The Six Month Mark: Anxiety, Activism and Aspirations

As I write this I am sat on a train to London, for my first speaking event of 2020. There is an air of excitement entangled with anxiety. I am excited because of the incredible women I’ll be spending International Women’s Day with and talking about issues that are important to me. But, I am also riddled with anxiety, people are going to see me, people are going to hear me. I am going to put on a stage, with everyone listening to the words I have to say. And that terrifies me. 

March, marks six months since I ‘came out’ publicly on social media as an ex-Muslim. Through a video, as part of EXMNA’s (Ex-Muslims of North America) #AwesomeWithoutAllah to which I announced my apostasy to the world and launched The Sinning Skeptics Podcast. I can’t believe it has all flown by so fast, in that time we’ve had a rough ride with the podcasts, with friends of mine putting their lives at risk to have an opinion on their apostasy. I’ve been on other YouTube channels within the atheist community bringing light to ex-Muslim issues and shedding light on repressive blasphemy and apostasy laws across the Islamic world. And now, I have the privilege of working with the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain and Faith to Faithless to share my story and aims for the future with the world. 

It’s all happening so fast, I haven’t really had time to sit and just breathe. This train journey is giving me just that. In the same six months, I have established myself in my job and completed a semester of my masters. All on top of maintaining this site and relaunching The Sinning Skeptics. It hasn’t come without its own battles. The past six months have tested my mental health in ways it hasn’t done so before. 

January has easily been the most difficult month for me in a long while. Trying to balance writing, essays and working.  It was the first month I had a panic attack since October.  I remember sitting at my desk writing my dissertation research proposal and feeling my chest tighten, my cheeks heat up and my breathing starting to go. All because of an essay. I had to shut down my laptop, and in the panic, I remembered a friend mentioning meditation helped. I had this app on my phone and it went through breathing exercises, which helped me in ways I cannot explain. It helped me focus on different parts of my body with each breath, so I could just release all the pent up stress and worry. 

After that, I took two days off just to regroup and relax, after the panic attack which left me a little shook up because I had never had one like that. Usually, they’re triggered by traumatic memories or high tension/emotional confrontations. This was a new one for me, just being sat down and not being able to control what was happening to my body because of my mind. 

Since then, I haven’t had an intense experience like that since which is good for me in my books. I know it’s likely to appear soon with the two public speaking events, and five deadlines this month. 

As a young activist, I am still finding my feet in how I can help make a difference in the world. I know I lack experience and resources to make a physical change, so the approach I’ve been taking is giving voice to those who can’t speak publicly for themselves. This is why I am so proud of my post for World Hijab/No Hijab Day, it allowed women from Muslims backgrounds, from practising to apostate and those in between to share their experiences with the hijab. There was so much crossover, which is why when fighting for rights of apostates of Islam it’s fighting for the rights of the followers too. Many of them have been affected or are affected by the toxic attitudes towards hijab, women’s bodies and the ability to practice religion however one chooses to do so. 

In the new year, I have also had the amazing opportunity to work with the Index on Censorship by being a part of their Youth Advisory Board. Through this, I have interacted with young people from all over the world, from India to America. I have been able to connect with likeminded people who are passionate about making the world a freer place to live for all. It has allowed me to bring attention to freedom of religion issues, women’s rights issues and health issues in my community. Last month, we discussed health and censorship, in which I covered mental health attitudes in Pakistan. I am looking forward to seeing where the next few months working with them takes me. 

Sunday, March 8th takes us to International Women’s Day, which I spent with the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain at an event called No Longer Without You: Apostasy, Shunning and Survival. It was an evening of film, poetry and discussion. 

