By: Sascha Hannig and Rafael Rincón
We do not choose our family.
Yasmine Mohammed, an ex-Muslim activist from Canada, went from a childhood with birthday parties and riding a bike to a nightmare full of fear, violence and religious fundamentalism. Her mother married a man, who forced the family to follow the most rigorous aspects of Islam. She didn´t want to lose her old life, full of joy and she opposed both her mother and her new father, but it was all in vain. After her graduation, she was left alone in Egypt, her family tried to marry her off to two of her cousins. She protested, so the family decided to go to take it to a whole new level. Yasmine was forced to marry a fundamentalist Muslim, who had been involved with Al Qaeda.
The outstanding bravery of a woman, who dared to break all the links with her family in order to save her daughter from the life she had to live, shows us how difficult it can be to escape from such an intolerant environment, a fundamentalist Muslim community. “When my daughter was about a week old, my husband asked me when we are going to clean her, to fix her. I said: “What do you mean”? And my mom said: “We´ll do that later when she is older, maybe when she is seven”. “We will take her to Egypt”. That’s where we will do it. I understood they were talking about the FGM. They wanted to cut my little baby daughter with a razor”.
Based on her experience, Yasmine started to speak about the suffering of women and members of LGBT community who live in Muslim majority countries. Now, she runs an organization that supports these people to find a way out of their struggle, and works on her autobiography.
This is the story of Yasmine Mohammed, the woman who was strong enough not just to oppose her mother and extremely dangerous husband, but also to raise her voice to support millions of people suffering in the whole world.
You were born and raised in Vancouver, Canada?
Yes, I grew up in Canada in a very fundamentalist Arab family. I went to Islamic schools and attended a mosque every Friday. When I was nine years old, I had to wear a hijab, which covers everything except for the face and hands. Then, when I was nineteen, I was told that I had to cover my face and hands also, but my family always had trouble controlling me. One thing I did when I was twelve years old, I went to the police and I told them about the abuse that was happening in my home, I showed them the bruises. It went through the child services and to court.
That is what you call “making trouble”?
Yes, this is trouble, because l asked the nonbelievers for help. We were part of a very insular community. Everybody outside of the community is your enemy. So, to go to the enemy and ask for help, was a kind of betrayal for my family. I could never agree with everybody who is not Muslim should be killed, and is evil and hates us and we should hate them. My mother was always fighting with me because I wanted to have friends that weren’t Muslim, I wanted to read books by people who were not Muslim, and she thought all of that was blasphemy, that I liked the nonbelievers so much, and it made her angry. That’s why they chose somebody so vicious for me to marry. They thought that he would be able to control me. To be honest he could, I was a complete shell of myself, he annihilated any bit of resistance.
Your life changed, when your mother married for the second time, right?
That was a big transition. My mom grew up in a very secular home in Egypt. She went to a Catholic school, she had Christian friends, because her parents wanted her to learn French, they didn’t care about the religion. Then, she and my father moved to the United States, where they had my sister. Nevertheless, the marriage fell apart. They moved to Canada, had me, then they got divorced. My mother was now in a new country, all alone. She looked for support. Unfortunately, she looked to the mosque and that’s where she has found this married man who already had three children. He said I´ll marry you and I´ll take care of you. My mom was his second wife. This is technically against the law in Canada, but it happens very often.
Can you explain in more detail the change it meant for you?
We were living relatively normal lives. Then he came, and he said everything is haram. Music is haram, dancing is haram, birthday parties are haram, playing with non-Muslims is haram, riding a bike is haram, swimming is haram. Everything that a child likes in the world is haram. I was between five and six years old, but I remember it very clearly, like a bomb fell into my life, it was such a shocking difference. Suddenly, my mother started to cover her hair, they started to make us read the Quran, I did not know Arabic then. I had to pray five times a day, I had to start fasting. All of a sudden there were so many rules. I missed my old life. I wanted to go back to being allowed to ride my bike and go to birthday parties, I wanted that life back, so I resisted, I always resisted. Finally, after I married that man, I stopped resisting and it wasn’t until I had my daughter that I found the courage. When it came to protecting my little daughter, nothing was going to stop me. I needed to get her out of that house before she had any memories of him.
What did your dad have to say about this?
My parents’ divorce was very messy, they hated each other. When my father kept on trying to be a part of my life, my mother would make it very difficult for him. So, he moved to the other side of the country, to Montreal. He got married, had new children and just forgot all. He just moved on with his life.
For a part of your life you lived in Egypt, is that correct?
