Over the last year, I’m delighted to have made some great strides mental health-wise in continuing to heal from some pretty painful life experiences. I’ve become stronger in my purpose of helping others who might need support in identifying, escaping and recovering from honour abuse, and I’m glad that people finally appear to be paying attention to the issues involved, although there is much work yet to do. There’s little doubt, however, that a great deal of this interest from many quarters stems from the fact that I am quite willing at times to link Islam to my story as a cause or reason for the abuse.
I was interviewed recently by a PhD student in criminal justice from the US, whose research on institutional responses to honour abuse will be used to inform policy there. I definitely do not include this lovely woman as being one of those parties who is only interested in hearing what I have to say for its reinforcement of prejudiced thinking. But she did ask as part of her pre-prepared questions (as it was absolutely right of her to do given the current political climate) if I thought honour abuse had anything to do with religion. It was, of course, a loaded question. I immediately gave my stock answer, which went along the lines of “honour abuse happens in many different communities, regardless of religion.” I cited statistics publicised by the government’s Forced Marriage Unit demonstrating that they had handled cases from 60 countries in 2012 alone, including Ukraine. In this report from Refuge it is made clear that honour abuse takes place in a wide range of communities (I focus on forced marriage here as opposed to other types of honour abuse as the statistics were easier to find and share):
“…research reveals that a wide range of communities outside of the South Asian diaspora experience forced marriage, including: orthodox/fundamental religious communities in the UK; Irish traveller women; Armenian, Turkish and some mainland Chinese communities; Eastern European communities; African communities (such as Eritrean, Sudanese, Sierra Leonean and Mozambiquean); and AfricanCaribbean communities. This is consistent with evidence presented to the Government during a consultation on the criminalisation of forced marriage – A Wrong Not a Right (FCO et al. 2006). Although 65 per cent (n=45) of forced marriage cases were identified by respondents as being from the Indian sub-continent, many other geographical locations were also mentioned once, including: Egypt, Poland, Malaysia, Kenya, Ireland, Nigeria, Jordan, Yemen, South East Asia, Greece, Syria and Africa (FCO, 2006).”
This is all of course true. Despite these facts however, I look back on my own experiences and I know that religion was used as justification for absolute control and horrific abuse. Some awful things were done to me by my family. Despite the huge amount of deeply personal stuff I’ve already shared online, I have not gone near the worst of it, and I’m pretty sure I never will. I share just enough to strike a balance between the need to express myself in order to heal; to raise awareness so that others who may be in the same situation can understand that they are not alone, and most importantly, to give meaning and purpose to pain so intense that it would otherwise kill me if I did not speak out.
But I digress; the point is that I was made to understand the absolute inferiority of my place as a female in my family, and when I was old enough and had learned how to ask questions about this without courting further abuse (because to question the rules of oppression would be to question absolute authority), I was told that this was the way things are in Islam. The head of our family apparently said once that ‘women bring nothing but shame, from the day they are born, until the day they are buried.’ In my personal experience, intense abuse was closely linked with religious rhetoric.
Still it’s difficult to deny that in a post 9/11 age, there is a lot of anti-Muslim bigotry, in the media and on the streets. It has been convenient for me at many stages in my life, right up until recently, to blame all of Islam for my woes. At one point, during a Facebook ‘debate’ with a close family member, I admit I even said this:
“I for one am no longer interested in marketing some kind of mythical, progressive form of Islam by denying the atrocities that are happening everywhere in the Muslim world, and here, because of the rules it imposes on every, single aspect of a woman’s life. I reserve the right to wear what I want, date who I want and sleep with who I want (or not – it’s my choice), because these are the freedoms offered to me as a Scottish citizen. These are freedoms denied to too many women raised in ‘Muslim’ families practicing ‘twisted interpretations’ of the good book. Tell me, where are the good Muslim families that allow their women such freedom? What of the Arab Spring? Forgive me if I’ve become cynical. Yes it happens in other religions, but the followers of other religions have not taken it upon themselves to protect medieval practices to the extent that so many people have died in its name; in other religions, critical thinking and dialogue are valued to a much greater degree than it ever has been in Islam.”
I was very angry when I said it, but even when I look back now, I think the only sentence I would retract would be the one asking where the good Muslim families are. I made a damaging generalisation because of my own experiences and I had become deeply frustrated and disillusioned. I am also not a religious scholar, and I have not carried out a comparative analysis of how many people have died in the name of one religion as compared to another. The phrase ‘Muslim world’ represents no one community definitively.
