THROUGHOUT human history, religions have usually been dominated by men: male prophets, male clerics and male theologians, not to mention a male God. Women, meanwhile, have usually been expected to sit back and listen to them. While some churches in the west have tried to address the gender issue and now have female priests, organised religion in the Middle East is still resolutely patriarchal and its teachings provide grounds for discriminating against women and marginalising them. It could therefore be argued that women in the Middle East have more reasons than men for abandoning religion – and some certainly do rebel and leave. For others, though, social conditions created by the patriarchal system make it difficult even to contemplate doing so.
Those who succeed in breaking away come from a variety of backgrounds, as two contrasting stories show: Badra, a Lebanese feminist who rejected patriarchy in both its secular and religious forms, and Noha Mahmoud Salem, an Egyptian Salafi who turned to atheism largely as a result of her husband’s behaviour.
Raised in a traditionally religious family, Noha learned the Qur’an by heart and won a prize for reciting it. In high school, she took to wearing a headscarf after being told by a teacher that “a good student should also have good morals”. Later, she exchanged her headscarf for the niqab, fully covering her face, and it was only after her marriage that doubts started to arise. The Egypt Independent continues the story:
One day, her husband slapped her face. When she complained to her father, he told her God gave husbands the right to beat their wives as stated in the verse of Al-Nisa’ sura.[i]
Then she began to wonder how God could give the right to a husband to abandon and beat his wife … How could that be when Islam forbids beating animals? Are women inferior to animals? Is it because women are physically weaker than men and cannot fight back? How could they be allowed to be so humiliated?
The relationship began to deteriorate. Her husband often left her alone at home and refused to buy her a television set, claiming it was haram (forbidden).
Noha once complained to her husband, pointing out his hypocrisy after seeing him watch television at his mother’s place. He responded to her complaint by beating her in front of his mother.
This then made her rethink the entire Qur’an, not just one sura. She read in a reference book that the said sura came under circumstances that no longer exist in modern time and culture.[ii]
Questioning her faith also brought an end to her marriage, since her husband believed that Islam forbade him from remaining married to an apostate woman.
Badra, from the Lebanese city of Tripoli, gave a very different account of her journey to non-belief – though one that also involved patriarchy. Part of it was her teenage enthusiasm for the French feminist/existentialist writer Simone de Beauvoir but also the fact that she grew up without a father, which she thinks “freed” her from the need for a divine “father” in heaven. “At the age of five I lost my father and I think that was crucial in determining the role of religion in my life,” she said.
For me as a child, religion was mainly linked to death. The family culture valued mourning rituals – women in black for a long period, TV and radio (which are considered as entertainment) were not allowed in the family during mourning periods. And whenever there was mourning in the family there was the Qur’an.
My first doubt came from listening to the Qur’an when we were mourning. I found it aggressive and sad and negative. I felt really depressed. It was Surat Ya Sin that they read all the time for the dead.
For me it was really scary because it was full of negative things and warnings against non-believers, who are considered as desperately stubborn, although it is a powerful and somehow beautiful text.
I was a small child and it was something that I received in a very aggressive manner, especially as it was linked to a very sad environment – loss of loved ones, women in black, people crying, visits to the cemetery early in the morning. For a long time, this was my first and main encounter with religion.[iii]
Surat Ya Sin – so called because its mysterious first verse consists only of two Arabic letters, ya and sin – is often described as “the heart” of the Qur’an. Abu al-A’la al-Mawdudi (1903-1979), one of the most prominent Islamist ideologues, wrote that its themes of reprobation, reproof and warning are “presented repeatedly in a highly forceful manner, so that hearts are shaken up and those which have any capacity for accepting the truth left in them should not remain unmoved”.[iv]
Badra’s second major encounter with religion came at school. Her mother was a Shia Muslim and her father had been Sunni but she attended a Christian girls’ school managed by nuns.
This lack of a single reference somehow saved me from religion. In school, the Christian students went to their Christian religious lessons but the Muslim students had a free hour ... until the 1980s when there was this Islamist movement in Tripoli called al-Tawhid and things started to change. Suddenly, militiamen were in the streets warning young girls and women not to wear short-sleeve shirts or short skirts.
I was twelve at the time. The school was obliged to give Qur’anic lessons for the Muslim students when Christian students went to their catechism class. So this was basically how I re-discovered religion.
I was first affected by this Islamist cultural movement in the school and I went to the religious courses. It was exciting in the beginning. At first I took it seriously because it was a new thing to discover, and the courses offered a space for reflection and discussion.
There was this event with my grandmother, because she saw me doing the prayers. At a certain stage I wanted to do the five prayers but I was a daydreamer so it was a real pain for me to stick to them. I wanted to be good and to do them but at the same time I also wanted an excuse to stop doing them.
My grandmother saw me and said “What are you doing?” Actually, she didn’t want me to do the prayers because she was Sunni and didn’t want me to pray in my Shia mother’s way.
I think it was more social than religious because the Sunnis look down on Shia Muslims with some contempt. She was afraid of some rituals that the Shia have and she didn’t want me to be affected by that. Although I was torn between two loyalties and although I felt the injustice of the judgement against my mother, this helped break my new enthusiasm for religious precepts and the accompanying feeling of commitment.
