What it is like to be a Muslim woman, and why we know what freedom is (and you may not)

Part Two of ‘What it is like to be a Muslim woman’ can be found here.

A defense and rationale for the title ‘What it is like to be a Muslim woman’ can be found here.


I have keys.

When I first moved to the United States eleven months ago, it took me several weeks to grasp this bit of information.

I have keys.

I have keys to my own front door and I can open this front door and walk down the street whenever I want to.

I can walk down the street without being watched through the windows and without anyone calling my parents and telling them I am roaming loose on the street.

I can walk down the street, sit down on a bench under a tree, and eat an iced cream cone. Then I can stand up and walk back home.

There will be nobody waiting for me at my house to ask me where I have been, refuse to let me in, call me a liar, and use my walk as renewed incentive to rifle through all of my possessions for proof that I am doing something wrong.

Because the simple desire to take a walk cannot but hide something deviant.

Because there is no good reason why a woman should want to walk down the street just to walk, and expose herself to the questioning and predatory eyes of the neighbors and strange men.

I have keys to my front door, now, and I can open my front door and walk down the street whenever I want to.

In the first weeks when I was in the United States, I had so much fear and trembling at this freedom. I stayed in my apartment alone during my first two days in my new home, and when I did finally venture out, I checked to make sure my keys and ID and wallet were in my purse a thousand times. I wore long, flowing dresses and tied my hair up in a scarf even though it was August and very hot, even though I am an atheist who happens to find no personal value in modesty, even though I was not going out to meet anybody and knew not a single man in town, even though I tried to convince myself that in this land it wouldn’t matter if I was. I looked around every corner and checked over my shoulder in case my father was somehow watching, lurking.

It took a couple of months to stop expecting to see my father in a place I was going or coming from.

I soon got into the groove of my new life, my new graduate program, my teaching and department readings and events. I actually went to bars and stopped feeling guilty about it. I met people. I made friendships, some of them with men, none of them that I had to hide or lie about. I had sexual and romantic relationships.

And all this while, and even now, it sometimes feels like I am another person living a distant dream. A phantom woman. A woman who is only pretending to do things and be things that were never hers.

Even now, I sometimes cannot believe I am not hallucinating all of this from a dark room in Beirut.

Even now, I wake up from dreams of Lebanon and think, “I have my own place. My front door. MY key. And I can open the door and walk out into the street? Whenever I want? And I have MY papers and MY things and MY income? And I can just go somewhere. When I want? I can do this?”

It must be a sick joke.

And I can be at the library however late I want without panicking and fearing for my safety once I go home? Without knowing the neighbors will call me a whore? I can have people over when the sun is down and some of them can be men and we can play games and eat and drink and talk together and nobody will hurt me because of it?


And if I leave something someplace, I will come back and find it where I left it, unless I moved it myself.

And if it’s somewhere else, it is likely I moved it and forgot, and I will not start panicking, wondering where and why and how it was moved. I will not wonder: if whoever moved it saw it, did they see that other thing and did they do something with it and what do they know and what do they not know?

Even though I am hiding simple things. A tube of mascara. Some lacy underwear just to see what it feels like to wear that. A poem I really love from the persona of the devil. Something written by a Jewish author. A novel a boy in my class gifted to me. A box of tampons.

I can write things without hiding, coding, burying, and stashing them. I can make notes for myself in a notebook that are for my eyes only without fearing anybody reading them and demanding I reveal their meaning. I can have a password on my computer and to my email and facebook accounts that my parents do not know. I can save my contacts under their real names and not under various female pseudonyms.

I can keep my texts when I receive them and not instantly erase them. I can take my phone off silent mode and if it vibrates in my pocket I can take it out and answer it or turn it off without having a panic attack and without having to find a reasonable excuse to sneak out of the room without seeming flustered.

I can talk on the phone without somebody listening on the other end.

I can ignore a phonecall from my father when I am in class or teaching.

I can forget my phone in another room and not be asked where I am and with whom, and what I am doing because I missed a call from him.

If I spend more than five minutes in the bathroom, nobody will bang on my door demanding to know what I am doing in there.

I can shave my legs without being interrogated as to why I’d do such a thing when nobody ever sees them.

I can brush my hair and look in the mirror and try on clothes and try to feel like I can manipulate and move and enjoy my body, try to feel pretty, without being interrogated and asked who he is and how long I have been seeing him and what I am doing with him and whether I am a prostitute or pregnant.

I can slim down inadvertently or say I am not hungry for dinner without anybody demanding to know why and for whom I am trying to lose weight,.

I can shower without being asked why.

I can smile because I had a good day at work without being forced to explain why I am so happy.

I can cry at my empty, robotic life without being forced to explain why I am unhappy.

I can have facial expressions. Facial expressions.

I can have facial expressions.

I can have facial expressions.

It has been so hard to train myself to voice my feelings and opinions. To turn my face on.

I can sit however I want within my own house without being told that the position my legs are in is immodest.

I can stay up late doing work and reading philosophy or just derping around on teh interwebz without being forced to go to bed.

I can read and use the internet without surveillance and censorship.

I can watch a movie without turning it over for examination first.

I can sleep when I want, wake when I want, eat when I want or don’t want to.

I do not have to pretend to fast and pray.

I can prioritize my work over serving other people. Never again will I pull somebody’s socks off and bring them their food and drink on command.

I can get up in the middle of the night and use the bathroom or get a drink of water without tiptoeing in terror.

I can lock my room door. I can lock the door of my own room.

Saying I want to be alone, that I need space, that I do not want to reveal personal information, that I do not choose to answer that question, that it is none of your damn business, that this is my body and I can position it on the furniture however I like, that I do not have to explain to you why I am smiling, that this is my time, that this is my work, this is my mind and I can use it to read and write what I please…

I can say these things now.