That was before the marriage. When I graduated from high school, we all went to Egypt on a family vacation. When we were in Egypt, I woke up in the morning one day and my family was gone. My mother and I, we were always fighting as she was trying to control me, she knew I would never agree to stay in Egypt, so that’s why she tricked me and left in the middle of the night. The idea was that if I am in a Muslim country surrounded by Muslims, then I will finally submit to this religion, because in Canada, I have friends, I have a support system, we have social networks. She wanted to make sure that all that stuff was taken away from me. They initially tried to marry me off to my cousin, I refused, then they tried to marry me with my second cousin, I refused, again. They finally said: you know what, forget the family, we need somebody stronger, that’s when they chose the jihadi. The relationship with my mom was so bad, that she threatened to throw me out on the streets and I believed her. There was a lot of emotional blackmail too, because in Islam, your mother is the one that will decide if you go to heaven or not. So, she would tell me: you are going to burn in hell for eternity, if don’t marry this man. She had that power.
How about your friends? Did they notice all these changes?
These were the days before social networks, no Facebook or Twitter. When I left high school and went to Egypt for two years, I lost touch with all my friends for two years. The only person that I continued to stay in touch with was my friend Tiffany, we were writing letters to each other. That’s how long ago this was, early nineties. Nevertheless, when I came back to Canada, at that time, Tiffany had already moved to Sweden, because she fell in love with a man there. With her being in Sweden I didn’t have any friends in Canada, who I could connect with.
Was it this loneliness, that might have pushed you to accept this man?
The loneliness was a part of it, I felt like I didn’t have a choice. Also, another part of it was that no matter how abusive or terrible your family is, you still want them to love you, you still want them to be proud of you. I wanted to finally make my mom not hate me. I thought maybe she was right, maybe he will be a good man. Maybe, if I follow Islam it is the right thing to do, so I will give it a chance. I will stop fighting her, I will listen to her and I will see how far this goes.
How would he change your life? Who was he exactly?
Essam grew up in Cairo and his father was an engineer. When he was young, they used to live in a middle-class neighborhood. Now, in Egypt, the social statuses are very clearly defined, the language that they speak, the way they dress, the music they listen to, it´s very different when you are from other social background. His father came into a lot of money, he got a very good job and they moved to a high-class neighborhood. Suddenly, he was the country pumpkin, people were making fun of him, because he didn’t speak like them, he didn’t dress like them, he didn’t know the rich people´s culture. He was an outsider with no friends. The jihadi recruiters search for young boys, and it has to be a boy that is not tied to family or friends. They targeted Essam, because he didn’t fit in with his friends, also at the age of fourteen he was full of aggression. When you tell them, they can use this aggression to do good, and when they die, they can also get 72 sex slaves… He honestly believed that he was doing the right thing. The religion speaks about all the levels of heaven. The highest level, nobody can reach it, except for prophets, like Mohammed, Moses, Noah, and the Shaheed, those are the men or women that died in the name of Allah, all the murderers. By the time I met him, he had been already working in Afganistan with Bin Laden for ten years, so he was far gone from that fourteen year old boy. He was a full eye killing machine and he had already been involved in many terrorist activities before I met him. But I didn’t know any of that when I married him.
How did you get to know your husband was a jihadi?
When my daughter was about nine months old, my mother started to bleed from her nose and her mouth simultaneously. I called 911 in panic and an ambulance came to pick her up. I had to explain that I had never left the house without my husband. In fact, the windows of my house were covered in paper to make sure that nobody would see me. I almost didn’t go with my mother to the hospital. Then, when I was there, I was approached by Canadian Intelligence Agency agents. They told me who I was married to.
And you were surprised…
Yes, I was surprised, but it made sense. He is Egyptian, but he came to Canada from Afganistan using a fake Saudi Arabian passport, many red flags. When he came to Canada, he was imprisoned, because he was using a fake passport. When they put him in prison, the bail money to get him out of prison was sent by Bin Laden. They knew he had a connection directly to him, but this was before 9/11. They didn’t realize how dangerous all of this was. I think the Canadian Intelligence was watching the house. As soon as I left in the ambulance, they knew they could contact me immediately and tell me who I was married to. I started to feel that I had to get my daughter out of this life, I knew he had plans to move back to Afganistan. There was no way my daughter would grow up in there living with jihadis. When she was about a week old, he was asking me when are wegoing to clean her, to fix her. I said: What do you mean? And my mom said: We’lldo that later when she is older, maybe when she is seven. We will take her to Egypt. That’s where we will do it. I understood they were talking about the FGM. They wanted to cut my little baby daughter with a razor.
How long were you married to him?
Two or three years. Initially we had an Islamic marriage. It means you are married, just not legally. After the Islamic marriage, I was still at home. I only moved in to live with him after the legal marriage.
After the divorce, your family was unhappy, because they felt like you had dishonored them. What did it mean? How important is that honor?
