Yasmine Mohammed, a Canadian human rights activist, joins to share her personal story of an arranged marriage to a member of Al-Queda and the trauma she faced as a result. She’ll also shed light on the many challenges women in Islamic majority countries face today and what we can do to advance the basic human rights that all women deserve.
Yasmine Mohammed advocates for the rights of women living within Islamic majority countries, as well as those who struggle under religious fundamentalism. She is also the founder of Free Hearts Free Minds, an organization that provides psychological support for freethinkers living within Muslim majority countries- where the state sanctioned punishment for leaving Islam is death. Her book, Unveiled, is a memoir that recalls her experiences growing up in a fundamentalist Islamic household and her arranged marriage to a member of Al-Qaeda. In it, she sheds light on the religious trauma that so many women still today are unable to discuss.
And welcome to she thinks a podcast where you’re allowed to think yourself. I’m your host, Beverly Hallberg. And on today’s episode, I’m pleased to have Yasmine Mohammed a Canadian human rights activist joining us. She’s going to share her personal story of her arranged marriage to a member of Al-Qaeda and the trauma she faced because of it. She’ll also shed light on the many challenges women in Islamic majority countries face today, and what we can do to advance the basic human rights that all women deserve. But before we dive in IWF does know that many Americans are facing unprecedented challenges due to COVID-19 and that it’s more important than ever to show what America’s made of. IWF is highlighting American ideals of ingenuity, generosity, and kindness from everyday Americans donating blood to companies providing free food and housing. It’s a beautiful reminder that we’re in this together. Visit iwf.org or check us out on Facebook and Twitter and follow our campaign using #inthistogether that is #inthistogether to learn more. Now to our feature guest today, Canadian human rights activist Yasmine Mohammed joins us.
She is an advocate for the rights of women living within Islamic majority countries, as well as those who struggle under religious fundamentalism. She is the founder of Free Hearts, Free Minds, an organization that provides psychological support for freethinkers living within Muslim majority countries where the state sanctioned punishment for leaving Islam is death. Her book “Unveiled” is a memoir that recalls her experiences growing up in a fundamentalist Islamic household and her arranged marriage to a member of Al-Qaeda and she sheds light on the religious trauma that so many women still today are unable to discuss. Yasmine, it is a pleasure to have you on she thinks today.
Thank you so much for having me Beverly.
And I just want to, first of all, commend you for your bravery and speaking out, not just your own story, but speaking on behalf of so many women in the world today. And I thought I would just start off by asking you to share more of your story. I encourage people to get your book “Unveiled” that I just mentioned, which is very detailed in your own experience. But can you share with us your own story, as far as your mother marrying somebody who was part of Al-Qaeda and then you being married to somebody who is part of Al-Qaeda.
Yeah, so my mom was married. She actually was taken as a second wife to a man who was a fundamentalist Muslim. He wasn’t a terrorist, but he was, like many Muslims, he was on the sidelines approving of the terrorism, but he himself was not a terrorist. She married him when I was about five or six years old and that’s when my life just changed completely. And all of a sudden my mom started covering her hair, music, our records. He broke all of our records because music was considered forbidden. I was no longer allowed to ride a bicycle, go swimming. I wasn’t allowed to have non-Muslim friends.
I mean, he just hit my life like a bomb. And from that moment on, I lived in a bubble where I was no longer a member of the Canadian society. I was in a bubble, separated from everybody else and I called it the bubble of Sharia. I attended Islamic schools where my mom just dove in head first. So she just became aboard again Muslim and aboard again fundamentalist Muslim. And she started studying at Al-Azhar University, which is a renowned Islamic university in Egypt.
She became the head of the Islamic studies department at the Islamic school that I attended. I was put in hijab at the age of nine, which meant I had to cover everything, but my face and hands. And suddenly my childhood was just completely ripped away from me. I wasn’t even allowed to laugh. I wasn’t allowed to speak loudly because even my voice was considered something that was [foreign language] which is the translation for that really is private part. So every aspect of a woman is considered a private part and should be hidden from view of the public. And that happened to me when I was nine years old and it continued like that until I was eventually forced into the marriage with the terrorist who my mom chose because she felt he was strong enough to control me.
So, I was the kind of person who always asked questions and was always pushing boundaries. I mean I say that, but it’s not like I did anything. Just the fact that I would ask simple questions like, “Why should we respect and honor a man who at 53 married a six year old girl? That sounds off to me, that sounds scary.” As a young girl, listening to that he sounds like a pedophile. And for me to ask those questions meant that I was this uncontrollable child that wouldn’t get in line and the devil was trying to coerce me with whispering all of these things in my ear.
