Flora del Mindanao (former Muslim)
Testimony of Leaving Islam
The following is a harrowing true account from a former Muslim. It describes in detail how her experiences in Saudi Arabia forced her to accept that Islam is not the "religion of peace" as it has been described. In her own words, Flora del Mindanao tells why she could not remain a Muslim'
My home is a small village by the sea near Zamboanga in the Southern Philippines. The majority of the people in our village are Muslim but there is not the sharp distinction that you find in some parts of the Philippines. The next village down the shore from my own is predominantly Christian and the two villages interact very closely. People from each barangay shop in the market of the others village for items they can't find in their own and generally work very well together. There are Christian weddings held in our village hall when the church in the next village is not available and the church hall in the Christian village was the location for many Muslim weddings when our own village hall was being renovated. We all attend the "fiestas" at the other villages and there are many intermarriages between villages with Muslim girls and boys both being allowed to marry outside of their religion. I never knew that a Muslim woman was forbidden in Islam from marrying a non-Muslim until I left my homeland and that was only one of the many discoveries that I was to make about the reality of Islam.
Fishing provides the primary means of living for the people of my village and coconut farming is the next main occupation. Life is simple and while most of our people are poor, real poverty is rare. Most families have sufficient food to survive with no difficulty and you don't find children suffering from malnourishment. When all else fails and a family begins to slip into poverty due to some unexpected tragedy there is the timeworn tradition of the father, mother or eldest child picking up the burden by going abroad for employment to help support the family. In the case of my family it was the death of my father which brought us to the brink of starvation and as I at 16 was the eldest child, this is my story.
Moving to and working in Saudi Arabia
It was a blistering hot summer day when I first came to Saudi Arabia as a young woman to work as a housemaid or 'khadama' as they say in Arabia. It was so different from my home in the humid tropics in the Southern Philippines but it was a small price to pay since my family was depending on me. I had been told I would be working in the household of an esteemed Salafist Imam and I believed I was lucky to work for a famous man of Allah. I was also proud of the money I would be able to send back for my mother, to help with the care and education of my brothers and sister. I understood that I had to put my own education and life on the hold and had left the school that I had been attending and my hope of someday graduating from college. My family needed me after the death of my father and according to my Islamic upbringing the family always comes first.
Work begins early for a 'khadama' in Saudi Arabia and it means being awake before the sun rises to have food ready for the breakfast and tea with honey for the Imam before his morning prayers. After that it is preparations for the children to wake up, getting them fed, dressed and delivered to their schools. Upon returning to the home the focus turn to the madam of the house and the daily routines of scrubbing floors, washing clothes, preparing food, setting up the house for lunch, retrieving the children from school, serving food, washing dishes, cleaning cars, entertaining the children, accompanying madam for carrying bags on shopping trips, preparation of more food, serving dinner, more cleaning of dishes, preparing the children for bed, running of baths, collecting the soiled clothes, serving late tea and coffee. Interspersed with that you must always be prepared to take care of requests of the madam or Imam and the children. Food is always taken in quick spoonfuls, usually from the remains of the family meal leftovers after all the family has eaten. Punishment is quick if you are slow to respond, little matter that your tardiness it is due to the demands of someone else in the household. Punishment can range from a harsh word to a slap, but usually there is no time to dwell on it since there is always another requirement that needs to be attended to. Sleep is always in short supply and there is no possibility of even thinking about rest before all of the family has gone to bed.
The first year passed quickly and in my exhaustion I barely noted the passing of my anniversary there. Ramadan was a particularly trying month with my own attempts to fast while at the same time continuing with most of the normal daytime activities. This becomes particularly difficult when it is combined with much of the family staying awake all of the night eating, praying and eating some more while always expecting to be waited on for every need. The normal 4 hours of sleep that we usually manage became no more than an hour daily. This was usually after the morning prayer and until the children woke up an hour later to get ready for school. The only way to survive Ramadan was to catch secret 5 or 10 minute naps in the kitchen while waiting for the next orders from the family. Muslims are always happy when the Eid al Fitr arrives at the end of Ramadan, but for a household staff it is more of a physical collapse after the exhaustion and lack of sleep during the 'holy' month.
