Sarah Haider, Co-Founder of Ex-Muslims in North America, Shares Her Transition to Atheism and the Need to Look Up to Fathers who Champion Women’s Rights

Sarah Haider is a Pakistani-born writer and activist who grew up in Texas. A practicing Shia Muslim throughout her childhood, Sarah gradually transitioned to atheism in her teens. In 2013, she co-founded Ex-Muslims in North America, advocating for the acceptance of religious dissidents and creating local support communities for those who have left Islam.

The interview was conducted by the AHA Foundation’s senior advisor

AHA Foundation: Can you tell us a little about yourself? Your childhood, where you went
 to school, your profession?

Ms. Haider: I was born in Pakistan, but I was raised largely in Texas. After college, I moved to D.C, where I got involved in non-profits. In 2013 I co-founded Ex-Muslims of North America, and since then I’ve been working to promote acceptance of dissent and secularism in Muslim communities.

 

AHA Foundation: What was your experience growing up as the child of immigrants? I know 
I found myself navigating two cultures, one at home and one outside of my
 parent’s home and at times found it difficult to reconcile the two.

Ms. Haider: For much of my youth, I shared the views of my parents. Although I went to school with Americans whose reality was very different than my own, I was confident that my culture was superior. I was especially proud of Pakistani family values – I thought of American families as cold and unloving. As I grew closer to my American friends, my mind changed about many of their practices as theirs did about mine.

The process of integration wasn’t exactly willful, but gradually I found myself absorbing and relating to American culture and practices.  The same process was, predictably, slower for my parents.

In many ways, I think my immigrant story is much like that of others who migrated from non-Western cultures. The way that my family and I differ would be the extent to which I am now public and active about my lack of belief.

I think above all, religious restrictions played a pivotal role in the clash I experienced.

 

AHA Foundation: You mentioned in an interview that your parents were supportive of you 
leaving home to attend college. Why do you think that was the case?

Ms. Haider: Initially, they weren’t happy about me leaving home to attend college – although not unheard of, at that time it was not common in my family or community. We discussed the issue for a long time – and my parents eventually acquiesced. To a large extent, I think I was lucky to be born into the family I was – my father happens to be relatively liberal. Due to the patriarchal nature of Pakistani society, the father usually has a larger say in how the children are raised. So usually, the extent to which the father is willing to be supportive has a powerful effect on the freedoms accorded to the children.

Now that I work with Ex-Muslims of North America, I know how often this isn’t the case with many families from backgrounds similar to mine.

 

AHA Foundation: How do your parents feel about you being atheist? Can you describe
 that moment when you realized you are an atheist?

Ms. Haider: Much of my journey out of religion was due to my desire to defend it. I wanted to convince less religious friends that Islam was both rational and moral, and throughout the process

I found myself losing my own faith. I had investigated the issue on many fronts – historical truth, morality, internal logic, and the more I learned the more it became clear that religion couldn’t offer me any truths about the world.

I don’t remember the exact moment I realized I was an atheist – but I do remember the first time I acknowledged it out loud. I told a Catholic friend that I thought I had lost my faith, and he unsuccessfully tried to convince me back into it.

I didn’t tell my parents about my doubts all at once – I slowly asked them the same questions that I had found to be unsatisfactorily answered, if at all, by our religion. We had many arguments about the issue, some of the most intense fights I’ve ever had with family members. It was becoming clear to everyone that this was something that had devastating implications – much of how we lived our lives was due to religious custom. If that wasn’t anchoring me to a lifestyle close to my family, what would?

 

AHA Foundation: You mentioned that your father played a critical role in your education and upbringing. How can we help fathers and men who, like your dad come from societies that treat women as unequal, but they choose to go against these norms and empower their daughters to fulfill their potential? How can we amplify the voices and actions of these men to create change that will positively affect the lives of other women?

Ms. Haider:

I think the first step is educating fathers to view their daughters as autonomous individuals with desires and goals of their own, not merely vessels for the family honor.

We allow the sons in our families with dignities and freedoms almost never accorded to daughters.

I’ve seen a trend of fathers who champion their daughter’s choices being criticized by their own community and extended family as aiding in their daughter’s “unruliness.” At the very least, we should look upon these men as the best of their kind, as the best example of masculinity and fatherhood.