I never could before.

We never could, before. So many of us cannot, still.

This way of living–having to regulate and hide our personalities, our humanity–the tone of our voices, their volume and timbre, the manner in which we sit or stand or walk or speak, whether and when we can leave our homes, how and when we speak to people, what we do and do not read, can and cannot think or express–this way of living is the reality and default for so many of us.

We are suppressed beyond imagining.

Notice that the above does not even begin to touch upon the horrendous physical violence–abuse, marital rape (or just rape), child marriage (enslavement and rape), rape, whipping, stoning, genital mutilation–that happens to a not insignificant number of women who violate the above code of living.

Pretend that isn’t even a thing. Ignore the violence, for now. Set that aside.

And think, now, how even setting all of that horror aside, and pretending that it doesn’t come hand-in-hand with an obsession with the control of our bodies and our conduct and honor and shame, even setting it aside, this is how we have lived.

This is how my sister lives still, my mother, my cousins, my friends.

Think of this, and try to understand what freedom means to women like us. What it means to have choice. What it means to have true choice and not just a variety of empty options. because we too can walk into an iced cream shop and choose what flavor we want just like we could in America, and this is not freedom.

Chronic misunderstanding of institutional forms of oppression is blind to this distinction. The pervasive and fallacious argument that women from Muslim families and/or who live in in Muslim-majority countries with laws on the books allowing them to do everything I have cited as forbidden, that allow them to have technically as many options as men, or as women in the West,  claiming that nobody forces them to do anything absolutely–this is akin to saying that African American kids growing up in inner city slums have the same opportunities as straight white males.

Yes, many of us can go to school, can work, can earn and spend our own money. But what we study or work at, and how and why and when and where and with whom and wearing what–all of this is controlled. If we try to do otherwise, there are institutional mechanisms in place–sectarian politics, social norms and customs ignored by law, people in positions of influence at our workplaces and schools and police stations and government–that can destroy us. That this is a common and chronic condition wherever Muslims live and socialize is true–that it also occurs in other third world societies and countries where Muslims do not live and socialize  makes this no less of an actuality in places where Muslim thought and custom constitute and contribute to society and politics.

We have freedoms that are not freedoms, and we can continue to go to school and go to work and be empty robots all the while. And if we gave up and stayed at home, we would be giving up our education and our careers, it is true, as limited as those things are, but we would also be giving up the chronic hopelessness and self-defeat and empty confusion of striving, striving, striving to be fulfilled when we are effectively mannequins.

It is like three quarters of our limbs and muscles are controlled by strings, and the quarter we have some ability to move keep trying to overcompensate and convince us we are real people.

Giving up is so, so tempting.

But sometimes, sometimes, we escape.

And after we escape, or after things change for us?

We will spend some time adjusting. We will be able to grasp, eventually, what it is like to have freedoms.

Some days we will even take them for granted, and if we realize we’ve done so, we will feel a sort of confused resentment at ourselves for being such spoiled first-world brats and then guilt for feeling that having human rights means we are spoiled because rights should be just that–granted.

Some days, however, we’ll be very aware of our rights. The ridiculous pervasiveness of choice around us will paralyze and confuse us, and we will feel empty, incomplete.

I have had a panic attack choosing pizza toppings when my partner would not take ‘whatever you want’ as an answer for the umpteenth consecutive time.

I have become so used to choosing things according to a quick assessment of what other people want, prefer, or require, so that they will be happy and content and thus my life around them will be easier, so that they will not hurt me or destroy me–so used to choosing what will make others happy– I have become so used to that that I  am deeply depressed trying to make anything meaningful for myself.

I do not know how to become invested in my work and my art, because my life was never more than a big empty chamber of apathetic nothingness at best, and horrible torture at worst.

And I am afraid of becoming capable of being free. I am afraid of transcending my ability to let my trauma and unhappiness consume me. I am afraid that succeeding in pulling together that broken part of me that does not know how to choose or care or be, how to quit compulsively faking emotions and detaching–I am afraid of becoming free because I am afraid of being no longer angry, no longer cognizant of this incredible injustice, being blind to what it means to not to be free.

I am afraid of being happy because it might mean I accept and am blind to my former chains.

I am afraid of forgetting what it means to be free.

I am afraid that once I have freedom, I will no longer understand what freedom is worth and why it is important.

This is my reminder.



Disclaimer: This is clearly not meant to be reflective of the experiences of all or even necessarily most women who are Muslim or have been raised in Muslim-majority countries or households. This is meant to further understanding of what it is in fact like for many women. This particular blog post is also not making any argument as to how, why, or whether Islam as a religion, doctrine, or ideology in any or all of its forms contributes to the oppression described in this post. That goes beyond the scope of this piece, but I will address it in future pieces.

UPDATE: This post and all others on my website are my property and protected by international internet copyright law. You are NOT authorized to translate, copy, display, and/or redistribute my work in part or in full, digitally or in print, without obtaining my prior consent. Thank you.



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238 thoughts on “What it is like to be a Muslim woman, and why we know what freedom is (and you may not)

  1. Over the years I’ve read books about the lack of freedom that man Moslem women experience,and mostly they concur with what you have written above (e.g., At the Drop of a Veil; Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women; The Hidden Face of Eve). I started reading such books as a teenager; I’m now 50. It seems that every decade I read one of these books, and the oppression recounted cut me anew. Then last year I read the most strongest one of all, Ayan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel. I thought I was aware of what Moslem women go thru, but it was a harder more detailed version than any before. But when I talk about these books to men I know, they say that I am being an anti-Ismal Bigot. How dare I, I privileged white American woman, a college professor who teaches cross-cultural psychology for god sake, be anti-Moslem. What am I, an american conservative racist? But now I read you saying the same thing (Hirsi Ali recounts such restrictions on freedom at length) — and you too have an end-note apologizing for stating your view. Can’t we criticize what happens to Moslem women without being an Islamaphobe? Thank you for printing the above. Believe in yourself.

