Aliyah Saleem’s life at the Islamic women’s institute

First published in The Times – 14/12/2015

Briton Aliyah Saleem recalls her life at the Islamic women’s institute which also educated the San Bernandino killer.

This year, as British Muslim schoolgirls left to join Isis in Syria, I thought back to when I was a 17-year-old fundamentalist and wondered seriously if I’d have joined them. I certainly fitted the template: unhappy at home, bored and a fervent believer in the most rigid, literalist form of Islam.

Then when Tashfeen Malik, a Pakistani woman, along with her US-born husband, Syed Farook, used automatic weapons to shoot down 14 people in San Bernardino, California, I realised we had even more in common. Like Malik, 29, I studied at the Al-Hudaa institute for Muslim women in Pakistan, which also operates in the USA and Canada. It is run by Dr Farhat Hashmi, a female Islamic scholar who is treated with guru-like reverence. Whether the school laid down the foundation for Malik’s crimes I cannot say — they certainly did not preach violence there — but it left me on the brink of radicalisation.

I was 15 when I was expelled from a private Muslim faith school in Nottingham, which I wrote about last year in The Times. I was a bolshie, rebellious, free-thinking girl who balked at rigid Islamic rules: compulsory hijab, no mobiles, newspapers, internet or mixing with non-Muslims. I challenged the teachings in our Saudi-bought books which decried homosexuality, permitted men to beat their wives and denied evolution. Kicked out of the school for owning a disposable camera, I found myself back home and in disgrace.

So when it was suggested I go to Canada to attend the Al-Hudaa school for a one-year intensive Koranic interpretation course, I was just glad to escape. Since mosques are principally male environments, the college aimed to create a place for women to acquire Islamic scholarship. I arrived in Toronto to join classes in which I was by far the youngest pupil: the other women ranged up to their fifties, were educated and middle class. The “hostel” in which overseas students stayed was actually a beautiful house.

Hashmi herself taught us, and my fellow pupils worshipped her. They chastised me for using her name: I was supposed to call her “Ustatha”, which means teacher. Fully veiled except when teaching, she had a calm, slow and melodious voice. Students were rapt in her presence and bought tapes of her speeches.

The Islamic interpretation she taught was literalist and evangelical: we women must submit to God, go back home and inculcate others with the same rigid values. Be good wives, cover your bosom, be modest, chaste and pious and don’t mix with men. Women who attended Al-Hudaa would often irritate their families on their return by berating everyone for not being devout enough.

However, the Canadian course was in Urdu, which I speak poorly, so I decided to transfer to an Al-Hudaa course in Pakistan that was taught in English and Arabic. Here the regime was much more spartan: we slept on thin mattresses on the floor in a former student’s house. This was where “western” students slept: we were allowed our laptops and phones, luxuries denied in the Pakistani girls’ hostel. There were 15 students in my hostel from Canada, China, Britain and the US.

Later we were allowed to make trips to Islamabad and Lahore. My parents were from Pakistan, although I was born and raised in north London. It was great for once not to feel in a minority. I was surprised, however, by how few women were on the streets. As time went by, I started to embrace stricter gender segregation.

The classes involved endless hours spent going through each verse of the Koran one by one, learning its context and why it was revealed. The teachers made it clear they would not force us to do anything but that we would submit to God once we had absorbed his message. I was not religious when I enrolled and still challenged Islam, yet my initial boredom and disdain turned to bright-eyed zeal.

The classes were intense, repetitive and rigid. A constant stream of religion, day after day. The all-female environment suffused the students with emotion, sometimes bordering on hysteria. Women would often weep, overcome by religiosity. We were constantly taught that this path was our choice, but also that not choosing it was the way of sin. Gradually, perhaps because I was far from my family, young and troubled, and my education in Britain had provided me with little secular knowledge, I was completely sucked in.

There is a particular verse that concerns wearing of the veil that was known to be an emotional highpoint for students. “You’ll cry,” everyone said and I’d think they were mad, but when we came to study it I wept. I felt so overwhelmed that I walked out of that classroom and took up the full niqab, revealing only my eyes.

I wore it for almost a year, with black gloves and socks, even in the heat. I lowered my gaze, spoke quietly in public, shuffled along, invisible, apart from society. I thought I had found the true faith and in my self righteousness felt entitled to upbraid others for being less zealous. I shouted at a friend for wearing a red hijab.

Muslims are expected to pray five times a day, but I prayed six. Up in the middle of the night performing my additional prayer, I’d weep for my parents, my siblings, everyone I knew, because they were going to Hell and I needed to win them over to the true path too. I’d changed my life — now I must change theirs. Only in retrospect do I realise that essentially I’d been brainwashed into something resembling a cult.

This is what I believe that Malik, who finished her degree in pharmacology a star pupil then went to study at the Al-Hudaa college in Multan, Pakistan, went through too. She left deeply religious, fully veiled, eager to destroy all photographs of herself, not just because men might see them but — as we were taught — all representations of living things, including people, were idolatrous.

I must stress that the Al-Hudaa did not preach violence. While I was in Pakistan, a bomb was set off in the local market by extremists. No one at the college supported this attack. We studied the Koranic verses on jihad, however, in the context of the Prophet Mohammed engaging in holy war. Any future application of jihad by modern Muslims was left open-ended.

