Dated July 6, 2020
Note: This interview was conducted back in 2019 for Wikinews and the text has been since published here under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 license. Please check the licenses of media files before reusing.
A number of Muslim-majority countries around the world implement Shari'a — commonly known as Islamic law — and have laws against apostasy and blasphemy. Numerous times, over the years, people have been sentenced to death penalty for renouncing Islam. In 2018, a Pakistani journalism student Mashal Khan was killed by a mob lynch after he was accused of blasphemy. At times there have been protests against the restrictions on free speech in Islam.
Other than the restriction of free speech, many Muslim majority countries have declared homosexuality as a capital crime, and observe a strict dress code for women. Iran has banned a number of female chess players for not wearing a hijāb. An Iranian woman was sentenced 20 years for removing hijāb while protesting the strict dress code.
On the behalf of Wikinews, I had gotten in touch with Tanzanian-born ex-Muslim Zara Kay to discuss the struggles an ex-Muslim woman faces, as well as her organisation: Faithless Hijabi. Faithess Hijabi is an organisation which helps other ex-Muslim women by sharing their stories and experiences. Its Facebook page had over 7000 likes, and Zara Kay, who identifies herself as an anti-theist, had previously helped a teenager from Saudi Arabia Rahaf Mohammed escape to Canada.
The following is the interview with Zara Kay that took place in 2019.
Interview with Zara Kay
So, how are you doing?
Zara Kay: I am good, thanks. Um, really busy [...] How are you?
I am doing well. Can you tell us something about yourself?
Zara Kay: Um yeah. So I was born in Tanzania. And then, I left Tanzania when I was 16. I moved to Malaysia. And then, I moved to Australia at the age of 19. I took off my headscarf right before I moved to Australia: so I was about 18, 19. And yeah, so I come from a Shi'a background. The specific community is called the Khoja Shi'a Ithna Asheri Jamaat.
How old are you? And when did you decide to start Faithless Hijabi?
Zara Kay: So, I am 26 now. And I started Faithless Hijabi last year [in 2018]. So I was 25 when I started Faithless Hijabi.
So in terms of the goals for our organisation: it started off and it still at its core remains a story-telling platform. We want to engage our audiences by making them aware of the people living either in the Middle East who come from a Muslim background in the West; girls who have escaped; girls who have emancipated; girls would run away from home; girls have gone through emotional and physical abuse, right? Before leaving religion, after leaving religion. Sometimes those are the reasons that had caused them to question religion: the way they were treated. Being subservient to men.
So the core of the organisation and the goals are to encourage empathy by story-telling. And our core principles for Faithless Hijabi is always keeping true to our audience by sharing stories that we've received. And also, it's a global movement, so we have girls coming from everywhere. It could be from the Maldives, it could be from Canada. Some of them from Somalia, some of them from East Africa. Many of them from the Middle East, but also so many from the UK itself.
We also have converts. And it's open to, basically, all ex-Muslims. But we've also had curious Muslims as well, who are like, "I'm questioning [the faith], but I like the identity [as a Muslim], but I don't believe in God". It's a very confusing phase for so many. So sometimes they take longer to even reach that stage. I've seen girls who have taken a year and a half from when I first first spoke to them until now.
Okay, so what motivated you to start this organisation, and who supported you when the organisation was very young?
Zara Kay: So initially I started it with a Christian male friend of mine. We had different goals but in the end it ended up molding into what it is now. Initially we wanted to create a Sydney-based group for people to question things. But that wasn't safe for many people. Not many people would come out as curious Muslims. So we had to then narrow down our field to talk to people who had already come out. So I've always been leading it. I've had a few people help me with the setups of it — registering the non-profit, but I was motivated by my own experiences. I wanted to know what other girls had gone through because I had gone through the same thing. While I come from a relatively liberal family, I still felt very lost, but also found: I had found my new identity. And I was learning how to settle into it. But I also wanted to know: can women come together and help each other?
Somalian activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali has been critical about Islam.
Credit: American Atheists/CC BY 3.0
Because we still go through a lot of security risks with the girls' stories that we get, a lot of girls are not comfortable talking to other people, so they'll talk to me, or they'll talk to other volunteers: it's always a one-on-one thing. We couldn't actually create a community yet. We're working on it now to create a community. But what had motivated me was finding validation and aligning what my story was to other stories. Because I had heard of other ex-Muslim women like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Sara Haider. And bits of their stories were the way I was thinking but I didn't know how to confront it. And I could only imagine that there's so many girls like me who are going through the same phase. And it only made sense to then reach out to women; ask them for their stories; and initially, I would read the entire story on my own and publish it. So it was a one-woman-run-organisation until March this year . So from October  to March , I was the only one running it.
Was it your full-time job?
Zara Kay: No it wasn't my full-time job. For a part, it was full-time, but most of it, it was done part-time when I had full-time employment.
So were you scared or were you anxious when you just started the organisation? And did you have any prior experience working in any Non-Government Organisation?
Zara Kay: No I didn't. I didn't even know it was going to be this big. I didn't know it would reach 2000 or 3000 likes. I wasn't expecting it to. I just wanted a Facebook page that would connect people, that would be an advocacy. I was really excited about it because I've wanted so many women to come together and share their stories. And also find a sense of community with sharing stories.
Also I think the one thing that we always achieve after we've received stories is that a lot of people have never shared their stories before. So they find a lot of comfort. And it's like journaling for them. It is their experience. There is nothing they're making up. But they haven't actually spoken about it to anyone. And that's what we aim to achieve in the long term: giving women that safe haven or a safe space to share their story; having their stories be an advocacy for other ex-Muslim women or ex-Muslim women in general; but also on the other end, inspiring other people to come forward and talk about it. It all has to do with normalising it.