Honor is everything and it lies with the women in the family. An honorable man is the one that can control his women. To make sure they cover themselves up properly, that they never speak loudly. The girl is almost like property of her father, until her father passes her on to her husband, then she becomes her husband’s property. There always needs to be a man controlling the woman in his life. Now, I am going to move out by myself, no husband, no father, I am no different than a prostitute. My mother was the head of the Islamic Studies Department at an Islamic school, so she had a high stature in the community. It was so insulting to her, I damaged her reputation.
When was the exact time you decided to abandon the religion? For a Muslim family it is way worse than for a Catholic or even a Jewish family, right?
Yes, your punishment for leaving the religion is execution. After I escaped from him and got away from my mother, I started to go to the university, I took a course in the History of Religions. It allowed me to look at Islam with a critical eye. As a Muslim, you are not allowed to question. I was never able to recognize how violent, anti-women and anti-everybody except for Muslims it is. Mohammed is supposed to be the perfect example of humanity of all time. Muslims look at him as an example of how they should live their lives. He was a child rapist and a warmonger, a horrible human being.
Did anyone threaten you?
Yes, my mother. When I removed my hijab, for a while I lived a double life. I removed it in my job, at home, but in front of my mom, I still wore it, because I was too scared of her to see that I was not wearing it. Eventually, I got tired of living a double life. When she saw me without the hijab, she was so angry. She said: I will make sure that you get killed before you leave Islam. When you take off the hijab, your next stop is to leave the religion. If you leave Islam, I will have to answer Allah, how I raised a daughter who wasn’t a believer. I will be punished; I’ll have to make sure that you are killed before you are a disbeliever. It made sense to her.
You had a baby; you were studying and alone. How did you manage?
Those were the hardest years of my life, but the Canadian government helped me. We have social services that support single moms and students. I got student loans. I would not have been able to do any of that if I was not living in a secular country.
Do you think these threats, torture, beatings, these abusive Muslim families, are somehow protected by religious tolerance in Western societies?
Yes, do you remember when I said l was twelve years old, I went to the police? I was in family court, and the judge said that because my family’s culture is Arabian this is the way they choose to discipline me then that’s alright. What he was telling me was: If your family were from Germany or Sweden, I would protect you, but, because your family is Arabian, I am not going to protect you. You are the wrong ethnicity for me to protect.
So, in a way, tolerance degenerates into racism?
Absolutely. He is trying to be tolerate, and he ends up being a racist. You cannot tolerate intolerance. Let’s say: Oh, if people want to perform FGM on their girls, that’s their business, because that’s their culture. No, cutting up healthy children is not culture, that’s called abuse. If somebody with blonde hair did that to their child, that person would be in prison. So, why do they allow Muslims to do that to their children, without any consequences? This happens all the time. Remember when I said Mohammed is the perfect example for all mankind? He married a girl when she was six years old. Then, he raped her when she was nine. This is why millions of girls are being raped every day all over the Islamic world. Nobody says anything, because it’s part of the religion. We cannot say anything. Well, no, raping children is not cultural, nor religious.
You were able to study and make your own way in life after all that. Would it have been much harder, if you were in Iran for example, or in Saudi Arabia?
Impossible. If it weren’t for the fact that I’m living in a free secular country, I would not be talking to you now. I would either be still married to him with a thousand children, or I would be dead. Women in those countries have three options. Fight, flight or freeze. Freeze is just accepting your life and living the way they tell you to live. This is the most common response. The next one is to fight, so they fight with their father, their husband, & society. This is most dangerous, because quite often they will be imprisoned or even killed. The third being flight. These are the women that you see on the news all the time, running away. That´s an incredibly brave & difficult thing to do.
Do you think the women that use a hijab or niqāb feel protected by that?
Yes, of course. When you are a little girl you are told that. If you wear a hijab, it will protect you and you believe it. If you have never worn a hijab, you don´t know any other way. When I first started to take off my hijab I honestly thought that I was scared of men, I never put on makeup. This is common for a lot of women that used to wear a hijab, it takes a lot of time before you start to see things differently. There are some women who want to wear a hijab, because they want to please Allah and they want to go to heaven, but, if you go to the hashtag I created #freefromhijab, you will see how many thousands, if not millions of women are wearing it not because they love to wear it, they feel empowered and they will go to heaven, but because they are forced by their societies or their families.
“In Egypt, the statistics say 99.3% of the women in that country reported they have been sexually harassed (…)”
If you go back to the history of Islam, the reason why women wear a hijab is to be recognized, so they are not molested. It´s to separate the Muslim from the non-Muslim, so they know which ones are protected and which ones are the filthy, dirty ones that you can rape. Today, this is not how it works. In Egypt, the statistics say 99.3% of the women in that country reported they have been sexually harassed, that is an astronomical number, and most women in Egypt wear the hijab.