    • Thank you for your support and comments, and above all for recognizing and being cognizant of the state of affairs of many Muslim women and how tentative and misaligned the understanding of their plight is among Western liberals.

      I would like to clarify that my disclaimer is meant not as an apology, but as a clarification, setting out clearly what this blog post is trying to do and what it is not trying to do, because I believe in delineating scope as a mark of effective communication.

      It is in fact true and accurate that not all women raised Muslim or living in Muslim-majority countries suffer the above suppression.
      I also wanted to make clear that, despite it being true that I am a strong advocate of and do subscribe to a critique of Islam in many of its forms and ideologies as contributing to and structuring this oppression, I have NOT provided a cogent argument in defense of this claim in this particular blog post, and do not want that to be misconstrued.

      I agree that we must be free to speak and give reasoned critique of Islam (or any other ideology) without being wrongly accused of anti-Muslim bigotry. I have addressed accusations of Islamophobia and xenophobia in my FAQ section if you care to take a look.

      Thank you, again, for your kind and careful comments.

      • Interesting. I know that there are plenty of girls being raised like this in America who come from a fundamentalist Christian religion. Maybe not on the scale of Muslim nations, but its a vicious cycle to perpetuate a Patriarchal religion that see’s girls as nothing more than property to be controlled.

      • “I agree that we must be free to speak and give reasoned critique of Islam (or any other ideology) without being wrongly accused of anti-Muslim bigotry.”

        Sadly, it isn’t the case. We are not free to speak or critique. Unfortunately religion of any kind is considered above reproach. But Islam feels justified to kill you if you speak out (after all, to them we are all “Infidels”.) Just ask Sam Harris. He cannot go anywhere without being guarded. Ask Rusdie, Ask Ayaan Hirsi Al. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/04/books/review/04buruma.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

        That said, I applaud you for being brave enough to publish the article.

      • Thank you :) And you are correct, the screaming banner of Islamophobia is raised as soon as someone dares criticize Islam, whether or not that criticism is valid or reasoned, and we must continue to speak and continue to work to change this.

    • Traveling professor, are you sure it wasn’t because you were actually being anti-Muslim and not anti-oppression? Islam and oppression are not synonymous. Not all Muslims, as the author said, endure this type of imprisonment. In fact I know a Muslim girl from Lebanon whose stories of home completely contradict the life of the author, and my life being raised as a devout Christian in a Christian community is actually extremely similar to what the author describes. Yet I do not blame the Christianity I left years ago. Was it not so long ago for us in the West we were treating our women like this, religious or not?

      I have read terrifying stories such as this but as a Muslim woman have never seen these stories reflect Islam. This is a problem with patriarchal culture presented under the guise of Islam. I am a rabid feminist, fighting patriarchy and misogyny at absolutely any moment in life I can, but as a Muslim I also see that a lot of people will incorrectly transfer the battle of patriarchy to a battle of religion. Remove the religion and people will still find an excuse to assert their superiority over others, whether it be based on gender, race or belief.

      I have never, ever seen someone genuinely attacking patriarchy in Muslim culture and Muslim communities be called an Islamophobe. I have however seen many people attacking Muslims and Islam be called an Islamophobe, and then make the same grievance as you.

      • Blue, you make a distinction between “genuinely attacking patriachy in Muslim culture and Muslim communities” and “attacking Muslims and Islam.” What, in your mind, is the line?

      • The line is crossed when one generalizes and attacks a very diverse and almost undefinable group of people. The line is crossed when one can be quoted saying things like “Islam is a misogynistic and barbaric religion” and comments on articles about oppression and abhorrent events in Muslim cultures with “This is why religion needs to be obliterated.” I would react the exact same, and do, to Muslims who say the same about Western politics and atheism or agnosticism. I believe it is actually hurting the cause more than it is helping, because as the author has pointed out in her disclaimer Muslims and and Islam are not static, as much as fundamentalists would have us believe it is to tout their agendas and maintain their privilege.

        I think that really we all want the same thing here, which is change within Islamic cultures and communities. However attacking Islam is not going to change an Islamic culture or community, it will make your arguments fall on deaf ears. Attacking tradition and culture and standing with the many Muslim feminists and human rights activists who truly believe their faith is none of the things that people say – who reinterpret what they are taught and critically think about what they are told – that is what will bring change!

        I almost think it’s a vocabulary misunderstanding, that people mean to say “Islamic culture” or “Islamic society” but say “Islam”, because to them that is what Islam is. But without making the differentiating practicing Muslims are alienated from the struggle and become paired with the problem.

      • I have a problem with your reasoning, agreed that individuals are different and will have distinctive opinions and there are women in Muslim majority countries who are working very hard to change their societies.

        But, Islam as such is an immoral doctrine, and it does condone subjugation of women, so blaming only the society will not suffice, we need also to identify the perpetrator, that is the doctrine itself and criticize that, and yes, in light of that, the world will be better off without the idiotic and outrageously immoral, warmongering Islam. No compromise on that.

        The way of doing it is only through education and ridicule and unending criticism.

        I am not saying this is the problem of only Islam, oppression is omnipresent in all economically backward societies, it disgustingly surfaces it’s head even in the most modern societies at times, we should recognize this and oppose it with all our strength, no compromise in this too.

