These two articles written by Maha Kamal give practical and emotional advice for Ex-Muslims on how to deal with family disownment.
+++++“I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.”
― Carl Jung
Coming out as an ex-Muslim is not easy. And many times, it comes with very tragic consequences. Some of the more extreme forms include serious bodily harm or death, such as an honour killing, but more often it is disownment and alienation from family and the greater community that we looked up to and grew up in.
I have unfortunately had to cope with disownment myself over the past ten years, and the pain and trauma is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst of enemies. However, it is also a bit of a blessing in disguise, if I may so lightheartedly suggest.I have three major pieces of advice
for anyone facing disownment or alienation from all or part of their family or community.First, I cannot stress enough the importance of taking care of yourself
. There is a figurative truth in the flight safety card instructing you to put on your oxygen mask before helping those around you in case of emergency. You won’t be able to successfully sort through a crisis situation without putting yourself first. You need to make sure you’re okay. This means prioritizing basic needs like shelter, food, and health.
Health is not just physical. You need to take good care of your mental health. It is imperative that you find a therapist or crisis counselor as soon as you can to assist you mentally through this period. Most cities have clinics that offer free or sliding scale services, if you are short on cash. The ex Muslim community worldwide is also full of amazing mental health workers that you should and must reach out to at this time.Second
, once you’ve stabilized and taken care of your immediate needs, you must decide whether you want to re-initiate contact with all or part of your family or community
. This is not an easy decision. You must understand that you can only change yourself and no one else. Those who have decided to shun you are outside of your control. This realization and acceptance will take time and a lot of patience, which is why I strongly recommend counseling.
Emotional blackmail and alienation are common tactics used by Muslim families to “punish” members who leave their faith. You will be subject to dramatic bursts of guilt, where the family member or community member will attempt to shame you. You may also be cut off from seeing nieces, nephews, and possibly even your own children. This is called alienation. You have to recognize these abusive behaviors and prepare yourself to deal with them. You should not enable these behaviors by reacting to them. You should, instead, take this time to establish clear boundaries and expectations for communication and respect. Remember, you are dealing with extremely irrational people who believe estrangement and shaming are acceptable behavior in a modern society.
In cases where children are involved, you must proceed with caution in an attempt to see them because they are already being subject to abuse by their parents in the form of alienating you from them. The conflict their parents have created has placed them in a very distressing environment: the family member they saw often has now suddenly disappeared and the parents are berating him or her. You may be tempted to sneak visits or force your right to see them, but all of this can have serious and adverse effects on the child.
In family law, there is a concept called reintegration therapy that is used by the courts to reintroduce children to estranged family members. I suggest you discuss with your therapist options on how to engage in this therapy should you decide to initiate contact with your family or community.Lastly
, I can only remind you that this is your life
. Do not, under any circumstances, abandon your own aspirations and interests for the sake of pleasing your religious family members or their community. They’ve demonstrated how little they value you by putting you in such a distressing situation. Their love is tragically conditional, but that does not mean you must follow and live by their rules. They severely lack emotional intelligence and will continually use their religious beliefs to displace themselves of responsibility and respect of others.
I have several resources that I’ve compiled over the years while coping with disownment by my own family. I have posted them below. If you would like to contact me directly, please feel free to do so. I am not a licensed psychologist but I can try to direct you in the right direction or at least lend an empathetic ear.
I was physically thrown out of my parents’ home just a few months after my 18th birthday, with only $35.00 in my checking account. But despite not having my parents’ or sister’s support in the past 10 years, I put myself through college and obtained a Bachelor’s in International Affairs, with a focus on European Politics. I’m fluent in Spanish and conversationally in Urdu. I just recently graduated from the University of Denver with my law degree, having successfully litigated a federal trial on behalf of a mistreated prisoner in the Colorado prison system. I also worked for six months at a U.N. international criminal tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands. I’ve also worked closely with the Council of Ex Muslims of Britain. Currently, I work at a fantastic family law firm in the States. I took the bar in February and hope to become a newly minted attorney this Spring. I practice primarily in civil rights law and international criminal law, representing those less fortunate than ourselves.
