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Zan, Zendegi, Azadi: Women, life, freedom

Maryam Namazie, center, looking down, and others protested in support of and solidarity for the overthrow of the government in Iran in the aftermath of the killing of Mahsa Amini.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation’s “secular underground railroad” has given a $5,000 stipend to support the work of Faithless Hijabi. The following is an article explaining why the group was formed and what help it offers.

By Zara Kay and Nick Forbes

Zan, Zendegi, Azadi” (“Women, Life, Freedom”) is the rallying cry that has been heard every day from Iranians following the death of Mahsa Zhina Amini, who was tortured by the morality police in Iran and died on Sept. 16. Her death has sparked national and international protests for the end of 43 years of Islamic dictatorship in Iran.

Iranian women have been taking the streets and leading the protests, supported by men from the younger to the older generations, making it clear that they want a leadership free of religious doctrine. The hijab clamped in their fists — many marchers setting the cloth alight as an act of defiance against a regime that demands they cover their “shameful” bodies — has been monumental as a symbol of freedom. The woman’s revolution happening in Iran right now encompasses the freedom for all people to live in a secular society with the separation of mosque and state, as women revolt against the hijab: the ultimate example of a woman’s bodily autonomy being stolen. Amini’s death has given rise to resilience against religious tyranny, but this revolution also represents the resistance against all forms of fundamentalism. Over the years, the laws have tightened so far as to restrict any form of freedom by the deployment of the morality police.

While the current situation in Iran has brought about awareness globally, the rest of the Muslim majority countries still have change yet to come. Last year, the world witnessed the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, where women have been prevented from working and young girls have been stopped from attending school. Egypt increasingly has had a large crackdown against apostates of dissenters from Islam, also seeking out LGBTQ+ individuals on dating apps to hunt them down and punish them. 

Even countries that are regarded as more liberal — such as Lebanon and Jordan — have indirectly enforced restrictions similar to those of Saudi Arabia, with male guardianship laws that subject women to degrading practices like virginity tests and prohibitions on sex outside of marriage. Male family members report women for not following the authorities, who then face arbitrary detention along with physical violence from the authorities at the request of their male family members. 

Most of these individual cases go unreported or unpublicized, despite Amnesty International conducting interviews and publishing reports on the violations of human rights in the Middle East. 

The assaults on women’s rights in Muslim-majority countries and communities is what gave birth to our organization, Faithless Hijabi. As women who have renounced Islam continue to struggle to have their voices heard, Faithless Hijabi started working on amplifying the voices of ex-Muslim women to give them a platform in which they can recount their stories of religious abuse and trauma.

The platform allows ex-Muslim women to understand the trauma losing one’s faith can bring. Over time, Faithless Hijabi recognized the dire lack of mental health support for apostates from Islam, who struggle with living a double life due to the fear of ostracism by their families, but also risk psychological and physical violence as a result of exercising their human right to be free from religion. People in Islamic countries don’t have safe access to mental health support and have a very real chance of being reported to family or the authorities after exposing their apostasy or LGBTQ status.

Shortly after beginning the mental health program, Faithless Hijabi’s therapists became aware that many clients suffer from “religious trauma syndrome,” which describes the common experiences shared among many who have escaped cults, fundamentalist religious groups, abusive religious settings or had other painful experiences with religion. 

In 2021, Faithless Hijabi, along with Secular Rescue and Amnesty International Australia, worked in joint efforts to evacuate an ex-Muslim LGBTQ activist and Jordanian national who was detained in Lebanon due to their gender identity, sexual orientation and apostasy. While others across the globe celebrated New Year’s, Alshaima Alzubi was detained for nine days in Beirut over a yellow Interpol “missing persons” notice, then a red notice due to the abuse of the Interpol system by their well-connected and influential family. There were concerns over Alshaima’s forced repatriation to Jordan. However, with the help of the Australian Consulate and joint efforts of the three organizations, Alshaima safely arrived in Australia on Dec. 1. While homosexuality is no longer illegal in Jordan, most LGBTQ members face widespread discrimination from their families, communities and even workplaces. 

While all eyes are currently on Iran, it is currently unclear what lasting changes the widespread protests will bring to the Islamic regime. What is clear, however, is that the Islamic world still has a long way to go before it can hope to catch up to the progress humanism has made regarding the rights of women, homosexuals and apostates. Organizations such as Faithless Hijabi will remain crucial to support ex-Muslim women, help them share their stories, and navigate the religious trauma that they have experienced. 

If Amini’s death is to mean anything, it means both the Islamic and Western world must no longer ignore or coddle those who wish to impose Sharia, and that the plight of individuals oppressed by Islamic doctrine is one of the most pressing human rights causes of our time. 

Zara Kay is a human rights activist and founder of Faithless Hijabi and Nick Forbes is secretary at Faithless Hijabi.