        But we need also to recognize the fact that, such societies and countries are the most religious, and religions play a vital role in perpetuating the problem

      • @ Blue I’m replying to your comments below. I agree that attacking Islam as such will not work. Doing so would almost certainly alienate those who follow it. However, the ideologies of Islam that are anti-individual rights–Jihad, Sharia, taqiyya, slaying infidels, honor killings–should be attacked. Those open to reason amongst Muslims really shouldn’t have any problem with this. In fact, if they are open to reason, they should nod in agreement over comdemnation of such ideas and practices. The voice against such ideas and practices is what is needed, fundamentally, to put an end to them.

      • The problem with this is that Islam *is* at least in part a misogynistic and barbaric religion, by the scriptures alone. It condones harmful practices and ideologies whether or not Muslims follow them. The religion itself is problematic, it’s not only the culture that is at fault here.

    • I don’t believe that’s possible, in most situations. In this country we seem to be gripped by a politically correct view that Demands Tolerance of all beliefs and lifestyles. Even if those beliefs or lifestyles have elements of hate, violence ( rape, honor killings…etc).
      I believe we’ve gone too far, when you must appologize for not liking rape!

  2. Marwa, Wow, you write incredibly well in english and I really got moved by your post! Thank you! I really hope that as many people as possible could read this to realise a little what it is really like to be in your shoes… Keep it up!

    • Leon, thank you for your kind words. I would like to clarify that I am an American dual national. I was taken back to the Middle East when I was 6. English is one of my native tongues. I teach English at a university here in the US.

      If you would like to take a look, I address the danger of misconceptions about Muslims speaking English and ‘looking white’ in my blog post in support of Reem Abdel-Razek’s campaign.

  3. I am a Muslim girl myself & I admit that, to some extent, these incidents do happen to me as well. However, this social behavior or attitude is not encouraged by Islam, as so many have misunderstood. Islam gives us the freedom to adopt modest & reasonable fashion, to bathe & pamper yourself, to eat what you want, go where ever you want, to do & choose whatever you want! This isn’t about religion, its about the society & though social norms vary from place to place & person to person, they are as ‘demanding’ as the one described above.
    With no offense to any Americans. I would like to give a few examples. I have a couple friends there as I spent my childhood ther & I have been able to keep contact with them. Most of them have told me that people look down upon them not only for their religion, but for what they wear, for not drinking & for still being a virgin when they are 18! They are ridiculed in public & sometimes forced into things they don’t want to do. Some of them even say that as long as a person is not Muslim, other people will act normally but in the other case, they would snoop on them & would be looking out for any oppertunity to label them as terrorists. They are countless other examples. However, through study of many religions, I have found that none of them (including Islam & Christianity) encourage such behavior. Then why do we spread this misconception?

    • My thoughts exactly! One thing I noticed after reading the author’s FAQ is that she defends attacks on “Islam” as not being Islamophobia, and I think that she is right in the sense that this isn’t Islamophobia but this also isn’t an attack on Islam. This is an attack on culture and social norms in Muslim societies, as you said, and we can see Islam and how it is practiced varies from culture to culture, like more progressive countries like Mali to Saudi Arabia or other Arab countries. If you went to Mali, where prior to the recent extremist coup (and hopefully back to normal soon) no one was forced to wear a veil and said “I am fighting against Islam because I feel I shouldn’t be forced to dress hijab” they would probably laugh, because in their culture that isn’t Islam. In fact 90% of Mali’s citizens are Muslim but hardly any dress hijab. I think before the coup it was under 10% of women practiced hijab.

      As an ex-Christian, I spend all my current involvement in the religion lending progressives my voice in order to assist them in removing the patriarchal vein from which their religion is taught and interpreted. I think shaming Muslims in general by telling them “this is your religion as I see it” is a little presumptuous and generalizing. We will fight patriarchy not by shaming religions but by shaming those who choose to assert that misogyny and patriarchy have a place in these religions!

      In order to fight against misogyny in these cultures, stories like this have to be told. I was a bit put off by the FAQ and the way some of it was phrased but in general I want to do anything to support the battle towards this type of oppression.

      • I’m always confused by apologists who try to divorce Islam and culture, as if the two were somehow unrelated. If the misogyny, repression, and violence committed by Muslims is unrelated to the teachings of Islam, then why do so many Muslims use Islam to justify them? How come they cite the Hadiths and Koran as the foundation for their behavior? How come misogynistic, repression, and violent behaviors of Muslims increase as they become more devout and fundamentalist? Did the ayatollah’s in Iran or Saudi Arabia not read any Islamic texts before codifying their repressive and discriminatory laws on their nations?

        Salman Rushdie once said in an interview that people today who keep trying to divide Islam from culture are like communists in the 20th century trying to distance themselves from Stalin and the Soviet Union. They justified the repression and violence of the Soviet regime by claiming that they weren’t practicing “real” communism, which was a system of peace and love, and claimed that if only it was possible to get rid of communism as it was actually practiced the could introduce “real” communism and everyone would be happy. If only you could get rid of Islam as it is actually practiced and interpreted, which is misogynistic, repressive and violent, then you could introduce “real” Islam, which of course is a religion of peace and love. I’m sorry but I just don’t see how you can put much faith in that.

      • Edward:
        Bosnia y Hercegovina is a majority-Muslim country. If you tried telling a Bosnian woman that she’s supposed to be wearing a veil, she’d laugh in your face. Tell a Pakistani friend of mine that he’s not supposed to drink, and he’ll pop the cap off a Taj and take a swig.