At school, meanwhile, Badra was discovering French literature – and existentialism.
This is how I became distanced from religion. I was reading Sartre, de Beauvoir and, later on, Camus – but mainly de Beauvoir, Mémoires d’une Jeune Fille Rangée (“Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter”). She was talking about herself as a teenager so I was really identifying with her and how she slowly left the clan, made different choices other than the one that her family prescribed and expected from her.
This was a pivotal book for me because it is a story about the construction of identity. The story of Simone, the young girl from a conservative family who later became Simone de Beauvoir – and the type of relationship that she later developed with Sartre – was certainly fascinating for me as a girl in Tripoli. It made me dream and want to do like her, to discover the world, discover literature, have friends who think differently and try to completely change her environment and way of thinking.
I had some very interesting teachers in school who never expressed any atheism but introduced us to this kind of literature which was not part of the curriculum. They were keen on developing critical thinking among students. They introduced us to the concepts of cultural diversity and universality of human values, and to ideas (such as existentialism) that were not necessarily those of the school but were nevertheless accepted.
My French literature teacher who used to teach [the classical plays of] Racine, Corneille, Molière, opened a small door for modern texts and this is how I came to know some Sartre (Huis Clos, Les Mouches) and Camus (Caligula) plays in school.
I stopped believing in hell when I read Huis Clos. It had nothing to do with religion but I was simply discovering a new language, a new lexicon. “Hell” was already something else. I was a teenager, and one year after taking those Islamic courses in school my interests completely changed.
Badra thinks the early death of her father contributed to her lack of a need for God. “The fact that I did not have an overwhelming father figure made me somehow free … I simply knew by experience that it is possible to live and grow up without one.”
In a traditional Arab family, Syrian-born sociologist Halim Barakat wrote, the father sits at the top of a pyramid of authority and requires “respect and unquestioning compliance with his instructions” – in much the same way that God does.[v] Barakat noted that in Arab society the head of the family, the head of state and God are all cast in a similar mould, with many characteristics in common: “They are the shepherds, and the people are the sheep.”[vi] This “social pyramid” was one of the things that drove another young woman, Egyptian-born Reem Abdel-Razek away from Islam:
A lot of times when I was reading the Qur’an I would read about slaves, for example. It’s mentioned 29 times, and I couldn’t understand how a God that is proclaiming to be fair and sending a message that is supposed to be a peaceful one would allow someone to enslave another person.
Not only that, but if it’s a female slave the slave owner is allowed to have a [sexual] relationship with her – and to me this is rape. I couldn’t imagine how a God that is claiming to be just would allow something like that. I think that’s one of the most important things that made me consider why Islam isn’t as I was taught it.
Several male interviewees also cited patriarchal attitudes as one of their reasons for rejecting religion. “The treatment of women in Islam was a major factor,” Arab Atheist said. “I noticed how women were in the west and how different they were from all the women I knew back home and I started to see how Islam mistreats women.”
Ahmad Saeed added: “Even when I was a Muslim I used to believe that although Islam was the true religion and that these were the words of God, there were people who manipulated these words for their own purposes, so they could have power over families or engage in domestic violence without anybody saying anything to them. Look at Saudi Arabia, how it’s very misogynistic – we are living in a region where the father has control of the entire family.”
For Yahya, a Yemeni, this was one of the things that made him start to “feel disconnected” from religion when he was fourteen or fifteen. “Sometimes when I read the Qur’an I felt it was not the word of God – it was just simple talk that anybody can do. There were things that seemed nonsense to me like how a male is better than a female. When I was a kid I was thinking that this is nonsense – like how can my father be greater than my mother?”
For vast numbers of Arab women, though, choosing between belief and non-belief is simply not a realistic option. Nabila from Bahrain said: “There is a lot of pressure on women to conform. For instance, something as simple as finding a partner or getting into a relationship. Everything is counted, everything is watched.”
Bahrain, she continued, had been a pioneer among the Arab countries in terms of women’s rights and women’s involvement in politics, but it became more restrictive after the Iranian revolution.
Before the revolution in Iran things were different … women were more open, they were more rebellious, they were more feminist than today. Today even my mother, who is a feminist, keeps on asking me to try and compromise, because if I don’t compromise I will not be accepted. I do compromise to some extent. For instance in front of my grandparents I have to act like a Muslim because if I don’t they won’t sleep at night from worrying that they have done something wrong because they can’t direct me to the right path.
Me being a woman atheist is even worse because, in their heads, I wouldn’t be able to find a husband and things like that. I’ve known a lot of girls here who find it very hard to admit to themselves that they have doubts about religion, because they think that when they do they will ruin their chances of finding someone [to marry].
In Egypt, Reem Abdel-Razek managed to break away but she acknowledges the difficulties that other women face:
A lot of women are so – I don’t want to say they are brainwashed but a lot of women in Egypt really do believe that they are less than men. Of course the pressures can get them to feel that maybe this is unfair, but most of the women I’ve met would say to an outsider: “This is our choice. This is completely up to us, we are not oppressed.”
But when it’s just between us [Arab women] they say: “I’d love to take off the hijab but I know I can’t.” So it’s a sort of acceptance of the status more than a rebellion against it.
