I was taught that being born into a Muslim family is a blessing and is the greatest gift that Allah can bestow upon someone. I initially thought the Sunni path I followed was the one true path, just like my Shia, Bori and Ismaili friends adhered to the teachings of the sects their families followed. I noticed how everyone around me claimed to have a monopoly on the truth, which made me question who was actually right. I started to view Islam — and religion in general — as something dogmatic, irrational, unscientific and, most of all, completely sexist.As there are multiple sectarian traditions, coexisting in at least parts of the world, the belief tradition is not oppressive per se. But within that belief tradition are Perpetually Aggrieved who do not take dissent lightly.
A feminist since age 10, it’s always been hard for me to reconcile my feminism with my faith. Even though the Pakistani society in which I grew up was sexist, my family has always been very progressive. As a result, I never accepted the male superiority and traditional gender roles that were part of my society. For most of my teen years, I felt torn apart by my contradictory beliefs. On one hand, I was a radical feminist who supported gay rights. But on the other hand, I was a practicing Muslim whose religion was clearly homophobic and placed men above women.
Feminist scholars, such as Amina Wadud and Leila Ahmed, gave me a glimmer of hope that Islam and feminism could be compatible, although I later found their arguments very selective. On the other extreme, I read writers such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, another ex-Muslim atheist, whose harsh criticism of Islam was not always justified.Reasonable though those words are, within the faith are those zealots whose idea of "dialogue" ends with confessions of error at sword-point. And thus did the web-master at Berkeley's Daily Californian remove the essay, and any identification of the writer, for fear of triggering the zealots. In reporting on the newspaper's action, the Daily Caller columnist reveals his own Enlightenment Privilege. "There is an element of irony that the author should be so imperiled by writing the article, because it has a moderate tone and offers substantial praise for the Muslim world." Granted, but the rubric of trigger warnings is the rubric of Most Easily Offended. Sometimes the Most Easily Offended carries a mattress, sometimes a hunting knife. Thus those are the people who get to define when oppression or insensitivity begins.
After trying to understand Islam through a plurality of perspectives — orthodox, feminist, Sufi and liberal approaches — I decided to leave Islam, but by that point, I had realized that I didn’t need to look at things as black and white. I could leave Islam without dismissing it or labeling it as wrong.
Going through all of these versions of Islam has enabled me to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the religion. Islam is no monolith, and with more than 1.5 billion followers, it’s impossible to refer to Islam as a single entity. There are Muslim women who cover every inch of their bodies except for their eyes, and there are also Muslim women who wear short skirts. With so much variation amongst Muslims, it’s hard to determine who really gets to speak for Islam.
Despite being one of the fastest-growing religions in the world, Islam is still extremely misrepresented and shrouded with stereotypes. I want to address these stereotypes and portray Islam in all its diversity. I’ve experienced the religion firsthand and have also viewed it as an objective bystander. I probably spend more time thinking about God than most religious people; despite my skepticism, I’ve always yearned for a spiritual connection. I want to share what I’ve learned about Islam over the years. I plan to defend it and give credit where it’s due — Islam, after all, gave women the right to work and own property back in the seventh century — and I also plan to ruthlessly point out areas that need reform (yes, Islam does allow men to have four wives and sex slaves).
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Islam, it’s that my former religion, just like any other ideology, has its flaws. Religion should not be immune to criticism. It’s important to have an honest dialogue about religion and identify what can be improved — and that’s exactly what I plan to do.