        Similarly, if you tried saying all of Christianity is sexist and homophobic, you’d hit a little snag when you run into Quakers–we’ve had women preachers from the start (1650s) and have advocated for respect for gay couples since the 60s and at least among the coast-dwellers started performing gay marriages in the 80s. That bit about coast-dwellers? That’s because, just like Islam, Quakers vary by local culture too. Midwestern Quakers are different from DC Quakers the way Saudi Muslims are different from Indonesian Muslims.

      • Mackenzie:

        So, because Bosnians don’t wear a veil it’s not mandatory in Iran? Because they don’t wear the veil Chechen women aren’t being attacked for immodesty by Muslim men? Because they don’t wear the veil, Iran doesn’t use Islamic verses or tradition to justify the whipping of women for immodesty? Saudi Arabia didn’t let female students out of a burning building just because they weren’t properly veiled? Just because Pakistanis drink alcohol does that mean you’re free to drink it in Saudi Arabia? The Koran doesn’t call alcohol an abomination? (Al-Qur’an 5:90) If Sharia isn’t based on Islam and Islamic texts, then what it is based off of?

        Because the Quakers allow for women preachers, did that erase the Bible’s order for women to remain silent in church (1 Corinthians 14:34) and never to teach or have authority over men? (1 Corinthians 14:34) Does the fact that some Christians accept homosexuals re-write Leviticus 18:22? “Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.” How do local differences disprove broad trends? How is the casual link between the devotion to misogynistic and repressive religious texts and actual misogyny and repression broken because some followers adhere to a loser interpretation of those texts? If the people who routinely adhere closely to these texts routinely oppressive and persecute women and homosexuals, doesn’t that imply that the texts themselves are the cause?

    • hmmmm….
      …..Islam gives us the freedom to adopt modest & reasonable fashion…..

      I would think modest is a central word here. This because it is very close to the intention conveyed in the Quran (I am sure you are familiar with the passages where the over-zealous Umar spies on the prophet’s wives in the night….and yabbing and nagging along ….to the extent that the prophet finally find himself forced to have a prophecy on the matter…..) :-)
      Then it is interesting to see how easy Hena Kahn (and applauded by Blue, below) euphemizes the issue.
      Neither seems (for one moment ) to reflect on the fundamental issues at hand.
      Firstly that it is not the story’s subject – the I of the story, who decides WHAT is MODEST. Secondly, that the meme of “modesty” has been internalized to the degree that it works as a portable mental prison.

      And if you should wonder:
      No I’m not impressed by religious women, be them judaistic, christian or muslims (or whatever brand) pseudo-intellectualizing over their “freedom” to decorate their chains.

      Half the lies they tell about me are true

    • Factually you are incorrect, Islam does support misogyny and clearly says women are nothing but servants to their husbands or father, Go read your Quran.

    • Because it’s not a misconception. The countries in the world where women are treated worst, are all heavily influenced by patriarchal religions, while the countries where women are treated best are all dominated by secular ideas. This is not, no matter what you claim, a coincidence.

  4. Please keep writing!
    A fan and concerned citizen
    I also signed up for your updates.
    Please check my last article if / when you have the time.
    Would love to hear your input!

  5. This needs to be said. Even those of us who support freedom for women from afar do not understand how mind numbingly oppressive it can be.

  6. That story brought a few home truth, I live in Great Britain! Growing up trying to integrate into western society without offending parents, extended family, community was do difficult that most if my young adult life I had to live to life’s outside with my friends, work colleagues and male friends and my home life were I was the obedient ( most times) daughter….your story speaks for many Muslims girls who still today trying to be accepted as equals in a screwed up mans interpretations of religion and honour or just controll freaks who are afraid … I wish you well embrace your freedom and never be afraid to speak your mind.

  7. Well. I have found me in what you wrote. I’m not muslim. I was raised by an eastern european family of university educated people, in post-communist country. I’ve lived the same way, have and had the same restrictions and violence placed upon me. I hope you learn to love the things YOU love, and do the things YOU want to do. Stay strong!

  8. I feel like weeping when I read this blog. I’ve had so many of my Muslim female friends confide in me that the most difficult thing in their world is that everyone SUSPECTS them of doing something wrong when they are doing NOTHING but walking about or chatting on the phone. I don’t know what has made so many in the Muslim society look with suspicion upon every female, checking on them, accusing them, and in some instances, punishing them for nothing more than others’ dark suspicions. From what my female friends tell me, it must be the most lonely life. I’ve always been amazed at this cultural habit of worrying about the females when it’s generally the males causing all the problems. ANYHOW, I am pleased to see you open up your heart and remind us that it is the little things in life that are so important when it comes to freedom. Thank you for this!

    • I experienced this exact thing within my Christian community. I remember the suffocation I felt living there and feeling like I was flying when I left. I was also forbidden to own keys, while my brother was allowed, and every little detail about this just rings so close to home.

      I also wonder what causes this cultural tendency to always have the onus on the female. In the Qur’an it tells men to lower their gaze, but how many “how to lower your gaze” guides exist as opposed to the number of guides shaming women for being immodest, whatever their definition of that is? I always say to people if they lowered their gaze like they were told they would never know if anyone was dressed hijab or not. ;) That’s no matter to them, as for some reason controlling and making decisions for women is viewed by them as the foundation of a functional home and of society.

      • That does not surprise me. I do think you’re perfectly correct that conservative christians and conservative muslims share many of the same problems, thus the problem is really with conservative autoritarian patriarchal religion, and not with Islam specifically.

        But there’s an important difference: While a small minority of christians are this conservative, the same ideas are much more widespread in muslim families. The huge majority of christians are in practice fairly secular and feel free to openly ignore the teachings when they disagree with them. (for example more than 85% of catholic women use contraception – and the majority of them don’t consider it a sin, even though the pope and the catholic church claims it is)

  9. It is not the religion, the ideologies of Islam being described here. It is the religion and ideologies of privilege. Many of those who enjoy privilege, refuse to give it up. Many more, cannot even look at it. Even more, deny it.