I feel that Al-Hudaa’s literalist, conservative interpretation of Islam, which discouraged criticism or dissent, built a fire. It laid down the kindling, the twigs, the wood, ready for a match. And the flames swept in from two directions. First, from geopolitical events: the discourse of Muslim oppression that has gained force across the world, which Isis, among others, utilises so powerfully. Yet it also requires an internal fire, something within an individual that will ignite fundamentalist theology into violent action.

Most women who leave the Al-Hudaa institute are zealous for a while, but the sheer intensity requires so much emotional energy that it invariably fizzles out. This happened to me as I tried to remain religious and deal with re-emerging doubts from my childhood. I felt suffocated by the ultra-conservative life that I was living, as well as by society’s expectation of me to be an ideal religious woman.

Back in Britain I removed my veil: I planned to go to college and worried I wouldn’t make friends or would stand out too much. It is also not commonly worn in my family, so I faced no pressure. I adopted the head scarf and a floor-length dress instead.

A year after I left Al-Hudaa, my journey towards leaving Islam began when I studied feminism at college and, after discovering atheists online, read about evolution. After spending a year researching non-religious and religious arguments, I decided that I no longer believed there was any evidence for God’s existence.

I lost many friends as a consequence and my family found my atheism difficult, but almost a decade on we have a very good relationship. I co-founded an organisation called Faith to Faithless, which supports apostates of all religious backgrounds who can face isolation and ostracism.

Yet there was a time when I was lonely, isolated, a troubled girl with nothing but my all-encompassing faith, when I know that a spark could have been ignited within me. I walked on. Tashfeen Malik lit the fire.

Jamia Al-Hudaa Residential College graded as inadequate by Ofsted

Since leaving this school I have wanted to bring attention to it as I know that the education there is insufficient and the management style is very poor.

However I did not know if I would be believed or listened to. In fact after I spoke out publicly about the school they released a statement contradicting my account where they implied that I had lied. Many of the girls who attended the school openly called me a liar, bitter and Islamophobic. I have always known that I did my best to give a clear insight into what happened at the school when I was there, and a few girls privately said that they agree with my account even if they do not share my views on secular education.

I first spoke out about the school at a Secular conference with the support of Maryam Namazie of The Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain. After this I wrote an article for the Times in November 2014 with the help of Janice Turner about the school in more detail.

The school was then inspected unannounced in April 2015 as a result of concerns being raised about it. The result of the inspection was that Jamia Al-Hudaa which was previously graded as ‘good’ is now seen to be ‘inadequate’. Please scroll to the bottom to find a summary of the inspection report which shows that the school failed in every possible way to demonstrate its ability to provide a good education and safe environment for its pupils.

There is still much to be done in regards to this school and all independent schools which have the power to immensely limit the curriculum taught. Although it is good that the school has been graded down, very little was said in regards to how restrictive the curriculum is with subjects such as music, art, history and geography not being taught. It is obvious that for too long the government has stood by and ignored the utterly appalling imposition of conservative religious ideologies on British school children.

What I find incredible is the shocking difference between this report and earlier reports where the school was graded ‘excellent’ and ‘good’. I believe that children who attend such schools deserve so much more from the government, and an apology would be a good place to start. The management at this school are not only incompetent, but at times were utterly cruel when I was a student there. We are yet to understand the full scale of successive government’s failures to monitor independent schools rigorously.

The department for education must ensure that pupils are protected from dogmatic ideologies, and have access to a broad curriculum. It is not acceptable that children can have their education limited and replaced with religious studies which can offer them very little in terms of qualifications or career opportunities.

Lastly, I am saddened that the report found that parents are so supportive of a school that not only fails to safeguard their children, but also massively stunts their ability to build careers.

Below are some links if you want more information about the school:

Full report:

Faith schools in Britain: music is out, compulsory headscarves and CCTV cameras are in.

My Experience at an Islamic Boarding school in Britain

Life Inside An Islamic Boarding School


Below is a summary of the findings of the latest report.

Jamia Al-Hudaa Residential

Overall effectiveness Inadequate 4
Leadership and management Inadequate 4
Behaviour and safety of pupils Inadequate 4
Quality of teaching Requires improvement 3
Achievement of pupils Requires improvement 3
Early years provision Inadequate 4
Sixth form provision Inadequate 4
The overall experiences and progress of children and
young people Inadequate 4
Summary of key findings

This is an inadequate school
The school’s arrangements for safeguarding do
not meet requirements. Leaders do not carry out
all the necessary checks on staff, and referrals to
the designated officer are not always recorded.

Leaders are unclear of all their responsibilities and
are reliant on the knowledge and skills of a few
key staff. They do not have an accurate view of
the school’s strengths and weaknesses.

Leaders have not ensured that all policies are
applied in practice.

Leaders do not always implement the behaviour
policy effectively. Additional, disproportionate
sanctions are employed by staff.

Teachers do not use information about pupils’
starting points to provide the most able with
sufficiently challenging learning activities.

Pupils do not have sufficient access to books and
other resources in the library, to help inform their
understanding of different faiths or British history.

Members of the proprietorial body do not have
sufficient knowledge about the independent school
standards to effectively hold leaders to account.

Pupils have insufficient access to impartial careers

Pupils’ achievement varies over time. They
achieve comparatively less well in GCSE

Arrangements for monitoring the health and
welfare of boarders are insufficient. Ten minimum
standards for boarding schools are not met.
The school has the following strengths

Pupils’ behaviour is good and their attitudes to
learning are consistently positive.

Pupils have a strong moral code and show respect
for British values.

