Rahila Gupta in New Humanist:
On World Hijab Day, 1 February, the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain (CEMB) will premiere Women Leaving Islam online, a documentary which explores the violence and repression that Islam’s modesty culture visits upon its women. Six women from the most diverse backgrounds, from different countries in the world and different wings of Islam but now settled in Europe and Australia, talk movingly of their journey from the hijab to freedom. I defy you not to cry along with them. None of them could have openly come out as atheists in their countries of origin without being declared an apostate or blasphemer either by the state or the wider community.
Apostasy and blasphemy are criminal offences punishable by death in 13 Muslim-majority countries. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are on that list and the home countries of two of the women: Fauzia Ilyas and Rana Ahmad. When Fauzia wanted to divorce her excessively religious and controlling husband, the court granted a divorce but gave the custody of her little daughter to her husband because he told the courts that she had renounced Islam and was a blasphemer. When her home was attacked by a mob, she fled and sought refuge in the Netherlands. Being a woman and an ex-Muslim in Pakistan is “a dangerous combination” she says. Ironically, as an asylum seeker in Amsterdam, she found that the centres were full of religious Muslims who were not welcoming of her.
Rana Ahmad was forced into going to Mecca by her mother who suspected that her religious faith was a bit shaky. Her act of rebellion, of coming out loud and proud while remaining safe, was to find a camera in a quiet part of the Kaaba, writing the words “Atheist Republic” on a piece of paper and flashing it in front of the CCTV. Eventually she fled Saudi Arabia and later described the experience: “At the moment when I was in the middle of the sea between Turkey and Greece, I get the feeling that if I die at this moment, I am happy because I tried to be free… But I ask why it has to be so expensive. It’s broken me from inside.”