    I, a white, Anglo-Saxon, male, born in the middle of the 20th century, in the United States of America, may never understand all my privilege. I appreciate this writing, in great part, because it reminds me of MY freedoms. It also reminds me that MY rights can be taken away by those whose ignorance matches their arrogance.

    Thank you.

    Dennis Jimmink

    • In an above post I wrote that I wasn’t sure what drove men to grasp over the control of women’s bodies and lives, but I forget sometimes how enjoyable privilege can be for some people. Thanks for the reminder.

      • For many, it’s fear. Fear that without control and rules and snooping and interrogations, the very fabric of society would unravel and we’d descend into barbary.

        In practice, this ain’t true at all. The fear is unfounded. Scandinavia isn’t in practice any more barbaric than Iran, quite the opposite many would say.

  10. Actually speaking Islam is the only Nobel religion that gives complete freedom and freewill to a woman… no restrictions, no control, no force…. a woman experiences her complete freedom and expresses and reveals her identity in her black head to toe tunic that she loves very much… the full body black gown, the headscarf gives her complete freedom and identity as a woman of substance….

    • That may be true for some women Aisha but for every woman who feels like this there are two more woman suffocating under the oppression of a decision that is not hers, a body that is not hers and a life that is not hers. Does that mean we should shame it altogether? Certainly not, but we need to recognize what it symbolizes for many women and help them gain the right to choose.

      • Yes we have the right to choose! But there are always consequences, what you sow is what you reap. Don’t you believe in life after life?

    • Any color you like as long as it is black. No restrictions, but don’t even think of pursuing that hot guy :).

    • I must confess I am a bit unsecure if your comment was intended as an irony…?

      If not, your statement is an excellent example of “the believers’ newspeak”. (If you haven’t read it yet, I highly reccomend Orwell’s “1984”. It is NOT about religion, but hopefully you should be able to discover a few things about language)

      In order to maintain (at least some) coherence between the real world and their religion’s requirements/expectations, the believers redefine words to have VERY different meaning from the common useage of the words/concepts Occationally morphing the concept into the OPPOSITE meaning of the word.
      …Like Orwell’s dystophy, where “minitruth” – the Ministry of Truth was producing propaganda -which to a great extent were lies….

      In Cod we trust

      • I was thinking she was being sarcastic, no one in their right mind would say such things about Islam and mean them too, literally.. It could only be sarcasm…. So I thought.. Poor me..

  11. I was raised Catholic by a strict mother. I did not have the same restrictions as you but share many of them. When I moved out at the age of 21 with a job, she refused to speak to me. I moved anyway. It took her years to get over it. She acted as if I had committed a crime. I enjoyed reading your story. Thank you for sharing.

  12. This was beautifully written. My last semester in college, as a mathematics-turned-anthropology major, this was the topic for my final project. I created an ethnographic research project on the subordination of women in the near east (particularly through education.) When I was first talked of this project to my peers, they scoffed at it as they didn’t see the oppression. “Some women can go to college now,” was what I was told. How did no one else see this?
    You’re right; others do not know what freedom really is. If they never experience anything out of their “box,” how can they understand anything else?
    I personally was born and raised (until the age of 8) in Azerbaijan. Just because we changed locations doesn’t mean that my parents’ mentality changed. To this day, 17 years later, they are still coping with a 25 year old un-wed daughter but I myself will never bow down again to anyone. I realized what I really have – in me. Reading this post inspired that light again.
    You told your story beautifully, and have brought awareness to a difficult concept. I applaud you and your strength.

    • Thank you. I have been careful and hesitant about the delicateness of this project. I am treading a fine line that contains many necessary distinctions that must be created and repeated. A response such as yours heartens me greatly.

  13. A lot of everyday repression is invisible to others, and sometimes even those repressed are unaware of it, having been born into the life. And this can be found in many cultures, not just Muslim. It has more to do with control over other human beings and the power and some kind of sick joy that it gives the controller. Thanks for making it so visible.

  14. Thank you for sharing, I can feel the pain, the anguish, the liberation.. I am with you, and I will fight with you.. this oppression comes in many guises, and we all need to identity it..

  15. The pain, the anguish, the craving for reasonable freedom – freedom to do all normal chores without the prying and questioning eyes of one and all, the agony of being treated as guilty without trial, living under continuous suspicions, to be proving oneself innocent without even committing any crime but merely doing everything which even ALLAH and Islam allows but the so-called custodians of Islam have twisted the facts to make it sometimes a living hell for women – comes across so apparently and is of course very painful reading to any reader – May ALLAH bestow the good sense to the makers of such atrocious rules and their followers and till then MAY GOD GIVE THE STRENGTH AND COURAGE TO WITHSTAND AND SLOWLY BUT SURELY GROW OUT OF IT as only it is you who can bring about the desired change as any outside intervention would lead to more and more stricter norms to counter the same terming it as ‘external threat’.


  16. I can really relate to some part of it! But I would want to add the hardest part: coming back to the same suffocated country and realizing your loss. It is then that you realize the worth of how free you were and what a blessing it was.

  17. I’m certainly going to write a post about this topic on my blog . I think it’s awful how many women are treated and it’s sick that this is happening around us , yet we do nothing to change something .. This post is so inspiring !