Why did you choose this name Faithless Hijabi?
Zara Kay: Because for the longest time hijāb for many, and knowing in Iran it's forced. But there's so many women who have been doubting hijāb — not religion, just hijāb. But we came up thinking how do we portray an ex-Muslim woman who is faithless but can't come out? And hijāb felt like a good cover where a lot of people who are questioning would still wear it because they're not sure yet and hijāb was that identification of Muslim women but what happens when they're faithless: they're not Muslim women but they're still hijābi. And they can be hijābi and they can be faithless Muslims. If you take Muslims as a cultural name.
Do you put all your time behind Faithless Hijabi or do you work at other places?
Zara Kay: I have two other jobs, so on weekdays, I am a programmatic analyst in a media agency. And on weekends, I work as a bartender. Only because I'm trying to have more time outside Faithless Hijabi while growing it part-time. So Faithless Hijabi is very much part-time for me.
What is your role at the organisation?
Zara Kay: My role in Faithless Hijabi is, well besides founding it, I do the strategy part. So I am strategic lead. I'll decide on what campaigns we should put out, what conversation starters do we have, how to reach other women, what tech we should be investing in. So I do pretty much the top-level operations part of it. And the tech part of it because I come from a technical background. And then we have a few volunteers who do the Arabic page of Instagram and the English page of Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.
How many people volunteer for the organisation?
Zara Kay: At the moment, we're about four people. We're trying to get more volunteers to come in. But we're in the process of actually establishing a better non-profit structure. So looking for more experienced people who can help us drive it forward. All the girls who work at Faithless Hijabi are actually ex-Muslim women and real faithless hijābis as well. Who wear a hijāb but can't take it off.
Do they all work full-time?
Zara Kay: They all work. Faithless Hijabi for many is on volunteer basis. We have no funding. We haven't decided to apply for funding because we're waiting on a better structure, we're waiting for more growth which is probably happening in the next two three months. So we just released our Arabic page about less than a month ago, or a month ago and that is still gaining traction slowly. But we plan to keep growing it.
What is the outline of how the organisation functions?
Zara Kay: So, with Faithless Hijabi, we now have a website where women can submit stories. A large part of our growth was based on my growth as an activist. And the more ex-Muslim women reached out to me, the more I would tell them to send me a story. The more I would start opening Faithless* Hijabi* to all of them to send stories. But now that we have a website, whenever an ex-Muslim or anybody on my inbox comes along, or somebody highlights an ex-Muslim tweet, I always just post the link. And they will share their stories. And it has pointers on what stories we're looking for, what pointers we have, and anything else they would like to add. We want to keep it to free speech. We want the girls to feel safe. So it's always anonymous. The stories come to us, and then I send it to the publishers that work with us: with Faithless Hijabi. Girls I have personally vetted, know them personally, and because they're sensitive stories, the publishers will edit out if there're any typos or if the story needs to be in a particular structure of flowing. And that's what happens in the English page. And in the Arabic page, we get translators to translate the story. One of our volunteers is based in the Middle East, behind an identity because nobody can know who she is. And she translates stories, and she takes care of the Arabic page. Only because we didn't want somebody who didn't know Arabic to just keep posing stories but [instead] know what they're writing about. So we want authenticity. We don't want to automate it completely. And we want our volunteers to be as engaged to then publish the stories to engage audiences as well.
How does a normal day at work look like for you?
Zara Kay: So with Faithless Hijabi, because I spent a couple of hours between my activism and Faithless Hijabi, I will do, depending on what work there is remaining: it could be finishing up the website. It could be: I personally — girls who come through Faithless Hijabi — I mentor them and coach them. It could be from coaching them on how to remove their hijāb even if they're Muslims they'll come to me. And even if they're ex-Muslims also come to me, apparently, despite our difference in beliefs, they find comfort in talking to somebody who's not going to push them to wear a hijāb. So some of my days can be working with girls who have mental health issues and most of them happen to be Muslims. Or working with girls on helping them achieve better conversations or being comfortable with removing the hijāb. And this could be girls from the age of 15 and above. My rule is mainly to guide them to get their answers, or to help them understand that being an ex-Muslim can come as a big burden to your families. And despite us wanting to accept it, we also need to accept that there they would not accept it: that we need to learn to create better boundaries between us and our families. And that has personally worked for me. On and off, sometimes even I fail to hold up that system of boundaries. But by-and-large, I just have to coach girls into, well, one being independent in their decisions; two, also, being faithful, when they take those decisions are they safe [unintelligible]. So there's a lot of coaching and mentoring happening. And then there is, the operations side that is happening as well. So, right now we're looking for more volunteers to help us. But at the moment I've been carrying a lot of different things that I need to do.
According to you what is the significance of a hijāb?
Zara Kay: Well, I don't think hijāb has ever been a choice for any of us really, who were born Muslims, who were told that hijāb is what good Muslim women do. So, we were coerced to wearing it. At this point in this day and age, a lot of the girls wear it as a political identity: they want to be recognised as a Muslim. A lot of them don't even know how hijāb came about based on its history. They don't know a lot of the stories that are about hijāb. They don't question why the hijāb is there for women as clothing and not the same for men. They've just learned to accept it. So, I think at this point the significance of hijāb is mostly as a political identity.
Zara Kay wearing a hijāb.
Fair Use image credit: Zara Kay
Did you first hear a hijāb willingly?