The teaching of Islamic Studies is good and pupils
achieve well in these subjects.

Teachers have a good understanding of learning
and development in the early years.
Compliance with regulatory requirements and national minimum standards for boarding

The school must take action to meet the schedule to The Education (Independent School Standards)
Regulations 2014 and associated requirements. The details are listed in the full report.
Inspection report: Jamia Al-Hudaa Residential College, 27–29 April 2015 2 of 14

The school does not meet the national minimum standards for boarding schools.

Removing my hijab

I started to wear the hijab and the jilbaab (long dress to the feet) at the age of 11. At first I protested against it by wearing it loosely, pulling my sleeves up so most of my arms would show and by wearing spiked punk bracelets. I would wrap it around my neck at parks, feeling the wind through my hair. I tried hard to take it off but my status as an Islamic school girl made it impossible to remove. I had to fulfil a certain standard, and all of my friends were wearing it. Although I love my mother dearly I have to be honest that she played a large role in all of this. There is a common practice within Muslim communities of mothers as well as fathers enforcing hijab on their daughters which has to be acknowledged and stopped.  At the age of twenty I plucked up the courage to take it off completely no matter who saw me. Before this I went through several stages of removing it where I felt a mixture of self-hatred and guilt. The hijab is not like a hat or a tie, it is not only a piece of clothing. It comes with sexual connotations and rules to that one must adhere to whilst wearing it.

When enforced it becomes a prison which breaks down confidence and self-esteem. The only women in my family who wore hijab was my mother, me and my younger sister who also attended an Islamic school. Every Eid I would feel deep resentment watching all the other women in my family dress up, put on make-up and go to the mosque. I was stuck in the hijab and jilbaab feeling ugly and under dressed. I felt deeply ashamed that I wanted to look nice. The suppression of my sexuality was secured by the hijab and the principles I was expected to follow because I wore it. By the age of fourteen I believed that I was going to wear hijab forever, and I convinced myself that there is nothing I can do about.

As a teenager I had to wear it within the grounds of the Islamic boarding school I grew up in. I have memories of being shouted at by teachers for not wearing it whenever a window or a CCTV camera was in sight in case someone from the ‘men’s side’ saw me. I couldn’t have been more than 11 but yet I was shamed for not wearing it properly. We could not take hijab off in the grounds unless we were in the top playground which was out of view. In the lower and much bigger playground we couldn’t take hijab off even when playing sports. Now the school has CCTV cameras in the residential corridors, and I despair for the young girls who have to wear it within the space which is the closest thing they have to a home.

I found myself in Pakistan at 16 surrounded by overzealous women weeping in Quranic class at the Al-Hudaa institution. I was the youngest girl in my class but the only one who knew Arabic so I would swagger around consumed by my own superiority. I was told that I did not have to wear niqab but that when the verse on it came I would wear it myself. I remember scoffing at the time as I did consider the face veil to be compulsory. At this point I still was not very fond of my hijab so I could not imagine myself wearing a veil over my face. However like the other women in the class I started to become zealous too. I would weep in class at how glorious the Quran was, how sinful I am and how merciful God is. On the day that we were going to study the verse on the veil there was a quiet excitement among my class mates. I was intrigued, and when I heard the interpretation of the verse which suggests that we should also cover our faces I put it on as soon as possible. I pulled my scarf around my face on the way to the minibus that took me to my hostel. I started wearing black gloves, and making sure that I did not laugh or speak loudly in public. At night I would pray an extra prayer, weeping in despair at what will happen to sinful people in the hereafter.

I find it hard to relate to my former self now. For many years I tried to ignore who I was, and did not tell university friends that I used to dress as I did. It is difficult to accept that after years of internally fighting the hijab I put a veil over my face and disappeared from society completely. I became convinced that men are beasts who cannot control themselves, and that it is my responsibility to ensure that they did not fall into sin. I wish I could go back and speak to my 16 year old self. I don’t know if I would slap or embrace her. This phase did not last, and when I returned to Britain I took the veil off but carried on with the hijab and jilbaab.

The first time I did not wear the long black dress in public was around seventeen. I was going to see some friends, and I had been slowly losing my religion. I wore a black and white dress to my knees, leggings, a black cardigan and my headscarf. I ran out of the door before anyone noticed. When I came home there was a huge fight, and I was left feeling like a slut. I still have this dress, and I feel a strange attachment to it.  I was not open about my emerging atheism even to myself then, but I had started to feel an overwhelming sense of suffocation. I used to lie on my prayer mat not speaking to God but to myself. I would cry about my desire to remove the hijab and felt too ashamed to pray about it. Yet, I had also started to immerse myself in feminist literature which was the first time that I had ever learnt about sexual autonomy. Although I was consumed with guilt, I was also lit with a surge of defiance. At eighteen I decided I wanted to take off the headscarf, just to try it out.

So one day in summer I left my house in the afternoon, walked down the curved road until I was out of sight of my house. I then pulled out the pin which held my hijab together, pressed it between my lips and slowly loosened my hijab until my hair fell around my face. I faced a car and for the first time as a woman I saw my hair in the reflection of a car window. That day I knew what it meant to be free, and to have control of my body. I would not trade that memory for anything in the world.

