Skip to content

An Interview with Zara Kay on Ethnic and Religious Background, DIfferential Treatments of Boys and Girls, Men and Women in the Religious Culture, and Theological Justifications (Part One)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2020/03/15


Zara Kay is the Founder of Faithless Hijabi. She discusses: family and personal background; Indian and Arab, South Asian, and Muslim heritage; differential treatment of boys and girls questioning the faith; issues of women assumed less than men in rituals; some severe backlashes in questioning the faith; theological rationalizations for benign and harmful practices; and a familial inclusion of patriarchal structure.

Keywords: Faithless Hijabi, Islam, Men, ex-Muslim, Muslim, religion, Tanzania, theology, Women, Zara Kay.

An Interview with Zara Kay on Ethnic and Religious Background, DIfferential Treatments of Boys and Girls, Men and Women in the Religious Culture, and Theological Justifications: Founder, Faithless Hijabi (Part One)[1],[2]

*Please see the footnotes, bibliography, and citation style listing after the interview.*

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Since superhero movies are so popular these days, let us start from the top with an origin story. What was family and personal background, to provide some backdrop for some of the readers today?

Zara Kay: I was born in Tanzania. I am fifth-generation Tanzanian. My ethnic background, based on a recent DNA test, is South Asian, mostly Pakistani/Afghani and West Indian, so involving Muslims. I left Tanzania when I was 16. I moved to Malaysia. I was studying in Malaysia. I moved without my family. Then I moved from Malaysia to Melbourne when I was 19, for uni. I have been in Australia ever since. I am currently in Sydney.

2. Jacobsen: In terms of having an Indian and an Arab background, and basically a family adhering to Islam, what were your earlier moments of questioning the faith? What were some of the reasons behind it?

Kay: It started off young. I visited Syria when I was 11 or 12. I am from a Shia background. My family is Shia. For Shias, visiting Syria and Iraq is common, you visit all the shrines and the death places of the Prophet’s family. When I visited Syria, I saw people praying to the shrine. I could not understand that because from what I have been told, you only pray to God.

While I was young, I had questions about things like, “Why doesn’t God have parents? Who created God? How did God come about?” Whenever I asked these questions, nobody had the answers. My mom said, “He always existed.” I felt guilty for asking those questions. It felt almost as though I was becoming a hypocrite for asking questions, or that I was questioning my faith and God was going to punish me.

That was before I went to Syria. When I went to Syria, there were things that I saw like people worshiping the shrines. That pushed me away. That is when I started asking more questions about Islam, in particular. Why are we giving human beings, even if they were Prophets, or grandsons of the Prophets, more power than God himself? The questioning phase started early on.

3. Jacobsen: Do you think the treatment of girls who are questioning is different than boys who are questioning, within the Shia faith?

Kay: When you start wearing the headscarf when I was young, and I did not know what the headscarf meant, I did not actually question it as much, but as I grew older and I realized that I did not want to wear it, is when I was starting to question, “Why do I have to wear it?’

The reason behind the headscarf was why I started questioning. Of course, for other people who have been brought up in a more conservative environment, they probably had different ways of questioning. With my family, I have one brother and four sisters. We were all treated pretty much the same. There was no sexism at home, as much, I guess. The men never cook, but my dad is a chef. We had already, at that time, started defying the gender norms.

As I grew older, the questioning phase, and as I found out from other Ex-Muslims, they were different for men and women, and it had a lot to do with the misogyny in religion.

4. Jacobsen: Aside from the headscarf, let us say in rituals, what are some of the misogynistic elements there? Where are women assumed to be less than men?

Kay: Surrounding faith as a journey has given me a broader perspective on how other people have grown up, regardless of my personal experience. One of them was the gender roles, where historically, women have been ones to take care of the family and cook and whatnot. Other people who had succumbed to it. I never had to personally cook, or anything. I did not even know how to cook because I had maids and chefs, so I never had to do any of that.

