I am an Atheist and I Wear the Veil

I was 10 years old when I found myself wearing the veil. I didn’t quite understand the real meaning behind it. I was just happy to hear the word “mabrouk” every time someone saw me wearing it for the first time. I was happy that now I could make my family proud and get them off my back.I started hearing “Allah is now happy for you” instead of hearing from my uncles, aunt and grandmother: “you will be hanged from your hair in hell and your hair will turn into thousands of snakes that will bite you” or “When will you wear the hijab? You should wear it!”.

I never truly understood why god would be upset with me in the first place; I did nothing but watch anime and read novels.

Not a long time had passed before the demands of my extended family to increase. The veil was not enough for them; their comments soon started to include the length and tightness of my clothes.

I still remember clearly at the age of eleven my uncle yelling at my mom in front of me: “Get your daughter some long and loose clothes and protect her from the eyes of men!”

My dad didn’t really have a chance to intervene. He worked abroad and saw me only once a year. Being raised in a Middle Eastern Shia Muslim family, my extended family gave themselves the liberty to step in and try to be the father figure in my life. My mother is the kind of woman who complies to family and society pressure. I was the anxious, quiet, shy kid, who always sat alone and did whatever she was told so that people would let her be.

When I turned thirteen, I started developing my own thoughts on religion. I questioned the existence of a god. I couldn’t grasp the idea of an all-knowing god, who knows that our choices and actions would lead us to hell, but would still go on and bring us to existence.

I questioned the fundamental basis of faith. I doubted the sanctity of  my hijab, which I never truly liked. I doubted everything. But my doubts were silent.

I never dared to speak out my thoughts to anyone. My family would lecture me endlessly and hush me up. I didn’t have a friend to trust enough. Hence, I went on to live in a period of shifting between agnosticism and weak belief for five years.

I never really prayed for more than one year in my whole life, and gladly my close family never cared, as long as my extended family thought that I am a religious person who properly worships God. I became a professional actress. I pretended to pray, to truly believe and even lecture my cousins and friends about religion in front of their parents just so that I would be on their good side.

I was afraid of the judgmental reactions of my friends or the people I meet if they knew that I hid such thoughts while also wearing the hijab.

Nevertheless, people never really left me alone. I started hearing comments like, “How can you listen to metal music and wear the hijab at the same time?” I had become a metalhead at the age of 11; it is where I found myself.

Pressure from my extended family to wear long and loose clothes never stopped. The nagging and comments kept on coming. Until one day my uncle yelled at me and almost slapped me in public for wearing a long dress that contains a necklace sewn in it: Accessories are “haram”, according to him.

All the pressure made me think that if a woman is not wearing “appropriate” clothes, then it is her fault if she gets sexually harassed.

That is what happened to me at the early age of 18. A man harassed me on a public bus. I was in a state of shock and completely froze. I wanted to speak, but my voice did not come out. I ended up stepping down at the end and bursting out in tears. I remember clearly a thought that came to my mind, “What if they blame me for wearing a dress that is not loose enough, even if it is very long?” and unfortunately, a “friend” of mine actually told me this when I confided to her about what had happened to me.

I hated the hijab more and more, day after day. My state worsened when I became an atheist around the age of 19. Of course, I kept my atheism to myself. I became an atheist who was stuck with wearing the veil and who continued to pretend to believe just to avoid troubles.

However, the hijab started to suffocate me in more ways than one. I couldn’t stand it in the hot days of summer. I couldn’t stand the discriminatory comments I heard from people in non-Muslim areas. I couldn’t get a proper non-enslaving job while being a student, because most good companies don’t employ veiled girls.

Even one of my professors, who is an atheist, told me in class: “You can’t understand and hear well because of that tight piece of clothing covering your hair”.

I wasn’t just an atheist who wears the veil. I also went to Mecca for the “Umrah” pilgrimage. I was in Saudi Arabia with my parents during the Christmas vacation when they suddenly decided to go to Mecca. Being a female there, not to forget being a foreigner, I had no other option but to go or I would have to sit alone in the house for days waiting for them. I pretended to make all the rituals and I even touched the Kaaba. I monitored the people there, wondered how many like me have been here, and I waited for the whole trip to finally be over.

Taking the veil off became one of my main dreams. I started making plans of travelling and living abroad so that I can take it off. At the same time, I continued to succumb to depression. My anxiety and parental control prevented me from doing many things that I wanted to do. Of course, I would have had to seriously fight with my parents if I wanted to discuss the idea of going to a concert.

Still, in the first place I was shy and scared of going to a metal concert while wearing the hijab. My anxiety crippled me. I was scared of the attention I would get. But my personality was continuously undergoing a state of metamorphosis. I started to pass through episodes of indifference towards everything.