Zara Kay: I was eight and I thought I chose to wear it. But like I said, at a young age I've always seen with some women wear hijāb until I was 16 and moved overseas. So I think, I would say I was coerced into wearing hijāb. It wasn't fully a informed choice of mine, or an informed decision. But I did say I want to wear it. And my parents did not shy away from it, they accepted my decision because I would have had to wear it when I was nine. I started when I was eight.
When did you decide not to wear a hijāb?
Zara Kay: I was about 18 when I decided I would take it off. But even before then, I started slowly loosening it up or showing my hair on the front. I used to wear an abāyā as well. So I took off the abaya and I just wear a headscarf. And I think, when I actually took it off, I was 18, turning 19.
That was when you were in Australia, right?
Zara Kay: That was when I was in Malaysia, about to go to Australia.
What was your childhood like?
Zara Kay: My childhood, well: I am one of six. So I have been brought up my oldest brother and then two older sisters and younger sister. So, my sisters are already set the precedence that they wore hijāb and I had to wear hijāb. But at the same time, I grew up in a very relatively liberal family. My family was happy to send me overseas for education. They did expect me to still be a Muslim. They did expect me to come back. I think life just changed and I decided to go to Australia and they supported me. So they've never been extremist: they've been conservative. They have just been in their little bubble in Tanzania, like they have travelled a lot, but they have never really experienced life living in the West, or even just progressive values, in general. However, there were always — despite the passive-aggressiveness — they've always been relatively kind to me. There's a bit of emotional blackmail now knowing that I'm not a Muslim and a public activist. But they still talk to me, we're still amicable. Sometimes, I just have to take a little bit of space.
My childhood was relatively fine. It was never a reason why I left Islam. It was always: at the age of 13, I stopped praying and my dad would tell me to keep praying, but he'd never really enforce it: he was just ask and the guilt would drown me. But, when I moved overseas, I didn't really care much about prayers, about religion. Even if I wore a hijāb, it was never the forefront, I barely went to mosque. So, my family was never a reason why I rejected the religion. The more I studied about it, the more people I met who aren't religious: they helped me question the religion in ways such as: they were such kind people who were gay and I could never get myself to hate gay people. I could never reject them for their sexuality. I never really thought that they should be with the woman. And also, the more I studied religion, when I was trying to understand more about creating peace with gay people, or creating peace with people who don't accept your religion; more I was surprised that it didn't exist.
What were the incidents that compelled you to step into helping other women?
Zara Kay: I think, going through mental health anxiety myself, and I remember calling my mom once. And after I was diagnosed, like, you know, five-six months after I was diagnosed with anxiety, I used to get panic attacks every night. And I remember calling my mom and I asked. And I told my mom I have anxiety, and she's like "you need to pray more". And I started crying and I said, "You're not listening to me. I have done everything." And I wasn't even an ex-Muslim. I just didn't even know. I tried reading the Qur'an on my phone, it didn't help. It just made me me feel worse because I knew what the book like I knew a lot about the book: [it] wasn't very peaceful. And having that experience, I started reading a lot of books outside the Qur'an. Be it atheism, psychological well-being, self-help. And once I got to a stage where I could take care of myself, I wanted to help other girls. I wanted to help other girls who couldn't. So many girls I helped are Muslims. They still choose to be Muslims, but anxiety and depression is something they suffer from. So, because I've been through all of that, I wanted to be a helping hand making girls feel like they were never alone. And religion had nothing to do with it.
I mean, for me, a lot of my anxiety was tied into religion. But my relationship with other people didn't have much do with religion.
You describe yourself as an anti-theist, right?
Zara Kay: It started in phases. I was about 12 or 11 years old, and I went to Syria. And because I come from a religious background, in Syria, you go visit all the shrines. And I saw people praying to the shrines and kissing the shrines: and I'm like I know it comforts people to be to show love to a symbol, but why are they praying to it. And I could never understand, so I tried creating mental gymnastics in my head, and I'm like: "Oh no, they still believe in Allah, but they're praying to it [the shrines] because they know that this person was close to Allah."
And then, they were small things like "Who created God?" And this is at a very young age. And as I grew up, and I started questioning things about Shi'as and Sunnis. And I started learning more about Sunnis since I wanted to bridge the gap. And that, I think, from the age of 17 or 18, I only called myself a Muslim. Some people went like "Are you a Shi'a or Sunni?" and I said, "No, I am a Muslim". That was slowly me trying to come out from those labels. And making my own destiny, I would say. Or choosing my own path versus what I was born with. And then, I critically started questioning it in 2016. And I was exposed to a lot of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. And listening to their podcasts, I think a lot of it just made me anxious because I could relate to it but I did not know how to get there.
Harris and Dawkins have been critical of religions including Islam.
Did that attract any violence or threat?
Zara Kay: I mean, just expressing myself as a supporter of gay people and a Muslim I got a lot of abuse online. I couldn't understand why people would hate them so much: why would people hate anyone so much. So yeah, like, even just as a curious Muslim, I got a lot of violence but even now I get death threats. And I think, if you have seen my Twitter, my Instagram, and Facebook with the lot with a lot of threats with anything I do; even if it's not meant to be provocative. Even if it's just a photo of me, everybody just wants to attack you on everything. I literally have people from Tanzania, who knew that I suffered from a health issue, and they would always hold it against me every time. So yeah, I do have people who intentionally would try bullying me.
Does the organisation provide help to ex-Muslim females who are abused by the families for questioning faith?
