By Zara Kay and Nick Forbes
The plight of Ex-Muslims has become one of the most pressing civil rights issues of our time. While no religion tolerates dissent, leaving Islam currently carries the most severe of penalties, with apostates remaining in hiding for fear of facing the death penalty in over a dozen countries, incarceration in many others, as well as being ostracised from their families.
Ex-Muslims have been slowly receiving more coverage in recent years, yet one topic that has yet to receive sufficient attention is the mental health of apostates from Muslim backgrounds. And while mental health has received more mainstream attention in the last five years within the West, the two have yet to meet.
Zara Kay, now a prominent youtuber and activist- sought to change this. During her teenage years, she struggled to reconcile her feminist and pro LGBT values with those of her Tanzanian Shia community, which led to her eventually renouncing her faith. Although the path wasn’t easy, Zara was fortunate enough to have a relatively liberal Muslim family who prioritised the love for their daughter over their faith. However many others are not so lucky.
While she was inspired by the bravery of Ex-Muslim feminists such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Sarah Haider, when it came to speaking of their dissent from Islam, she noticed there was still a piece missing: mental health. And so Zara set out to create the first mental health program to provide women from Muslim majority background psychological support whilst questioning their faith.
Even for Ex-Muslims in Western countries, being closeted is quite common, as not only would they fear social ostracism and abuse, but also significant danger to their safety.
Faithless Hijabi connects often closeted Ex-Muslims with a mental health professional that has a strong understanding of the challenges free thinkers face. As many apostates cannot leave their countries, or expose their identities, the program provides them with a reprieve from the day to day of their environment, and a non-judgemental space where they can question their faith.
Leaving Islam is a massive transition, and as such involves a great deal of adjustment and adaptation. A significant part of finding one’s journey involves unlearning toxic ideas and behaviors- a crucial step on the path to lead an authentic and meaningful life. The teachings of a religious belief system are deeply entrenched in one’s subconscious and often time alone isn’t sufficient to facilitate healing and growth. Islam in particular is entrenched in many legal systems, and presents a greater challenge compared to other religions.
While being openly an Ex-Muslim possess much of its own challenges from community based ostracism, familial abuse and threats to one’s safety, closted Ex-Muslims living their life in concealment face challenges of a different kind with constantly putting on a persona that they no longer agree with for several reasons, and thus leading to increased anxiety and depression.
The mental health program was designed to be a proactive outreach initiative to introduce professional help available to Ex-Muslims in need. More often than not, the common sentiment amongst those who finished to program was being able to cope with the abuse they’re facing (emotional or physical), identify how they can navigate their new identities, even if closeted, and how to nurture conversations with loved ones when and if safe to do so.
The Faithless Hijabi mental health program in just 14 months has helped over 40 individuals with 8 free sessions in a span of over 2 months, by independent therapists and clinics all trained to work with apostates. Ex-Muslims who have gone through the program come from various different backgrounds and countries including Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Australia, Canada, India, Switzerland, Morocco, Somalia, Iraq, Bahrain, England, Albania, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon. The typical age range of those in the program is between 18 to 31, with approximately 76% female, as well as a growing number of males in the program.
Much of this work is only possible thanks to the efforts of the Mental Health Professionals supporting Faithless Hijabi. One such therapist is prominent Ex-Muslim youtuber Mimzy Vidz. In an interview with the authors, she outlines how much mental health comes from childhood. “As many children have been indoctrinated, they’re filled with fear at an early age. At the age of 4 or 5, it’s not uncommon for children from Conservative Islamic families to be told of vicious punishments that await them in hell if they don’t follow Allah. People find it quite difficult to think outside of will I get punished?”
Muslims who begin to question their faith feel alone, as they know the high risk of their families abandoning them. When abandoned by their families, many of these Ex-Muslims can find themselves completely abandoned, lacking social skills as a result of isolation, and this can be the period where suicidal thoughts become common. “When I’m speaking with clients who have left Islam, common themes are abandonment and loneliness. Many families will cut them off, and if they don’t it’s just awkward. Families will try to talk you into returning to Islam, and there’s the temptation to regress back to the religion.”
In more extreme cases, Ex-Muslims can find themselves fleeing for their lives, either from their families or governments such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. And to make matters worse, the Western Left- which has long championed itself as the defender of the rights of women, homosexuals, and freethinkers- have time and time again failed to show sufficient solidarity in the face of Islamic persecution, instead choosing to prioritise cultural sensitivity and moral relativism. This has left Ex-Muslims without their natural allies to support them, and only the anti-Immigrant far right prepared to extend a hand, albeit to pursue their own xenophobic agenda.
Mariam Oyiza, an Ex-Muslim from Nigeria, and a graduate of the program, describes her early life in Nigeria. Growing up in a conservative Sunni community, she was forced to attend Islamic classes, and often questioned why she was forced to wear the Hijab. “Why do I have to wear Hijab and men don’t? Men are the ones who rape”, she’d often say. She also describes how being forced to wear the Hijab and Niqab prevented her from engaging in activities that she loved. She fell in love with the sport of basketball, however was quickly forbidden to do so, as wearing trousers was considered Haram. “Hijab prevents you from attaining your potential. I wanted to play basketball, but couldn’t because I was forbidden to remove my hijab.”
Deciding that she no longer believed at the age of 14, she was flogged by her Islamic Studies teacher, and experienced abuse throughout her teenage years and early adult life. This led Mariam to fall into depression. Connecting with Faithless Hijabi in early 2020, Mariam was then assigned a psychologist who helped her to “find herself again, and ease her pain.”
“Previously there was nobody I could talk to, but through talking with a Faithless Hijabi therapist I was able to share my pain, and begin my trauma healing.” Passionate about empowering women in her country, she now serves as the Executive Director of Learning through Skills Acquisition Initiative (LETSAI), which is currently working in partnership with UNICEF to provide services to women and children in northeast Nigeria- many of whom have been victims of Boko Haram.
With it’s rising profile, Faithless Hijabi is continuing to work with women who have suffered from honour based abuse, connecting them with a Psychologist who shares a similar Ex-Muslim experience, or are Muslims but sympathetic to their plight. And while the struggle of Ex-Muslims have been brought to life in recent years, much of our silence only aids to further isolation of the fight for the liberation of women from Muslim backgrounds. Removing the stigma of apostasy from Muslim communities will be an arduous task for years to come.
About the Authors
Zara Kay is a Tanzanian Australian Feminist, and the founder of Faithless Hijabi. Since leaving the religion of Islam, she has dedicated her life to the emancipation of women. She was featured in the 2021 film Women Leaving Islam.
Nick Forbes is the Secretary of Faithless Hijabi.