“You get these thoughts, you get these doubts,” Nabila said, “but we are so wired. In this part of the world religion is in the system. It’s not only in your household, it’s in the whole system – it’s in your school, even in your laws. Because of that it’s very hard for people to break out.”
Sarah, with Syrian parents but raised in Kuwait, described visits to friends of her family:
We used to go to their house a lot because they were Syrian. His wife was Alawi but he was Sunni. His wife was all covered up. We would be sitting down in their house and she was always very silent, even though he and his wife had the same level of education in the same field – they were both nurses.
When we were sitting down and talking she was always quiet. His kids were very bright and one of the things that hurt me the most – and one of the main reasons why I despise this man and his religion – was because his wife was so quiet. She couldn’t talk much when he was around and she had to sit there and do “women’s stuff”, whatever that is.
He had a daughter. Now, she’s probably 16. She was so beautiful and bright. It kind of hurt me that she was never going to have a voice.
But Sarah has also learned from painful experience about the costs of rebellion:
I got married when I was 18 and my ex-husband was very religious. He was abusive, he wanted me to make babies and cover myself up to the eyes – and I ran away.
No one had any idea where I went. I went to Quebec and disappeared. I was homeless for a year. I was hitch-hiking, I was eating out of trash cans, sleeping on the sidewalks. I’m now sleeping on a friend’s floor but at least I’m not homeless. I’m trying to get my life together.
And sometimes she reflects on what she has sacrificed:
I ask myself: do I want to have a voice and freedom or do I want to have a home and family and food in my belly and have a roof over my head and never have to worry about money?
I know it’s a cliché when people say freedom is much better but there are so many days when it feels like I’m going to give up my choice in exchange for security.
The popular association of atheism with immorality is a particular deterrent for women who have religious doubts, since in Arab society they are expected to be “virtuous” and not rebellious in order to marry. “It is difficult to come out as an atheist because society immediately considers you to be a person without moral values or ethics. This affects girls the most,” the administrator of the Arab Atheists Facebook page noted. “We have had to remove names of female members from the page to protect them from families and society.”[vii]
Social pressures of this kind, obviously, are not the only reason why many women still cling to religion. In the west, the relationship between religion and gender has been the subject of much sociological research, and numerous studies have found women in general to be “more religious” than men. This points to a paradoxical situation in which women may be simultaneously subjugated by religion and sustained by it.
Before looking at possible explanations for this it is necessary to sound a note of caution. Most of the published research – including findings that women are “more religious” than men – relates to people from a Christian cultural-religious background living in the west and is not necessarily applicable to Muslims, especially those living in the Middle East. A comparative study in 2001, looking at Christians, Hindus, Jews and Muslims living in Britain came up with different findings: in the non-Christian groups, women appeared to be “significantly less religiously active” than men. This led the authors to dispute the generality of the view that women are more religious than men, on the grounds that previous research has been culture-specific and contingent on the measurement method used. The authors commented:
Many religious traditions differentiate between the religious obligations of men and women, placing greater onus upon men to fulfil “religious” duties such as prayer and text study. Traditional Judaism and Islam place less strenuous religious obligations upon women than upon men in some respects, due particularly to the traditional allocation of primary home making and child care responsibilities to women.
For example, attendance at a place of religious worship may be less frequent for Jewish and Muslim women compared to men … Muslim women should not enter a mosque during menstruation, so the devout woman would be expected to attend a place of worship less often than a man.
Women who are occupied with family responsibilities may be less obligated to pray or to engage in religious study. Thus on measures of religious activity, Jewish and Muslim women may appear less “religious” than Jewish and Muslim men.[viii]
The 2001 study, it should be noted, was not concerned with belief but with religious activity – how often people attended a place of worship, how often they prayed and how often they studied religious texts.
Although there is too little evidence to know for certain whether the maxim that “women are more religious that men” applies to Arab women, and Arab Muslim women in particular, it is still worth considering possible differences between men and women in the factors that attract them to religion and the part religion plays in their lives. Again, most of the research and theorising relates to women in the west but it is easy to see how some of it may be relevant to the Arab countries.
For example, it has been suggested that women’s involvement in religion may be shaped by their domestic role. One idea is that mothers, as the primary socialisers of children, would be responsible for instilling moral values – perhaps by setting an example for their children through religious practice. Another idea is that women who are confined mainly to the home “may be placed in fewer situations that challenge them to think critically” about their religious beliefs. A third idea is that women’s traditional role as carers – giving birth, nursing babies, looking after sick and dying relatives – puts them “in a more immediate relationship with the ultimate questions of life and death” which may lead some of them to seek comfort in religion.[ix]
The “comfort factor” provided by religion appears to be particularly important among marginalised social groups, including ethnic minorities and women. Melanie Brewster writes:
Religiosity may provide solace from feelings of frustration, fear, and anxiety, but these symptoms of distress stem from holding a marginalised position in society in which discrimination and prejudice are rampant, not from innate personality traits. Indeed, many studies have found that individuals from socially oppressed groups use their religious communities as systems of support …[x]
Men, Brewster suggests, are less likely to need this kind of support because of their relatively privileged position.