  18. You are an amazing woman! May you enjoy many many years of peace and freedom. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences. I am a “western woman” and I never take my freedoms for granted. I think almost every woman in the United States, believe it or not, has lived with some kind of oppression from a man…..be it their father or an ex-boyfriend. Some have merely experienced the interrogations about their where-abouts, where others have experienced physical abuse. I have met severely abused women and wondered why they had stayed with the man that had abused them for so long. Either way, it is wrong and I hope that someday, each and every woman will have freedom from abuse and oppression. To me, that is one of the worst crimes you could ever endure. I do not think you have anything to fear…..I do not think you will ever take your freedom for granted. Most people would call me sexist, but I strongly believe that the world would be a better place if it were run by women. Aloha and take care!

  19. I am so glad that women who experience oppression and freedom talk about it, rather some first worlder who has no clue.

    I’ve been there – father listens to phone calls in the other room, to know if I’m talking to a girlfriend or some boy. father accusing me of being ‘that type of girl’ because he knows I have male friends who have my phone number. father calling me a whore because he saw me on a two-wheeler with a boy. father and mother telling me ‘what will people think’ because I wanted to stay out of my house after sunset. father worrying about what people will think when I wore sleeveless kurtas because you know my armpits are the subject of all the wet dreams of all the men in my city. and so on and so forth. After I got engaged, my parents refused to let me and my fiance go out for a cup of coffee, because, you know, what will people think. I had to lie to go and meet my fiance. Yeah, arranged marriage is cool like that!

    And this is despite having being born to educated parents who grew up in a city. I’m from India, the third world, a place that is insane despite it’s so-called rich heritage and, erm, culture.

    It’s important that voices like your be heard.

    In the specific cases of oppression, only direct experience has a ring of truth.

    I am very happy that you have found your freedom and experience it and savour it. I’m looking forward to reading everything you write. :)

    • I guess You do live in India currently, I just wish to express my solidarity, I know how sick it is in India for females irrespective of their age.

      I have many friends who are girls, and they are doctors, yet I don’t think any of them have saved my mobile number with my name. Imagine this picture, women during their menstruation, in many rural areas across the country have to stay outside that village for 4 days, this is the country I am living in and I am ashamed of it….

      In rural India, most women have to work in the fields, there is no other way.. but they will be paid much less than a man (about 4 dollars a day in current date).

      Almost all girls are married off by the time they reach 15 years of age, so they don’t ever see the face of a college to think deeply about what is life or how it should be lived, all that goes on is a mere survival, just like any other animal, but with much more difficulties and restrictions.

      The worst is with those girls who have some education and are living in semi urban/urban areas, they are the ones that have a severe restriction on freedom… My heart weeps for these middle class girls who do understand what freedom means but have no way of getting out of the perpetual cycle.

      On top of this we have such imbeciles in the government and politics who are always ready to blame the girl’s short skirts and immodest ways of living for the oppression and sexual crimes that happen in the country which perpetuates the problem even more.

      I could write a book on this, its is so painful, I hope Indian girls do come out like you have and enjoy their freedoms.

      I am here to fight, I hope we can make the change happen.

  20. Simply.. Thank you. For the very ffirst time since few years I have read so beautiful freedom speach from the bird who has left the cage. Unfortunately there are thousands of woman like you who will never run away from that hell og being under the society control. Unfortunately there are even more who even do not see anything wrong in being controlled by the distorted man’s brains. It is so upseting…But we all have the power to stand up for our rights to be free!!!

  21. Reblogged this on Escapist Troubadour and commented:
    I first read this post a couple of days ago, and am not sure how to respond to it in a way that doesn’t sound trite or meaningless. Nonetheless it struck a chord with me, because I believe in every person’s right to be allowed to have and make meaningful choices about their own life. I believe that every human being is worthy of being treated as such, with respect and compassion. I also believe that we are all responsible for the way we behave towards one another, and for the way we react when we treat someone with injustice, or encounter such treatment.
    The author of this post has my sincere gratitude and my deepest respect.

  22. Though I have never experienced this level of fear and having my life controlled by others, I was raised (in America) in a very conservative Chrisian evangelical household, and sadly I can identify with a lot of these feelings regarding newfound freedom that should really have been mine in the first place. I too catered, an still cater, to making my family happy so that I will not suffer the consequences, and I too have stifled myself out of necessity and self-preservation. Again, I was never in as severe of a situation, but when others try to control the life of another human being in any way the psychological consequences are often the same.

  23. This article certainly makes Muslim culture seem hateful and incredibly unpleasant.

    Somebody catch me while I faint.

  24. As similar as your experiences are to cults, you would probably find understanding and help in groups of ex-cult members.

    You’re in my prayers.

  25. احترم رأيك يا اختي لكن زدتي يقيني بأن الله يهدي من يشاء ويضل من يشاء
    لا تقحمين عادات العرب بالدين
    اشكرك على صراحتك
    تقبلي تحيتي

    • I thank you for your sentiment, but would like to clarify that you are by no means obliged to respect my point of view. Ideas do not deserve respect by default, and none of them are impervious to criticism, and your dissent and wish that I not conflate what you deem to be separate–ie, Islam and Arab customs–make it clear that you do not in fact respect my point of view. Saying that you do will by no means change my stance and give me reason to listen to your plea because it is a plea I have no intellectual respect for. Thank you.

  26. I loved the article, but hated the title. I fear your experiences are far too common in the Arab world, and certain other Moslem countries such as Pakistan. There are other Moslem-majority countries, such as Indonesia where I live, where such experiences are not the norm. There are still entrenched norms which discriminate cruelly against women, but most stop well short of your experiences. Others here have posted that they shared similar experiences in conservative Christian families and in India.

    I fear that this discrimination is at its worst in the Arab world, and in some other Moslem-majority countries, but is almost as bad in many others, and in some of those others more severe than in some Moslem-majority countries. Calling it a Moslem issue oversimplifies, and is incorrect.