There were short periods of relative peace when some members of the family went for vacation or visits elsewhere, but it was a rare event. Usually the family never all traveled together so someone was always at home and needed our service. Time passed, however, and we always knew that eventually we should be able to leave to go home to our families in Philippines for a break and to recover for our return. The normal household worker contract was for two years, but some workers will stay into a third or even a fourth year without vacation so they can send the extra money home.
Life continued toward the completion of my second year in Saudi Arabia and I was facing the decision of whether to go for a month of vacation or to stay and accept the extra money. The normal routine in Imam AbdulRahman's home began to change as the end of my second year there. We noticed a gradual increase in tension around the home and more family arguments which would result in the Imam beating the madam or one of the household staff. There seemed to be problems also at the madrassa which Imam AbdulRahman headed and he seemed to take his frustration out on his wife and the household staff. The madam of course could not strike back at the Imam so she would take out her own anger on the household staff later. This would result in a shout or a slap or even a hard beating if she felt something was not done to her approval or sometimes just to take out her frustration.
The situation deteriorated late into July until one night we heard a violent argument between the Imam and the madam. Eventually Imam AbdulRahman called for the driver to take the madam back to her family along with her belongings. At first the rumor was that the madam was divorced, but eventually we understood that was not to be the case. Since the Imam did not want his wife to have a possibility of a life with another man, he decided instead to force her into legal limbo as a virtual prisoner in her parent's home. This did not bother the Imam since he had the option of still being able to marry other women, but the madam was forced to live in shame in her family home with no social life and no chance to leave. The separation itself was a shame to her family, but to take the case to the sharia court was out of the question since the Imam was powerful member of the religious community. Such an act would only bring more shame to the wife's family. Far better in their opinion to keep her as a virtual prisoner at home - not divorced, not married, simply existing on a day to day basis.
For a while after the madam departed life around the house became a little easier. As time went on, however, Imam AbdulRahman would become angry with us for no reason and inevitably someone would receive a beating. We were all told that no vacations would be granted for the time being and my hope of a visit home came crashing down. Little did I know that was about to become the least of my worries.
Extra duties as a Right hand possession
Late one evening the children and the Imam had retired so I was finally able to go to my room and prepare for sleep. I finished my bedtime shower and when opening the shower curtain to reach for the towel I was stunned to find Imam AbdulRahman standing in front of me with his nightgown pulled up and holding his sex with one hand. As I frantically tried to cover my nakedness he pulled me from the shower and shoved me into the bedroom where he pushed me down onto my mattress on the floor. As I began to recover from my shock I lashed out and tried to push him away but a heavy fist against my head stunned me. He quickly put his knees between my legs and forced them apart with his hands painfully grasping at my breasts. I began pleading for him not to do this since I was still a virgin and only my future husband was supposed to see what he was seeing. The pain of my head where he had struck me suddenly became meaningless along with everything else in my life as he pushed himself painfully up inside of me and began pounding on top me until he finally relived himself with a shudder. He then got off me and wiped himself with the bed sheet and pulled his pantaloons back on and left my room. As he closed the door I remember hearing through my own sobbing the click as he locked the door from the outside.
The following week was one of nightmare interspersed with torture as the Imam came nightly to my room and forced himself on me. Sometimes he forced himself into me once and other nights twice or even three times. For the first two weeks I was not allowed outside of the room and the Indian housemaid Meera brought food for me whenever she could. Finally one morning the Imam told me that he would let me out to go back to work on the condition that I told nobody and made no attempt to escape the house. He told me that I was his by right of the holy Qur'an and any attempt to leave would be met by beatings and worse. As a final indignity he forced me to strip my clothes and took photographs of me in my nakedness and while forcing me to perform terrible acts of sorts that I had never imagined. He told me that these would be shown to the police as evidence of my "depravity" and copies of my shame would be sent to my village if I ever told anyone what happened or tried to escape.
I don't even remember how I went back to my household work as I was in a constant state of pain and self disgust. I moved through life as little more than an unthinking robot and the passing of time had little meaning. I was a prisoner in this household with absolutely no rights as a foreign household worker from a third world country. I was raped and abused and molested for three years by this man and the only excuse he gave for what he did to me was that I was possessed by his right hand and thus lawful for him. At some point in my life I lost all hope and believed that I had no other purpose in life but to remain there as an object for him to have sex with when he wanted, When he didn't need me my only life was to work in his household. I was nothing more than a receptacle for his seed and something upon which he could relieve his lust. I remember crying at night since I was sure no other man could ever want such a damaged and wretched creature as myself.