A lot of people, when starting, seeing the differences in how their brothers were treated as compared to themselves, how the men never had to do any house chores. Maybe, that is a cultural thing less than it is a religious thing, but diving deeper into the theological part of it; there are so many verses that always talk about how men are a degree above women, inheritance is not equal, a woman’s testimony in court is half of a man’s.

When I was young, thinking about inheritance meant thinking about my parents dying and money, that was the last thing I wanted to think about. I forgot to question the bigger thing, which was, “Why do men get more?”

In my family, the men have worked. My sister-in-law and my mom are housewives. I was the first one who did a degree. My brother had never done a degree. I was the first one who did a degree, and once I got the opportunity to do it, I started questioning it even more. Why do men have to be the providers of the house? Why do men have to pay the bills? Why cannot women pay for it? Why do I have to owe my independence to a man?

That was ingrained. A lot of people like to think that religion and culture should be separated. I look at it as a Venn diagram where there is a big overlap between the two. If you think of the historic times of how Islam came about, obviously it stemmed from the cultural practices at the time, and having more stricter laws, or having more guidance, I would say, to enforce those practices and to reject some of them.

If you look at the spirit of Islam, to other cultures and religions, it tends to alter the culture. Like I said, I have an Indian background. The Indian side of it, the Hindus have existed before Islam came into play. Hindus existed centuries before Islam. They were pro music, pro dance. When it came to Islam spreading to the subcontinent, the music and the dance were taken away. Now, there is an Indian-Muslim culture that is different from the Hindu or Indian culture without religion.

To answer your question, it started off as cultural norms that have very much made me question religion. Religious differences for the genders. Then I dived into the theological part of it, the theology, to verify my claims on why sexism existed.

That led me to identify that it was not the segregation of sexes. It was the hatred of women where the differences in getting equity or the differences in having your testimony valued led to me questioning why that was the case.

5. Jacobsen: If you are looking at a familial context, if you are looking at a communal context, and even sometimes, a legal/governmental context, there can be a backlash for people who are openly questioning of a faith.

In the current moment, of course, what comes to light is typically theocratic governments, and fundamentalist families and communities, with an Islamic background, they then enforce themselves on the young, especially hard on questioning young men and women.

What, as things progressed, were some more severe, potentially, backlashes faced by you or others that you happened to know, even recently?

Kay: I do not know if you have seen my Facebook. I am talking to a few Saudi girls. From what I understand, the more they started questioning, the more skeptical their families got on, “Why are you questioning religion? Are you becoming…?” It resulted in imposing more control over them, so that they do not go astray.

When I moved overseas, mine was not even about questioning religion. It was more about the structure and logical thinking, or knowing my rights, or not wearing a headscarf and not succumbing to it made my family more skeptical about what my goals were. They kept saying, “This is what happens when you send your daughters or your kids overseas. They change. They have Western values.”

Because I was the first one that did. We were different. I never felt like I was raised differently from my brother, maybe because my brother was more of a family person and he never went out, so I never had the restrictions of not going out differently than my brother.

But for me, questioning religion was mostly brushed off by saying, “Ask a scholar.” Who would ever actually want to go and ask a scholar? It is embarrassing. Why would you go through all that trouble to ask a scholar?

That is how it was always brushed off for me, but other women, from what I have heard from Faithless Hijabi, whenever they asked questions; they were always told, “This is Islam. These are the rules. There is no questioning.” There was no critical thinking. This is what I usually say, and I am making a T-shirt out of it: “Critical thinking stops when religion starts.”

Even those scientists or those scholars who have been critical thinking about every other topic, when it comes to religion, they have a block saying, “This is the word of God. This is what it is. Surely, he had something better in mind. Now you are trying to rationalize the word of God, by not questioning it.”

There are so many interpretations. They go, “That is what He meant,” rather than, “This is the literal Word of it.” It is always been brushed off. It is not given as much attention as it should, at least, especially when growing up.