One of the most important parts of my journey of removing the hijab is that I was diagnosed with cancer at 19. A few months after I had left Islam I was hit by a car on the way to college, and the scans done on the aftermath of it showed that I had a tumour the size of a grapefruit lodged in my chest. When the day for biopsy results came when I would learn what kind of cancer, I had I turned to my mother and said that there is no point in me wearing it anymore as I am going to be bald soon. I had already stopped wearing it when I went out on my own, but whilst around my parents up until this point I wore it. I felt too ashamed to take it off in front of them, but now faced with chemotherapy I couldn’t care less what they thought.

The college I attended was an Islamic one in North West London. After the chemo I returned to college to finish my studies. Girls were expected to wear hijab in the college, and so I did it. Once one of the teachers took me aside and told me that the way I was wearing my hijab loosely was unacceptable. I had also started wearing a bit of make up because I was so thin and parts of my skin was blackened because of the medicine I was taking. She told me that the religious men in the school would start asking her questions. If I didn’t respect them, they may not be so accommodating to me anymore. Aged nineteen I went to the toilets of the college and cried for half an hour. After this I went and told the head of the year that if I was not welcome in the college I would go home. He had noticed the dramatic change in me over the years that I was there and told me he would have a word with her. He said to me that he knew I had lost my faith and the fact that I still wore hijab shows that I respect them. After that she never spoke to me again.

I speak to women all the time about their experiences with hijab. Girls as young as 16 feel like they have worn it for an age because it was put on them as children. I see young girls aged 7 or 8 wearing it and I feel a deep sadness for them. Parents should know better: do not put it on your daughters. If they ever want to wear it, then that will be their choice. It is not for you to push it on to them because it is you they will have to fight in the end if they want to remove it. My only advice to girls and women who are wearing it is ask yourself if you want to wear it. If you do then there is nothing else for us to really to talk about in regards to it. For those of you who feel suffocated, and pressured to wear it I hope that my story will help you start the fight.

You may have to fight your own parents, your husbands and your friends but it is a fight worth having. There is nothing that we are born owning except our bodies. Don’t let any man, woman or teacher tell you that if you do not wear it you are sinful. It took me over nine years to take it off because I felt that I had no choice in the matter and in some ways I did not. I understand that many Muslim women wear it out of choice, but their positive experiences do not negate the negative experiences of women shamed and pressurized into it. I hope that more women are able to come out with their stories so that those among us who are suffering with shame and guilt can see that there is a way out. At times I felt completely powerless, and burdened by the hijab. It became the shackle which held me back for so many years, and I resented it deeply. Now the thin scarf which was once a source of shame is nothing more than lifeless material.

Life Inside An Islamic Boarding School

I wrote this article back in November 2014 for the Times. I was still going through the difficult journey of coming out openly as an apostate and decided to write this piece under the pseudonym ‘Laylah Hussain’. I was afraid of what kind of reaction I would receive for speaking out about my negative experiences in an Islamic school in Britain, and revealing that I have left Islam. Since then I have become much more comfortable about revealing my identity, and I have decided to re-claim this article with my own name. Thank you for taking the time to read it.

Life Inside An Islamic Boarding School

Laylah Hussain was 11 when she became a pupil at Jamia Al-Hudaa, a faith school in Nottingham. This is her account of the five years she spent there – a period, she says, that stunted her education and stifled her freedom

My mother thought the girls in our family had run wild. In truth, they were just taking a puff of a cigarette in the park or meeting up with friends, including boys. Ordinary teenage stuff. But in our close-knit Pakistani community there were always “aunties” who’d say, “I saw your daughter smoking,” which distressed my mother because this could ruin a girl’s reputation.

She was determined this wouldn’t happen to me. I was a lively, outdoorsy kid, left to run free and skateboard with my cousins. I loved my school, a local state primary, where I was obsessed with everything scientific, especially space, making rockets from cardboard boxes.

But my mother sought to protect me from the secular culture she thought could ruin my education and prospects. She is a deeply spiritual woman and wanted me to have an Islamic education, not based upon her own adaptable, tolerant South Asian faith but on the literalist Saudi Arabian Salafism she saw preached on Islamic TV channels, which presents itself as “pure”.

She wanted me to become an alima, an Islamic scholar. There was kudos in having such a child, akin to how old Italian families were proud if their son became a priest. I was only 11 years old when she sent me to an Islamic boarding school, recommended by family friends, 120 miles away. My mum kept saying I would become the jewel in her crown. I was packed off with kisses, lots of sweets and bottles of Coke, treated as special in a way that enraged my young siblings.

The Jamia Al-Hudaa school is on top of a hill overlooking Nottingham, although in the following five years I would not visit the city except to see a dentist or doctor. It is a big crumbling Victorian place, a former sanatorium with peeling paint and coarse carpets. It contained 180 girls, most, like me, of Pakistani descent.

Our school principal was a man. We and the all-female teachers veiled our faces when he addressed us. His wife, the head teacher, was a stern, tall woman who floated silently about, seemingly trying to catch us breaking a rule. Our uniform was a floor-length maroon jilbaab and we had to keep our heads covered with a black hijab everywhere except the residential corridors and our bedrooms. I’d never worn Islamic dress before: I’d been going through a goth/skater girl phase back home.

I was so unhappy, for the first year I tried everything I could to get expelled: I skipped lessons, wouldn’t do my homework, argued, made too much noise. But my teachers liked me. I was smart and, because I have a huge hunger for learning, listened in class.