I had many duties in the household with cleaning and taking care of the children, but I was sometimes also sent to help clean of the madrassa where the Imam was the manager. During my cleaning duties at the madrassa and its mosque I occasionally caught sight of the young men who the Salafists brought from their home countries to learn Islam in Imam AbdulRahman's madrassa. Students would come to the madrassa for one to five years to learn the way of the Salaf and then return to teach it in their homelands.
During one of my cleaning shifts at the madrassa I was surprised to see a student who I was sure must be from my homeland. I knew that Imam AbdulRahman had visited the Philippines on several occasions to recruit potential students to come to Saudi Arabia to learn Islam and study with the Salafists. This, however, was the first time I had seen someone who looked like he may be from Philippines. The students were also responsible for helping to clean the madrassa and a few days later I passed the same young man in the corridors as we went about our duties. I averted my eyes to look at the floor as was expected but I couldn't help but to look into his face as I passed to see if he really was from my home country. After we passed I heard him pause and call out to me in our language asking if I was Moro. I looked back and answered yes but quickly hurried away in fear that someone may see us talking.
I eventually discovered the name of my compatriot and we found a few stolen moments in which we could talk when no one was looking. To hear someone speaking in my own language was paradise to my ears and the dearest gift I could imagine. It had been so long since I had a conversation outside of the house so I was in constant fear of discovery by someone who would report us to the Imam. I began to eagerly await any excuse to go next door to the madrassa and to help clean in hope that if nothing else I could see his face, even if we could not find a place to speak. As horrible a nightmare as my life had become I found a forgotten stirring in my heart for Seif. Just the chance to hear his voice gave me reason to live. For those few minutes of the day I could forget what I had become, to remember the warm seas and fragrant scent of my homeland. I was saved from my miserable state by the realization that somehow I could still love and maybe even someday deserve to be loved by another.
Another year passed when the few rays of light in my life were broken to pieces when the Imam announced that he was traveling. This would have normally been a reason for me to rejoice, but I soon learned that he was traveling to the Southern Philippines to recruit new students and that Seif was traveling with him. Yes, I was happy from the temporary respite I would have from my nightmare, but I had a premonition that only more pain was imminent.
Smuggling a letter to my family in the Phillipines
The Imam had not allowed me to write home in the years of my captivity and I am sure my mother, brothers and sister believed I had dropped from the face of the earth. The Philippine embassy had come to the home of the Imam two years earlier to enquire about me, but I was told that the Imam claimed that I had run away over a year ago and had not contacted him again.
While I dreaded the time that Seif would be away I also thought that this might be any opportunity to smuggle a message to my family. To make it easy to conceal I wrote a single page on both sides explaining where I was and asked for them to approach the Philippine Office of Overseas Employment who was supposed to look out after the welfare of Filipino workers overseas. I folded the paper as small as I could and placed it into a small gift card envelope upon which I printed my mother's name and address. I sealed the envelope and gave it to Seif on the day before he left with the Imam and asked him to secretly send it to my home. I also asked him to absolutely not tell the Imam about it. I had always known that Seif would never believe my story if I told him about what happened at the Imam's home so I asked him not to read the note since it was private. Seif revered the Imam and would never believe he would do any wrong.
You must understand that while I also believed Seif loved me, he was also a devoted Muslim and was completely under the influence of Imam AbdulRahman. As a Muslim male he would never accept that a woman could be raped and abused as I had been without somehow having brought it upon themselves. I knew he would never understand what I had been through so I never even hinted about it to him. I was sure he would be revolted at the thought and would never wish to see or speak to me again. That thought was simply too painful so I always avoided the possibility of it happening. I know that women in the West believe it is important to be truthful about your past with a man you love, but in Asia and the Middle East no woman will ever willingly admit to be anything other than untouched and pure. It is not our nature. No Asian man would be willing to lose face by loving a woman who was already 'damaged' - that is their nature.
The following day Seif and the Imam left together in a large car which took them to the airport in Dhahran. I had never been to Dhahran, but I had heard mention of it and knew that it was perhaps an hour away. Upon Seif's departure I immediately became withdrawn and apprehensive since I could not avoid my premonition of impending doom. Would Seif read the sealed letter I had given him, would he forget my request not to tell because of his zeal to please the Imam? I began to doubt the cleverness of writing that note and constantly worried about the results of either the Imam or Seif reading it. My only choice was to lose myself in my work and to try to ignore the weight that seemed to sit in the bottom of my stomach.