I did all of this without my family. They refuse to speak to me and missed my college and law school graduations, and a trip to Europe to visit me during my position with the U.N. They deliberately forget my birthday every year. It’s their loss, but still painful for me although I’ve learned to let go and forgive.
I offer you my advice from a decade of struggle, but also perseverance. Remember, you are not alone. The ex Muslim community will help catch you when you fall.
And your real family is the one you choose. Despite not having my biological parents to support me, I have built a network of supportive friends and mentors who collectively serve as my mother and my father. I have the best law mentor I could ask for, who fills in as a father figure whenever I need it. I have the best friends who are mothers, and can impart their unconditional love for children to me when I could use a mom. You can and will meet good-hearted, non-judgmental people along the way on your new journey in life.
And your friends are and always will be your lifeline.
You will be okay.
+++Creating an Emergency Plan: Facing Disownment as an Ex-Muslim
If you or someone you know is facing disownment, it’s time for you to take control of your situation. Disownment is scary but it doesn’t have to be crippling. Families, especially parents, will often threaten their children with disownment as a means of establishing their authority and control. This is abusive and it is wrong. Threatening to or actually disowning your child is a very selfish, immature, and irresponsible thing to do. It shows that you are insecure and possess very low levels of emotional intelligence. Unfortunately, this is very prevalent among parents who cannot accept the fact that their child does not agree with their religious or cultural beliefs.
Threatening disownment is an effective form of abuse because it instills a fear that is deeply rooted in all of us: the fear of abandonment. It also threatens our stability, and causes us to obsess about our ability to survive. It is a very traumatic experience but it doesn’t have to be paralyzing. I outline below an emergency plan that helped me get through the first crucial months of my own disownment. I offer this to anyone who is currently facing disownment, although I also suggest that those in similar situations seek professional counseling.
1. Find a Safe Place to Stay
First thing is first – you need to find a temporary and safe place to stay. I was able to stay with friends for two weeks after I was kicked out of the house and then lived in my university’s residence halls. Reach out to the ex-Muslim networks for an emergency request with one of their members. The Council of Ex Muslims of Britain, as well as the London Ex-Muslim Collaborative, have an extensive network of like-minded ex-Muslims who can help you find a safe place to stay, if not offer one themselves. Your goal should be to get away from your house and into a place where you can safely and slowly process what’s happening. If you can’t or don’t want to reach out to the networks, find out where the local emergency shelter is in your city or town and make your way down there to meet with staff as soon as possible. Explain your situation to staff and let them know that you can’t return home or feel unsafe doing so.
2. Seek a Protective/Restraining Order if Necessary
If you are afraid that someone in your family or the religious community will physically harm you or continue to verbally assault you, report these people to the police as soon as possible. Your well-being is a priority and cannot be compromised. Remember, you are dealing with highly irrational and emotional people who have just thrown you out of their home. They are very unpredictable and may resort to violence (especially if they have done so in the past). A temporary restraining order will keep them at bay until you can safely and securely reestablish yourself without fear of retribution. If you feel that you can’t report your own family, call a trusted friend and allow your network to help you stay safe.
3. Sort Out a Financial Plan
One of your worst fears will undoubtedly be money. For years, you lived in a family setting and suddenly you are on your own with no one to catch you if you fall.
If you are in school and in the United States, you can mostly likely get assistance from your university. When you enter college, you are typically listed as “dependent” because the school expects your parents to assist in your college expenses. You should meet with a financial aid adviser on your campus and request that your status be switched to “independent” because you have become estranged from you family. “Independent” status can qualify you for other types of grants, including ones from your school as well as a Pell Grant. It is likely that your school will require you to wait a period of 3-6 months before it switches you to “independent” status. I took out a private loan to cover this period, although I must note that private loans come with higher interest rates and cannot be consolidated like federal student loans.
If you feel like you can’t take a private loan or find an alternative method to fund your schooling, you can request a temporary withdrawal from your studies that will put you on a sort of “academic hiatus.” This doesn’t affect your grades, and it buys you some time to figure out what you need to do next.
