Memoir: my strict Muslim upbringing didn’t stop me from losing faith in God

Memoir: my strict Muslim upbringing didn’t stop me from losing faith in God


I grew up in an observant Muslim household in Hamilton. My parents were refugees from Afghanistan who spoke Dari at home, read the Quran in Arabic and recited salat, the five daily prayers. On holidays, we attended a takayakhana, a Shiite place of worship in North York—the men and women would sit in different rooms, a live feed of the service streaming in the women’s space.

My parents were strict. They had rules about who I could see and what I could do. I used to sob with frustration, begging my father to let me go to my friends’ houses, attend sleepovers, be like other children. His answer was always the same: “You’re a girl. You’re an Afghan girl. You’re a Muslim girl.” It only got worse when I started middle school. They barely let me out of the house, afraid I’d be exposed to boys, alcohol, drugs and cigarettes. My three older brothers had no such restrictions. They were allowed to get their drivers’ licences; I wasn’t. They were encouraged to pursue university, while I was expected to graduate high school and get married right away.

At home, I was a second-class citizen. At school, I was ignored completely: all my classmates were white, and you can’t make friends when you’re not permitted a social life. I spent much of my adolescence slumped in depression, convinced of my own inferiority. I never understood how I fit with my peers, but my father’s words always echoed in my mind: “You’re a Muslim girl.” Islam was the only identity I knew. If I embraced it, I thought, maybe I’d find purpose and meaning.

I persuaded my parents to let me go to university and enrolled at U of T Mississauga, planning to pursue a degree in communications. That year, I started questioning my commitment to Islam. The Creator I read about in the Quran felt like a vindictive human, not a supreme being. My growing doubts led to frequent panic attacks and invasive, suicidal thoughts. I prayed every day. I told myself God was testing me. But at the back of my mind, I wondered if he was even listening.

One evening, during my nightly prayers, something clicked: I realized I was talking to myself. I no longer believed in God. I went through my Quran again and I looked up all the sexist verses I’d been accepting. Each one felt wrong, circular and nonsensical. In one night, I went from a practising Shiite to a Muslim apostate. I renounced the only identity I’d ever known.

For three years, I didn’t tell my family. I dutifully attended dinners, went to the takayakhana and played along with all the rituals. But for the first time in my life, I also pursued my independence. I moved into my own place in Mississauga and got a job on campus. I overcame my feelings of guilt and rootlessness, and attended counselling sessions. On social media, I started expressing my thoughts on the sexism and hypocrisy prescribed in Islamic texts, and began organizing an underground grassroots community for other ex-Muslims. I finally felt like there were others who understood what I was going through: we had members from Pakistan, India and all over the Middle East, people of all ages and professions, including women and LGBT people who had fled from abusive and intolerant families.

Around the same time, some family friends found me on social media. They told my parents, and one day my mother and father asked me point blank: was I telling people that I didn’t believe in God? That I was no longer a Muslim? I remained silent, not wanting to hurt them, but that was enough of an answer. My mother, through her sobs, pleaded that I take it all back because she didn’t want me to burn in hell. My father, shaking his head, asked me never to speak of my beliefs to others. He was disappointed and ashamed. Most of all, they were worried about their honour, what others would think of them.

For the next year, they kept track of where I went and called me at all hours of the day. When I came home for the summer, they’d demand I ask their permission whenever I wanted to leave the house. I was forced to lie about everything I did. I knew my parents cared for me, but their behaviour pushed me away. I spent less time with them, stopped taking their calls and avoided visiting for weeks at a time. Our relationship only began to heal after we’d been estranged for several months, when I got into a motorcycle accident and broke my ankle—it left me dependent on my parents, and reminded me how much I loved them and needed them in my life. In turn, they began to realize they couldn’t control me or my beliefs. My lack of faith didn’t matter so much anymore: they just wanted their daughter back.

Three years after our reconciliation, my parents have come to accept my beliefs—more than that, they’re supportive and loving in ways they never were before. Occasionally, they still encourage me to pray and speak to Muslim elders, but for the most part, they’ve made peace with my decision. Somehow, my renunciation of Islam has brought us closer: there’s more openness, more communication, more honesty. They understand who I am. And, for the first time in my life, so do I.

Sadaf Ali is the co-founder of Ex-Muslims of North America.

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