Fatima was five years old when her family moved from India to Cleveland, Ohio. Except for relatives, there was very little community. Many neighbors were welcoming and others were not. When the family purchased a home, the neighbors burned a cross in their yard. So when the Muslim community grew in numbers, it was a welcome respite to be with people of like faith.
But the long-awaited, comforting sense of belonging came with a price. The watchful eye of a religious community demanded the strict obedience to Islamic texts over an internal moral compass of right and wrong. As a result, growing up, Fatima had witnessed the rights and choices of women and girls denied around her. Even after leaving her community, she kept these disturbing memories to herself for decades. Until now.
Disclaimer: These are the opinions of the interviewee and not that of AHA Foundation. Fatima’s post and responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Fatima Ali was only a teenager when she left her Muslim community in Cleveland, Ohio—and her faith. Out of respect for her father, a longstanding worship and community leader at numerous mosques, she kept quiet for years about misogyny she had seen growing up.
After her father’s passing, Fatima could no longer live with her silence. In a recent post on social media where she was crowdfunding for AHA Foundation, Fatima publicly joined our fight to combat dangerous cultural practices and spoke about the abuses she had witnessed:
I am the daughter of an Imam and you may be asking, “Why would you be raising money for AHA?”
My father did not give thought about his public standing. Through his leadership role in the community and at numerous mosques, he did the right thing which kept violence and extremism from spreading in the communities he served. He served many communities—Indian, Arab, Black.
I was the first one in my family to marry a non-Indian. My father supported my marriage to a man who was raised in a different faith. He celebrated our babies and announced each birth to the world with pride. Later, my father also supported me through our divorce. There was no honor violence.
Because I was not ousted from the community out of deference to him, I provided safe harbor for other women whose marriages had not worked. Some were victims of domestic violence and were at risk for honor violence. My father’s leadership in loving and accepting women who married outside the faith that allowed for future “mixing” of races and love between people from various religions. It is his unconditional love and acceptance of his own unconventional and divorced daughter that allowed other families to keep their daughters in their lives.
It was not his nature to fight or think of his standing when it came to doing the right thing.
When I first learned of female genital mutilation (FGM), and he saw my upset and rage about Islam’s dominant role in perpetuating this cultural abomination, he helped me raise money to help a woman who was the victim of FGM.
There are those who would not speak out or help these women for fear of bringing negative attention to their community and faith. This is not the same as saying Islam is harmful. Islam is no different from any other religion-—it provides a context for people to express their spirituality and goodwill. I think Muslims and any followers of a faith need to do their part and certainly, my dad did.
There is no piety in enabling what you know is wrong.
We reached out to Fatima to thank her for supporting AHA Foundation and to learn more about what led her to start speaking publicly about harmful practices towards women and girls. Below is an excerpt from our conversation.
AHA Foundation: In your post on Facebook, you talk about the trauma of helping a child marriage survivor escape. What was the lead-up to the situation?
Fatima Ali: One of my friends, when she was 16 had been coerced into a marriage to a man 10 years her senior. She never met the man until after the nuptials were said in separate rooms. Upon meeting him, she wanted out immediately. Rather than allowing a divorce, they sent her to a relative’s home an hour from Cleveland, where she was to take time to think and learn how to become a good wife. Mind you, this girl hasn’t even graduated high school yet, and she’s suffering from the trauma of a forced marriage without any support.
When I visited and nobody was looking, we took a cab to the bus station and purchased one-way tickets back to Cleveland.
While we were waiting for our bus at the Greyhound station, we saw her relatives pull up and we ran into the ladies’ room. We were both violently grabbed by the neck and dragged out after two sets of locked doors were kicked in.
What was equally upsetting about the whole situation is that not one bystander at the bus station called the police as we were thrown screaming into the back of a windowless van. We were both put in a corner for hours while the perpetrators “went to get their guns”—all for enabling a child bride to escape.
This is true. This is my experience of Islam.
AHA Foundation: At what age did you start to notice suppression and abuse of girls and women in your community?
Fatima Ali: I was 12 or 13 and trying to organize my morality around the only religion I knew: Islam. I wanted to be a good person, a better Muslim. I enjoyed praying five times a day, it gave me peace. With the intention of bettering myself, I set out to read the Quran’s English translation. This is something few people do. Most people of faith rely on a third party to translate or only hear filtered parts of their religion’s texts.
When I read the English translation of the Quran, I realized it was addressed to men and stated what they could do with women, namely, how to keep us in line. It offended my every sensibility. After that, I stopped Islamic prayer altogether. And the stories I heard from the Quran took on the same meaning as any Greek mythology. It might be useful, but could not be taken literally.
