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Saudi activist Ghada Ibrahim on Deconversion, Women’s Rights, Belief, and Conservative Culture

2022-12-15

Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): Medium (Humanist Voices)

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2018/05/01

Ghada Ibrahim is a Former Muslim and Saudi Activist. In particular, an activist for the rights of women in Islam and talking about her former faith. Here we talk about growing up in a Saudi Muslim family, family life, aspects of Islam, well-being of women and men in Islam, and the net analysis of Islam in Saudi Arabia and the MENA region.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was the moment, or were the moments, of deconversion from Islam for you?

Ghada Ibrahim: The first moment came when I was in high school. I wanted to be more religious and understand my religion more, so one Ramadan I decided to read the Quran for understanding, rather than just skimming through it the same way we did every year just to get through it. I took my time until I reached the infamous 4:34: Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband’s] absence what Allah would have them guard. But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance — [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them. But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand.

After reading that verse, I began my research. The traditional and most accepted interpretation was that men had the authority to discipline their wives if they feared disobedience from them. But what really bothered me was the start of the verse: “men are in charge of women” or in Arabic “Alrejal qawamoon ‘ala alnisa” The translation isn’t exactly “in charge of”. That is what many like to think it means. That the word “qawama” in Arabic only refers to who pays the money in the house, but that is not true. The sentence right after it says “By what Allah has given one over the other AND what they spend from their wealth”. So it isn’t just spending. This translation also doesn’t mention that word used was “Faddala” which means “preferred” and not “given”. In the most traditional and mainstream accepted interpretations, in both Sunni and Shia Islam, this verse is interpreted as “Men are in charge with women because they have been given preference by Allah with physical and mental strength AND because they are charged with spending”. Western or liberal Muslims like to think that this is only the extremist or Wahhabi interpretation, but it is not. THIS is the mainstream and most accepted interpretation for the verse. It was also the interpretation taught to many Muslims ALL OVER the world.

I’ve read other interpretations by so-called “modernists” and “Muslim feminists” and they completely gloss over the fact that Allah gave men authority to discipline their wives. They concentrate more on how the word “beat” doesn’t really mean “to hit” and how this verse is taken completely out of context. They gloss over the verse that describes what women do with their disobedient husbands, a few verses after 4:34 in 4:128: And if a woman fears from her husband contempt or evasion, there is no sin upon them if they make terms of settlement between them — and settlement is best. And present in [human] souls is stinginess. But if you do good and fear Allah — then indeed Allah is ever, with what you do, Acquainted.

As you can see, there is a huge difference in how women treat their disobedient husband (A civil settlement) and how a man treats his disobedient wife (discipline). This got me to reject the divinity of the Quran, which was the first step into deconversion. Right afterwards, I began to question the validity of the hijab and why I had to wear it in a scorching heat while my brothers walked around in baggy shorts and T-Shirts, and I took off the hijab. Slowly, little by little, I began to reject other parts of the religion. I began dating and touching the opposite sex instead of avoiding any kind of physical contact with them. I had a sip of alcohol. Then one day, I realized, that I did not believe in any of it. I woke up one morning and as I was getting ready to perform a prayer, I stopped and thought to myself, “I don’t even believe in any of this. Why am I praying?” And I never looked back afterwards. That was about 7 years ago.

Jacobsen: What is the status of women’s rights in most of the Muslim-majority countries?

Ibrahim: Depending on where you are, it varies from extremely bad (Saudi Arabia and Iran) to moderately bad (Rest of the GCC, some parts of North Africa), to not too bad (Turkey, Tunisia). The worst part about women’s rights in Muslim-majority countries is Family law. Marriage needs a father’s permission if it is a first-time marriage, divorce needs the husband’s permission, custody of children automatically goes to the husband after they reach the age of 7, inheritance is unfair, etc. In countries with forced modesty like Saudi Arabia and Iran, dress codes are imposed on the women. In Iran, it’s mandatory Hijab. In Saudi Arabia, it’s mandatory “modest” clothing in the form of plain colors, baggy long-sleeves, and no display of affection.

Jacobsen: How do you, or others, work with the change in a fundamental belief structure? I would assume the combined feelings of exhilaration, disorientation, anxiety, and fear at once.

Ibrahim: When I first admitted to myself that I no longer believed in Islam or a god for that matter, it was one of the scariest things I’ve felt. It wasn’t because I thought that now I was going to hell like many Muslims like to believe, but because I no longer had a structure or purpose for my life. I had all of this free time now that wasn’t invaded by prayers. I had newfound freedoms that are up for exploring. The fear I felt was of the unknown. I fell into a deep depression in the beginning and went through a sort of existential crisis.

Jacobsen: Leaving a faith, reconciling with the change of belief structure, then not only negating the beliefs but also finding a new life in newly affirmed principles — paving your own path in the world, this is no small task or set thereof. How did you do it?

Ibrahim: I filled the void, in the beginning, with reading classical literature. I saw that even in books written in the 18th and 19th centuries, there were characters that had doubts about their religious beliefs or questioned the existence of a god. They were still able to build something out of their lives in a world that still executed people for blasphemy (a lot like my own world back in Saudi). It was during that time that I realized that my “purpose” was whatever I wanted it to be. I also found someone who was like me. Though he did not grow up in a fundamentalist household, he still lived in Saudi and was still an atheist in a Muslim-majority country. Having someone to talk to about it helped.

Jacobsen: When in a very conservative culture and then leave it, “I do not have the tools. I can make my own mistakes. I could not make them before.” You leave it and can make your own path.

Sometimes, you use the wrong material, take the wrong path and fall, and some get discouraged and some continue going. How do you build yourself back up, keep going, and maintain the new self and sense of empowerment?

Ibrahim: For me, it was the reminder that this life is the only chance we got. I remember how I felt after making several mistakes, one after the other, a few years back. I lay in bed and thought to myself that all I wanted was to die to make the pain go away, to make the thoughts of failure stop. Then I remembered that if I die, that would be it. There is no “second chance” for me. If I died, I would have died without being able to achieve what I wanted to achieve, and for me, it was just to be able to live a normal life. I was stuck in a country that crippled my freedom in every way. I couldn’t let that be the only life I led. Sure, it hurt to fail. It really sucks when you think you’ve made the right choice, only to find out how horribly wrong you were. It is discouraging, but that is just how life is. It’s a roll of a dice. Sometimes you get the number you wanted and sometimes you roll the wrong number. It might be different for others, but accepting that everything that happens in this world is random and that the only way to go forward is to attempt life as many times as you can was how I was able to do it. I’ve accepted that I had no power at all on what life threw at me, but I do have power over how I react to what it throws at me.

Jacobsen: Any feelings or thoughts in conclusion?

Ibrahim: Leaving a fundamentalist religion is a lot like finding yourself free of a cult after years (in my case, close to two decades) of indoctrination. It is difficult to build your individual self after living in a collective mentality. There is no life hack that’ll make life easier afterwards and there is no one-size fits-all fix for it. It really depends on the person and how they react to different stimuli. For me, it required a lot of reading and a lot of cognitive-behavioral therapy to change the way I react to different stimuli. But worked for me, may not work for everyone. Don’t be afraid to try. Making mistakes is not the worst that can happen.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Ghada.

License

In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at www.in-sightpublishing.com.

Copyright

© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing 2012-Present. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All interviewees and authors co-copyright their material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

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