7 Comments

  1. Oscar Santos says:

    Satan (The Devil Is In The Detail)

    Forget the scriptures – they are unreliable. If Satan does exist, what can we deduce about Him?

    Firstly, He does not have the power to do whatever He wants. Something or someone must be keeping Him in check, or the lives on Mankind would be far worse than they are. Religious believers, of course, claim it is God who is restraining the evil that Satan can do.

    Secondly, because Satan does not have the power to do whatever He wants openly and without restriction, He has to behave in a more underhand, deceitful manner.

    Thirdly, if God exists then He could use His superior power to stop Satan having any influence on Mankind’s affairs; but He does not. God’s purpose must, therefore, be to use Satan’s temptation and misdirection of Mankind as a test of our goodness and righteous characters.

    Fourthly, if it were obvious to people when Satan was at work trying to corrupt us and lead us down the wrong path, then it would be easy to reject. It would hardly be a test at all. To really test people’s ability to choose right from wrong, good from evil, the two have to be mixed.

    Fifthly, Satan’s best tactic would, therefore, be to insert His influence into God’s messages to Mankind. Because no copy of a scripture was produced and put on Earth directly by God Himself, but all came via prophets and messengers and all were remembered, written, copied or translated by people, Satan had ample chances to mix His messages with those of God.

    Lastly, God must have been aware of this, but allowed it to continue because this, He realised, would be the best test possible to distinguish the good people from the rest.
    It is easy to follow instructions and commands. If people are motivated by the fear of punishment or the promise of great rewards, they will do as they are told; but that is no sort of a test. It is as if we are told in advance what the correct answer is and we only have to write it on the exam paper in order to pass. God would certainly want more than this. He would want us to have to distinguish right from wrong and then, using our free will, to choose the former and reject the latter.

    In other words, religious believers have the same problem as non-believers; how to choose the best way to behave in any given situation. Believers cannot rely on mechanical responses by simply referring to the commands and examples in their scriptures. These might be the work of God or of Satan. Moral and ethical judgements have to be made. It is not as easy as the literalists and fundamentalists claim.
    Religious believers should not deceive themselves (or in reality, allow Satan to deceive them) by thinking that blind adherence to scriptures will result in correct behaviour. The bad is mixed with the good. The right path is disguised by misdirection and dead-ends. Messages of hatred and violence, domination and exploitation, are clearly not the work of a loving God, but of Satan. They have to be recognised and rejected.

    Non-believers, who lead good lives, have nothing to fear. Standing before God, or His assistant, they would be completely justified to claim that the large number of competing and contradictory religions in the World, each claiming to be the one true version, made it impossible to know which one to choose.
    Even if just one were thought to be the right one, how could it be possible to know that nothing in that scripture had been misunderstood, corrupted or inserted? Given this confusion the non-believer would say that the wisest course of action was to look for all the most humane and enlightened aspects of all religious and all other works produced by Mankind and to live by them. A loving God would understand.

    The literalist or fundamentalist, who thinks they are carrying out God’s wishes by following every command and example in their chosen scripture, will have a different fate. All the prayers, obedience and posturing will count for nothing when contrasted with the lack of moral judgement, the failure to think and decide for themselves, to use free-will and good moral values to navigate a positive path through life.

  2. […] Sarah Haider, Co-Founder of Ex-Muslims in North America, Shares Her Transition to Atheism and the Ne… […]

  3. Dharris says:

    Love these strong women. Great role models. Is there an audio or video version of this interview?

  4. Tom Griffiths says:

    Well done Sarah, I like your rebellious and inquiring spirit and the thought of fathers aiding and abetting their daughter’s “unruliness” is particularly appealing. In the mid ’70’s I was in London and saw the biggest paint up I had ever (and still) seen – at least 50 meters. Painted by a homelessness group it read “Keep warm this winter, make trouble.”. It was sage advice and applies well beyond homelessness. It seems to me that Sarah is making trouble that needs to be made.

  5. Beth Taurasi says:

    Beautiful interview. I think that leaving Islam was the best thing I could’ve done. I couldn’t help but see the inequality, and it took me having to leave to get the picture.

  6. as seen on says:

    Sending messages to Facebook from my Gmail – Facebook …

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