The curriculum was far from that of an ordinary British school. It promises “a new identity which will keep them attached to their Islamic values”. In our first year we learnt Arabic, the medium in which “Islamic sciences” are taught. These include Islamic law, Islamic history, Koranic recitation, Koranic interpretation, the sayings of Muhammad (hadith), a subject dedicated to explaining how Islamic scholars compiled the sayings of Muhammad (usool al-hadith). On top of that we prayed five times a day; sometimes, depending on the time of sunrise, as early as 4am.

The school included the basics of the national curriculum. Besides two hours a day of Arabic, we studied maths, English, RE and ICT (computer technology). We learnt science but without any discussion of evolution, which I didn’t learn until long after I left the school. Pakistani children took Urdu and older girls were offered textiles.

The school wanted to get our GCSEs out of the way as early as possible so we could focus on our intensive Islamic studies. I took Maths, Arabic and Urdu GCSE. I got a B in maths – I think I would have done better later on, but there was no chance of a retake. I failed ICT and couldn’t retake that either. Once you sat the exam, the subject ended.

I don’t remember being taught European history. I left school not knowing about the world wars; I could not point to Pakistan on a map. We were taught Islamic history, which I know not to be history at all, but the stories of prophets and of Muhammad compiled from oral tradition. We were not taught how and why historians collect data: I believed oral tradition was the best source. Islamic law is a detailed study of Sharia, which provides rules to govern every minute detail of your life. I learnt, for example, that you must always step into the lavatory with your left foot first and eat with your right hand.

Our teachers were from different parts of the world so Arabic, Urdu and English were spoken around the school. The teachers were mostly kind women. The food cooked by the local Pakistani community was excellent.

School rules were also framed by Sharia. No make-up, no radios, no music – we could listen to Islamic songs but not any that included instruments. No speaking to or phoning boys who were not family members. We were encouraged not to pluck our eyebrows and couldn’t wear jeans without a jilbaab. No mobile phones, no internet outside of ICT class and restricted TV. We weren’t allowed to watch the World Cup presumably because the men wore shorts above their knees. So we snuck into the primary school which had a TV and video and spent 90 minutes holding up a metal hanger to watch our England heroes walk onto the pitch.

There were no newspapers or magazines. I don’t remember the library having many novels, but it did stock Anne of Green Gables, which I loved because it was about a boarding school. It sounds silly, but my solace and joy when I arrived at school was Harry Potter. How I loved those books: Harry was all alone like me. If only I were at Hogwarts rather than this place, so restrictive and dull. But after a while Harry Potter was banned. The school had apparently decided magic was akin to satanism. You could see our confiscated copies of Order of the Phoenix stacked up in a locked room next to the homework hall.

Anyway, for the first year, I fought the school. I begged to go home, but my mother insisted it was good for me, away from drugs, alcohol and bad grades. My father was opposed to sending me away, but believed the discipline would make me independent and successful in life. I was horribly homesick, bullied by some older girls, and taken under the wing of others. I would speak to my mum as much as possible and she would visit, but it was a four-hour drive.

By my second year, I began to feel cut off from my parents and stopped talking to them about life at school. Friends became like family. I told them everything. Friendships were very intense – we spent so much time together and there was almost nothing to do.

We were always bored. So we loved to bend the rules, sneaking around the building at night, telling each other ghost stories, playing games and creeping into the kitchen at 2am. Some girls would even walk barefoot along the highest point of the school roof, four floors up, just for a thrill. I was always in trouble for being out of bed. Once my punishment was emptying the sanitary bin.

There was little in the way of sport or PE. Even today on its website the school seeks to attract Muslim parents by saying “insecure” state schools promote “un-Islamic activities such as attending mixed swimming classes, and doing PE semi-naked”. We had no facilities. Looking into the little broom cupboard aged 11, I found a few bats, a broken hoop and a tennis ball. After class we’d play dodgeball with an oldbasketball until it wore smooth.

Then there were the room checks. Wardens would turn the contents of our lives inside out. But since our parents had accepted these rules, they could not complain to the authorities.

My parents considered pulling me out of school at 13, but feared it would be difficult for me to adapt to a normal curriculum. Besides, I’d started my GCSEs. So instead I conducted my rebellion in the classroom. During Islamic law classes, I was told that some scholars believe the death sentence is appropriate for gay men. When I tried to reason that maybe homosexuality was natural as God made all humans, there was a huge row.

Under Ofsted’s guidelines for inspectors, it is fine for sex education to be taught under the umbrella term “Islamic studies”. Some pages in our biology textbook pages on sexual reproduction were covered. We did not learn about periods or changes to our bodies. Instead we learnt about sex through Koranic interpretation and Islamic law classes where we were taught marriage conduct.

Men, we were told, are guardians over their wives and we must obey. Our teacher said the Koran gives men permission to beat their wives if they disobey but with a rod no thicker than a miswak (a stick Muslims believe Muhammad used to clean his teeth). This made some of us giggle. One girl said, “My mum would knock Dad out if he hit her with a stick.”

Since it was assumed we would only have sex in marriage, we were not educated on safe practices. We were taught male sexuality is uncontrollable, that it is our job to be modest so men do not fall into sin.

In Britain, we do not have a formal guardian system like in Saudi Arabia. Nonetheless, we were taught through Koranic verses to regard our fathers and then our husbands as our guardians who will make decisions about our lives. The principles of Sharia, for example, which say that a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man’s, were beyond dispute. Not surprisingly, some of my schoolfriends were married straight after school at 17 or 18, ill-prepared for this lifelong commitment.