Zara Kay: Yes, it does. No, usually, if you talk to anybody who is religious — because apostasy is punishable by death [in Islam] — and because these are people who've been brought up with that ideology, the likelihood is that any questions they ask the answer would be "Don't question God", or "You're interpreting it wrong", or "Maybe you should ask somebody who's a scholar". And then, a lot of people, when they go to scholars and even when I had recently come out [as an apostate], I was scared of going to scholars because I was so embarrassed of not being smart enough to know this answer. But there were logical fallacies and a lot of the mental gymnastics are being played to keep you in the religion. So, no your faith would not help you to in the questioning phase.
Does the organisation help Muslim men who are skeptical of their faith?
Zara Kay: The organisation as such is built for women and their story. But because I come as part of the organisation, they're very much intertwined. Which is great, because there are: well I have my activism as being an anti-theist; my organisation serves purposes to engage women in critical thinking, and being advocacy for ex-Muslim women. There is a bit of an overlap, but personally yes, I do help ex-Muslim men or Muslim men who are thinking about it. A lot of times it ends up in abuse, where I get harassed, I get abused. I've had so many men who have tried harassing me. And then would end up insulting me only because I had tried questioning them. Or I would help them through it and sometimes it would be fake and they would just waste my time. And now, I don't: because I were initially when I came out I was so willing to help other men, but it would blow up in my face. I find women to be even if they're harsh when they begin with, they slowly warm up to the idea thinking, "Hey, you're actually not that bad. We may have different faiths, and you offend me but you're making some sense". And I would just ask them simple questions. With men, they find it easy to use sexual harassment, instead of admit to me challenging their critical thinking. But there are a few men that I have helped on-and-off. A lot of them talk to all other activists, so I think in bits and pieces. As ex-Muslim activists, we always help other people going through a similar phase.
Do women who live in those countries where Shari'a is implemented, do they reach out for help?
Zara Kay: Yeah! Absolutely! Yeah yeah, so, we have a lot of Saudi women. I actually helped a Saudi girl escape. It was a financial help to moral support. But she escaped, and she's safe in the Western country and that was pride and joy for me. And yeah, we have a lot of women from, like, parts of Indonesia, parts of Malaysia, a lot of Middle Eastern women as well who have reached out for help. And even though they know nothing can be done off it, they've they just want to talk sometime. And if you talk about it, and I think in very little ways me and my volunteers will try helping them. Sometimes they're forced marriages even in Canada. And that's not even about Shari'a law -- we'll try providing as much support as we can we. We don't have any financial help, so usually all the financial help comes in from crowd-funding.
Who supports Faithless Hijabi financially?
Zara Kay: I support it. I worked two jobs to support anything that I can. I stopped my career for since March last year , I took a sabbatical. So I was traveling. I was sick for a bit. And then once I was recovering, I took some time out for Faithless Hijabi. I had a lot of savings and I supported it in terms of registering it. A lot of my time spent online. Even in the tech and everything, I've supported it fully with my savings. And that's why it means a lot to me and I've kept it really close and we haven't really gone into government funding. Because, sometimes it's hard to justify where the money can go. Especially, if we're trying to crowd-fund an air ticket, which can potentially be illegal. But I think moving forward, we want to come up with programs that would help ex-Muslim women in those situations, such as in financial situations which has mostly to do with education, but help them get up to speed so they can be financially independent. That's one of the things about leaving your religion: more often you're ostracised from your family and cut out from any finances. So, we're hoping to apply for government grants, use part of their grants, to award ex-Muslim women and help them get settled in their new career path. It could be maybe paying part of their tuition, or maybe helping them find a temporary accommodation. We're still discussing that. So nothing is in stone.
What are the short-term and the long-term goals of the organisation?
Zara Kay: So the short-term goals for now is translating our content. And creating specific blog post so we should be releasing our blog post next month-ish. So we're still getting stories in. So our short-term goals are a lot about stories, written articles and reaching out to other ex-Muslims.
Long-term goals: the way I see Faithless Hijabi is working alongside with other ex-Muslim organisations. We would like to specialise in helping women with their rights: with helping them encouraging their rights. So I think, in the long term, we're hoping that it will grow enough to be recognised globally. And hopefully, create an online community which we have not yet stepped into. Only because we have a lot of activity to do before we can create that. So I think, long-term goals would be actually creating a community of ex-Muslim women.
Are there any sister organisations of Faithless Hijabi outside the UK?
Zara Kay: So Faithless Hijabi is actually registered in Australia as a charity. Only because I'm Australian and I'm temporarily in the UK. But Faithless Hijabi is a global movement. So we're mostly based online regardless of being set up in Australia. We have one person working from the Middle East. You have two of us working in the UK. One or two people working in Australia. So, that's the way we've been put up. But in terms of sister organisations, I would think parts of what we do resemble with a lot of organisations which are in the UK already based a lot of other existing organisations like EXMNA [Ex-Muslims of North America], CEMB [Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain]. I help run the Australian ex-Muslim group as much as I can from being in distance. So the partner organisations are pretty much the ex-Muslim organisations. But also others that could coincide with the Free From Hijab movement. I think a lot of what we do can partly resemble with many other organisations. We've tried to narrow down what we'd like to specialise in.
What are the struggles of a Muslim woman in present day and age?
