“I firmly believe that knowledge is power and freedom.” – Sarah – Kiron Student
My name is Sarah, I am 27-years-old and I am from Lahore, Pakistan. I am agnostic, even though I was born in a Muslim family – but I transitioned out of the religion and this is a big part of my identity. I grew up in a highly conservative and dogmatic family. Hence, I was made to believe everything you are told you are not supposed to question and also that you are supposed to fear this ‘god figure’. I thought I needed to fear and love him at the same time – a relationship that was put upon me like a heavy cloak of Islam identity. This was part of my upbringing and part of myself – I was dressed with this identity and constantly afraid. I believed I would be sent to hell if I thought wrong. This was really stressful for me. It was like growing up in this mind cage, in which your own way of thinking is constrained by the bars around you.
When I was 15-years-old I shoplifted a copy of the Bible – again I was afraid – it is not allowed to look into other religions, there is no other god! My decision to look into other religions could have gotten my family into trouble and even put in prison. Therefore, I did not want to show the book to the shopkeeper. I still remember everything that day – the shop, the books, the smell, my rapid heartbeat. I was buying Harry Potter, like any other girl my age. But unlike other girls, I carried a secret with me: the Bible! I had covertly slipped it underneath my coat – and squeezed it to my tense body. My heart was pounding when the shopkeeper asked me to pay for Harry Potter. I feared that he might see through my coat and realize what I was carrying. I paid with shaking hands and ran home quickly. However, my fear prevailed and I did not read this secret book for six months. The fear of even possessing this forbidden secret was already too much. I couldn’t even bear looking at it, and reading it was unthinkable.
But one day I somehow over came this fear thanks to my love for books and curiosity. I realized that books are all created by humans; Every book is a human stories, even books of religion. And despite the differences, they all share a lot of similarities. Judaism and Christianity and even the message of Islam, are very similar. Except that Islam is in away very political and economic, since, unlike Jesus, prophet Mohammed was a statesman. He followed state policy and therefore his religion is based on politics.When you grow up with your own religion you believe it blindly – when you read another religion you look at it critically. In an ironic way, this has also taught me to look at Islam in a critical way. I realized that I have a mind of my own – and that I can use it. It took me two years to break free from my indoctrinated identity, this heavy Islamic coat that had been put upon me and this mind cage that had captured my thoughts. I had to overcome a lot of fear since I had learned to constantly be afraid, living in fear, that god would punish me or my family. I was afraid of many things, including my own thoughts. I was even afraid that my mother would be struck by lightning if I would think about things that I should not think about.
However, the internet saved my life! Since I was not able to talk to anyone about the strange things I was thinking about and the things that I was not allowed to think about – my only solution was to go online and find other people to talk to. I wanted to find people who think like me. I almost gave up, thinking there would be no way out of this mind prison of fear that I grew up with, and then the internet showed me that there are so many other doors, and that there is a way out. On the internet, a lot of Arabs had formed ex-Muslim communities, that gave me hope and showed me that there was a way to leave. They helped me with my thoughts and led me to this renaissance of god.
When I was 18-years-old I went abroad to study in Qatar. This was the next big door I choose to leave my past. Even though it was still an Islamic country and I had to study Medicine, I had a way to step into new territory and think for myself. I was so happy to study abroad, even though the field of study was not my choice. In Pakistan and India you either become an engineer or a doctor – otherwise your family loses their face. Girls should be doctors, whilst engineering is much more a male domain. Hence, my family wanted me to study Medicine, and I was happy to do anything to get out of Pakistan. Because for women, it is terrible. You are only half a human to a man. As a women, there is no true freedom! You cannot wear normal t-shirts, you always have to cover yourself, and you have to be indoors after sunset.
However, in school, I had the opportunity to be educated by the Cambridge system, which allowed me to get in touch with western culture, English movies and literature, the western gender image and free life. This was always very frustrating. In Pakistan the word to be free is an insult word. “Freedom” in the sense of a “free country” is different – to the “freedom of a person”, which has a negative connotation. Even though the rights of women are very similar in Qatar, it is very international and you can easily blend in. Nevertheless, it is still not real freedom since you cannot be free openly. But at least in Qatar, I could be free indoors. However, falling in love is a lot of stress, since you always have to hide from the law just because you are doing something normal. I studied medicine for three years, then changed to business administration when I was 22. I felt at home in Qatar. I liked my university, my friends, and was very active writing and debating about religion versus rationality. The American University campus I was studying at felt like a free zone, where my mind was finally not caged. But this was when the problems began, I could not hide underneath this identity cloak anymore. Eventually I felt comfortable enough and openly said that I had lost the religion and people around me. To my surprise, even my friends got really angry and could not seem to understand.
It was during this difficult time that I travelled to Europe on a tourist trip. When I was just about to go back to my home in Qatar, already lining up to board at Zürich Airport, boarding pass in hand – I received a call from the Dead of my university, that I should not come back. He told me that if I would come back they would deport me back to Pakistan. I was standing in line, feeling stuck and unsure of what to think or do. It felt like in a matter of a few seconds they had turned off the switch to my whole life and I that now I had to turn on a new one. I did not know what to do. I was in the boarding zone – a prisoner of Nomans-Land. I was not in Switzerland, nor anywhere else. So, I sat down – and again, I turned to the internet to help answer my questions and find a solution. I asked for political asylum. This concept seemed absurd to me. Something only famous people would ask for – eople like Edward Snowden and certainty not people like me. The border police took me to the transit zone where I had a room to sleep and eat. I was stuck, I could not go out, I could not open the windows and my feelings were like a shaken cocktail. I did not know if I should feel happy, sad or angry. Since I had arrived in Germany at the beginning of my travel tour, this is where they transferred me back to. I bought a ticket to Konstanz and then to Karlsruhe in order to follow the Asylum application process. As a political refugee, I was allowed to stay in Karlsruhe. I started learning German. Again, the internet helped me in arriving to my new country and in learning German. I started living a ‘normal’ western life. However, there was a lot of harassment by other refugees, especially men. They said: “You are not what a Muslima should be” and called me names. It was not easy, but I was so happy to finally breathe the sweet air of freedom.
In 2016, it was again the internet that helped me! I found out about Kiron and started studying Business Administration. Kiron helped me a lot during a tough time of transition. Kiron gave me a chance to study instead of just sitting at home waiting. I was learning more German and felt truly integrated as a free women. I was finally allowed to be free and not be judged. Nevertheless, I was constantly thinking about these two different worlds worlds. I thought about my past, my friends and my family back home. I reminisced about my mother and sister and wondered what life they lived and other the lives other women lived. I thought about how their suppression, how I changed, and most of all how we could all change. I dreamt about the ways that the mentality over there could change and how they could taste the true sense and beauty of freedom the way that I finally was.
Today I study business mathematics at the Karlsruhe Institute for Technology. I feel very happy, grateful and satisfied that I am able to take control and plan what I want to do with my life. I am finally able to be myself, without hiding underneath a cloak. I am just me – a crazy free-thinker that is extremely rebellious! My dream is that one day the whole eastern world will become secular. This does not guarantee freedom – but without it, the policies are governed by religion. Politics and religion should never go together. For myself, I want to be a strong, free women who follows her career. Maybe one day I will work in business consulting, I will have my own home, my own roof and maybe even a vegetable garden with hens running around. It will be a life of my own without dependency on anyone else. Because if you are independent – you are free!
Interview by Flora Roenneberg