In countries such as Egypt and Lebanon, where changing religion is not against the law and sectarian rivalries are strong, conversions by women – whether actual or merely rumoured – can be far more contentious than conversions by men. In 2012, a Christian priest was kidnapped at gunpoint in the Bekaa region of Lebanon, reportedly for having baptised a Shia woman who fled her home after converting to Christianity. Both sides in the dispute claimed foul play. A Lebanese archbishop told the press that the woman’s father, a Shia cleric, had physically and psychologically tortured her following her conversion to Christianity. Her father, speaking on local television, retorted that monks and priests had “practised witchcraft and sorcery” on his daughter to bring about her conversion.[xi]
Stories of this kind have little to do with religion itself but reveal a lot about attitudes towards women: old concepts of family and tribal “honour” are extended and applied to faith. Women, as the repositories of virtue, must be guarded jealously since other faiths are assumed to be trying to entice them away.
In 2010, demonstrations broke out in Egypt and continued for several weeks over the case of Camillia Shehata, a Coptic priest’s wife who was rumoured to have been incarcerated by the Coptic Orthodox Church after converting to Islam. The affair began when Camillia’s husband reported her missing. Although it later became clear she had left home because of a marital dispute, a story circulated that she had been abducted and forcibly converted to Islam – with the result that hundreds of Coptic demonstrators took to the streets. Police investigations revealed that she was not being held against her will and she was said to be staying at an undisclosed location belonging to the Coptic Church. That sparked new rumours and protests – this time by Muslims who believed Camillia had willingly converted to Islam and was now being held captive by the Church. Commenting on the affair, Mariz Tadros wrote:
It is a truism of study of patriarchal societies that concepts of honour are tied to women. The Coptic demonstrations in Upper Egypt upon the “disappearance” of Camillia were driven by a sense of having lost a priest’s wife to a predatory Muslim majority. The phenomenon of abduction is thoroughly gendered in Egypt, since it is always a woman, and never a man, who is thought to have been abducted for the purposes of conversion.
When rallies [by Muslims] took place in every corner of Egypt later, they were driven by a desire to emancipate the Camillia who had ostensibly donned the niqab from the clutches of the church. The gatherings were about defending the honour of Muslims in claiming what is rightfully theirs – a sister in Islam. At no time in memory has such a large number of women wearing the niqab engaged, week after week, in collective protest.
Certainly, there have been fierce sectarian clashes over land, places of worship and the commentary of religious leaders, but none have so fired the imagination of both Muslims and Christians like cases involving women in this intensely patriarchal society.[xii]
In Sudan, 27-year-old Meriam Ibrahim was convicted of apostasy and sentenced to death. In accordance with usual practice, the Sudanese authorities gave her an opportunity to recant but she refused – understandably, since there was nothing to recant. As often happens with “apostasy” charges, the case was not really about theology; it was about patriarchy, sectarianism and a family quarrel.
Ibrahim’s Muslim father had been absent since she was six years old and she had been raised by her mother as a Christian. In Sudan, under Islamic law, children inherit the religion of their father and so Ibrahim was officially classified as a Muslim. This meant she was technically an apostate, having supposedly abandoned Islam for Christianity.
In 2011, she committed a further “crime” by marrying a Christian man – which, as a technically Muslim woman, she was not allowed to do. In addition to the death sentence, the court declared her marriage void and therefore sentenced her to 100 lashes for having sex outside marriage. Ibrahim could not be executed immediately because she was pregnant at the time and was sent to prison, along with her 20-month-old son. She gave birth to her second child in jail, reportedly while her legs were chained.[xiii]
The prosecution had been instigated by her Muslim half-brother and half-sister for motives which are not entirely clear. Her half-brother, Al Samani Al Hadi Mohamed Abdullah, claimed that her husband had bewitched her into leaving Islam by giving her a magic potion. “It’s one of two,” he told CNN. “If she repents and returns to our Islamic faith and to the embrace of our family, then we are her family and she is ours but if she refuses she should be executed.”[xiv] According to her lawyers, she owned several successful small businesses – a hair salon, agricultural land and a convenience store – and her relatives were hoping to take possession of them.
Following a lot of international pressure (her husband had acquired American citizenship), an appeal court eventually overturned her sentence and she was released from jail. Shortly afterwards, however, she was briefly re-arrested at Khartoum airport while attempting to leave the country along with her husband and her children – ostensibly because of a problem with travel documents.
Once again, there were suggestions that the airport arrests had been prompted by Ibrahim’s Muslim relatives. Her half-brother complained to a Sudanese newspaper that she should have been handed over to her family rather than her husband when she was released and claimed that she had been “kidnapped” and spirited away against her will after leaving prison. “Our family is not convinced by the decision of the court [to quash the charges],” he said. “The law has failed to maintain our rights, and now it is a matter of honour. Christians deface our honour, and we know how to take revenge for that.”[xv]
After being released for a second time, Ibrahim took refuge in the American embassy and eventually arrived in the United States.
An atheist patriarchy?