Zara Kay: I think with being Muslim there there exists anti-Muslim bigotry, especially, for hijabis. And well, I don't personally endorse the hijāb, I would never let anybody else be a subject for anti-Muslim bigotry. So I think, at present, Muslim women: one they either suffer with identity crisis especially in the West, where they've been told to wear a hijāb. They're not sure of wearing the hijāb but at the same time, they're there is so much anti-Muslim bigotry in the West that it's one of those things that you hold so dear to yourself. Because everybody else doesn't want you to, if that makes sense. Because there's so many Muslim women being attacked. Even I would stand up, especially, for those women. And sometimes a lot of girls will do it by wearing the hijāb. So I think, with Muslim women, there is struggle to our identity issues. Also, being the subject of anti-Muslim bigotry is a big one. But, a lot of it has to come down: some girls that I helped are actually victims of double standards in their family. So the boys would get different rights, the girls would get different rights. I never had to face that. But a lot of other girls actually have that as a main concern.
What are the struggles of an ex-Muslim woman in present day and age?
Zara Kay: A lot, actually. One, there's ostracism at it place. So while you're in your new identity, you're still really scared to be out there. Weather out there means leaving home, or weather out there means being online in public. Ex-Muslims are the minority of the minority. We have been ostracised, we have been abused. We constantly get threats. We're constantly in the face of violence, or in the face of being undermined. Our free-speech is revoked. And there's so many other struggles that we face as ex-Muslims as a whole. But with women, there is a lot of sexual harassment that comes into play. The moment you don't wear a hijāb: even if you're a Muslim woman that doesn't wears a hijāb, a Muslim woman will still be respected more than an ex-Muslim woman. They could be wearing the same clothes, but because you left the faith, you're now in the light of being called a society-slut. Like, the modesty culture has dependent on women forever, right? So even if they're women who don't wear a hijāb, those women will attack ex-Muslim women for not wearing the same thing. But their response is "at least I'm still a Muslim". So I think, you know, harassment is a big thing. And also being accepted in the society, or just even being accepted by the society is a big thing. And you lose out your friends and you know, there's a lot of mental health issues that comes about it, especially because, if you don't have any support while you're finding yourself, you tend to lose yourself even more. Because there's so much negativity associated with that. But I've only seen and heard from so many brave ex-Muslims who have been through hell and back. And despite being alone they've stood up, they've stood out and fallen, and they've stood up and risen. That's amazing to watch how strong all of these women are.
Previously have worked with Rahaf Mohammed, right?
Zara Kay I did work with Rahaf. So my role with Rahaf: it wasn't like an aligned role. I was in the plane from London to Sydney and somebody flagged, "Hey there's a girl who's in Thailand and she's an ex-Muslim girl". And that was Rahaf had just come out [as an apostate]. And my role there was to make sure she was okay. And when she asked for help, I didn't know who to go to, but I looked at other people helping and I collaborated with them. And my role there was to make sure that as an ex-Muslim she's being heard, and that she's being safe. And if that involves contacting the UNHCR or contacting the government here, or writing letters, or working with people who are already helping here. That's what my role encompassed. Like putting pieces together. I feel like her story was taken away by the media for being a Saudi women who had run away from male guardianship laws versus being an apostate and a Saudi women. So apostasy has just been erased from all of it. And her running away, and you know, when other ex-Muslim spoke about it, it shed a bit of light on the ex-Muslim as a society, I guess, or ex-Muslim as a practice. Like a practice of disbelief.
What do you think are the hurdles around the globe about discussing the questions related to Islam?
Zara Kay: I think there is a lot of political correctness [PC]. Even when people share their experiences, their experiences are mostly tarnished by left — the regressive left — who name it as "oh it's part of your culture". But it shouldn't be. A bad idea whether it's in a culture or religion should not be endorsed at all.
So do you find more resistance from Muslims, or Western non-Muslims when you criticise Islam?
Zara Kay: I feel like ex-Muslims have been cornered by the right-wing, because they will take advantage of ex-Muslims to further their anti-Muslim bigotry. And the left-wing would criticise ex-Muslims for speaking up about Islam or their experiences. And the Muslim right, who are like the Muslim right wing who is more of the Salāfi — very extremist practice — who disregard you for ever being a Muslim. Because if you were every Muslim you wouldn't have left [Islam]. And the left[-wing], who talk about them not being represented as real Muslims, because they are not as extreme as the right wing. So there's — in the Muslim world — there's always this question on who is the right Muslim. And that's why ex-Muslims, when they come out, and they decide to criticise the [Islamic] scripture: each side will attack them saying, "Oh, but we're not homophopic, my sister is gay", "So I reject this verse". But then the [Muslim] right-wing will go like "No you cannot be a homosexual. That's it. You just can't criticise that part of Islam. Because God has made you to love women if you're a man". So I think, the challenge is the non-Muslim left-and-right wing, and the Muslim left-and-right wing. And ex-Muslims are at the centre of all of it. And they're abused even more by all of the sides. And they're criticised that much.
How do you cope with this?
Zara Kay: I have pretty much: with the negativity that comes about, I'm pretty much distanced myself. So, in terms of the way I use social media, I will put up a post, put up a meme, turn off notifications, and then let it go. sometimes, I do tend to engage, but it's also reminding myself that I'm only going a rabbit hole. And that there's no real outcome to all of that. And that I should I should speak to people where I can make changes. And let go of those for just beyond changes.
