On a summer night in a Western town of flat fields and hazy sunsets, a young woman stood outside a Greyhound bus with a ticket in her hand and a backpack over her shoulder. Boarding the bus, she said later, would be the hardest thing she had done in her 18 years.
Harder than saying a last goodbye to her mother, father and five siblings that morning. Harder than the two years since as she tried to make a new life, alone, in a strange city.
Now 20, she asked to go by the name Samya. If her true identity were known, Samya believes, her family would seek her out and possibly kill her. They would certainly try to persuade her — if not force her — to come home.
Her parents, she said, think she is guilty of two serious crimes: She rejected a marriage arranged by her father, who came to the U.S. from the Middle East when Samya was an infant. And perhaps more serious to her parents: She has become an atheist.
In Samya’s homeland, an apostate can be put to death. It is also culturally acceptable to kill a child who family members believe has shamed them — a practice known as honor killing.
In the United States, changing or abandoning one’s religious beliefs is a personal and even common decision. Nearly one in five Americans say they adhere to no specific religion, and of those, 3 percent consider themselves atheists. But Samya’s story illustrates what some women in religious traditions — particularly Muslim women from strict, culture-bound traditions — risk when they abandon their faith.
Standing outside the bus, a mantra ran through Samya’s mind — “I need to do this. I need to be happy. If I don’t do this I will end up dead or killing myself.”
Then, she got on the bus.
GROWING UP IN FAITH
For Samya, Islam formed the vivid backdrop of her family’s life in the mid-sized town where her father owns a small business. The family weren’t regulars at the mosque, but they knelt together for the five daily prayers and marked major religious celebrations with fasting and feasting.
Even as a child, Samya says, she had doubts. She never experienced a certainty of God’s presence. Her parents, she said, used religion as a club. God would punish her, they said, when she misbehaved. Her mother, she said, told her she “had a demon” inside her.
“I was always worried about sin, always worried about punishment and hell,” she said. “Prayer brought some relief, but then it would just start again. There was this constant worry, ‘What did I do wrong?’”
At 11, she donned the Muslim headscarf. She never left the house unescorted, never went to the movies with friends, never visited their homes. Once, she brought a non-Muslim girl home. Her father threatened to kill her if she did that again.
“At that moment,” she remembered thinking: “I hate my life.”
Samya’s parents had only a few years of elementary school between them, and when she reached high school they said she would have to continue her education through homeschooling. She lost all her friends and all unsupervised contact with the outside world. Her only friends were those who attended Islamic school with her on weekends.
OUT OF ISLAM
Samya stayed home, helping her mother — who was married at 16 — care for her younger sisters and brother. She took correspondence courses, and hoped, someday, to become a doctor. When she mentioned college, her parents gave no encouragement.
“My parents were not interested in preparing me for a real life,” she said. “They were preparing me to cook and clean and take care of a family.”
One day, her father surprised her with an iPod Touch. He thought she would listen to music. But a new world opened up for Samya when she connected it to the Internet.
In her room, Samya reached out via Twitter. First, she chatted with other Muslims. Then, she talked with several atheists. In covert conversations, they challenged her to think critically about religion.
This was during Ramadan, the Muslim month of daily fasting. One day, Samya remembered, she was hungry, thirsty and tired from rising before dawn to pray. At that moment, she said, “something just clicked.”
She went into the bathroom and looked at herself in the mirror. A radical thought hit her: “There is no God.” She turned on the tap and took her first sip of water. “I thought,’I am free.’”
For several months, Samya kept her new ideas to herself. She went through the motions of family prayer, but continued to dream of becoming a doctor. After Samya completed her correspondence courses and became the first in her family to graduate from high school, her parents reluctantly agreed to let her take classes at a local community college.
During a family gathering, an uncle told her that her father had arranged a marriage for her to a man she’d never met in her home country. She was horrified. When she said there was no way she would agree to the marriage, her uncle said he would kill her if she ran away.
“I believed him,” she said.
Samya’s fear was not unfounded.
There were at least 5,000 honor killings in 2000, according to a U.N. report. In 2010, a British newspaper estimated the number as high as 20,000. Most honor killings involve the murder of one family member — usually a female — by other family members who believe the victim has somehow disgraced them.