So, she married me off to a man who she thought would be strong enough to finally keep me in line. And to be honest, it worked initially because he covered me head to toe in black. Now, I had already been covering everything but my face and hands, but now my face and hands were covered too. I was never allowed to leave the house. We had curtains on all our windows, but he also covered all of the windows in paper, just in case the wind would blow the curtain and anybody could see in between the crack. And it was essentially a prison.
And it was… if it wasn’t for the fact that I had a daughter and I felt like I really needed to get out of that world to save her, I don’t think I would’ve found the courage to survive for myself because I was completely depleted. I had nothing left to fight with, but I was contacted by CSIS who are the Canadian CIA and they told me who I was married to. And it made sense of course. Connecting all the dots made perfect sense and that I knew that I had to get my daughter away from him and myself away from him before he took us both to Afghanistan, which is where he was with Al-Qaeda for 10 years before I met him.
So, through a long-convoluted process which is detailed in my book, I was able to get myself and my daughter away. Thankfully she’s free today and she has no idea about this world. It’s completely foreign to her and so I feel like I have succeeded in that.
And of course, you’re speaking out for many women who are currently in this situation. I think a lot of people hear your story and say, “Well, how does this happen in Canada? How does this happen in the United States?” What do you say to people who think that this is something that only happens in let’s say Afghanistan?
Yeah. I think that when the caliphate rose in Syria and Iraq, we saw people from all over the world burning their passports. German passports, British passports, Canadian, American, and running to join this terrorist organization. So that should have let people know that this is not something that is just happening over there. It’s happening in your own backyard all the time. I mean, the Islamic school that I went to was … they were not apologetic. They were not hiding. They were incredibly transparent. I mean, not just the one I went to. If you go on YouTube there’s all sorts of videos there all the time where people are recording the sermons that are happening in mosques, talking about kill the nonbelievers and et cetera, et cetera. And those kinds of ideas are being passed on to new generations of kids, new generation of Muslim kids, even though they’re living in the Western world. They’re still being indoctrinated with those ideas.
And so, these ideas don’t have borders. You can’t stop ideas from traveling across borders. And when parents, for example when people leave their country of origin and they go somewhere else, they become even more stringent. So let me put it for you, let me give you an example. I used to teach at a college in the Middle East, everything was there. Texas A&M is there. Virginia Commonwealth is there. All sorts of universities and colleges are there. And the reason why they are being built in the Middle East, as opposed to sending their kids out into the liberal world, into the Western world is because they don’t want their kids to pick up these ideas of equality and liberty. And so they want their kids to have the Western education, but they don’t want them to pick up those anti-Islamic ideas.
And so, when somebody like my mother, and that’s just one example, but this is across the board, leaves their Islamic country and they come into what they consider infidel land surrounded by non-believers. They try really, really hard to suppress and to control all of those ideas of equality and liberalism and et cetera, et cetera, from tainting their child. They don’t want their child to be contaminated with those ideas.
So, there is a real concerted effort to segregate those kids from the rest of the society to always tell them that we are Muslims. Just like that, that divisive us and them mentality is so, so pervasive. There’s this saying where they say, just because you were born in a barn, it doesn’t mean that you’re a horse. So just because you’re born in the UK, doesn’t mean that you’re British. And so even though you’re being born and raised here, you’re being born and raised to always believe and understand and acknowledge that you are different. You are separate. You are amongst non-believers. You are amongst infidels and you have to constantly be on guard against them.
And I’m assuming that meant for you less interaction with friends and people that you went to school with. You even discussed in your book how there was physical abuse against you and when you went to social services. But there is nothing done by social services and law enforcement. So the question I have for you is we are seeing, at least in the United States, some legislation that’s been pushed forward in different states to try to act out or to try to prevent things like female genital mutilation taking place. Do you find either in the provinces in Canada, or in the states in the United States, that there is at least good legislation trying to push back on some of this behavior that obviously is extremely damaging, especially to young women?
Yes. There are lots of great people that are trying to fight against these things. But unfortunately, they are met with a tsunami of resistance. So first of all, you’re going to have the groups of just ignorant, naive, do-gooders, who don’t understand anything and who say things like FGM is a cultural choice or people wear hijab because it’s empowering and it’s feminist. So they’re not understanding the danger of perpetuating or supporting or celebrating these things that really hurt women because they’re looking at it from the point of view of cultural relativity. You kind of alluded to that in my book, I talk about how I spoke about the abuse that was happening in my family and it went all the way to court and the judge essentially said to me, “Your family is from an Arab background and so that’s just how they choose to discipline you. They choose to hang you up upside down in the garage and whip you. That’s their choice because that’s the culture that they come from.”
So what I was hearing from that judge was I’m not going to protect you because you happen to have been born in the wrong family. If you had been sitting in front of me here blonde hair, blue eyed from a German family or a British family or a French family, then I would protect you. But you happen to be coming from an Arabic family, so there’s nothing I can do for you. So that ignorance of wanting to support all cultures end up supporting these victims to be continually oppressed, which is really the subtitle of my book. How Western liberals empower radical Islam. It’s really about that ignorance of perpetuating this.
