Female and atheist in Saudi Arabia
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Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, remains one of the most conservative and rigid countries, particularly for women, and for anyone who goes against Islam. Rana Ahmad knows all too well those constraints as she fled her home country after declaring herself an atheist and after having endured the hardships of a woman under the strict control of her family and government.
Although the country appears to be going through reforms at the behest of the Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman, such as allowing women to drive, these reforms have seen female activists imprisoned, often threatened with the death penalty, and none have tackled the root problem of the country: the Guardianship system. This is the system that forces every woman to seek permission from a husband, brother, father or other close male family member to do simple tasks such as travel, go to school or go to work.
Ahmad says such efforts by the Crown Prince are simply “propaganda”, and only give the appearance of change.
After fleeing Saudi Arabia, Ahmad claimed asylum in Europe and now lives in Germany, where she is studying physics; a topic that she laughs has become her new religion as it offers pure data on cause and effect, unlike most religions including Islam.
Growing up in the Kingdom, Ahmad says she had a happy childhood. She rode her bike freely, felt the wind in her hair, bickered with her siblings and thought nothing more of the future. That was until the day her grandfather came and took her bike away. She was then told to start covering her hair with a scarf and to act like a woman, not a child. “Even if I am 14 years I looked around me but I felt my body was still young, why do I have to cover it?” she says as she remembers the moment.
From that point on, her life began to change.
While she struggled with the changes imposed upon her, Ahmad says she wanted to be “a good Muslim girl and accept what my family said to me” and didn’t resist. Finally she was married off at age 19.
Ahmad says during this time, she went through the motions of being a married woman, but questioned her role. She eventually fell into a depression that led her down a path of more self-reflection and questions about her religion and her need for freedom. In an effort to answer these questions, she began to spend more and more time on the internet where she discovered philosophy and atheism. It was also during this time that her husband turned abusive and she eventually sought a divorce; a move that often taints the reputation of a woman in such a conservative society.
Following her divorce, Ahmad says it became even harder for her to do much as she was under the strict surveillance of her family. Eventually they allowed her to start working. On the side, she continued her research into atheism, often with a heavy heart as she began to realise that the religion of her childhood was not for her.
A photo taken by Ahmad at Mecca, in front the Ka’bah during the annual pilgrimage shows a sign stating ‘Atheist Republic'. At that point Ahmad says while she was supposed to be enjoying herself at the event with her mother, she realised she could no longer play the role of a good Muslim girl and a girl who knew she was now atheist.
She had put into motion a plan to leave the country without telling anyone. And after two to three years, she managed to flee, leaving behind her family, her friends, and the only life she had ever known.
Her escape to Europe and her story are told in her first book entitled ‘Ici les femmes ne rêvent pas’, which translates into ‘Here, women do not dream’. Arriving to Paris for her first book event, Ahmad smiles, while sipping a glass of wine, dressed in western clothing. She explains how in addition to writing her book, she has started an organization with other activists in Germany to help refugees arriving who have left their country of origin because they are atheist or formerly Muslim. “When I arrived to Germany I didn’t get any help...I [thought] if you are atheist you will find a lot of organizations but it’s not [really] there. I find if you are Christian, it’s easy to get help, if you are Muslim, it’s easy to get help. But if you are ex-Muslim or atheist, who cares? Who will say hello or welcome or something like [that] to you? From this moment I promised myself to help other people when they come to Germany.”
Since her arrival to Germany, she has had to change her name. “Rana Ahmad is not my real name”, she explains adding she changed her real name to protect her family and to protect herself from death threats from certain members of her family and possibly the Saudi government.
Despite the hardships of leaving her country and her family, Ahmad says she looks to the future now since she can live freely. “I only miss my dad. I cry a lot when I remember that I had to leave my dad because I want to live my life. I miss my mom but she [doesn’t] want to talk to me because I am atheist, because I left Islam…I can’t do anything now but I can enjoy my freedom”.