadvantaged than other Muslim women in a similar situation as mine, who are being pressured by their parents against being financially independent in order to marry. To assume that Exmuslim women have a one-up on their situation is false, especially when Exmuslims face risks from the Muslim community itself. In many ways, Exmuslim women face their own set of challenges — challenges that are not as visible when we forgo the hijab.
“Exmuslim women are seen by liberals as having passed on their oppression, and therefore are no longer of value.”
Social experiences do not drastically change when one changes how they religiously identify. Identity politics fails to acknowledge the multiplicity of identities an Exmuslim can have, and in order to keep its moral ground, it picks and chooses. Why does it?
Progressivism, similar to identity politics, is a marketed product that simply keeps evolving. The third wave of feminism, for example, notoriously claims to be intersectional yet simultaneously defending policies that disproportionately harm women of color, like the decriminalization of prostitution. “Progressives” defend women’s role as being objectified by men, whether it is by promoting sex work or wearing complete head-to-toe coverings.
The Hijab, or the Islamic headscarf usually worn by increasingly more Muslim girls as soon as they reach puberty, is now an icon of acceptance of other cultures and has therefore entered the progressivism umbrella. They are then commodified as an ideal image of what a Muslim is. Examples include parading around the Hijab as pious and protecting from men with world Hijab day, the Nike Hijab, or a patriotic American Hijab. An idealized token Muslim is then accepted which shows the pious conservative image, and liberals see this as an easy opportunity to check all the boxes of acceptance. Here progressivism fails to acknowledge that not every Muslim-born person wants to be a Muslim, and would view them the same as other critics.
Extra attention is then given nearly exclusively to the stereotypical boogeyman the far-right portrays of Muslims, leaving all those in-between as “already empowered” and therefore discarded by the brand of liberal feminism. Liberal feminism functions on victimizing minority: The more dire the situation is for an immigrant, the more they are forgiven and morally supported.
“Progressivism fails to acknowledge that not every Muslim-born person wants to be a Muslim”
This can have mild or serious applications. I am in favor of allowing the Hijab in work and school places, as these spaces are often women’s only refuge out of the abusive cycle of extreme forms of Islam. However, I do not support the bubbly representation of schoolgirls wearing Hijab, or any form of the sexualization of young girls before they are even at the age of consent.
Banning the Hijab bars some disadvantaged women from receiving education or being able to achieve financial independence. It is completely forbidden to take off the Hijab once it is worn, but most schools of Islamic thought say that if the child did not wear the Hijab yet, they are not to be punished for it (similar to how apostates are considered more evil than never-Muslims).
If religious freedom truly were free at that age, how come only Muslim women get to wear the Hijab to complete their faith? It’s clearly coercion but liberalism tells us to turn the other cheek as young girls put up the greatest responsibility in their lives related to their sexuality as children.
In addition to the burden of upholding the ideal pious Muslim image, Hijabi women are judged for every public action — by those with racial prejudice against Muslims, as well as controlling men who blame women for the community’s image. These young girls then get further tokenized by the new wave of social justice, not to liberate them from their expectations, but to add moral value to their cause. This means they have to remain in the image of the pious Muslim drawn out for them.
I soon discovered what it is like for women who fail to conform to this narrative.
In April 2019, I secretly got a corporate job a bit out of town (secret from my family). I found the environment there quite comfortable, so I presented myself as an atheist. I usually pick and choose in which spaces to present myself without the Hijab, as I’m still at risk of financial repercussions if my parents find out. Oftentimes, I get comments about not looking good enough for the job with the headscarf on, or that they’d have expected someone different based on my application papers. A corporate job would entirely eliminate the risk of getting caught in politics based on how I presented, because international business usually have their own keep-to-yourself culture, which I really like.
During the interview and my first weeks on the job, I wore the Hijab out of fear of who might see me. Most Muslim women are in danger of being seen without the Hijab by their own families, because they are the most likely perpetrator of violence in this situation. Once I felt comfortable that nobody would tell, I took it off.
To be fair, initially, I had very normal and positive reactions. I wasn’t asked to explain myself or given any extra attention at work. I was very comfortable and sometimes the normal experience of being an Exhijabi seeped into work, such as actually feeling pretty for once, but nothing really out of the ordinary.
In three months I got a promotion and went to another facility, and there my new team had a 19-year-old boy named Ahmed, who recognized me but I did not. I was 20 at that time.
“Ahmed was putting my very safety at risk.”