Other members of my family (who were also not satisfied with answers given to them about a religion that placed a stranglehold on every aspect of their lives) did their own research and found comfort in their discoveries about Islam. They experimented with the hijab and were invigorated by the possibility of living a freer, more progressive life as a Muslim. I was quite shocked the first time I stated what I thought was obvious about my not being a Muslim to a close relative… She asked me, ‘But how does any of that make you a non-Muslim?’ Had she met me?! By that time I was drinking, delighting frequently in not wearing very much (I’m talking faux leather mini-skirts, backless tops, sky high heels – jeez even in the description I delight in it!), smoking, clubbing, having sex… the list goes on. This was only the very start of our many disagreements on this, which sadly ended in our estrangement.
For a short time at the start of my writing career, I did engage in what I believe many people with a Muslim background were and are still doing – marketing this new model of progressive Islam, one practiced by women who revel in their choice to wear or not wear the veil, to love and marry whomever they choose, to follow their own career path and generally celebrate their own autonomy. I genuinely wish them well – it is not an easy task to forge a feminist Muslim identity when you are surrounded by Islamic extremists, or Islamists as they are now known, out-and-out racists, and anti-Muslim bigots. I look at many of the fierce online debates on taken on by people like Raquel Saraswati, Iram Ramzan or Lejla Kuric and am appalled by the abuse they face on a regular basis simply for being women who identify as Muslim and who accept the need to actively campaign for critical reflection of religious practice.
I personally have not chosen that path, because I find my spiritual appetite satisfied completely by the writings of authors like Neale Donald Walsch, Dr Brian Weiss and a host of other self-help gurus. I have said before that ‘religion demands that you wage a war on your own soul and call it a holy battle; a lifelong test of your will to fend off autonomy’. So it’s clear that I am not a Muslim. I do not even call myself an ex-Muslim, because I never practiced by choice. Hell, I faked my period for two years before they actually started just so I could get out of reading namaaz.
But I will say this: I have nothing if not a right to question, criticize and ridicule any type of Islam that seeks to oppress women in the same way I was. I am deeply angered by those who dare to suggest that my story (and others like it) fuels anti-Muslim bigotry and that I too could be deemed an anti-Muslim bigot. There are those who claim to provide a platform and a voice to marginalised individuals in one breath, and then in the next accuse a survivor of the Bosnian anti-Muslim genocide of being ‘Islamophobic’ before blocking her on social media, simply because she very politely questioned an editorial decision to publish a post defending gender segregation in UK universities, written by a spokesperson for an extremist organisation! You couldn’t make this shit up!
I do understand that with my often explicit writing about sex and open support for criticism of many issues to do with Islam, I would not be considered the strongest ally for those who wish to continue countering the racist vitriol out there, especially by those who do identify themselves as Muslim. But that in no way detracts from the fact that there are, like my abusers, many, many people out there carrying out horrific atrocities in the name of Islam, on both a personal and political level. It does not detract from the fact that any conceptualisation of Islam as a benign, inclusive and progressive religion that may have existed (and I scoff at the notion) has been utterly decimated. And it certainly does not bode well for Islam if the only way for those who do wish to counteract anti-Muslim bigotry is to join in denial of abuse in Muslim communities, in the same way as Islamic extremists themselves are doing! And I see this being done in a way that makes me deeply uncomfortable. I look at tweets like the one below and am reminded of accusations towards me that I’m simply being used as a puppet.
These people can, quite frankly, go fuck themselves for dismissing the possibility that I might, just might, have some agency and a passion for raising awareness! I am very well aware that journalists, politicians and policymakers alike may have great interest in stories like mine, and may even attempt to use them solely to progress their own agendas, some of which have a distinctly anti-Muslim taint to them. That does not mean those stories are not important.
There has to be a balance and there has to be a sense of reason. Yes there is anti-Muslim bigotry. But there is also a number of deeply worrying issues in the Muslim community that are being ignored and that are, through denial and inaction, adding fuel to the fire. I leave you with one final thought. In the little work I’ve done so far to set up a mental health service for honour abuse victims, I have observed some striking parallels in the issues within Islam that are being sensationalised today, and those within the Catholic community historically. Oppression of women, child abuse, forced marriage – all occur within that narrative too. The same issues can be found in all religions that by definition dictate a code of behaviour that devalues autonomy and judges, often with harsh punishment, those who do not follow the prescribed code. It’s no bad thing that Islam is flavour of the month for rooting all these issues out – it’s time to get them out in the open and fucking deal with it like grown-ups.