When I came out as an atheist, I did a public broadcast. I was, when I first came out, the person who you should not be like, in Tanzania. I am literally quoted in Islamic schools, “Zara Kay? This is what you do not want to be like.” What that also helped is, and I do not know if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but hopefully for the better, that it encouraged people to start critically thinking about, “Why did she come out? Why did she become an atheist?”

A lot of people knew my family back home. It was not like I was not treated well, or that my family was super strict, or not liberal. I pretty much got to study overseas. My other friends did not. Everybody who knows my family knows that I was never abused or anything.

People started making different narratives. A lot of people went, “Your dad must have abused you behind doors,” or, “Your parents did not teach you how to question things correctly,” but because I came out, a lot of people started critically thinking.

They opened up classes, after that, to help people understand Islam more, which means to start rationalizing all those practices that, I would say, cannot be rationalized or that cannot have any excuses, but they started rationalizing it after I came out.

I do not know if it is a good thing or a bad thing, or that they are feeding kids, or the younger generation, with more false narratives to play the mental gymnastics in their heads, or to me, or to other people when they start questioning. It is another tactic to stop people from questioning when you start giving them a narrative that would fit into their questions, an acceptable narrative, I would say.

6. Jacobsen: If you look at a split between benign and harmful practices, what would be some of the higher-order theological rationalizations that would be given for the more benign practices, and for the more harmful practices, in particular? Those that would be more affecting girls and young women within Shia Islam.

Kay: One of the practices that still freaks me out until now, is the beating of the chest, and the act of using blades to cut yourself in order to feel that pain that the Prophet’s grandson felt 1,400 years ago, with The Tragedy of Karbala. I am not sure how much about it. It was in one of my podcasts where I was talking about what secular jihad is.

The Shias commemorate Ashura. It is one of those bizarre practices that anybody from the outside would think of as being so barbaric, but they started rationalizing it by saying, “How could you be so heartless to not feel the pain of somebody dying?”

You should mourn. You shouldn’t listen to music. You shouldn’t comb your hair. You shouldn’t wear anything nice. You cannot put on perfume on this day. You should beat your chest, so you feel that pain. There are practices like this. Things like, “How could you be so heartless to not feel their pain?”

It is a dangerous practice. I have seen in Pakistan, Iraq, and Syria. I have not been to Pakistan, but in Iraq and Syria; when I visited, parents would take blades to cut off their infants’ heads. I could not see it. My mom was like, “This is not what we do because I was never taught to do it,” but there have been men who do it. They cut themselves.

Women are not allowed to do it because women weren’t allowed to go to battle at the time, and still not. So, the men can get cut, but the women are not. That was one sexism which is, “Well, I am lucky I am a woman, then, right?” I did not go down that route.

There were so many things. I am trying to think of other practices. One of the biggest practices was Ashura, cutting yourself, beating your chest, or crying, or being sad. That was rationalized by, “Why are you not feeling sad for the Prophet’s grandson? He gave up his life to save humanity.” For the longest time, I believed that. Until two years ago, I believed that. Even after I was and an ex-Muslim, I was like, “No, but this is such a tragedy. His family died.”

I am like, “Sure. But why is it still commemorated 1,400 years later?”

FGM was not practiced in my community, but before I came out as an ex-Muslim. I was looking into the Islamic sects that it was practiced in. I had a few friends. I started asking. I did a bit of a survey. I put it up on Facebook, on an only women’s group. I am like, “Has anyone been through FGM in their life?” A lot of them started defending it saying, “It is not FGM. It is circumcision.”

A few gynecologists were like, “That is FGM. That is stage one of FGM,” or something, where they cut off a part of the clitoris. I was like, “I will send you guys a survey.” I never got into it, but I did ask them questions on, “Why do you practice it?”, or, “Would you ever put your daughter through it?”

Some of them said that their parents saved them from it. That it was such a vile practice. It was not done medically. They were taken into a room. It hurt for a week. They do not remember it. It was too much pain, but they were told that this would make them pure women. Some of them said that their parents protected them from it. Their mothers protected them from it.