Just recently [last June], I posted up the "Allah is gay" photo, and I had a lot of backlash and a lot of celebrities — some celebrities complained about it. But at the same time, I had women who came up to me and she's like, "Look, if you have any questions about Islam, I'm happy to answer, but I don't like your post". And I'm like, "I am ex-Muslim. I studied Islam for a long time. What makes you think that I have questions? I don't. I've never asked a question like that since I've come out. I'm quite happy with my decision." And another girl came out to me, started swearing at me, and then I was like, "Look, the only person who's been disrespectful in this discourse is you. All I've done is stated my views. I'm not swearing at you." And she, in response, said "Your dad is gay". And I'm like, "That's okay. I still love him. It doesn't matter." Like you know, gay people to me are not a threat or a disgust: I don't really care. And then she's like, "You seem like a nice person. Stop offending people." And I am like, "Think about it. Why are you offended?" Right? Every time I ask this question, people are like, "But he's my god." And I'm like, "Yes, and if you know your scripture, then you should know, that there's so many things about your scripture that even you would disagree with." And they're like, "Yeah, but...". You can see there you can see their wheels turning. So I have tried sometimes — mostly with women — talking to my abusers. It's like: confronting my abusers and why they hate me. And that engagement gives me more satisfaction than engaging in somebody in a rabbit hole.
Does the internalised-misogyny in Islam pose a significant threat to others?
Zara Kay: Apart from what's already out there, it's just a matter of the ones who practice it. So there are a percentage — a very small percentage — of people who are fundamentalist; and then there are conservative; and then there are liberals. The ones that we fear the most are not conservatives, they're extremists who would literally take the Word of God, and act upon it. And there are definitely some parts of Islam, there are a lot of liberals would also disagree with: homophobia being one of them. Unequal rights for women being another. And also just, like, the killing of non-believers, polytheists or something that has happened in history, that has been substantiated by "Oh, it was defence". But ISIS seems to take that word literally. They would also kill Muslims, who are liberal. So it looks like Islam in itself has been destructive to itself. And their practices have been destructive to the world, as compared to a secular world.
You recently attended the London pride where you posed with the sign "Allah is Gay". Did you carry that sign? Or did you just pose?
Zara Kay: I only posed with it. So I didn't go for the march, I couldn't make it to the march. I was not feeling well. But I only posed with it. I did however see them passed by, and there were a lot of people who were cheering for those who were in it. I felt really proud to have known those people, because it's great. And I didn't think my photo would go viral, I really did not expect so much negativity to come about it. I'm hoping that in a few days it will shut down, but it looks like there is so much going. So I have just turned off the notification. But, I think, for the most part, there weren't any Muslims out there that I could see. Nobody in a headscarf that I could see. So, most of the people out there were just like, happy. They were just they like they don't really care; they just wanted more acceptance. People were just there to be happy. But, I think, it was one of those very few days where I didn't see a lot of Muslims in the city.
Zara Kay posed with the sign reading "Allah is Gay" on July 6, 2019
Fair Use image credit: Zara Kay
What would you say about that sign: being being an anti-theist, and then saying "Allah is Gay"?
Zara Kay: As contradictory as it sounds, if you think about it, in your narrative, if somebody who's a theist, who accepts Allah as being a God, their God, or one of the gods, right? Him being gay would only be offensive if you're homophobic, right? Had I said "Allah is not gay", nobody would have that descent. I say if "Allah is straight", nobody would really care, would they? So, I think this highlights the negativity that is being associated with being gay. As a person who doesn't believe, and when I read that, I could have said Peter Pan is gay. And because he doesn't exist, it doesn't matter to me. It could be a figment of my imagination.
So the idea for that was one to normalise that being gay is okay. I don't understand: no, I think I understand, why people have taken it in a very crude way. But it's also because they cannot comprehend that being gay is okay. Well, I know it has provoked a lot of people, the way people have responded to it: now I have a few Muslim friends who are like, "I don't really care if you say Allah is gay. He could be. He could be not. I don't know", right? So yeah, I have had Muslim friends respond to it and I was like, "Very few people think like that". See, like now I know that you're a peaceful person, right? And, the way the majority of the people have responded have just highlighted that despite "Jesus being queer" as a poster, "Allah being gay" had more of an outrage: it had a lot of an outrage. It just highlights the domination that Islam has over other religion, and why, if we had to rank as one of the most dangerous ideology, Islam would take the rank. And it has a lot to do with its political identity in this landscape. You know, taking dominance over other religion. And while there is an increased rate of birth rate, there is also an increased rate of extremism and terrorist activities that come about Islamic terrorism.
What are the recurring insults you have received because of your volunteer work and your stance against Islam?
Zara Kay: A lot of them have to do with sexual harassment from: the way I look, to my hair, my [sexual-]orientation. So I'm straight, but because I'm a supporter of LGBT; because I'm an ally of the LGBT community; I have been called a lot of different names. A lot of it has to do with the way I look, which doesn't really affect me. Because I like the way I look. But most of it has to do with calling me a bitch, calling me a slut, like all the negative connotations you can you associate a woman with. So yeah, it's a lot of sexual harassment: like 90% of it is sexual harassment.
What would you suggest [for] other fellow ex-Muslims to cope with it?
Zara Kay: I think it is important to have a healthy balance with social media to help a healthy relationship. Understand when your body is psychologically rejecting the negativity. And once it does that or once you see yourself getting into a Twitter fight, or Instagram fight, you shut it. So having a healthy relationship with social media. Also being less affected by what people think of you. If you truly think you're doing the right thing, take feedback only from those people who you would seek advice from.
And that doesn't mean everybody in the world. That could possibly mean just your close friend. So don't let what other people think of you bring you down. Yeah, I think that's how I would see it.
How does the PC culture affect important discussions about Islam?