If you are not in school and are unemployed, it is likely that will you qualify for social assistance. In the United States, you should look up where your state’s public assistance program is located and make an appointment to speak to someone there about your situation. You should also look to see if there are any emergency shelters that may be able to take you in for a few days while you reorient yourself. I recommend getting in contact with organizations such as the United Way.
Money is an unfortunate source of anxiety. I recommend that you take the time to recognize your skills and talents, and put a list together that can help you build your CV/resume.
Remember, you don’t need family to make it on your own. You can make yourself and the world remains your oyster. See this as your opportunity to freely pursue life your way and explore ideas that you were forbidden to explore before.
Also, don’t be afraid to take jobs that you wouldn’t consider career-oriented to help you get back on your feet. I worked at restaurants and a bookstore immediately following my disownment.
Not only did these jobs help pay the bills, but they gave me experience working with all sorts of different walks of life.
As part of your financial plan, become financially savvy. Do you know what APRs and cash advances on credit cards are? Do you know what affects your credit rating? When I was first disowned, all of these concepts were alien to me because my father controlled all the finances in our house. I didn’t even know how to write a personal check properly. Take some time to familiarize yourself, and don’t be hesitant to ask others for help before you consider opening a checking account, credit card line, or taking a loan.
4. Seek Crisis Counseling As Soon As You Can
What just happened to you is traumatic. You should acknowledge this and allow yourself to process the confusion, hurt, and fear. Do not convince yourself that you are strong enough to handle this trauma by yourself and you will get through it by yourself. You can’t and you shouldn’t. I absolutely recommend that you seek crisis counseling. Many states/provinces/countries have low-cost, free, or sliding scale counseling centers that can assist you during this time.
You can also reach out to the Council of Ex Muslims of Britain, Reddit Ex Muslims, or the Ex Muslims of North America to see if they can put you in touch with an ex-Muslim psychologist. The resources are there, but you must take the time to utilize them. Severe depression and anxiety are a real threat to your health right now, so reach out and let others help you.
Watch out for destructive behaviors such as smoking, drinking, or drugs. They’re easy and tempting, but they will only add to your misery and depression. Try to make time for positive activities, such as reading, drawing, yoga, or the gym. You have to understand that temporary escape from your situation won’t make it go away. You have to address it head-on and make sure that you prioritize your mental and physical health in the process. Remember, you can’t control the people who disowned you, but you can control what you do next.A Note on Pet Therapy
If you’re an animal lover, consider getting a cat or small pet to keep you company. Pets have an unbelievable therapeutic effect and can help manage your anxiety and depression. They can help distract you from constantly ruminating and lower your blood pressure. And, unlike family, they love you unconditionally. If you can’t adopt right now, consider spending time with a friend’s pet or volunteer at a local animal shelter.
I adopted my cat a few months after I was disowned but resettled in my own apartment with a job. She’s still my furry sidekick, ten years on, and helped me get through some seriously difficult times.
5. Journal and Stay Connected With Friends and the Ex-Muslim Community
As part of your emergency plan, take a minute to identify your most trustworthy friends. Reach out to them and let them know that you need help. Asking for help is okay. It is not a sign of weakness, nor is it unwelcome.
Journal and talk as much you need. Write down your thoughts and feelings whenever you feel disoriented, scared, confused, or hurt. Reach out to your therapist/counsellor and your trusted friends. If you’re unable to do this, post online in the CEMB Forum or reach out anonymously to the Reddit Ex-Muslim group. Stay connected and keep people updated. They care and they take these situations very seriously.
Stay away from toxic people – including those who disowned you. If that means you must change your phone number, block on social media, or create filters to automatically delete emails, so be it. You need to prevent yourself from experiencing more abuse. Reach Out to Your Community
:Council of Ex Muslims of Britain
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/exmuslimsEx-Muslims of North America (EXMNA)
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/exmnaReddit Ex-Muslims
Editor’s Note: The purpose of this post is to provide immediate assistance for ex-Muslims facing disownment. Although I have experience with services and programs in the United States, I would like to create a resource guide that includes other countries such as Canada and the UK. If you would like to contribute to this post with resources you think might be helpful (shelters, counselors, job boards, etc), please feel free to contact me.
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