The madrassa has an Egyptian Imam named Sheikh Ahmed El-Shamsi who was the assistant to Imam AbdulRahman. I rarely saw Sheikh Ahmed while the Imam was in town but that changed after he and Seif left. I noticed Sheikh Ahmed looking at me whenever I was in the madrassa and a week after the Imam left I was summoned to his office. Sheikh Ahmed was smiling when I entered his office and he told me to sit. I was nervous to be in his presence and became scared when he started acting so nice. He sat down very close to me on the sofa and asked if I would like tea which I refused saying I was not thirsty.
I jumped when Sheikh Ahmed placed his hand on my leg but he held me tightly and asked why I was scared. Within moments he began kissing me and his scratchy beard dug into my face. I pushed his face away and Sheikh Ahmed began cursing me saying that he knew I was a whore and a witch who had made magic against the Imam. He then began tearing at my black abaya and slapping me when I resisted him. Eventually he managed to expose my breasts while he lay on top of me and then pulled my pantalons down behind him. With little more effort he finally pulled his robe up and had his way. The respite I had imagined having while the Imam was away quickly became more of the same.
The Imam stayed in the Philippines for over a month and Sheikh Ahmed had me brought to his office several times a week. I pretended sickness one day and he sent two students to take me to a doctor and then bring me to his office afterward. The rapes by Sheikh Ahmed only ended when my blood came and he considered me unclean. My only friend, the Indian khadama named Meera gave me a medicine which continued my blood for more time. After a week Sheikh Ahmed summoned me and would not believe I was still having blood until he pulled away my pantalons to see for himself. He shouted at me and again accused me of being a witch before he sent me away in disgust.
The Return of the Imam
The Imam called the madrassa to announce that he was on his way back with three new students. There was no mention of Seif and I was filled with dread when I heard the news. The madrassa sent a car for him at the airport and there was a welcome ceremony and a special meal prepared and eaten at the madrassa. It was late when the Imam came to the house and the entire household staff was expected to greet him. He soon went to his rooms and we were all relieved believing that he was exhausted from his trip and would sleep. That sense of relief only lasted a short time when Imam AbdulRahman called for me to bring him Turkish coffee.
When I entered the room with coffee the Imam took it to drink but told me not to leave until he finished. When he finished he stood up and came to me and began touching me roughly as I cowered against the wall. He grabbed my face and squeezed hard demanding to know if I was happy for his return. I told him of course I was and he only laughed and began removing my clothes.
Imam AbdulRahman was very violent with me that night and I felt a lot of pain after the first time. After the third time when he wiped himself he looked down and saw red which only enraged him. He looked at me and saw blood running from my vagina and started slapping and shouting at me. He then pushed me from his bed and began kicking me in the stomach and the breasts and face. I must have lost consciousness at one point since I awoke with him slapping my face and shouting for me to wake up. He then shouted for me to get out and started pushing me from the room. I couldn't balance and I fell twice as I stumbled toward the door. He made a final push that sent me reeling into the corridor and I stumbled again as I fell to the floor with a smear of blood behind me. At first the Imam slammed the door behind me and then reopened it and threw a crumpled piece of paper at me as I lay naked in the floor. I was not sure what it was as I was having trouble focusing my eyes but I finally squinted down to see that it was the note I had written to my mother. "Go ahead, take it!" the Imam shouted as I looked up at him. "Your Seif gave it to me before he became shahid!" He then he slammed the door again.
The next I remember was waking on my mattress in pain and finding Meera sitting beside me. She wiped my face with a damp cloth and I found myself feeling that I had to throw up. I couldn't rise from the bed and Meera moved my face toward the side as I vomited what seemed like a stream of blood. Meera had a panicked look on her face as she eased me back down on the mattress and wiped my face again. She quickly left the room and came back moments later with the driver and said they had to take me to the hospital. The driver looked at me and then back at Meera in fear and said "But Imam he says no." Meera rushed back over and covered my nakedness with a sheet and shouted at the driver to get out and to rot in hell.