Our emerging sexuality was repressed, and we were told to be like the wives of the prophet: obedient, modest and pious. As we moved into our teenage years some of us would have our jilbaabs made with a little slit on the side to make them more interesting, as state school girls would shorten their skirts. But by the end, most girls conformed and would never have left home again without their hijabs.

Our books came from Saudi Arabia, beautifully printed and full of medieval ideas. I left school antisemitic. We were not taught to hate non-Muslims, but we were taught the ancient scriptural opinion on Jews and Christians: that they are misguided people who have made God angry. We knew that we were not supposed to behave or think like them. We didn’t even learn about different strands of Islam, such as Shia or Sufi traditions, only about the four different schools of Sunni faith.

There was no sense that we would ever go out into wider British society; we would live our entire lives within a Muslim bubble. Study of Islamic law was to ensure that we would conduct our lives through Sharia courts: after all, Sharia is God’s word; British justice is just the word of man. And we were certainly not equipped for careers, because the Islamic curriculum has no real academic merit. But even as alimas we could not earn a living as male scholars can, working for Sharia councils as judges, or as imams. Women can only teach children or follow Sharia in their daily lives.

One night in 2006, just before I turned 16, two wardens conducted a random room check on me and my two room-mates. Unusually, on this occasion I was given a choice: hand over what you have or if we find anything you will be expelled. I handed over my Lorenzo Carcaterra novel Gangster (as it had swearing in it), a cheap disposable camera and a broken MP3 player. The camera was the worst offence: we were taught that women were not allowed to take pictures, especially without the hijab, in case they are shown to men.

Next day, all girls were summoned to the main hall and before the whole school I was expelled. “Do you see what happens to those who do not follow the rules?” said the head teacher. I felt a dull shock as I was told to leave the place I had considered to be home. My father had to collect me by that evening.

I left school hurt and embarrassed. At home I was a stranger among my family. I would sit in front of the TV crying, wondering what to do. Eventually, I went to Pakistan for a year to study Islam with my sister. Although traditional, this school was freer, in that it offered women the chance to follow Islam in their chosen way. But since the only way I knew was strict adherence to the Koran and hadith, I clung to that and made the decision to wear the veil.

As the year progressed, I became more bigoted than I’d ever been. I was caught up in a storm of self-righteousness and anger at everyone who did not follow Islam as well as I did. I ranted at my poor sister who’d wear coloured hijabs. I would wear all black, even black gloves. I loved being able to hide. I felt protected inside the veil, that God loved me for my modesty.

Then, right at the end of my year in Pakistan, my sister called me up at 11pm and said Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows had come out. She’d borrowed a car and was going to buy a copy. Would I like to come? I couldn’t resist and all the way home on the plane I read the book, feeling full of my old joy, some of my religious zeal ebbing away.

When we touched down in Britain I removed my veil at the airport and never wore it again. I felt a surge of doubt about my faith. But at home, as an alima, I was expected to be more Muslim than anyone else. After all my religious schooling, people assumed I would pray regularly, wear a jilbaab and not listen to music. I felt I was placed on a pedestal and should never dare to come down.

But I had to dare – I was being strangled up there. I had no sense of myself, no idea where I belonged. I did not feel Pakistani, British or Muslim any more. The faith that shackled me began to fall away as I decided to take control of my own life and identity.

I realised the vast holes in my education. What I had learnt in Islamic school was not useful unless I wanted to follow Islamic moral codes. I know I am not unintelligent, but realising I was ignorant of basic history and science made me feel ashamed.

So I started to read. First, at my local library, I tackled Darwinism. I had been taught this was a lie created by scientists and in Pakistan I’d read Adnan Oktar, an Islamic creationist who believes Darwinism is the root cause of fascism. But when I opened the Encyclopaedia Britannica to read a fluid description of man’s ascent, I was filled with awe.

I decided to take A levels, but I was not able to do maths or science because it was too long after I’d done my GCSE. I settled for English, sociology and psychology, and pored myself into my studies, reading voraciously to teach myself the basics of British history. I won a place at Brunel University to study English and there my mind took flight. I’d no idea atheists existed until I discovered Richard Dawkins. I remember reading The God Delusion on the Tube wearing a headscarf and jilbaab, Muslim women sitting opposite giving me strange looks. Here, for the first time since primary school, I made friends with non-Muslims. Because I felt I had so much to prove, I worked hard and got a first.

I have lost my faith entirely now and it was a cause of conflict with my family at first. But they have not disowned me, as many would, and have grown far more relaxed about me. I keep in touch on social media with many classmates. Although none has become an atheist, many have moved towards a more liberal Islam. One told me she thought our enclosed lives left her with no confidence in the outside world.

But some Muslims sneer and say, “You just left Islam because you wanted to drink or have sex or take drugs.” That is not true: I just wanted to be free to choose my own beliefs.

To be an apostate carries a death sentence in some countries. Here in Britain, many ex-Muslims are harassed and threatened. But I feel it is my duty to speak out about the private Islamic school system that ruined my education and restricted my future. I cannot understand why the British government allows girls of 11 to be put into schools that set them on a course of separation from mainstream society, to live according to Sharia principles, which can discriminate against them in divorce, inheritance and legal testimony. Because my school was private it did not face the same scrutiny from Ofsted.

It is assumed that girls from my background are happy to be controlled by religious institutions. Ofsted’s guidelines for inspecting faith schools stress that the hijab should not be seen as a symbol of oppression, but as an expression of female modesty. As a woman who felt pressure to wear it, I disagree. Although some women do wear it out of choice, this is not true for girls for whom modesty is part of the school rules.