I have made my decision that it is everyone’s responsibility to call out ‘our own’ and stop the enabling of ‘our group.’
In Islamic culture, however, there were more specific situations that would arise. I remember I went into a restaurant with my dad dressed normally in jeans and a T-shirt and a Muslim man in a long white robe froze and cast his eyes away from me like I was some abomination. His face flushed as if I were naked. I felt like I did something wrong. I don’t want to offend anyone, but this man was treating me like I had come in completely undressed. I felt horrible. What does that do to the self-esteem of a person? Am I obscene because I’m not hidden in a bag? I felt bad for having shamed my undemanding father. But more than that, I felt anger that this man felt it was my responsibility to hide myself to prevent him from his own vile thoughts.
I remember my female cousins being forced into wearing the hijab as soon they hit puberty. They fought it at first, but often they had no voice or choice. I remember one girl’s mother broke her wrist over defiance on the matter. The family moved to TX to escape Child Protective Services! In Dallas, they found a strong Muslim community where hijab-wearing was the norm.
AHA Foundation: What are you trying to accomplish by sharing your painful memories, which depict how extremist ways of interpreting Islamic rules can be harmful towards girls?
Fatima Ali: Those who know me personally, know how much I am pained by the unequal treatment of females in Islam. Some women in Islam ask why I won’t be quiet about it. Some say that they have not felt disempowered or experienced or seen what I have. Others say that this is not what Islam is. Many are more concerned about being good Muslims and their stature in the community, rather than reforming from within.
Some have even said I have no right to speak out because “you were not as abused as I was.”
It is not my intention to single out Islam. I can only speak about my life, what I know, what I experienced.
When my father was buried, strangers, as long as they were males—even children—were allowed at my father’s internment…
I am not against Islam. I am against being careless about the responsibility each of us has to be critical of the hurtful tenets and practices of the faiths we are born into. Nobody follows their faiths literally or else anyone that turned on a light switch on Sunday would have dire consequences. Followers and leaders of a religion have the ability to interpret our holy books compassionately.
I have made my decision that it is everyone’s responsibility to call out “our own” and stop the enabling of “our group.”
AHA Foundation: Several things went into your decision to begin speaking out on the misogyny in your community, but was there one instance that kicked it off?
Fatima Ali: I managed to restrain myself out of respect for my father and his reputation. But the final straw was his death in 2020 and what came afterwards.
When my father was buried, strangers, as long as they were males—even children—were allowed at my father’s internment and I was forbidden from approaching the gravesite until after the males had left. In this instance with my dad, a younger male relative signaled that it was okay for me to approach the gravesite. I am 51 years old and I find this incredibly offensive.
Prior to the internment, I had made my intentions known that I would be at the gravesite. At the funeral home, I was confronted and physically intimidated by a Muslim man — his spit raining down on me as I was told not to approach the grave while the men were there. Muslim men and women saw this exchange. Muslims enabled this treatment.
They were interpreting religious rules in an fundamentalist way, but my father wasn’t that fundamentalist. He allowed me to marry outside of our culture. My sisters married other people outside of our culture. It wasn’t like he was forcing these cultural practices on us.
Women are not too impure to be at a gravesite.
AHA Foundation: You talk about how you moved away from the religion, but stayed in the community as a child. When did you begin to move away from the community as well?
Fatima Ali: My husband’s career took me from Ohio to Texas. By the time I got here, I was no longer a Muslim or Christian. Therefore, I joined a book club to find a community and friends.
In the book club, someone picked Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book. When I read it, it put words to my feelings, and I feel like that’s when I was able to finally understand what I was going through. It helped me to realize that I was not alone in my observations and enabled me to become more confident.
More on Reformation in Islam:
It was this surprising experience that made me realize that Islam, while not unique in its damaging tenets, it is unique in that the way it is practiced: prayer five times a day; community control over followers; failure of Islam evolving. All of this leads to more fundamentalist interpretation.
Reading Ayan’s thoughtful book, Infidel, is what gave me confidence to disassociate from communities of literalists and choose healthier people of all cultures, faiths and no faiths.
AHA Foundation: Where does Islam as a whole need to go from here? What needs to occur in order to stop the fundamentalist practices that are harming girls?
Fatima Ali: I think Islam needs to mature. A lot of the major religions are similar if you read their books, it’s just a matter of how they’re practiced. And Islam is like the adolescent child right now.
People inside the religion need to begin speaking out against the outdated practices that are still being practiced in the name of Islam. People need to have a conversation, and interpret the books in ways that are keeping with the times.
There is no piety in enabling what you know is wrong.