â€œItâ€™s about my identity,â€ Yara Ali saidÂ with confidence. Ali is an Arab-Iraqi lawyer and prominent activist living in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq;Â for security reasons, she uses a pseudonym.
â€œI was forced to wear it. It was to protect me, but it wasnâ€™t me.â€ Yara, 29, told Al-Monitor. A couple of years ago, the modern, educated woman who had become a professional and loved her job decided to take off her headscarf.
Her internal conflict was caused byÂ her upbringing by a pious mother and a secular father. â€œI was raised to be independent and strong, with my mother setting limits,â€ she said. The emancipation process gained speed when she traveled for her work and studies and was introduced to people with different backgrounds from her own.
â€œExtremist groups were another layer,â€ she saidÂ of the process that ended with her eventually taking off theÂ headscarf. The policies that the Islamic StateÂ (IS) promoted in captured areas inside Iraq and Syria, andÂ the atrocities they committed there, shocked the world. â€œIt made me worry how people saw me â€” because ofÂ ISÂ many people now view Muslims asÂ bad people.â€
Although Arab Barometer,Â a research network at Princeton University and the University of Michigan, suggestsÂ that the political system in countries like Iraq andÂ Lebanon reinforces religious identities, which serves to maintain the religious influence in daily life, the same body concluded its 2019 polling surveys by writing, “There has been a decline in religious faith and trust in religious parties across the Middle East and North Africa.”
â€œWe need to confrontÂ the supporters of these extraneous atheistic ideas with positiveÂ thinkingÂ and with an iron fist by exposing the methods they use in disseminating their ideas,â€ Ammar al-Hakim, Shiite cleric and head of the Hikma bloc, said in 2017.
There are different ways of being irreligionist.Â Some young peopleÂ simply move to atheism and identify themselves as atheists, or only show indifference to religion or chose to be a liberal Muslim instead of aÂ traditional or conservative Muslim. Others convert to religions with less religious commitments like Christianity or modern religions like Bahaism. And some others chose an ancient religion like Zoroastrianism. Finally, some only show their different views on religion with a different practice, such asÂ taking off the headscarf to express critique of the dominant religion.
Ali feelsÂ that religion in Iraq had become a “confusing question.”Â â€œI moved away, I distanced myself from it. I believe in God.Â I am called a Muslim but do not pray, and fast only because of conservative people around me,â€ she added.
What she describes seems to be part of a larger movement of young people moving away from (conservative) Islam, as seen in Iraq in the post-2003 era, especially during and after the war against IS.
Al-Monitor met young men in Baghdad who had begun to question their faith as it had been presented to them, both because of the atrocities that IS said Islam allowedÂ and the corruption of the ruling Islamic parties. They turned away from imams and religious parties; some even joined the Communist Party. It also led to the protest movement that emergedÂ in the south of Iraq in October 2019, denouncing the endemic corruption and lack of services. Interestingly, despiteÂ Iraqâ€™s conservative culture, many of the protesters are female.
Official statistics are not available, but the trend is illustrated by the fact that religiousÂ practice like mosque attendance is down. According to Arab Barometer,Â the number of Iraqis who say they attend Friday prayers has fallen from 60% to 33% in five years time, in addition to a dramatic decline in trust in Iraqâ€™s Islamist partiesÂ â€”Â from 35% in 2013 to 20% in 2018.
According to Arab Barometer, the percentage of Arabs who describe themselves as “not religious”Â in the six countries polled â€” Iraq, Jordan, Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt and Libya â€” now stands at 13%, up from 8% in 2013. In 2013, around 51% of the respondents said they trusted their religious leaders to a “great”Â or “moderate”Â extent. In 2018, that number was down to 40%.
The trend goes hand in hand with the increased activism of young secular activists in the protestÂ movement. They are targeted by kidnappings andÂ assassinations, such as the recent killing of the outspoken Basra activist Rihaam Yacoub who had been organizing womenâ€™s protests. She wasÂ gunned down in the street.
Helen Sarainy, an Iraqi-Kurdish born pharmacistÂ who grew up in the United States, told Al-monitor thatÂ during a stay in her country of origin, she became aware of the injustice done to women under the guise of religion. â€œThere is a lot of misunderstanding of the faith to benefit men. Why should women have to cover under 15Â layers while guys can just wear a T-shirt? I realized that religion comes with parameters that men have set,â€ Sarainy, 37,Â saidÂ on the phone from Washington.
She notedÂ that there is a trend amongÂ young Muslim women who take off the headscarf. According to her, most do so before they reach the age of 18;Â she decided to take off her scarf seven years ago.
Women like her are experiencing pressure fromÂ religious groups and from groupsÂ thatÂ stereotype Muslims.
â€œI was a little late and missed a lot of opportunities because of it.â€ Sarainy said.Â â€œThe scarf was a barrier.â€ She did not get accepted into various graduate schools. After 9/11, the hijab became associated with the attack on the World Trade Center. â€œFor my securityÂ I was advised to take it off. But it was part of my faith, of my identity,â€ she said. So she didnâ€™t.
It was only after she visited the Kurdistan Region of Iraq that she changed her mind. She worked for Doctors Without Borders and taught at the American University Iraq in Sulaimaniyah. â€œI gotÂ tired of the attention for my hijab. I was developing my sense of identity and felt misrepresented. It was like carrying a flag. I am more than religion â€” and too much religion is dogma,â€ she noted.
She also realized that she had become more liberal. â€œI was doing things that are more offending to the faith than not covering. I was not honest, hypocrite even. Yet it was not an easy decision,â€ Sarainy added.
Sairany is writing a book about her “self-liberation”Â and the “self-discovery”Â that got her there.
Online is where a lot of the discussions about Islam take place, and where critical opinions are posted, as well as films that ridicule aspects of Islamic thinking.
â€œI talked to 17-year-oldsÂ who are discussing Islam online,â€ Ali said. â€œI was shockedÂ as they even dare to ask whether the Prophet Muhammad really existed.â€
Shilan Bahadin, an English teacher living in Erbil,Â the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, realized how much of religion she has been taught is actually part of her culture. â€œOur people listen to the mullahsÂ and they just try to follow them without checking if what they say is according to religion. UnfortunatelyÂ the mullahs have different opinions as they come from various schools of thought,â€ she told Al-Monitor.
The young peopleÂ who are protesting these societal and religious doctrines know all about the dangers. Ali did, too. â€œIf I had not taken the time for the process, the impact would have been negative,â€ she said. Girls need to be prepared to face the negative reactions. Had she removed the scarf too soonÂ â€” to express a different religious opinionÂ â€” she would not have been able to face her parents and others outside the family. â€œIt only worked when I was strong enough,â€ she concluded.