In the U.S., where there have been at least five documented honor killings, teenaged sisters Sarah and Amina Said were shot and killed in 2008 by their Egyptian father, Yaser Said. He was reportedly upset that the girls had non-Muslim boyfriends. Said remains at large and authorities believe family members are helping to hide him.
Khalilah Sabra of the Muslim American Society Immigrant Justice Center in Raleigh, N.C., works with Muslim women on immigration, forced marriage and honor violence issues. She has helped several girls escape forced marriage, including one who was imprisoned by her family for refusing an arranged marriage — an ordeal that led the girl, like Samya, to abandon Islam.
“There are no resources out there,” she said. “A Muslim girl can’t go to the community mosque for help. Who supports the community mosque? The men.”
“If I were her,” she said of Samya, “I would run as far as I can go.”
Samya’s new Twitter friends encouraged her to contact a school counselor, a social service agency, or the police. A college counselor put her in touch with a social worker, and the social worker — who declined to discuss Samya’s specific case but confirmed her story — helped Samya plan her escape.
For two weeks, Samya wavered: Should she stay, should she go? Meanwhile, an atheist couple she met on Twitter offered a free place to stay. She began to plan a new life in a distant city with people she knew only through 140-character messages.
On the chosen day, Samya embraced every member of her family. When her father dropped her off at school, she hugged him and said, “I love you.”
At home, she had left a note for her parents. “I have to try to live on my own,” she wrote. “I want to become my own person.”
Driving away with the social worker, Samya removed the hijab she had worn for seven years. A breeze hit the back of her neck, she remembered. “I felt naked.”
That night, a shelter worker took her to the bus station and bought her a one-way ticket out of town. Once on the bus, she cried till she made herself sick. A man sitting next to her put his hand on her thigh, and she found refuge with an older female passenger who offered to share her food.
Two days later, Samya stepped out of the bus and into the new city that is now her home. She had $200, a backpack full of clothes and a couple of family photos.
A NEW LIFE
In the two years since, Samya has learned to drive, manage a checking account and hold a job as a restaurant hostess. She takes college courses when she can, and changed her name to shield her from her uncle or other family members who might try to find her. Legally, the girl who got off the bus no longer exists.
Instead of the hijab, she sports short hair in bouncy ringlets. She wears nail polish and tanks tops and dangly earrings. One nostril bears a stud. Sometimes she wears skirts above her knees.
She still pines for her sisters and brothers, especially the younger ones, and for the large family gatherings and her favorite holiday foods. She also misses her mother and father.
“I always wanted my father to be proud of me,” she said, near tears.
Her older brother, who has her cell phone number, pressures her to return. He sends text messages in Arabic — “You will ruin our reputation,” one read. Another — “Don’t make us look bad.”
Samya’s father sent her mother and younger siblings back to the Middle East out of fear that they’d become Americanized, and Samya heard that her 15-year-old sister is engaged in an arranged marriage. Samya’s mother, now 36, had another son, who Samya has never met.
Occasionally, she fantasizes about going home, where her father and brother still live, but fear of her uncle makes her think again. “To him, what I did was a total slap in the face to the family. To give up Islam, that is unforgivable.”
Samya has joined a local atheist group. The members embraced her immediately, raising $1,000 and taking her shopping for clothes and meals. One man donated the $1,500 it would require to legally change her name.
Still, there are missteps. Like many young people on their own for the first time, Samya experimented with alcohol, marijuana and sex. Not all of these experiences have been happy. “Sometimes it feels like I was plucked out of safety and put in a pool of sharks,” she said.
Recently, Samya started to speak out. She is exploring outreach work through the Washington-based Tahirih Justice Center, which advocates for immigrant women fleeing violence, and she spoke on a diversity panel at an atheist conference. “I want to inspire women who are in my position and let them know that they can escape, too,” she said.
Bridget Gaudette, an atheist activist who spoke at the same conference, said hearing the story of Samya and three other Muslim-turned-atheist women made her rethink the challenges they confront.
“She absolutely inspired me,” Gaudette said. “She’s chock full of bravery. She’s using her freedom to help others.”
Now, Samya weighs what she gave up with what she has gained — and comes up the richer.
“I don’t want to let go of this freedom,” she said. “Number one is that I put my own beliefs in my head. I am free. I am happier.”
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