Sidra Rafique: My Journey From Extremism to Free-Thinking

Sidra Rafique shares her unusual journey from an upbringing steeped in fundamentalism, through an identity crisis during universities studies and a near arranged-marriage, before emerging as an advocate for peaceful coexistence and open dialogue. Her narrative describes the pain of being forced down a path – and the pain of questioning that path. Her closing, though, suggests she has at last found an uplifting purpose, seeing her intense childhood experience ultimately as an inspiration.


Although I am a graduate of an extremist madrassah education system, today I work tirelessly on inclusivity, promoting understanding of progressive ideas, peaceful coexistence, and independent thought. These were not always my passions – though my earlier path ultimately led me to embrace these values. Here is my story.

I was born into a non-violent but radically strict environment, and the imposition of guardianship and authority on young girls and women were seen as a religious duty. This dystopian environment of being degrades humans, and creates people that are heavily dependent on approval and ideas of others. My father was strictly against modern school education where the emphasis on sciences and arts is given, and he only wanted me to have a Deobandi madrassah education. I was forced to attend the memorization of Quran at the age of 4, and saw students treated violently by the clerics.

At the age of about 9, I finished the memorization of Quran and immediately started learning the doctrine and interpretation of religious studies. The constant reminders from parents, clerics, and others in the society was that my existence was for the sole purpose of avoiding immoral acts, immersing myself in religious education so that I am able to better serve my parents, my family, and my future husband. As a girl, I was not allowed to play games or participate in any sporting activity, nor watch television or listen to radio. We weren’t even allowed to have storybooks, and my brother and I were subjected to cruel physical punishment by our father when we decided to use our saved pocket money to buy story books.

Because our parents belonged to one of the non-violent but deeply radical Deobandi sect, we were obliged to practice and recite the sectarian ideology every morning and limited to TV programs that only discussed such ideology. We weren’t even allowed to read other religious books, nor could we have friends our age.

After completing my matriculation studies in religious doctrine, my father refused to let learn anywhere aside from a madrassah. This was devastating because I wanted to advance and study in a school where my education would be useful in this life, not just the afterlife. He finally agreed to let me study at the Usuluddin Islamic University.

I was asked to join groups within the university where violence against ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities was encouraged. We constantly wailed about the bastardization of our religious ideologies by other Muslim minorities. During my university years, I found myself in active jihadi mobilization units where as a woman I was encouraged to recruit girls. My job was to define the role of women in the society as well as on campus. I constantly encouraged violence and abuse against women on campus who refused to wear the hijab. I campaigned against all things we considered western, like music, movies, dancing, celebrating birthdays, or even Valentine’s Day. We created chaos and usually interrupted celebration or events held by other students that we deemed religiously inappropriate. Some of the members of our group participated in wars in Afghanistan and were killed during the campaign.

During President Musharraf’s era, the president and vice chancellor of the University got changed, and most of our brazen activities were banned. This led to many changes in terms of my learning. One professor asked me to think about different ways of looking at the religious doctrine I had been using to demonize people I didn’t agree with. I gradually started learning about my faith more deeply and started to drift away from the narrow point of view that had been forcefully instilled in me.

My narrative of anti-western, anti-liberal, and anti-Shiite rhetoric was challenged head on with evidence. The Arab culture and Salafism that I held onto so closely was challenged by the revolutionary ideas of non-violence, cohesion, civic engagement, and spirituality through means of acceptance and regard for every other human being. This new way of thinking about old problems led me to pursue my master’s degree and research on the ideology of Salafism. The university rejected my idea, because there was no room for research according to them and the areas of subjects have already been thoroughly researched. This rejection by an educational institution challenged me to do my own research.

My independent thinking and going against the grain of my upbringing led on paths to discover myself. During this time, I joined Al-Huda, a religious institution. I continued exploring my faith, started to believe firmly in non-violent but inclusive ways of dialogue. I started conducted myself in kindness. I realized that my life was so heavily dependent on the kindness and fair treatment of others, and the only way for us humans to advance through life is to continue this process of acceptance. Our vulnerabilities are not going to be treated by ideologies but by engaging with people with whom we disagree. Open and frank discussions about our religious history and our spiritual being are paramount. We can no longer afford to hide behind our nationalist and religious identities. Al-Huda, it seemed to me, conditioned young children to like the idea of martyrdom and even violence.

My parents eventually found out about my activities and the my new path of self-discovery. This created a huge conflict. I was quickly forced to marry a radical extremist man, who was otherwise illiterate. Fortunately, before the wedding took place, a relative intervened and begged my parents not to marry me off to this man. I began to completely distrust not only my family but also religious institutions. I stopped wearing hijab. The ideology I had been forced into resulted in the distrust of everything associated with my faith.

The internal conflict was severe and led to many depressing days, but I came out as a better person. My journey really began once I came left behind any cult and began to observe society as openly and thoughtfully as I could, asking questions. I wanted to understand why women were so oppressed in my culture. I started to question God and the existence and purpose of my being. I started reading more, listened more, and observed more. I started to follow religious scholars that called for gender equality and pluralism, and scholars that didn’t take the word of the scripture literally but applied it through the lens of modern human existence. This gave me immense hope, and made me believe that I could not only be a faithful and spiritual person, but also a woman with ambition who demands equality and fairness.

During this time I relied heavily on the kindness of others. My brother, who also grew up with the same radical mentality, himself came to challenge that ideology. Now we work together for peace and women’s empowerment. I feel compelled to work for people who were going through similar ordeals, who like me have to break with the parents’ ideology. There are millions of people going through the same degradation of dignity yet fear the repercussions if they come out of their cultural shell.

My purpose is to promote life over death, understanding over extremist ideologies, tranquility over violence, learning over rhetoric, and faith over dogma. I started to love humanity and promote the ideas of coexistence and peace. Through dialogue, civic engagement, and pluralism we can understand each other and thrive as a society. I hope that everyone, including my family, starts to understand the good intentions of my existence and accept me for who I am. Hopefully one day I can be proud that I changed minds within my family, and we can be a family again that believes in life and liberty for every human being.

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