Trapped, suffocated and forced to adopt the fundamental tenets of Islam, *Mahira spent about 20 years of her life living with her staunchly practising Muslim father from North Africa. Her mother a liberal Scottish convert lived in a constant state of terror and anxiety following the afternoon when Mahira indicated that she no longer believed in her religion- a religion “violent against women”. But she never had the courage to start that conversation with her father, and even today although she has moved out of her parents’ house, she continues to be a closeted apostate.
“My father never wanted me to pursue an academic life or establish a career of my own. When I told him that I wanted to move out because of my job...I was prepared for the worst kind of reaction,” reveals the English Literature graduate.
Honour killings, abused and shunned
Apostasy- the renunciation of one’s religion- is a punishable offence under the Sharia law in as many as 13 countries, including Malaysia and Pakistan but not in the UK. However, the dangers of ostracisation, being shunned from the community and in worst cases, the threat of being abused and falling prey to honour killings, continues to obstruct the freedom of living life with one's own choices. Today, Mahira is financially independent and secretly lives with her boyfriend, a bold step for her considering the conservative ideology that her father follows but talking about religion continues to be the border she is not willing to cross.
“I don't think that my family is capable of any extremes but sometimes I do fear for my security. It is just one of those things...where one doesn't know the exact consequences of what might happen, and one may constantly build up things in how they would go wrong when in reality it could be much better. But more importantly, I fear that that conversation will not be in the best interest of my younger siblings back home from whom I would not want to be cut off,” she says.
It is not recorded in the Census, but the 2011 figures show the number of people in England and Wales who say they have no religion nearly doubled in the 10 years since 2001 to a quarter of the population. But at the same time the number of Muslims in England and Wales grew by 80% to 2.7 million. Currently, there are no official statistics on apostasy in British Islam, and only a few academic studies based on a tiny handful of individual cases.
Closeted apostates: Anxieties of leading a 'double life' during Ramadan
However, over the years increasing number of people have started questioning their religion mostly for theological reasons including- violence against women, sexist ideologies, patriarchy among others. But living this sort of a 'double life' where people like Mahira are required to pretend to observe Ramadan or go to the Mosque often leads to depression, and anxiety- issues that Imitiaz Shams, an ex-Muslim helps others to deal with.
“Ramadan is a very difficult time for all those who are in the closet and through 'Faith to Faithless' we host peer-to-peer support groups where members from different backgrounds who have now renounced their religion come together and talk through their issues,” says Imtiaz.
Faith to Faithless: YouTube videos and death threats
His charity Faith to Faithless facilitates hundreds of people in the UK every month in overcoming mental challenges posed to them after they have left their religion with the youngest member being 19 and the oldest being in their 50s. But aside from setting up support groups, Shams also films YouTube videos where he provides convenient hacks to those who couldn't or wouldn't want to observe Ramadan but who have to pretend that they do. Such hacks include drinking tapwater from bathrooms to carrying portable filter jars where water cannot be consumed directly from bathroom sinks.
“I am at a physical risk because I do videos. But there have been instances where I have spoken to Muslim families and even helped some individuals to get in touch with the police. And ever since I have come out, I have received death threats and in some instances I had to take aid from the police. But my larger goal is to create awareness about human rights in the Muslim community,” says Shams.
Council for Ex-Muslims of Britain
Today, like Imtiaz, Sadia is also trying to reach out to those like Mahira through the Council for Ex-Muslims of Britain. CEMB was launched in 2007 in Westminster and is fighting the regressive Islamic organisations and Muslim community leaders who are imposing certain practises in the name of religion.
However, unlike Imtiaz and Mahira, Sadia renounced her religion twice, the first time when she was 15 and bored of praying five times a day and then again after being engaged when she realised the misogyny that Islam promotes.
“At 15 I was just tired of wating my time on religion by praying and going to Mosques but after my grandparents got me engaged I researched Islam and became deeply religious. But six months later when I was 19, I left Islam again because I realised of the misogyny that it promoted,” says the spokeperson of CEMB.
But patriarchial reasons may only be the tip of the iceberg for Sadia. Her 28-year-old brother Razaa took his own life after being bullied for being an atheist and although, Sadia doesn't talk about being estranged from her family anymore, she actively supports those in suffering through CEMB.
“You have a right to live an open, honest life with those who love you and if you don't have that then the relationship is not based on love but domination and control and you don't have to feel alone because you are not the only one out there,” she concludes.