ACCUSATIONS of patriarchy can be found on the other side too, among non-believers. In the US particularly, there have been complaints that atheism is largely “a boys’ club”. There is some truth in this, though perhaps not as much as people imagine, and some blame the media for focusing almost exclusively on a group of men dubbed the New Atheists. Among Americans who say they have no formal religious affiliation, women account for about 40% – a minority but a very substantial one.[xvi] Women have also been activists and not just passive non-believers. In an article published by Bitch magazine, Victoria Bekiempis writes:
From Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the founder of American Atheists,[xvii] whose 1963 Supreme Court lawsuit brought an end to prayer in public schools, to Sergeant Kathleen Johnson, who started an organisation for atheists in the United States military, to Debbie Goddard, founder of African Americans for Humanism, countless women have worked as successful atheist activists.
They’ve penned books, run organisations, and advocated on behalf of religiously repressed citizens. But you might not guess that from the popular portrayal and perception of atheism in America, which overwhelmingly treats the contemporary class of non-God-fearing freethinkers (also known as secularists, sceptics, and nonbelievers) as a contentious, showboating boys’ club.[xviii]
One of the first atheist feminists was Ernestine Rose, born in Poland in 1810. While still in her teens, she fought and won a court battle to save herself from an unwanted marriage which had been arranged by her father, a Jewish rabbi. She later continued her activism in Britain and the US. Listing a large number of currently-active women atheists in an article for Ms magazine, Jen McCreight says: “It’s undeniable that most of the time men outnumber women, whether you’re looking at conference attendees or conference speakers, blog readers or best-selling authors,” but she adds: “This problem is compounded when the media fails to mention deserving women atheists – even in articles in feminist publications asking where all the atheist women are.”[xix]
Some have also argued that the aggressive approach of the New Atheists – that religion should be actively combated – conveys a macho image which women may find off-putting. McCreight rejects this, however, pointing to a number of female atheists who are “gnashing their teeth even louder than Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens”.
The freethinkers of Arab history (at any rate, those who are remembered today) were, of course, men. But among the new wave of non-believers from the Middle East women are not noticeably absent. Iranian-born Mariam Namazie of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain points out that the American ex-Muslim organisation was founded by a woman, the German group is headed by two women and her own British group has two female spokespersons. “I personally think it’s a woman’s club,” she continued:
If you look at the protests [in the Middle East] you do find women at the forefront of many of them. Many of them are freethinkers and atheists even if they don’t necessarily call themselves atheists.
I think the problem is they [women] are invisible in the atheist movement in the west. If you go to atheist conferences, it is very white and male. I hate using those terms because I hate dividing people in that way, but I think it’s because it takes time for the grassroots leadership to show … There’s nothing wrong with being white and male. The problem is not that they [white men] are there and speaking – we need that. The problem is that other people are not seen.
We are organising a conference and the vast majority of speakers are women of colour – from the Middle East, from North Africa, from immigrant backgrounds here in the west – people who are doing amazing work but you wouldn’t know about them … They haven’t been recognised because they are working at such a grassroots level and very often it is difficult to see them.[xx]
Of the forty-six speakers listed for the conference that Namazie mentioned, twenty-nine were women and seventeen were men.[xxi]
Atheism and homosexuality: a double taboo
“THERE IS a big closet population of atheists who need to come out,” Richard Dawkins said, endorsing the OUT Campaign which had been launched in 2007 urging atheists – especially in the United States – to show their atheism by wearing a badge in the shape of a red letter “A”.[xxii] It is no coincidence that atheists use the term “coming out” to describe a public declaration of their non-belief. Homosexuality and atheism are two things that people often prefer to keep secret. In an Arab context, both are socially taboo and may also involve law-breaking. Atheism and homosexuality are linked in other ways too, however. Statistics compiled in the US by the General Social Survey[xxiii] show that lesbian and gay Americans are almost three times more likely than heterosexuals to describe themselves as atheist or agnostic.[xxiv] It has also been reported that 62% of LGBT people in the US feel religion is not an important part of their lives.[xxv] The obvious explanation is that people who find their sexuality condemned by religious teaching are likely to start asking questions about religion that lead them towards disbelief. [xxvi]
Homosexual acts are illegal in most of the Arab countries, and where no specific law exists there are usually other laws that can be deployed, such as Egypt’s law against “debauchery”. Being gay is not in itself a crime (unless it involves sex), though men are sometimes arrested for effeminate behaviour and gay parties have been raided. The usual penalty for sodomy is imprisonment, though it is punishable by death in Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen. On the whole, despite occasional crackdowns, implementation of the law tends to be arbitrary and haphazard – the authorities do not systematically hunt gay people for prosecution. One reason for this is the official line that homosexuality does not exist to any significant degree in Arab countries – it is mainly viewed as a western “disease”. In post-Saddam Iraq, however, vigilante groups have often harassed and killed men suspected of being gay or regarded as not “masculine” enough.[xxvii]
As far as religion is concerned, mainstream Islamic teaching condemns homosexuality, and Christian churches in the region generally adopt a similar position. Homosexuality is mostly seen as a “choice” (and therefore sinful) though some – perhaps trying to be more charitable – regard it as a mental illness. No punishment seems to have been established during the Prophet’s lifetime, so interpretations of the sharia usually treat sex between people of the same gender as akin to sex outside marriage.