I will never forget that memorable step I took when I went to my first concert ever. It meant a lot to me because it was a metal concert for the band Epica when they came to Byblos, Lebanon. There I found only one girl like me wearing the hijab. We stood there staring at each other with a look that says, “I understand” and we proceeded to give each other a warm greeting and a smile. Standing there in the venue, listening to the band sing the lyrics “to be free, I will exist again” from the song Unleashed, I made a promise to myself. I promised myself that I will fight them all to be free and to exist again, or else I was giving up for real on life.

Few months after that, I met a friend at university who helped in giving me one last push. After a late sudden chat after midnight, for some reason we both ended up saying “I am an atheist and I wear the hijab.” It turns out we were both pretending to believe in front of each other, because we were afraid that the other wasn’t just acting.

She was genuinely shocked. She said I looked like the “angelic religious girl”. This friend then told me that she goes to faraway places and takes off the hijab secretly. We ended up going to a closed place near the bus station, took our scarves off and headed in the bus to Byblos from Beirut. I had never felt so happy and excited like I did at that moment.

I kept myself glued all the way in the bus near the window, enjoying for the first time in years the touch of the wind on my neck and hair, a feeling I’ve always dreamed of. There, we spent the whole day wandering around. It was also the first time that I drank alcohol. We agreed to call that day “freedom day.” After that day, I couldn’t get enough from the taste of freedom. I wanted more and more and nothing was going to quench my thirst for freedom and stop me anymore.

One day I snapped. I couldn’t take it anymore. I was either going to do it or just give up on life. I suddenly said: “Mom, tomorrow morning I am going out without the veil.” My mom froze. She kept going on about how scared she is from the reactions of my extremely religious extended family and society, but at the same time she was afraid of saying no to me; a lot of personal issues happened in the past that made her frightened of saying no to me often. At the end, all she said was: “Call your dad and ask him first”, and so I did. I informed him on the phone about my decision. My father was understanding, like he had always been. At the same time, he was afraid of how my extended family would react. I was ready to fight them all. I was not the little girl they could scream at and control anymore, I had grown to become more independent and by that time had a job.

The next morning I walked in the neighborhood without the veil. I walked happy, indifferent and free. My neighbor’s daughter bumped into me and said: “Oh! Why did you take your veil off?” I responded: “Because I want to”. I remember clearly the words of my best friend when she saw me – “Now you look more like yourself”. Luckily, a lot of things had happened that led the communication with my extremely religious uncle to be severed to its minimum. However, my grandmother and aunts they did not accept it well, one of my aunts even stopped allowing her children to go out with me or even talk to me: I was considered a bad influence. My friend then got the courage to make the leap too. Sadly, she did not have it as easy as I did. She had to run away from home for a period of time in order to take her scarf off.

My life changed so much for the better. I became myself again and I am more confident than I used to be. I even started taking pictures again. Now the person I see in my pictures is who I really am.

I changed my picture on the ID, passport and on my second university card. I couldn’t change the one in my first university, the Lebanese University. When I went there, the veiled employee told me: “Now it is too late, you will forever be stuck with your picture in the veil so that you remember what you did”. I was too tired and in too much of a hurry to argue with her, so I just left it there. I also started showing myself on social media, and that is when I accidentally bumped into the picture of a friend whom I hadn’t seen for more than seven years, but now her profile picture was showing her without the veil.

She was my neighbor in my old neighborhood. I immediately contacted her and we agreed to meet. We poured our hearts out to each other and it was one of the best reunions I have had in my life. It turned out we were both pretending to be religious out of fear from our families. We were never really close, so we even faked religion in front of each other.

Till now, I still enjoy the touch of the wind on my neck and hair. I harbor anger for the eleven years of my life that they took away from me, eleven years that I will never be able to get back. Still, at the end they made me who I am now.

Why did all of this happen? Is it fair for someone to decide for a half of society what they should wear? The hijab is a concept originally rooted in the Medieval Ages, and it was used for various reasons, especially in the process of oppressing women. It has never helped in protecting women from sexual abuse. Sexual harassment happens to all women around the world, whether they are veiled or not. I can assure this from personal experience and from what I have monitored as a female.

Proper education, fair laws, correct feminism, mandatory human rights and sexual harassment awareness courses, standing up and confronting the harasser, support and sexual liberation is what helps in preventing sexual harassment. No matter what a woman is wearing, she is never asking for sexual harassment.

I learned to never judge a veiled girl, because no one can know what is truly going on inside her mind. She could be an atheist and forced to fake believing in religion while waiting for her chance to be free, just like I used to be. Not all people trust a stranger they have just met, be kind to others no matter what; you don’t know the battles they might be fighting in silence.

I wonder how many out there are like me, or are still battling through their way to freedom. To all the veiled girls that are forced into it, I salute you. Stay strong and hang on. I know that you may think you are way beyond holding on to hope, but trust me, it will get better one day. Hang on, work hard for it and be courageous. Freedom requires a lot of courage and sacrifices. Remember, you are not alone in this, many women share your pain around the world; at least I personally know few who are suffering in silence, waiting for a chance to be free.

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An English literature and translation graduate, teacher, translator and a librarian who dreams of a better secular world.