Children should not be seen only as extensions of their family and faith, but as citizens with the right to integrate and gain a full education. This is also true for children of Christian, Jewish or Hindu parents who are placed in faith schools. How can we expect young people to become free-thinking citizens, for those of faith and non-faith to live side by side, if they are isolated from their peers and leave school prejudiced against other faiths?

I’m 25 now and work as a technician for a medical company, but hope to return to academia. When I think back to my school days I do have some good memories; after all, they encompass my early teenage years. But I still cannot forgive the school for limiting my education and crushing my freedom to think.

Laylah Hussain is a pseudonym

The school’s response:
Jamia Al-Hudaa, Nottingham, provides an education which allows pupils to fulfil a positive role in this country’s multicultural society, while retaining religious practices which are important to them – an opportunity which historically has not always been available. Due to limited resources in the early stages of the school, internet access was available only in the IT suite. (It is now available outside ICT classes.) News stories were curated from the internet by pupils themselves and made available to other pupils. As an Islamic faith school, it has a duty to ensure the reading material in the library conforms with

the guidance provided in Islamic religious texts. That approach did mean some books which might be acceptable in other schools were not included, but it considers the use of the word “banned” in relation to the Harry Potter books to be pejorative and unwarranted. Pupils were not required to empty school sanitary bins as a punishment. The school did not teach that the death penalty was appropriate for gay men. The author was expelled because of persistently poor and highly disruptive behaviour

Leaving Islam for good

I was born in London into a Pakistani Muslim family. As most kids from Muslim families I knew I was Muslim, although I did not know why. To be honest Islam had very little to do with my life growing up. I knew I had to go to madrassas on the weekends or after school. My Mum moved me around because I used to get into arguments with teachers. When I was about 5 or 6 a teacher slapped me at our local madrassa. I wasn’t wearing my head scarf properly so she pulled me close to her by my ear and slapped me with her massive hand. My mother removed me as soon as she heard this.

After this I went to a woman’s house in the evening after school, and then another madrassa. I don’t think I cared about religion or God at this age. I just knew I was Muslim, and that I had to follow some rules that my friends didn’t. Still, my mother wasn’t strict with me. I used to go to the park with my cousins, fall in love with travelling boys and dance with the music channels on full blast.

My life consisted of ignoring drama in my family home, skateboarding, roller skating and convincing the boys at school to let me play football. I watched extreme sports as much as I could, and dreamed of being able to do motor cycle tricks as soon as I was old enough.

Then my parents dropped a bomb shell on me when I was ten. I was to be whisked off to an Islamic boarding school. I cried, and I begged them to not send me away. My mum cried with me and I know she has always felt guilty about it. She believed getting me out of the family home which was turbulent would be good for me. She also is devout so couldn’t have been able to see how disastrous this decision would turn out to be.

I have spoken elsewhere about the school in some detail, but now would like to focus on the factors which led me to finally abandoning the Islamic faith all together.

I found myself aged 17 back in the UK from my year in Pakistan studying the Quran. Out there I had become completely dedicated to Islam, took on the veil and cried in the night about all the people who would burn in hell. Back in the UK my  heart was full of religious zeal. I had started college, and was teaching Quranic interpretation in the prayer room of the college. I was also teaching young children Islamic studies and Arabic. I now found myself with full access to the internet, something which I had not had in years. At school we had the internet in class, and that was about it. Newspapers and novels deemed inappropriate such as Harry Potter were banned or not provided. Television was also banned, although they like to claim that they gave us some limited television which is not true. Back home I started to browse the internet with ease. My parents were fairly strict with me but they always encouraged me to read, and go to the library. It was the acquisition of knowledge which crushed my belief in Islam in the end. I guess the Imaam who told me to stop reading so much when I presented my questions to him as a teen was right all along.

I had also started studying sociology where we looked at religion from a sociological perspective. I was introduced to feminism and Marxism. For the first time in my life I learnt that some people view religion as an apparatus for social control. With the feminist perspective of religion I began to think about religion as an apparatus to control the bodies, sexuality and lives of women. I had always learned that Islam had given women all their rights. For instance Muhammad stopped the practice of female infanticide and Aisha his wife had been a scholar after his death. Before I began studying feminism I thought the hijab was there to benefit women as it protected them. I hadn’t thought of the way that the hijab could be used to control women’s bodies.

I found myself thinking about Islam and women in a way that I had never dared to before. I did not like wearing the hijab as a young teen. I never wanted to wear it in the first place. By the time I was approaching my late teens I would have felt naked without it. I became fully conscious of the suffocation which had followed me for years. I saw my own submission to Islam after years of sometimes silent, and sometimes open rebellion. I remembered how I had said I didn’t want to wear hijab even though I was going to this school. So when did wearing it full time without complaint become a reality? When did I stop resisting?

I was in the library one day and had the tips of my fingers caressing the edges of books. Then a title jumped out at me and my jaw dropped. The God Delusion was staring at me. I had never imagined that belief in God could be a delusion. I genuinely believed that people who did not accept Islam knew it was the truth, but they themselves are rebelling because of their desires. I know.