Islamic denunciations of homosexuality often rely heavily on the hadith – the possibly spurious “traditions” of the Prophet – since there is little of relevance in the Qur’an itself. Those who invoke the Qur’an focus mainly on the story of Lut, the Biblical prophet known as Lot. The Biblical version is recorded in the Book of Genesis where God resolves to punish the people of Sodom and Gomorrah by raining stones from heaven, and the story is told in similar terms in the Qur’an. This has traditionally been interpreted – by Christians and Muslims alike – as a divine punishment for homosexuality, though a careful reading of the story shows it is more complicated than that. Multiple sins were involved and, to the extent that these included homosexuality, the sex was of a non-consensual kind. The traditional interpretations have increasingly been questioned by Christians outside the Middle East but only rarely by Muslims – even though the Biblical and Qur’anic stories are very similar. In a book which examines the scriptural evidence, Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle argues that homosexuality is not categorically forbidden by Islam and calls for more acceptance of diversity within the faith. This, obviously, is a reformist view and it has parallels in the way some Muslim feminists have sought to re-read the Qur’an in a less patriarchal light.[xxviii]
In western countries, where not all churches are hostile, LGBT people do sometimes reach an accommodation between their sexuality and religion but in the Arab countries current religious teaching makes that much more difficult. Hasan, a gay Bahraini, said: “You have religious texts condemning gays but then it makes you feel that what’s written there is probably not by a god. Why would God create gays in the first place if He condemns them? Should I live a celibate life to please Him and then go to heaven?” When Hasan eventually came out, he judged – correctly – that his sexuality was more likely to be accepted by the less religious members of his family: “Because my father is not religious and my brother and sister are not, they accepted me. I did not tell my mum because she’s very conservative and she’s sick. I hid it from her because I don’t think she would receive it very well.”
People who are struggling with their sexuality or preparing to come out are often in need of support – the sort of support that religion, in different circumstances, might be expected to provide. This points to one of the key differences between women and LGBT people in their relationship with religion. Thus, while women may gain some comfort from religion, even if it contributes to their repression at the same time, for gay Arabs the comfort factor is lacking: instead of sympathy and understanding, they are greeted with condemnation.
In Hasan’s case, though, this did not immediately turn him against all forms of religion but prompted him to explore other “spiritual” possibilities. “When you go through a hard time you search for spiritual answers or something to give you hope,” he said. He was studying in India at the time of his coming out and he drew some comfort from Buddhist ideas – “not the reincarnation aspect but things like impermanence, loving kindness, compassion”.
One way that feminists and gay men can sometimes reconcile themselves with religion is through what sociologists call “faith plasticity” – in essence, reshaping orthodox concepts of God and faith to fit their needs. Tareq Sayed Rajab de Montfort is a young Kuwaiti-born artist, and openly gay. He describes himself as devout, though not in a conventional way – a fact which becomes apparent at first sight: the Arabic word for “truth” is tattooed on his throat and other parts of his body are permanently inked with verses from the Qur’an.
Growing up in Kuwait, his first contact with Islam was not through the mosque as might be expected but through his family’s museum. The privately-owned Tareq Rajab Museum, founded by his grandfather, contains more than 30,000 items from around the Muslim world.
“I never felt the need to go to a mosque because we had coverings of the Kaaba in our basement,” Tareq said.[xxix] “We have three nineteenth-century ones from when they were still being made in Cairo. Those from the nineteenth century are so much more ornate. The entire front is covered in gold and silver embroidery. They are absolutely amazing. We also have one of the largest private collections of Middle Eastern calligraphy from the earliest scriptures on vellum to Chinese nineteenth-century Islamic calligraphy. So God was very much present, but a much more abstract sense of God, a much more mystical sense of God.”
It was from his grandfather and this art collection that he first got an idea of what religion was – that it came from the worship of beauty. “It gave an entire foundation to my understanding of Islamic art. I saw the manifestation of the Prophet’s words: ‘God is beautiful’ and ‘God loves beauty’,” he told one interviewer.[xxx] Tareq’s growing-up experience was unusual and possibly unique, and it gave him a far more positive perspective than most people acquire from sermons in the mosques. It also made him critical of mainstream Islam.
“I don’t mean this in an offensive way,” he said, “but it’s a bit of a sad result from what Muhammad and Islam were supposed to be and could have been … the Prophet would be appalled if he saw what it has turned into today.” As a sayyid – a descendant of the Prophet – Tareq feels entitled to express these views.
“I find there are two extremes of people’s identity towards religion now,” he continued. “One side is that they completely accept it – ‘you must do this’ – a lot of the dogma, and I don’t mean it in a negative or positive way.” On the opposite side there are those who reject religion altogether and turn to atheism but also others who experiment with different forms of religion, with some even turning to Satanism – though he added that this is not “real Satanism” but “the Hollywood version”.
In Kuwait, he said, there seems to be a growing (if surreptitious) interest in Buddhism which, as a non-monotheistic religion, is generally regarded as less acceptable than Islam, Judaism or Christianity:
I got into trouble in school once for talking about Hinduism and Buddhism. I don’t know if I can say it’s a taboo but it is for some people, I suppose. But I’ve seen that changing, especially with the internet. In Kuwait, now, there are “healing centres” which are Buddhist. The people who run them go to Buddhist events around the world but it’s not labelled as Buddhist when they advertise a healing centre or a spa. This started very recently ... and yoga classes. All sorts of things are happening now.
