I DON’T’ think you’re supposed to stare at a post box but I did anyway. As I prepared to send a letter telling my parents I was a gay ex-Muslim I was incredibly anxious – as to be expected. I suppose. I was breaking the social code that holds my community together.
The social code of South Asian communities relies on the concept of izzat. The usual translation of izzat would be either honour or shame. This translation doesn’t really explain the importance of the concept. A paper on the subject described it as referring “to a wide spectrum of socio-cultural relationships and ties that bind family and community groups together.”
My upbringing had been fanatically religious: waking up at 4 am for the morning prayer, going to the mosque five times a day and being taught the teachings of the Prophet within the mosque.
My friends were also all Muslim (South Asian Muslims that is), and the school I went to had only two children who were not Muslim. The Daily Mail put it succinctly, yet in its usual awful language, by calling my town “The corner of Yorkshire that has almost no white residents”.
I say all this in an attempt to convey that my upbringing was steeped in religion and the culture of South Asia. Izzat for me had been my entire upbringing: my entire life. To break free from the thought control that had been imposed on me, and I imposed on myself was a scary experience.
Now back to my letter. One of my odder past times during my first year at university was to find interesting books in the library; usually nothing to do with my degree of Mathematics and Statistics and to simply read for pleasure.
My reading began with works of fiction: Kafka, Orwell, and Ovid, to name a few. Then it evolved into non-fiction, and I found The Apostates: When Muslims Leave Islam by Simon Cottee, which was dedicated to Irtaza Hussain’s memory: a man who eventually committed suicide due to the loneliness and isolation he felt after leaving Islam. He had previously complained that his only friends were the other ex-Muslims he had met online.
The isolation mentioned in Irtaza’s story is emblematic of so many ex-Muslims. After leaving the religion I felt incredibly alone: all my friends and every member of my community was Muslim. We are always told to talk to those we trust when we’re going through bad times; an impossibility in the lives of many ex-Muslim.
I quickly found myself an online community of ex-Muslims who I chatted to almost everyday. We tried to keep discussions happy and upbeat as possible but this was impossible. A 17-year-old girl in the group was forced to move to Somalia by her abusive father while an Australian woman currently has a restraining order against her parents after they harassed her for leaving the religion.
Out of the around 20 people in the group, only three have “come out” as ex-Muslim. The pain and isolation most of us face is only ever shown online to strangers who we connect with out of a yearning for someone, anyone to listen.
When people do tell their families they find themselves with a family who do not accept them and simply wish to change them. To many families the idea of not being a Muslim and openly declare it is absolutely unthinkable. It is okay to drink or not to eat halal but to openly deny the religion?
I sent that letter knowing all this. A few days later I received an angry phone call. This was the last contact I had with my parents. All of this occurred over a year ago and it has been a very difficult year, given the financial difficulties of being a student with no support which I had prepared for, but I also lacked all the other things a family should support you with.
However, what I lost I have managed to regain in other places. A colleague of mine invited me over for Christmas dinner (after doing a Christmas Day shift); my best friend made me a birthday cake after coming to the realisation that no one else would. Small things. yes. But they replaced the things I had lost.
To finish this article I want to recommend Simon Cottee’s The Apostates for anyone wanting to know more about the stories of ex-Muslims. The author does a great job of giving a voice to those of us who cannot speak openly – and I can only hope this book helps other as it helped me.
Gill, A. and Brah, A. (2013). Interrogating cultural narratives about ‘honour’-based violence. European Journal of Women’s Studies, 21(1), pp.73-74.
Editor’s note: The Pink Triangle Trust enjoys a close relationship with the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, and made a generous donation of £1,000.00 to help fund the CEMB’s presence at at the upcoming Pride in London event in June.