Some of them had to go through it and would not let their children go through it. Some of them were like, “I went through it. I did not like it, but I have to put my children through it or else my husband or the family would never accept it.”

There were other women who were all pro it. They were like, “Look, I went through it, it was not fun, but it is a practice of the Prophet. I did it. It is good for women to not have any sexual feelings, so they do not have sex before marriage. It has in no way ruined my sexual life after I got married, and yes, I would put my daughter through it.”

There was a range of people trying to rationalize or to make sense of the practice, even though it is textbook assault. It is textbook harmful. It is textbook violence. That is FGM.

Other practices that were different amongst women. The wearing of hijab was one of them. A lot of women in Tanzania, from what I have been exposed to: we wanted to wear the hijab. It was societal pressures.

I did not know you could be a Muslim woman and not wear a hijab until I moved to Malaysia and met people. I looked at a few people. I was 16. I was still a young adult. I should know this. But I went up to people, women or girls my age, or older. I am like, “How are you a Muslim, and not wearing a hijab? You cannot do it, or you are not a good Muslim.”

I am sure they were offended at the time. I do not even remember who I asked. They said they did not have to. I am like, “How do you pray, then?” They’d say they would cover up when they pray, but otherwise, they did not have to cover up. I am like, “This is imposed on women.” The response I got was, “We are not all good Muslims.”

I was listening to this TED Talk from a Muslim woman. I forgot her name. She was talking about how Islam does not ask you to wear the hijab, and what the hijab means in Islam, and it does not have to be a piece of clothing.

Does that help you answer the question?

7. Jacobsen: Yes, it does answer the question, and well.

When it comes to the way that these practices are created within a formal definition of a patriarchal structure, in a formal Abrahamic faith, what is interesting is the way in which some of the most severe practices, such as the various stages of female genital mutilation are passed matrilineally, as well, the grandmothers, the mothers, and the woman siblings. They practice that as well, on the young, or encourage it, as was noted.

Kay: Yes. I had that when I took off the headscarf. My sisters were like, “You will put it on someday, right? You have beautiful hair. Why do you have to show it to other people?”

When I put up a photo of me wearing sleeveless clothes, my sisters were the ones who told me. I did not expect that from my sisters, but they were the ones who told me that I have no self-respect because I wore a top that was sleeveless.

I took off my headscarf when I was 19, so seven years ago, but I only started wearing shorts or dresses about two and a half years ago because I was so scared. One, I had self-esteem issues. Two, I feared being objectified. I feared getting raped. I feared catcalling. Even in Tanzania, when I did wear a headscarf, that did not stop people.

Jacobsen: [Laughing] those are not magical barriers.

Kay: It did not stop people from doing anything. If at all, it was countries like Turkey, where my friend and I, we were both not wearing headscarves, but we weren’t even wearing dresses or anything. We were dressed quite modestly, and we were still harassed by men, as compared to those who were not. That exactly fits the narrative that these men have been raised to respect women.

I will tell you. My friend is South American. She looks South American. I look more Indian-Arab. Because it is a popular tourist country, they were able to distinguish between somebody who does not have to culturally wear it, versus somebody who is defying her culture by not wearing it. Obviously, they did not know whether I was Muslim or not.

We were talking about this in the no hijab video that we had live-streamed that the Muslim men tend to respect white women who do not wear it more than brown women who do not wear it because for the white women it is culture for them not to wear it, but for the brown women it is going against their culture.

My friend and I face different forms of harassment. For them, they spoke to her in Spanish, or they would catcall her in Spanish. We were at a bazaar. I saw that other Muslim women weren’t being called to go to their shops as much as we were, or other tourists, as well.

It was interesting how it is more prevalent, the catcalling, or not wearing the hijab, or something, in societies where they have been taught to respect women, where the modesty culture has been drawn down to what a woman wears.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Founder, Faithless Hijabi.

[2] Individual Publication Date: March 15, 2020:; Full Issue Publication Date: May 1, 2020:


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


© 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.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: