One of my earliest memories is of being bound to my bed as the soles of my feet were whipped. At five or six years old, this was my punishment for not correctly memorising surahs, chapters, from the Quran, or for missing one of the daily prayers.
Lying on my bed, in the room that I shared with my sister, I would feebly struggle to free my feet from the skipping rope that bound them. But it was pointless. My strength was no match for the man who had restrained me there. I would scream as the plastic stick whipped across the soles of my feet.
“So, you think you’ll memorise properly next time?”
I would futilely plead to my mother with my eyes. Why wasn’t she raising her voice, or her hand, to protect me? Why was she just standing there next to him? My young mind grappled with what could possibly be holding her back. Was she afraid of him? No. She didn’t seem to be. Could she be complicit in this? No, never. But in fact, it was her that asked him to come over, so maybe she is partially to blame? No, that can’t be it.
I could not accept that the only parent that I knew would willingly give me up to be bound and beaten. He was the evil one, not my mother. That had to be the truth. So why, then, did she phone him and ask him to come over?
“Next time I come here, I want to hear all three surahs, you understand?”
“Which three surahs are they?”
If I hesitated for a fraction of a second, he would raise his hand again. Almost excited about the opportunity. When there was no fresh skin for his blows to land, they would fall atop my already bruised and torn feet. My body would be slick with sweat. My quickened heartbeat made it difficult to breathe, but I knew I could never end this until I found the strength to push on.
“Al Fatiha, Al Kauthar, and…Al Ikhlas.” Three short surahs necessary for the five daily prayers.
“If you make one mistake, one mistake, I will show you how I can really hurt you.”
When he would finally untie the rope, throw it to the ground, and walk out, I would always wait for my mother to come and console me. Strange how I continued to do this even though she would never come. She would always follow him out the door. I would listen to their voices, laughing, telling stories, waiting to hear the front door shut. I could not relax until I knew he was out of the apartment.
It was hard to steady my breathing as I watched the lights from the cars on the street below sweep across my ceiling. Swoosh, swoosh, swoosh. Eventually I would curl up into a ball, and slip my thumb into my mouth. Despite the throbbing in my feet, and the lingering sobs that rhythmically jerked my chest up forcefully, I would mercifully fall into a deep sleep. The kind of deep sleep that can only follow vigorous emotional and physical exertion.
In the middle of the night, I’d awake to discover the familiar cold and wet spot under me. If one of my feet touched the spot, the unbearable stinging would force me awake. I knew I had to make my way to the washroom, but the thought of enduring the pain would make my eyes well up with tears again.
Carefully, I would drape my feet over the side of the bed. They felt like swollen bubbles of blood. I would brace myself before stepping down. I knew that if I put all my weight on them, they might burst. I had to move quickly to wash off the pee that was stinging my open sores.
I would angle my feet off to the sides so that my sores could avoid the carpet. I would hobble slowly, steadying myself with every step. First with my dresser, then the doorknob, then the wall in the hallway. The sensation of the squish as the wounds inevitably tore open is one that I can still remember vividly almost forty years later.
All this pain was nothing, I was assured, compared to the fire of hell if I did not memorise. Before I learned to bite my tongue, I would question. If Allah burned my flesh off, and then regrew it, and burned it again, for eternity, wouldn’t I eventually get used to it? No, my mom replied. Allah would make sure that every single time hurt as much as the first time.
Naturally, I was very scared of Allah, the Day of Judgement and burning in hell. Not the average things that generally occupy the mind of a child. Even though these things horrified and petrified me, I don’t remember a time in my life that I didn’t push back.
I never did stop struggling. And because of that I was filled with self-hate. How could I ever be a true Muslim if I could not let go and just submit? My sister and brother didn’t seem to have any problems. None that they shared with me anyway. For this, I earned the moniker ‘black sheep’ from my mother. She said it was the devil making me question, but now I know it was critical thought.
As I got older, the questions became harder to answer:
“He was over fifty years old, and he married a six-year-old??”
“So? Do you think that you know more than Allah’s prophet? Who are you to question his actions?”
“Was he a paedophile?”
“NO! Of course not! He only had sex with her after she became a woman. After she got her period. Before that he only did other things with her, to prepare her. So she would be comfortable with him when the day came. Subhanallah, Allah’s messenger was always thoughtful and considerate like that.”
“Oh, so she was all grown-up…”
“Yes, in the eyes of Allah she is grown up. You become a woman when you get your period and all your sins start to get counted. Before that you are a child and nothing you do is recorded.”
“So how old was she?”
“She was nine.”
“NINE? That’s not a woman!”
Persistent questioning was usually met with a slap on the face, or verbal abuse, and reminders that my questioning was the devil getting in my brain whispering these thoughts to me. I tried to swallow my questions as best I could, but sometimes I couldn’t help myself. Shaytan, the devil, was too strong for me to fight. I never felt in control of my own life. Anything positive was thanks to Allah and anything negative was because of my weakness, because of the devil influencing me.
This was one of the most difficult parts of leaving Islam. Making decisions. Relying on my inner thoughts and voice that had been regularly swatted in the past. Now I had to conjure them up again and figure out how to hear and trust myself. I was not taught to think. Thinking was highly discouraged and, in fact, punished. I was taught to do as I was told.
Every single aspect of your life from the second you are born follows a very specific chain of events. No decisions are left up to you: how to use the bathroom; how to drink water; how to cut your nails; how to put on your shoes and everything in between is specifically outlined. You are nothing more than a vessel created to spread the word of Allah, and hopefully, to give your life in that endeavour…
The bomb that fell and changed my world was the man that took my mother as his second wife. I have no idea where she met him. His entrance into our life was like an earthquake. No tremble, no warning, no change of wind — just suddenly there, tearing through our life. He walked into our home like he owned it, with his dishevelled beard and his calloused hands. He rarely interacted with me unless it was to bind my feet to the foot of my bed. I had no idea my mother was a second wife. We called him ‘uncle’ and he had his own wife and children.
It was not until I was in college that my mother finally revealed this truth. Polygamy was against the law, and so she did not trust us with that damning info. So even though he was technically a step-father to me, we never had a father/daughter relationship. He was just the man that would beat us up and (I would learn later) occasionally fuck our mother.
One of the first things he did was break all of my mom’s records and destroy our record player. He broke her Hank Williams, Dolly Parton, Fat Albert, and Kenny Rogers records with savage anger as we looked on confused. Why wasn’t our mom stopping him? She stood sheepishly off to the side. She was so different when he was around. Suddenly she was meek and quiet and incredibly accommodating. He encouraged us to get in on it, but I had no desire to destroy the albums.
I did not realise it then, but that was the very first coat of cement. It had not yet hardened, and so I did not hesitate before questioning. I picked up the sharp shattered pieces of Bill Cosby’s stand-up album and asked my mom why he was doing this.
“Because these are all haram!”
Haram. How that word would grow to fucking infuriate me. To this day I have issue with denying myself anything because of all the years that I was denied practically everything
Yasmine is a Canadian citizen of an Arab background. This post is an extract from the first chapter of her memoir about her journey out of Islam, ‘Some of my best friends are Jewish, and other confessions of an ex-Muslim’.
She endured decades of physical and mental torture. She was forced into a marriage with a member of Al Qaeda, after he was bailed out of prison by Osama bin Laden himself. She wore a niqab, and lived in a home/prison with paper covering all the windows. Yet, somehow, with nothing but a high school diploma and a baby in tow, she got out.