I grabbed this book, and took it out feeling a mixture of excitement and fear. I had heard of evolution before reading Dawkin’s book. At Islamic school we didn’t learn about it. In Pakistan I read all about it in Harun Yahya’s excuse for a book where he tries to pin Nazism and Stalin’s actions on Darwin. Now I began reading about it in a different way. A lot of what Dawkin said didn’t slot into place because I didn’t really get evolution at all. I put The God Delusion down and decided to focus on evolution for a bit. I looked it up in the library catalog and was amazed at how many books came up. Here I was thinking it was a tiny fringe theory. I focused on that for awhile, and was convinced by all the evidence laid out before me.

I moved on from evolution to cosmology. At this point I was beginning to show cracks but I still clung onto God. I mean it could have been God who actually did evolution right? I tried to ignore Adam and Eve. I came across Carl Sagan’s The Pale Blue Dot. I confess I could only take in chunks of it. My science education was lacking, but one thing did penetrate my brain: how tiny we are. I saw a picture which changed my life forever which was mentioned in this book. It was a picture of a beam of light with a tiny blue dot, and that was earth. My heart stopped for a second when I saw that picture.

My fear of hell, dying, God, the hijab all vanished for a second. I stopped thinking about whether Islam was true or not, and just sat in awe about the magnitude of the universe we live in. I reasoned, and continue to do so, that even if God exists, he/she/ it would be magnificent enough to not care which foot I put in the toilet first, or if a drop of urine catches on my clothes which I was taught could lead to punishment in the grave. He/she/it couldn’t possibly be so petty as to punish us forever just because we didn’t worship correctly or were born into the wrong religion.

I know many believers are not convinced by the reasons I give as to why I don’t believe in God which is fair enough. They can believe whatever they like, and if they were convinced by the arguments against God’s existence then they would be skeptics also. Many will say that instructions on putting your foot in the toilet a certain way is not really what religion is about or that I have misunderstood religion. Perhaps I have done so after many years of studying it, but I doubt it. It is all well and good to speak about religion and God in the abstract but that is what religion is about to millions of people. Little instructions on how to live, eat, marry and so on. Eat with your right hand, say bismillah before hand, make sure to clean with your left hand and if you laugh during prayer start all over again.

I used to  sit on the roof of our conservatory with my spider man blanket watching the stars. When I realized that God may not exist I felt a lightness the like of which I have never experienced again. I was finally content realizing that someone was not reading my thoughts, deciphering my dreams and measuring the width of blackness in my heart. There was so much else which made me reject Islam. The rampant homophobia, the half testimony of women, the legitimization of wife beating in the Quran, and slavery of non-Muslim women after war.

I accept some people are willing to ‘contextualize’ the wife beating verse, but sorry if the Quran is the last guide for all of mankind to follow don’t you think Allah could have put a note saying that women should not be beaten in any context, at any time? Also the Quran calls itself clear which doesn’t seem true to me. This is not to suggest that I am not aware that there are so many interpretations of Islam, and that it means different things to millions of people. This only suggests to me that Islam is a product of human invention and creativity and not from a creator. That Islam and the other religions in the world have come from us does not in anyway demean them for me. Rather I see religion as the end result of humanity’s need to understand the world around it. Now with science, the enlightenment and philosophy I don’t feel that belief in the supernatural is necessary to explain the world around us. However I do respect people’s right to believe whatever they like, and to practice however they like as long as it does not harm others.

I have now been Godless for around six years. I now dance, listen to music, go out at night, wear whatever the fuck I like and do as I please. I spent all of my teen years in a mental cage, and I have done my best to burst free from that. I have never regretted the decision to leave Islam, and to choose my own path.  As an ex-Muslim I have dealt with a lot of difficulties which I’ll discuss in another blog. My immediate family knew from the start. At first they did not understand, but as time has gone on they have respected who I am even if they don’t agree with me. As my mother told an extended family member recently, “all my daughter is saying is that she wants proof. I took her to imams”.

I have spent years alone as an ex-Muslim feeling isolated, guilty and ashamed because of prejudice within the Muslim community towards ex-Muslims. I had to re-wire my brain, and unlearn the misogyny that was ingrained in me. I have now found others out there, and I know things are changing for us. Sometimes we need to be told that not only are we not alone, but that there is nothing to be ashamed of.

Being faithless is becoming reality even in conservative Muslim communities. No matter how much religious leaders bleat that we are misinformed our numbers are growing. Prepare for the storm within.

A very short introduction

I have finally made a blog having planned to make one for ages!

This is a very short introduction to me and the kinds of things I will be blogging about.

I am a Pakistani, British, feminist, atheist, ex-Muslim, ex-hijabi, ex-niqabi, ex-fundamentalist movie lover. As you can see I embody many labels so good luck putting me into a box.

I have a degree in English literature from Brunel university.

I left Islam around six years ago when I was 19 for a whole load of reasons. I had always doubted the logic of Sunni Islam from as far as I can remember. Reading outside of Islamic literature, and facing my doubts in my late teens has led me on a journey from mindless belief to skepticism.

I went to an Islamic boarding school where I had religion rammed down my throat and where I naturally rebelled. I was finally thrown out of it at 15 in front of the entire school. I keep repeating everywhere I can that I was expelled for having a camera so that more people can become aware of how ludicrous the reasons are for expulsions in private faith schools.  I was rebellious as most students are, and was not a monstrous trouble maker as the school made out I was when questioned about my expulsion.

I watched as girls were expelled for having boyfriends, owning make up or for being gay. I know what it feels like to be indoctrinated which is why I am an advocate for secular education. This blog will be about my experiences, religion, education and feminism.

Warning: this blog will contain blasphemy.

Thanks for reading, and would love feedback about future posts.