During the break times, Ahmed would not sit with those who smoked, but I did despite not smoking myself since there is less chance of finding religious or judgemental people there (there were other Hijabi workmates that were fundamentalists, but I didn’t allow anyone the chance the to talk to me, especially with the attention and questions my skin complexion draws out from Muslim people).
Increasingly, Ahmed would provoke me in the office to try and elicit a reaction from me. I tried to ignore him, but then I was then seen as rude for not answering simple questions such as “what are you reading” and “what do you do on lunch break on Friday”. I took it, though, because what I have at stake is greater than just being seen as a jerk at work.
Ahmed’s intention was to eventually find out ways to track me down and tell my family that I am not wearing a Hijab (out of the good will of the Naseeha logic — or to advise a fellow Muslims to do something religiously good. If you don’t comply, they use more aggressive forms of “advice”). I simply wanted to divorce religion once and for all and not be recognized or talked to.
If it were being disowned that I feared, then I wouldn’t have been this protective. My parents would’ve either married me off upon finding out, or would have deported me against my will to a Muslim country so that I wouldn’t have the ability to work a well-paying job in the first place. Ahmed was putting my very safety at risk.
Ramadan came around, and there was a free buffet for everyone at work around that time. Ramadan is the holy month of fasting from food and water until sundown, and since this was the second Ramadan I was not fasting, I was really excited to sitting down with everyone else and eating together.
Ahmed got to talk to me and another Exmuslim woman then and there, asking whether or not we used to be Muslim. His only clue suspecting the other woman was skin colour. She was much more confident, and older than I, so I copied her and said yes, I used to be, but I’m not coming back. I excused myself to the smoking area.
“Then, she asked me if I used to wear the headscarf.”
A couple of days later, the manager asks to see me as soon as I stepped into the office. She is an open-minded woman in her late thirties who then tells me that I’ve been offensive to some of my workmates. Then, she asked me if I used to wear the headscarf.
I questioned whether something personal like this is worth discussing — I think that saved me from receiving an actual written warning; it was certainly implied to be a verbal warning.
Despite my refusal to answer the question, my manager then presumed (correctly) that I used to be a Muslim. She proceeded to tell me that I shouldn’t be too boastful as I can be rude to other Muslims that are fasting Ramadan, especially those from other cultures and countries. I find this quite absurd.
If I were a man, my background would’ve never been brought into question or found offensive by my colleague. He had his nose in every brown girl’s business, and takes offense if their behavior does not match his preconceptions of them — enough offense to complain about it. If everyone who eats in the office is then allowed in the buffet, why am I brought in to question? Why was a “liberal ally” upholding the fundamentalist narrative, when I was singled out for my skin color in the first place?
The assumption that I have truly escaped being seen as a Muslim is trumped by the very same manager who is discussing it with me right now, otherwise, everyone else should have been offending that one Muslim guy in the office. None of the religious Hijabis at my office were playing the victim card either. This is a perfect example of toxic behavior exhibited by men trying to shape my actions, men who do not even know me, and how liberals fail to acknowledge their role in this oppression.
“Why was a “liberal ally” upholding the fundamentalist narrative, when I was singled out for my skin color in the first place?”
The other Muslim workmates who later found out and stopped talking to me just for apostasy are hypocrites, because they talk to Never-Muslims just fine. Notice how no Muslim woman instigated this investigation as to who I am.
What a bold assumption that Exmuslims, the minority within the minority, could be suddenly freed from how society views them. Once a group is defined as “disadvantaged” by liberals, they are exempt from all kinds of criticism. The opinion of a Muslim feeling offended by the actions of an Exmuslim are much more important than the well-being and safety of Exmuslims as a whole, since they get more social justice points for protecting what Muslims want. Even in Britain do Exmuslims face violence, deportation and even death as a result of refusal to accept an alternate narrative, just because it coincides with what the right wing politics agree on.
Leaving Islam does not change my name, my skin, and I’m still a Hijabi in all official government papers. So yes, any policy that affects Muslims affects me more than it does a man without an Arabic name, specifically those similar to France’s ban on Hijab at universities and certain workplaces.
In liberal terms, Exmuslims have not joined the side of the oppressors, as much I disagree with that rhetoric. Exmuslims, especially women, face our own set of challenges, especially at the hands of Muslim men. When liberals treat us as “advantaged”, they distort this reality. Yet, I know I am not alone in my experience.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, Zola Elrobh.
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