You started a new life after leaving the religion. You are an activist now. Can you tell us what your causes and actions are?
So, my number one cause is to support those women willing to fight in the Muslim world. I want to talk to all the people here in the West that believe in freedom, equality, human rights and feminism and ask them to also encourage other women, because they are risking their lives for their freedom. I feel like it is our responsibility, we are living in free countries, and we are able to support them. My number two cause is my organization, which is called Free Hearts Free Minds, and supports ex Muslims that live in Muslim majority countries where the punishment for them is execution. They are living double lives, it’s very dangerous if you are part of the LGBT community. You have to be so careful, because you can be punished by death. In countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan, there are many examples of women and men who’ve been attacked in the streets, because they were blogging about liberalism or humanism, or because the woman didn’t cover their hair, or if you question religion. In Free Hearts Free Minds, we try to give them a community and support, so they can decide what is the best course of action to take.
We are talking about taking the hijab off & posting videos. How is technology helping your cause?
It’s the reason for the revolution. Those countries have a population of over 90% Muslim. Everything they see and hear in school, on TV, in the media, is all one perspective. When they have access to the Internet and they can see Twitter and YouTube videos, it encourages people, especially women. They see it and think: I want that life. I want freedom too. It gives them the energy to fight. Social media also allows people to connect as a community. When I was growing up, I felt so lonely, but now, you can go on social media and find other ex-Muslims that are going through the same drama. Then, you can heal much quicker. it is absolute salvation.
How do you deal with threats?
I do my best to just mute and block those messages. Unfortunately, a lot of them come through email and they force their way into my life. In the beginning, I used to get very nervous, it would cause me a lot of anxiety, quite often I wanted to stop, I was scared for my family, but it also motivated me. So, it did two things, I get scared and fought harder.
When Ayaan Hirsi Ali goes somewhere, even the Western kids fight against her because of what she is saying. Did you have any troubles with political correctness issues and with people that support the idea that there should be more different cultures in the world?
Yes, I get attacked by those people all the time, and viciously. Sometimes, it is hard to tell which side is worst, the fundamentalist Muslims or the fundamentalist people on the left, but there are a lot of Muslim people that support me, because they are also unhappy with the anti-women, anti LGBT and anti-human rights aspects of Islam. They are fighting within their own communities. Maajid Nawaz is an example of that, a Muslim that is fighting within his own community to say: we need to be better.
Some people think the Muslim women congress representatives in the US, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib represent the democratic diversity, but, they might be a part of something dangerous, a threat to democratic values and institutions. What do you think?
There are a lot of Muslims that would be fantastic politicians in any free secular country, just like if you are Christian, Buddhist or Jew. As long as you have the best interest for the country or the people who you represent, you’ll be a good candidate. I don´t think that´s true for people like Ilham Omar and Rashida Tlaib. Not because they are Muslims, but because of the ideas they expose, especially the anti-Semitism. I think if they were white women, they would have exposed the same anti-Semitic things, they wouldn´t have jobs today, but, because they are Muslim, they are constantly protected.
Islam recognizes some of the prophets and names that are important in many religions. Why do you think it’s so hard for Jews, Muslims and Christians to live peacefully?
If you look at the Muslim majority countries and their history, you’ll see that they used to have a lot of Christians and Jews. Lebanon was a Christian majority country. Yemen, Egypt, Morocco had a significant population of Jewish people. Now? Zero. In Egypt, they told the Jews: any man between the age of sixteen and sixty has the choice of either leaving the country or going to jail. They all left the country and took their families. I mean, it is their land. There is no difference in the DNA between Jews from the Middle East and Arabs. If I watch an Israeli TV show, and my family comes from Palestine, the actors look just like my family.
There is this kind of reformist movement inside and outside Islam. Do you think that reform is possible?
I don´t think it is impossible. It´s kind of like the gun debate in the United States. The United States has a lot of problems with guns, so they want to reform the gun laws, but there’re so many people in America who love their guns and there is no way they are going to allow any kind of gun reform laws. Still, we try to push, we try to get those laws reformed, because it is the right thing to do.
Editor: Yasmine Mohammed, Arab-Canadian Human Rights activist, lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. She decided to speak up against the aspects of life that are familiar to Muslims all around the globe and what she had to go through even though she was raised in North America. The fight against domestic violence and depreciation of women and members of the LGBT community is the most important issue of her agenda.
The opinions and statements expressed in this publication are the sole responsibility of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of the Dissidents.org team, Fundación para el Progreso, or the organizations that cooperate with this project. The same is valid for the opinions, statements and actions of the interviewees in other moments and contexts, both in the past and in the future.