And of course the fundamentalist Muslims are very happy to have those group of people speaking out for them because they also want to continue with these very misogynistic, cultural practices. One of them being like you mentioned the FGM and many others. And they use unfortunately, secular laws against itself. So what they’ll do is they’ll say things like, “This is my religious freedom” and that’s actually what happened in a doctor at the [inaudible 00:14:40] foundation tried to get a doctor in, I think it was Minnesota. And she was charged for performing FGM on all of these little girls for I don’t know how many years, like 15 years or something. And she got off and she’s free today because they used the religious freedom excuse. That’s absolutely unacceptable.
If your religion says that you should take a razor to a little girl genitals, then the laws should supersede whatever it is that your religion is teaching if it is teaching something that is against basic humanity. We need to protect those little girls, whether they have brown skin or white skin is irrelevant. If a blonde hair, blue eyed family took a razor to their little girl, that family would be in prison. So it should be the same when it’s a family from Somalia or a family from Egypt. It’s irrelevant. That little girl, whether she has white skin or brown skin, is going to feel the same amount of pain. And she’s going to have the same amount of lifetime psychological and physical damage. It doesn’t matter where her family comes from.
And do you have any thoughts or feelings on to Congress women who are Muslim American members of Congress, that’s Congresswoman Omar and also Congresswoman Tlaib. They are within the Muslim community. Any thoughts on how they say that they have a diversity of thoughts and ideas within the Islamic community?
No, they do not have … So they have a diversity of you’re getting a visual diversity here. So yes, the left loves these women because they look different. They have a different skin color. They have a different name. Ilhan wears a hijab. It makes them look diverse and inclusive. But the really sad thing is, is they’re supporting these women that are all about divisiveness. They are the opposite of inclusiveness. These are women that have been unapologetically antisemitic. They are not the kind of women that you should be celebrating in the democratic party. If you really want to have an inclusive, diverse, dynamic party and you want to include women from different countries and different backgrounds, please do that.
But there are women from Palestine. Me, my father is from Palestine. I’m not American, but there are many women and men who are from Arab backgrounds, from Muslim backgrounds that will fight against antisemitism. That will fight against these divisive things that Rashida and Ilhan support. So we shouldn’t be looking to a person’s background or to their skin color. We should be looking to the person’s values. Whose values match with our values? If this is a person who doesn’t agree with basic American values, then that’s not somebody that you should be uplifting in your political party. You should be choosing somebody whose values match the values of your party.
And what would you say to a critic who says, “Well, Yasmine, what happened to you is horrific, but we are talking about years ago. That things have improved today, even when you look at Saudi Arabia, they’ve changed laws there to allow more rights to women there. Do you think that things have improved on a large scale or is this just in many ways stories that we hear in the news, but nothing that really permeates how women are treated on a day to day basis?
I mean, that’s exactly it. So a lot of these things that you’re hearing about are really just window dressing, like the driving, for example. So, there’s so much more context there. The women that fought for the right to drive, for example, those women are rotting in prison today. And the right to drive has been given to women, yes, but under all sorts of stipulations. There’s all these little asterixis and one of them is that sure, you can get those driver’s license if your male guardian approves. Sure, you can get a car, if your male guardian approves. Sure, you can leave the house, if your male guardian approves. So it’s still perpetuating that same system, because unfortunately this is a society. This is a mindset. It’s a huge hurdle. You can’t undo these things overnight.
The people themselves have to be wanting to make the changes and once they say we’ve given women the right to drive, that’s just something to get international media excited so that Americans can look at that and think, “Oh, hey, look at that. Saudi Arabia is our ally and they’re making some big changes.” But the truth is, on the ground those changes take a lot more than just changing a law slightly. It’s going to take changing hearts and minds. And luckily that is happening and it’s happening for two reasons. Number one, ISIS did a big, huge thing. It helped a lot because it allowed a lot of Muslims to see the end game. This is the result. Al-Azhar University that I mentioned earlier when they asked Al-Azhar, “Is ISIS Islamic?” Because that’s the question people always love to say, ISIS has nothing to do with Islam. And so they asked Al-Azhar University, “Does ISIS have anything to do with Islam? Can you denounce ISIS?” And the university’s response was, “If we denounced ISIS, then that means we are denouncing Islam. ISIS are not doing anything that the prophet Muhammad didn’t do. They are following in the footsteps, they’re following what the religion is asking them to do.”
And so when Muslims were finally faced with that it’s different when you see a theoretically talk about, “Oh, we’re going to have a caliphate and kill all the ex-Muslims and get rid of all the Jews. That’s something that they talk about in the mosque all the time. Even the rocks and the trees will speak out and they will say, “Oh, Muslim, there is a Jew hiding behind me.”