The night kicks off with the screening of Nazmiye Oral’s film, No Longer Without You, in which she and her mother perform a play they’ve toured with, in the living room of the family house in front of her siblings and daughters. This film had me on the brink of tears numerous times but had me laughing at the same time. The film hit on so many themes and scenarios that I had experienced in my life, surrounding religion, independence and relationships with my own family. It is something I hope to one day share with my mother because we have a special bond around film, and I do believe this film could help me talk to about the issues Nazmiye and her mother, Havva discuss. The panel discussion was such an amazing experience for me to hear women from all backgrounds and professions discuss the effects of shunning from the psychological to the financial. I got to share my experience with the threat of shunning for the first time in public speaking candidly.  I cannot lie, the whole hour or so before it I felt so anxious that I could have thrown up, but it was the women I was sat with that put me at ease. A lot of them has been through or known people who had been through similar experiences to myself, and hearing them speak had me in such awe, that I wish I had spoken more.

I didn’t have much time to relax after this as it was onto speech writing for my Faith to Faithless panel on Leaving Faith Behind. I had to give a five-minute speech on why and how I left religion. The title of the event “Leaving Faith Behind,” really struck me because I don’t feel like I’ve left faith behind. 

Now, you might think well you're an atheist, you’ve left religion and therefore, you have left faith behind. 

Wrong. 

If I had left faith behind I wouldn’t be here doing what I am doing, I wouldn’t be writing this post, I would just be living my life. I could have left quietly, it was an option, my parents were fine with my apostasy and I could have just lived as I had done. 

But I couldn’t. Not when my friends have been victims of high control religion, not when my friends are living in countries where they are under the control of political Islam, in countries where their existence can lead to a death sentence or honour killings. Not when I have the privilege to live and breathe how I wish to because I live in a secular state. 

That is why I cannot leave faith behind. 

The panel was made up of myself, an Ex-Christian and the current chair of Faith to Faithless, Aliyah Saleem. Despite this being a much smaller gathering than CEMB's event, this one I felt more nervous about. I think this is because it was much more intimate, and I was speaking for a much longer time with the attention focused on me and my experiences. I didn't end up sticking to the speech I planned, but I felt it had gone well and in fact, I was even more open about my experiences going from faith to faithless.  I feel like I have addressed the first two A's, anxiety and activism, but yet to touch on aspirations. Given I wrote the majority of this post before the pandemic has begun, the aspirations I had then and the aspirations I have now are very different. Coronavirus has spread, not just the disease itself but the fear that's been installed by the constant media coverage, and that it is the only topic of conversation among people in work and outside of it.  The plan I had in my head of applying for internships and jobs has become all so uncertain with the closure of universities including the one I am at. Now social distancing has become a thing, a lot of this has flared up my anxiety, so much so that I kept forgetting it was my birthday and held an apathetic attitude towards it.  It all reached a boiling point if that is the right phrase, a few days ago when I receive multiple emails from the university after waiting to hear about assignments and I just sat in a state of panic on my bed. I ended up booking a train home because I needed to get out of the university environment.  Things were still up in the air with my job, with my education, and it all reached its peak when I burst into tears on the train home. Luckily, no one said anything or took notice, I think because everyone knows how hard it is right now. Living in a constant state of uncertainty is making it increasingly difficult to get through the days for many people right now. The constant access to media, largely social media which gives you news updates by the second can be incredibly overwhelming.  As a journalism student, I had news notifications sent from various outlets to my phone. Normally, it wouldn't bother me, but getting constant updates on the coronavirus situation just kept making me feel anxious, that I had to switch all of them off. It has been such a relief not to see every five minutes another story about the situation. Watching Boris's daily updates is what I am limiting myself to, just to protect my own mental health and stop any excessive worrying. But, also because I still want to be politically aware and informed about the situation in my country, and abroad.  We are really living in uncertain times right now, that I don't really have any aspirations. I just want us to make it through this pandemic, through the social distancing and isolation which is going to have a massive impact on the mental health of all of us.  Initially, I thought this Six Month Mark post was going to be a happy and uplifting one, which it should be for the most part. But, this last month, month six has been incredibly hard for me and I know for many. I just hope in six months time, things are better, the virus has calmed down, people are less panicked and society can move forward from now. 

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