Zara Kay: I think a lot of people: lot of the left-half try to regress our voices because it is offensive to ones culture or religion. But they don't take it by the subject-matter, they have found it difficult to be objective in our arguments. And that has affected so many from raising their voices. But that has also brought many together to raise their voices. And because the left is being really regressive, a lot of the attention that ex-Muslims get is from the right-wing instead of those who can be centre and objective about things. I feel like a lot of ex-Muslims have been taken advantage of by the right-wing. That is one of the negativity that comes out of it because we're then being used to fuel anti-Muslim bigotry as an example.
But it's also because, I think, the left not giving us a platform to talk about it and always continuing to shut us down. It's only highlighting the bigotry that they hold. It is an encouragement of bad ideas, intersectional feminism is probably the worst thing that has happened to us as as ex-Muslim or ex-Muslim women, where we're being held by a different standards for feminism. But we don't get the same rights for feminism. And situations like Iran and Saudi Arabia are examples of it. When the Western lefties did not fight for women in Saudi Arabia, they're still always under the precaution of, "oh but it's their culture. They are allowed to do it." However, if the same world's law is applied to their country they would be totally against it. It feels like they've been projecting a lot of bigotry which impacts us as ex-Muslims to be critical of, because we're labeled bigots or well labeled as Islamophobes, or Zionists or a Zionist supporter. So we've been given this title that we don't even hold to put us down. And sometimes can put a lot of people in a position to not talk anymore.
Can you shed light on Islamophobia and Muslimphobia?
Zara Kay: So I think Islamophobia is a made-up term. And it is a term that stops conversation or dialogue about Islam, in general. Any of those that doesn't shed Islam in a good light, it stops any criticism of an ideology. Because it gives it a special privilege to not be criticised. Which is really unfair. And, there is no other religion that has a phobia attached to it. So it makes you think, "Why Islam is the only one which has it". I don't like the definition of Islamophobia, which is prejudiced against Muslim and Islam. People have every right to disagree with an idea. People have every right to criticise an idea. But you can't treat human beings with any less dignity. And that's where I feel like the word needs to be replaced with anti-Muslim bigotry. I have a Muslim family myself. So I would only talk about things that I genuinely know that if this was told to my Muslim family they wouldn't be happy: they would feel insulted, alright? If they're legit concerns about them being ill-treated, like, I've read a lot of far-rights talk about: "we don't need any Muslims here, Muslims should just go back to where they came from". And that's a no. But if they say we don't need Shari'a law, I would agree with that. We don't need Islamic law to run our country. I would agree with that. Nobody needs it. A lot of Muslims would also disagree with it.
How does anti-Muslim bigotry affect non-Muslims, or ex-Muslims, better say?
Zara Kay: I think, to me personally, anti-Muslim bigotry: well, bigotry or extremism of any form is unhealthy. It is a violation of people's civil rights. It is treating a human being less than what you would treat others. The way it affects us is because the more we encourage it, we're encouraging a world of violence. The more we're encouraging those views. And I am personally affected because I still have Muslim friends and family. And I don't hold any prejudice against people who practice a faith in their homes.
I have no problem them practicing it in their homes, provided it doesn't affect the world outside, or the public sphere. But anti-Muslim bigotry, I think, to me, I'm always reminded of "what if my family were in that situation? "What if they were told go back to where you came from?" I think every person who values people's rights should be fighting against anti-Muslim bigotry. And that doesn't mean that you have to allow the ideas that are bad for humankind to glow. It's important to segregate them and it is definitely hard to do it when you don't want those ideas that you're criticising impacts the people that follow it. Because they have been — for the most part — many of them have not read their books, many of them don't know why they're in the religion except where they were born in it. I would like to think that people are better than ideas like that. But a lot of them have never been given the opportunity to question it, to either leave or to become better. People despite following the spiritual path of Islam. I feel like the political part of Islam always takes dominance over a little fundamentalist and conservative Muslims.
What do you think of the burkā bans that countries like France are pushing forward, citing the secular beliefs?
Zara Kay: I'm not a particular fan of bans that aims to police a woman's body, like, in terms of the burkā ban. There are two sides to look at it. And this is a more centrist position. One: we're doing the same thing [as mandating burkā], which is policing a woman's body by not having them wear it. And two, in the name of security, yes the ban is very applicable. But it's really hard to have a position that can be both right to me and still not project the contradiction that I always have. While I am optimistic about it, that I feel like I can help women come out of wearing the hijāb, it's still a future that I don't see happening. So with burkā ban, I guess I am mostly in for it and. And I accept that there does project a security risk when you cover your face. So no face covering should be allowed of any form. And it shouldn't be targeted to just the burkā. Because it does project again an anti-Muslim bigotry. But any masks, or anything that in the public should be banned for security.
At the same time, if when you think about it, there's so many girls that I have spoken to had worn the burkā unwillingly, at the age of 10 or 11. They didn't choose to wear it. That kid is in grade five or six. They don't know what's happening. So in a way, that it's quite good that a country like Sweden are voting to create a bill that kids under, I think, under 18 or 16 should not be wearing the burkā.
Zara Kay: I don't know much about Tunisia, to be honest. I only know that there was a gay, I think, Member of Parliament voting, to become the president. But I don't know much about the burka ban.
**Well as it happened, on June 27 , there are two suicide bombings in the capital [city of Tunis], and eyewitnesses said that the suicide bomber was wearing a niqāb, and hence, they went for a niqāb-ban in public institutions.
Zara Kay: Well, this is again an example of they actually have data and people that are actually doing acts in, you know, in like the burka ban. So, I think, it's a good thing because right now, they actually have those data to support the burkā ban. But yeah, interesting. I didn't know about it. I'm just reading it up now.