So far, this undercover Buddhist activity has not attracted attention from the authorities or religious vigilantes. “I guess they don’t feel threatened because there is no mention of Buddhism – it’s all ‘health’,” he said. “The mutawa, the big bearded [vigilante] guys, are probably not in any kind of lifestyle where they will hear about spas or things like that.”
Tareq said his homosexuality had never caused him to doubt faith “or that sense of the divine”, though he recognised that others go through trauma that makes their sense of divine “decay or disintegrate”. That problem would not arise, he suggested, if Muslims heeded the Prophet’s advice to “think for yourself”:
If we take things upon ourselves as the Prophet asked us to do … If people actually did that and did read the Qur’an, there are routes through Islam for us to find beautiful things that don’t agree with homosexuality being wrong, or that the hijab must be worn. It’s all interpretation, and if we are to follow what the Prophet asked us – interpret with al-rahim (compassion), then that will take you to a purer form of Islam. And the purer form of Islam as I consider it is that homosexuality is not a sin, it’s not punishable.
If the Prophet Muhammad is the ideal Muslim who we are all meant to follow, there are no hadiths that ever said he condemned any homosexual men. There are recollections of where he apparently allowed queer men to be in the presence of his wives, unveiled. The Qur’an even says that men who do not have the desire [for women] are permitted to see them as well. [xxxi]
In 2013, Saeed Kayyani came out as both gay and an atheist in a blog post on the internet. This is an extract of what he wrote:
For me, the process began as soon as I was born. I wasn’t born 100% Arab. My father is from the United Arab Emirates and my mother is from Alabama, USA. I was already classified as “different”. While others would be able to adapt to this, I wasn’t able to cope. Homosexuality changed the dynamic for me right from the start. I wasn’t entirely American, truly Arab, or a “real man”.
The first game changer came to me while I was living in Florida with my family. I was a painfully awkward sixth-grader at the time that was doing his best to be a good Muslim and son. Then 9/11 came.
From then on, life in America wasn’t the same. Since my mother wears the hijab, she couldn’t go a single day without stares. The kind of stares that say “traitor”. I lost friends. I had my beliefs mocked in front of me. People started to treat my family less seriously. This feeling of “otherness” was starting to surface from my insides. However, seeing as I was the good Muslim boy, I defended Islam as much as I could.
This is significant because it is the first time that I became aware that religion could even have a different interpretation. Unfortunately, my parents weren’t much help in clearing things up for me. I was simply told the “We’re right and they’re wrong,” line.
A year later, we moved to the United Arab Emirates so that my father could put his newly earned PhD in psychology to good use … Since I was doing good at school work and barely had a social life, not many people questioned why I never had a girlfriend. That is, until I made my first gay friend. As soon as it became obvious that I was friends with him, rumours started spreading.
I was even approached by a couple of boys saying that I needed God. What’s ironic about this is that this point of my life was easily the most religious. Deep feelings of guilt and pain pushed me to try to make peace with God. Around this time, I felt like I was being betrayed. I kept on asking Allah “Why is this happening to me? I don’t want to feel like this any more. Help me become clean!”
I was trying to figure out, through an Islamic perspective, what purpose did Allah have for homosexuality? I didn’t buy the “He’s only testing you” line. Why would the creator purposely inflict such emotional pain on his creation? Also, why would homosexuality be created and yet condemned by the very same entity?
Even with all of this though, I was still faithful. Faithful, yet a complete wreck. I was extremely lonely, anxiety-ridden, confused, and suicidal. Especially after hearing degrading anti-gay remarks from my own parents several times.
After learning about apostasy in Islam, I felt a metaphorical light-bulb switch on inside me … Death to those that leave us? Allah really said this? Really? No. It sounded more like humans projecting themselves into the heavens. Tactics like this served a purpose in medieval times. Human purposes. Why would an all-powerful, all-mighty, and all-knowing being demand death for a lowly, pathetic, and powerless little human being that changed his mind about its existence?
I was honestly dumb-struck by this epiphany. I felt a weight being lifted off of my shoulders when I was finally able to gather enough courage to say to myself: “I don’t believe in Islam.”
Describing reactions to his blog post a few months later, Kayyani said that in general they confirmed how scared people are to talk about these subjects openly. A handful of Arab friends and acquaintances offered support and some seemed genuinely interested to learn more, since they had never knowingly met an atheist and/or a gay person. Others were more aggressive or condescending, suggesting he was out of touch with reality or too influenced by the west, that he had mental health problems or some sort of agenda against Islam. One even said he was possessed. Most of these hostile views came from the younger generation in UAE, he said.
He was still unsure whether his parents knew of his double-coming-out article. He suspected that they did, because their behaviour had noticeably changed. “They’ve given me several more lectures about marriage and religion and have even pressured me to regularly see a psychologist. Thankfully, the psychologist has been on my side and has been a wonderful source of support.”