    • Let me clarify what you seem to misunderstand. To say that when this happens it is a Muslim issue does not mean that all Muslim contexts must necessarily fall prey to this phenomenon. That was never the claim, and my disclaimer at the end makes this very clear.

      To oversimplify the distinction I would like you to consider, here is an analogy. Again, bear in mind that this is oversimplified greatly for the purposes making a point:

      Assume Phenomenon A can lead to 2 things happening: Effect B and Effect C

      Assume Effects B and C are mutually exclusive for the sake of simplicity.

      Effect B happens prevalently and stems in a causal manner from Phenomenon A. Thus when we discuss Effect B, we can accurately describe it as being an issue concerning Phenomenon A.

      Effect C occurs less prevalently but also stems from Phenomenon A. Just because Effect C is *also* issue concerning Phenomenon A doesn’t make Effect B any the less so.

      It does make Effect B not *exclusively* or *comprehensively* an issue of Phenomenon A. And nobody ever claimed it was (again, see the disclaimer).

      This is even assuming that your point, if valid, is important in any way. That is, this is assuming that misidentifying a non-Muslim issue as a Muslim issue is a matter of significance, which I am unconvinced of until you can show me how such a misidentification will lead to any material damage other than people getting offended. If that is its only damaging prowess, then I think it is safe to say that this is negligible in light of the good awareness of people who are ACTUALLY SUFFERING will bring.

  27. I do know what freedom is. But I learnt it in precicely the opposite way from you. I grew up in Norway. To a Norwegian, USA seems to be a pretty religious, conservative, limited place to be, full of taboos surrounding sexuality and with restrictive gender-norms for women to follow or be shamed. We watch American movies where the young couple are worried about being discovered by the father of the girl (never the mother of the boy!), and pity them.

    I grew up, taking the freedoms you praise in this marvellous blog-post for granted. I didn’t call it freedom. I called it “normal”.

    At 12, I took up penpalling. At 17 I got my first foreign penpal. At 19 I got my first penpal in the Middle East.

    I’d heard about it, you know ? The abuse. About some woman stoned for no crime other than loving the wrong man. About the Taliban staging violent attacks on schools for girls.

    But having heard of the extremes of something in the abstract, in the news, read by a unemotional newsguy who’s likely never had a muslim friend is one thing.

    Actually knowing someone, or as time passed and our friendship grew, to love someone, is different. I’m not talking about romantic love here, just friendship deep enough that the well-being of your friend actually *matters* to you. (I personally think that anything that falls short of this scarcely deserves the label “friendship”)

    It breaks my heart. And it’s the small things that pile up, not the few *huge* things. It’s not being raped, stoned or executed. It’s not being able to sit down in a cafe, drink a cup of coffee with a guy you study together with and talk about the silly movie you saw last night. It’s not being allowed, at age 25, with money you earned yourself, to own a acoustic guitar and practice Eric Clapton songs in your own room. I cried with Sepideh, the evening she was forced to return the guitar.

    And the people who did this to her, and to millions of girls like her, are people who genuinely love her, and do only what they believe is best for her. Yet in reality there’s a gulf the size of Grand Canyon between those who should be closest. And that too, breaks my heart.

    If she ever manages to escape, if, like in her dreams, she succeeds in finding the freedom you’ve found, then I’ll be righ there at her side, with a hug, and a guitar.

    I’ve read your post 3 times over the days since you posted it. I want to thank you. It’s vitally important that women like you are heard, that you have a voice, because so many do not. Thank you so much for writing this. I am so happy that I got a chance to read it, and I hope I get the priviledge of reading a lot from you in the future.

  28. I am not a white American scholar or a Muslim woman myself. I am an American woman who is so grateful for the country she was born to when she hears these stories. I am moved by your story on this July 4th. For today I am happy you have found your new freedom. I would imagine the anxiety you are experiencing is normal to your circumstances. I wish you a long happy life fulfilling your personal happiness as you choose what you want it to be. I give you a big hug and welcome you to our country.

  29. Just for the record, even as guy living in the Middle East. I can relate to a lot of your problems. Deleting texts. I left the house to make private phone calls. Skype calls on my laptop.. forget it. I didn’t have my own car for a while and whenever I left the house I was called 5+ times to get interrogated. Let alone the interrogating before I get to leave the house. Hell, leaving the house at 9 PM is almost impossible. The downsides of being a girl in the Middle East is much worse, no doubt.. but guys here are repressed and treated like 12-year-olds who should stay in their parents’ home until somehow, with no experiences in life, they should be ‘prepared’ for marriage.

    • To me (a complete outsider, but one with several close friends in several ME-countries), it seems like really, a lot of these restrictions revolve around controlling sexuality. Many of the things that you’re not allowed to do, and much of the interrogation, is needed to bluntly, stop you from having sex.

      When a woman must wear modest clothing, when phone-calls from members of the opposite gender are suspect, when parents wants to know where you are and what you’re doing at all hours of the day, when *gender* is such a huge issue, even outside of romance — to me it looks as if a lot of it comes down to sex.

      Why does it make a difference whether you’re having coffee with a man or with a woman — if not for the possibility of sex ?

      I even wondered if this is one reason why these cultures are unable to accept homosexuality. As long as you imagine that everyone is heterosexual, you can prevent sex by segregating the genders. (this of course doesn’t -really- ever work 100%, but atleast in principle you can imagine it works), but if you allow for the possibility that there’s significant minorities of homosexuals, then you’d have to segregate everyone from everyone, and that’d be just flat out impossible to do.

      Men in the middle east certainly also suffer under these conditions, they may enjoy more freedoms than the women, but their freedoms are also severly restricted.

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