Editor’s Note: Sahara is currently working on an autobiography going more in depth about her experience. You can also read her article Dear this American Life which gives even more detail about her life and her new advocacies. Follow her on Twitter for more info on her book.
My name is Sahara (Sara). I was born in Somalia but grew up in a refugee camp in Kenya for about 12 years. My biological mother died right after I was born. My biological father and I were separated due to the civil war in Somalia in 1991. Many years later, I came to America. I had no formal education and did not even know how to write my first name. I literally started from zero at the age of seventeen!
From an early age, I dreamt that I would someday be able to attend school. I was eager to learn how to read and write. Today, thanks to America and the opportunity it provided, I was able to graduate from college. Many people believed in me and helped me through my journey to become literate!
I remember very well a big event that took place in my teenage years in Kenya. My biological father’s side of the family began to force me to do something that would have had a detrimental effect on my future. I was brutally beaten for questioning their decision. (Children and women are commonly physically and mentally abused in the culture I came from). I eventually escaped from my family to seek a better life.
I came to the USA at the age of seventeen. All the girls I came with got married and a few worked at jobs that didn’t require English. In Kenya, especially in the camp where I grew up, girls got married (arranged and forced) at very young ages between 14- 15. In Somali culture it’s a common practice. I am against girls or boys being forced to marry without their consent. I never pictured that life for myself. I always knew in my heart that there was more than what I was told ! I dreamt of a different world where I could choose what I wanted in life. My goals and dreams were to become literate. I had dreamt as a little girl that someday, I would go somewhere in the world and become someone who could make a difference in humanity and for society. I didn’t quite know what that “something” was, but I knew I wanted to become educated and especially learn how to read and write.
My caregivers wanted me to do the same thing the other girls were doing. This meant they thought I should get married and maybe also get a job and make money so that I could send financial support to people back in Kenya. I stood up for myself because my dream was to go to highschool and then onto college. The caregiver didn’t approve of this. I stood up to them and stuck to my word. I told them that it’s never too late to learn and I was going to become literate!
As I began to comprehend English, I learned how to read and think more critically. I grew up being told that Allah will strike you down if you remove your hijab in public. I was indoctrinated that Islam is the only path in life. Other people were infidels. People who I was told not to associate with (gaalo) were so kind and welcomed me to this new home with open arms. I always wondered why a creator would create other good people with different beliefs that would go to hell. I feel a creator would know our hearts regardless of what particular beliefs we hold. It is important to be a good person without having to put a label on people. Labels divide people. We are all part of the human race.
When I first removed my headcover (Hijab), it was the first time since I was six or seven. Allah did NOT strike me down ! We are told that in order to put fear in children. I felt good about my decision. It was an empowering experience! It was a beautiful moment to feel the wind through my hair, especially when I rode my bike! I learned how to ride a bike about 3 years ago! I remember where I grew up, girls didn’t ride bikes because that was not culturally acceptable.
I believe it was around 2016 to 2017 when I started looking into Islam and its teachings in an objective manner. While conversing with a coworker, Ayaan Hersey Ali’s name came up. The person I was having a conversation with said “Ayaan needs to die and deserves to be killed!” I replied, “Why would you kill someone? Doesn’t she have the same rights as you?” Then this person said to me, “Do you know that I can kill you (meaning me) if you leave Islam and remove your headcover?” (hijab). I was terrified and so heartbroken that someone I knew justified that she could kill me because her book (Quran) allowed her to do so!
This was my full wake up call. I started reviewing Islam and its teachings, thinking more deeply as I read. I’ve discovered that if individuals simply decide to leave this ideology of Islam and its teachings, they are apostates. This means Islam and its teachings death calls to ExMuslims! These threats, bullies and abuses happen around the world, even in America and other western countries. The hypocrisy in a country that values freedom of speech and religion but allows death threats against ExMuslims is appalling!
We need to deal with Islam’s denials, stigmas and taboos. We are told not to talk about Allah’s words which I find very hard. We need to discuss the rights of the whole human being, women, children, and vulnerable people. It is sad that the religion of Islam cannot tolerate critique/criticism. I have always thought that if religion is truly from a creator, that it should speak for itself, not human beings having to defend it. I have a dream that someday people will look at each other as human beings, rather than at their race or religion. I am not speaking out against the people, who I have nothing against, but against the lies and terrible practices encouraged by the Islamic ideology. Stay humble and spread kindness.