Do you find security reason as a valid reason to impose such bans?
Zara Kay: Yeah, absolutely. Bad ideas are bad ideas. It's just like FGM [Female Genital Mutilation]. I'm not comparing the burka to FGM in a way, but like, just in light of what bad ideas are, FGM is bad. Although some people do find it good, and religious, and halāl, and everything: that is still a bad idea and we should take it as such. If the burka has a negative consequence in the country where it is likely to get terrorist attack by women wearing burkā, and now they've also had security concerns for it, I think that's a valid reason for it.
How can the situation for an ex-Muslim be improved around the globe?
Zara Kay: I think having ex-Muslims speak more, defend our rights to speak: because a lot of time we are always in the face of criticism. Defending their rights to speak is one good thing. Having the left explore "how we can further help to create a better world": I feel like in the end we want a better world. If that means to criticise bad ideas, then we need to work together to criticise that ideas regardless of whose religious feelings it affects. I think it's important to put tangible outcomes in the face of those bad ideas: What happens if we don't talk about this idea. What happens if we continue to have extremist groups in our country. Or how can we improve the outlook of the people who are, you know, who are subjected to FGM, or were subjected to forced hijāb. Forced hijāb is again policing a woman's body people who don't want to wear it: some people who want to wear it. I think it should be a choice. Even though like essentially, I don't think it was ever a choice but the only way we can counter this, is there educating women to get their rights. I think ex-Muslims movement can drastically improve when we have more awareness, more exposure to different platforms. I think even just normalising that it's okay to leave, it's okay to come out, and providing, you know, having laws that criminalise apostasy: countering those laws of those countries is already a great help for many ex-Muslims. Because the ex-Muslim movement is on the rise, mostly because it is criminalised. You face a lot of abuse, ostracism: it's never been easy for any of us to be. I don't know one ex-Muslim who has found it easy to leave. There always comes a little: either like s mental trauma, with just to you accepting that, "Hey you were born as a Muslim. You used to believe that homosexuality is bad. And that you hated gay people." It's really hard to come to another place where you're like, "You know what, this is what the new world is like." I am constantly learning. I'm constantly unpacking things.
Is reforming a religion going to do any good?
Zara Kay: I don't think Islam can ever be reformed. One reason being the politics involved in Islam, and the fact the book — the Qur'an — is a literal word of God, and the Sunnah is a practices of Muhammad, that are valid in this: in the time he was alive, and every time. I don't think it can ever be reformed. I think people reform, people progress, people reject ideas. I don't think there will be a Qur'an 2.0. So, I don't see it as point of reforming at all. However, I am going to support those liberal Muslims, and reformers into fighting to create a better world. But I personally don't see it reforming.
Do I think there's the need to reform? If there was a possibility, yes, it would be great [...] Even with Christianity, a lot of it has not reformed. Homosexuality, as we know it, is still looked down upon; misogyny still exists. I feel like a lot of the Abrahamic religion[s] have: despite evolving, despite having Islam present, which takes up the lead indignation; a lot of them are still not equal to women's rights. You know, any good Christian like any practicing conservative Christian household would have different standards for their girls and the boys. And I mentioned homosexuality is a big thing only because it was the Pride that came out. But there's a lot of homophobia going on in Twitter since London Pride. It's not only coming from the Muslims. It's coming from Christians as well. A lot of it. So, thing is, a lot of people will criticise Christianity for it, but they won't say anything about Islam for it. Because, you know, how could you talk about the religion of Islam? It is always shunned down. Every voice, like we discussed earlier, has always been regressed.
What are some of the books they would suggest others read?
Zara Kay: The first book that I read was The Atheist Muslim by Ali Rizvi who is a friend of mine. I really like that book. There's so much as a Shi'a, and him being a Shi'a, I could relate to. And The Moral Landscape is pretty good. I only read it half way, but I really like Sam Harris. I like the way constructs an argument. And I like the way he talks about it. And, I have a list: Maajid Nawaz is a good person to follow for a more reformist point of view. I find his ideas to be very balanced. Despite being a Muslim himself, I find him to be more welcoming to ex-Muslims. Richard Dawkins can be somebody who is: not for curious Muslims, but for those who've already come out. It's a very good book to kind of tell them how God is an illusion.
And, yeah, and then the other books I read had a lot to do with evolution: Homo Deus [by Yuval Noah Hariri], understanding the world from a different lens. I read Guns, Germs, and Steel, but I guess, I would suggest The Atheist Muslim, Why There is No God by Armin Navabi and Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape and Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion.
Zara Kay with Armin Navabi.
Fair Use image credit: Zara Kay
Just to be on the same page, I think maybe you misheard the question. It was almost a similar one. What are some of the books you would suggest others to read.
Zara Kay: Who are the others we are talking about?
Like any other person who is skeptical of their faith. Or in general.
Zara Kay: Yeah, [The] Atheist Muslim by Ali Rizvi is good for Muslims. He talks about his thought process. Why There is No God by Armin Navabi. [The] Moral Landscape by Sam Harris. I am currently reading Enlighten Now by Steven Pinker. And [The] God Delusion.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Zara Kay: Not really.
Well, thank you so much! All right, it was nice talking to you.
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Categories this article belonged to
- Crime and law
- Free speech
- Human rights
- Middle East
- Original reporting
- Politics and conflicts
- United Kingdom
- Women's rights
This article also relies on multiple non-free images under the Fair Use doctrine — which are used for the purpose of identification and discussion central to this interview and greatly help the audience understand it.