All of these ridiculous stories about how we’re going to … the world we must annihilate all non-Muslims. It’s very different when you’re just hearing somebody yell about that in a mosque on a Friday, or reading about it in a Quran. Versus seeing videos and living in Iraq or living in Syria and seeing how people’s lives, seeing how Yazidi women are taken as sex slaves. Yazidi young girls are taken as sex slaves. How Yazidi boys are taken from their families and being raised as most from soldiers. When Isis fell and they took those boys and gave them back to their families, those boys didn’t even know who their families were anymore. They had changed their names. They changed their identities. They had changed their religion.
So, Muslims are seeing these kinds of things happen and they’re realizing, “Oh my gosh, this is horrible. I want nothing to do with this. This is disgusting.” It’s the exact same kind of reaction I had when 9/11 happened here. So, because this is my context on this side of the world, when 9/11 happened, I was absolutely horrified that I belonged to the same group of people that just did that. I was so embarrassed. I was so disgusted. I felt like I just wanted to come out of my skin. I just couldn’t handle it. And so that’s happening to people in the Muslim world now when they see what ISIS are doing. It’s making them feel like, “Oh my God, how do I identify as the same people as these terrorists and murderers?” And so ISIS has helped a lot. And the second thing that has helped a lot for people to see that there are a lot of problems with the religion.
And the second thing that has helped is the internet. So YouTube videos, Twitter, Facebook, all of these campaigns that we’re doing all the time, just there’s one happening today that started from a girl just talking about how she doesn’t want to wear the hijab and she’s being forced to wear the hijab. And they suspended her account. And so everybody is in solidarity with her. They’re sharing their stories and they’re saying we have the right to share our stories. And so these girls wouldn’t be able to say that in real life. They have to open anonymous accounts. They have to be very careful. They have to use VPNs because people online will be trying to catch them, right? These kinds of things happen. If you are gay online in Saudi Arabia, for example, there have been cases where the police will try to pretend that they are trying to get a date with you and then they’ll arrest you because it’s against the law to be gay there and you could actually be executed for it In 15 Muslim majority countries you could be executed for it.
So it’s very, very scary for people to speak out. But because of the internet, they’re able to do that in a way that they can protect themselves. And then you have, of course, women in Iran who will do this out in the streets. They will take a hijab off, tie it to a stick and then they just sway in the wind as just a defiance of having to wear this thing on their head. And those women, of course, they’re getting arrested in droves and there are so many women in prison today for doing that. But the bravery of these people cannot ever be overestimated. I mean, Iran is a country that recently murdered 1,500 protesters in its streets, just left their bodies in the streets and rivers just strewn around the country for protesting against the government.
So, for these women to stand up and protest for their rights and to demand their equality and to demand to be treated as equal human beings, I mean, there are no words to express their bravery. I am in absolute unending awe of these women and I want to do anything I can to support them and to help their voices be heard over here. So that when there are people in the Western world that do absolutely ridiculous things like taking the hijab and putting it on Barbie’s head or Nike putting their swoosh on a hijab or putting it on the cover of magazines or in advertisements or media all over the place. I want them to recognize that when they do that, they are betraying these women that are risking their lives to fight against this misogyny. They don’t get how dangerous they’re being, here in Canada and in New Zealand and all over the world.
There are all sorts of female politicians that put hijabs on their head. You are a free woman with power, and you are choosing instead of using your power to help powerless women, you are choosing to use your power to instead support the oppressors of those powerless women. I mean, it’s just beyond understanding. I feel like if you are a politician, then it is your responsibility to understand what you’re doing before you do it, instead of doing something so atrocious that I hope that they’re doing out of ignorance and not because they actually did want to do that.
And this leads me to my final question for you, for those who are listening to this right now and want to know if there’s anything they can do to help. You are the founder of Free Hearts and Free Minds, that’s an organization that people can look up. But what can people do if they want to help these women, not just around the world, but sometimes in their own back yard who are trying to fight against this oppressive culture, oppressive family relationships that put them in these situations. What can people do?
So, if they are financially able, it would be great if they could support my organization, FreeHeartsFreeMinds.com. And if they are not able to financially support, then they can still go on Twitter and go on the #freefromhijab, which is free from H I J A B, where it’s a lot of women sharing their stories and just to let them know that we’re here as their cheerleaders. We see them, we hear them, we feel them, we support them. And we want them to know that they’re not alone and that we support them in their efforts and that we hope that they will attain their freedom very soon.
Well, we thank you so much for all you’re doing on this subject and also for sharing your own story. We know that this is … probably puts your own life in danger to talk about it, but we know that you’re helping so many women and the world. So thank you, not only for doing that, but also for joining us today.
Thank you so much for having me Beverly, I really appreciate it.
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