For Kayyani, belonging to a sexual minority was certainly a factor in becoming an atheist, but there were other considerations too. “Several logical issues with Islam did not hold at all with my values, such as fairness,” he said. “People are unnecessarily harmed by the nonsensical aspects of religion every day. I saw a big problem with this and didn’t want any part of it. It was easier for me to come to that conclusion since I’m gay.” Although not surprised by the statistical linkage of homosexuality with atheism, he felt there were significant differences between the two.
Being gay makes it fundamentally problematic to conform with societies’ expectations. This isn’t the case with atheism: one can still be comfortably functional in a religious society and also atheist. Homosexuality is biological. Because of this, it will manifest itself to other people eventually whether anybody likes it or not. This doesn’t apply to atheism. It’s easier to hide not believing in God than it is to hide emotions for another person.
It goes without saying that LGBT people historically haven’t been welcome in institutionalised religion, but there are also those that are genuinely religious and gay. This may be the case with part of the LGBT population, but it definitely is not the entire story. LGBT people are diverse people like everyone else. We have the same complexities, needs, concerns, and faults as everybody else.
In particularly religious environments, survival for LGBT people sometimes means obedience or rebellion. The majority end up in a grey area, leading a double life. A gay, atheist Emirati friend of mine, for example, is having an Islamic marriage to a woman soon. His marriage isn’t about Islam, though. It’s a cultural expectation that’s imposed on Emirati men in order to avoid social stigma for himself and his family. He is going along with it so that his government employment opportunities aren’t harmed. This cultural expectation applies to me as well and the social consequences for my family still scare me.[xxxii]
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[i]. Qur’an 4:34: “Men are in charge of women, as Allah has made one of them superior to the other, and because men spend their wealth for the women; so virtuous women are the reverent ones, guarding behind their husbands the way Allah has decreed guarding; and the women from whom you fear disobedience, [at first] advise them and [then] do not cohabit with them, and [lastly] beat them; then if they obey you, do not seek to do injustice to them; indeed Allah is Supreme, Great.”
[ii]. Adib, Mounir: “Salafi woman turned atheist recounts her journey.” Egypt Independent, 4 November 2013. http://www.egyptindependent.com/news/salafi-woman-turned-atheist-recount...
[iii]. Author’s interview, April 2014.
[v]. Barakat: Halim: The Arab World: Society, Culture and State. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993. pp. 100–101.
[vi]. Barakat: Halim: op cit, p. 117.
[viii]. Loewenthal, Kate; MacLeod, Andrew and Cinnirella, Marco: “Are women more religious than men? Gender differences in religious activity among different religious groups in the UK.” Psychology Department, Royal Holloway, University of London, 2001. http://digirep.rhul.ac.uk/file/a4d4660e-7408-3162-7ab7-61dd4ee6ad60/3/Ar...
[ix]. Brewster, Melanie: “Atheism, gender and sexuality.” Chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Athiesm. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
[xi]. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor: International Religious Freedom Report for 2012.
[xiii]. “Sudanese woman sentenced to death for apostasy gave birth with her legs chained, her husband says.” Telegraph, 29 May 2014. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/sudan/108...
[xiv]. “Meriam Ibrahim’s brother turned her in because ‘she won’t repent’.” CNN, SBS, 5 June 2014. http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2014/06/05/meriam-ibrahims-brother-tu...
[xv]. “Meriam Ibrahim was ‘kidnapped’ and I went to police before she boarded flight to America, her brother says.” Telegraph, 25 June 2014. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/sudan/109...
[xix]. McCreight, Jen: “Where Are All The Atheist Women? Right Here.” Ms blog, 3 November, 2010. http://msmagazine.com/blog/2010/11/03/where-are-all-the-atheist-women-ri...
[xx]. Author’s interview, May 2014.
[xxii]. http://outcampaign.org. See also: MacAskill, Ewen: “Atheists arise: Dawkins spreads the A-word among America’s unbelievers.” The Guardian, 1 October 2007. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/oct/01/internationaleducationnews....
[xxiv]. Self-declared atheists comprised 2.5% of heterosexual respondents and 5.6% of LGBT respondents. Agnostics comprised 4% of the heterosexual respondents are agnostics, 12% of LGBT respondents. Linneman, T and Clendenen, M: “Sexuality and the Secular”, chapter in Atheism and Secularity: Volume 1 – Issues, Concepts, and Definitions, edited by Phil Zuckerman. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2010.
[xxv]. Singer, B and Deschamps, D: Gay and Lesbian Stats: A Pocket Guide of Facts and Figures. New York: Harper Collins, 2010.
[xxvi] Brewster (op cit) points out that this may also happen in the opposite direction: that atheists, having freed themselves from religion, are more able to explore their sexuality.
[xxvii]. “They Want Us Exterminated.” Human Rights Watch, August 2009. http://www.hrw.org/reports/2009/08/17/they-want-us-exterminated-0
[xxviii]. Kugle, Scott Siraj al-Haqq: Homosexuality in Islam. Oxford: Oneworld, 2010.
[xxix]. The Kaaba in Mecca is covered with a cloth known as the kiswa, which is replaced with a new one annually.
[xxx]. Video interview with Huffington Post. http://live.huffingtonpost.com/r/archive/segment/5363d19efe3444b0130002d9
[xxxi]. Author’s interview, July 2014.
[xxxii]. Author’s email correspondence with Kayyani.