I came in and out of consciousness through the day and at one point remember a nurse talking to me and asking if I could see her. The next time I awoke I could feel a new pain in my arm and looked down to see a bandage and a dip tube leading to it. I looked up and saw that I was still in my room but an IV bottle hung from the back of a chair that stood next to my mattress. I tried to sit up but Meera rushed in and said I was not to move. I woke later when I felt Meera changing the sheet that I was lying on and asked her if could help.
Doubts about Islam
During my convalescence I had plenty of time to think and to consider my miserable state. Why would a just and forgiving Allah so despise me that I would be punished so? I didn't ask to be placed in that situation nor seek any of it. I had always tried to follow the dictates of the Qur'an as I understood it but where had I fallen so wrong? I knew that no man was perfect and that I should not blame Allah for the cruel acts of the Imam and Sheikh Ahmed, but these men were supposed to be believers and followers of the 'holy prophet' (Peace be upon him). I had spent time hiding beyond the doors where the Imam and the other Salafist teachers spoke to their students and could not understand the difference between the Islam that I remember from my childhood and that of these angry and hate filled men. Yet they claimed that their Islam was the 'real' Islam of the prophet.
I had always understood that our religion was one of peace, but how can a religion of peace call on mere mortals to kill on behalf of Allah? Why does Allah need such a weak creature as ourselves to 'defend' his 'true' religion? Is 'all powerful' Allah not capable of defending it? And, our Qur'an states that Allah has sealed the ears and minds of non-believers. He has confused the unbelievers so they cannot see the path of right. It also says that Allah has written in the past everything that every human will think and do so everything is predestined far before we are even conceived. But if this is the case then why would Allah want to punish unbelievers and cast them into hell where they will be tortured through eternity? These unbelievers are only doing what Allah has programmed them to do so why would he 'despise' them for doing exactly what he created them to do?
I pondered such thoughts for hours on end and always ended with the question of whether I would also be cursed to eternity in hell for the acts that I had been forced to perform? If humans are punished for being unbelievers when Allah made them such then surely I would also be punished in hell for the acts I had been forced to endure. I dreamed at night about it and often awoke sweating from visions of suffering in hell for eternity. Then one night out of some strange recess of my mind one simple thought arose. A thought that was so alien that at first I could not believe that I was even considering it. But if I was already to be cursed to hell then how could one more heretical thought hurt?... Especially since it raised a glimmer of hope and solace for me. What if the holy 'prophet', that man who was the most favored of Allah, that 'best of all humans'... what if he had lied and had fabricated this Islam in order to give him such control over the minds of his followers?
After about 10 days I was able to get up from my mattress and could use the lavatory by myself. Meera continued to hover over me like my mother and I was much comforted by her tenderness. After an additional three days I was able to help her around the house and we slowly began settling back into something of a more normal routine.
I noticed that the Imam was not around very much and was relieved by his lack of attention since I trembled at the thought of him. That time didn't last long, however, and one afternoon he passed me in the corridor and said "In two days you are for me again."
There was no plan for my escape as it was an act of desperation in a moment of opportunity. One afternoon the Imam stopped into the house to packed an overnight bag and announce that he would be gone until the next day. That night I climbed from the window in my room onto the ledge and dropped to the ground one floor below. The driveway gate was locked and I dared not venture to the main gate where I might be seen so I climbed over the wall and made my way to the street. I ran down the street in the opposite way from the madrassa since there would certainly be someone outside there who may see me and demand to know why I was outside. Women are not generally seen outside even in the daytime so I knew that at night I would quickly be discovered. As I neared the main road I became afraid that some passing motorist would notice me even though I kept close to the shadows and avoided streetlights. As a group of cars approached I knew I would be seen so I managed to dart into an alleyway besides a baquala (small grocery store) that serviced the neighborhood. While I hid in the shadows it was my bad luck that the shopkeeper, an old Pakistani man, emerged to place the refuse from the day into the container nearby where I was hiding.
I think the shopkeeper almost had a heart attack when he spotted me hiding in the corner and demanded to know who I was. He grabbed my arm and pulled me into the light where he was surprised to see that I was a woman. He quickly took me into the shop and asked me what I was doing outside. Somehow through my tears and my fear I told him that I had escaped from the household and had to get away. He pulled back the black veil that covered my face and could see the unhealed wounds that covered my face and the blackened hollows of my eyes. I could see a tear in his eye as he quickly replaced the veil and told me to wait in the back storeroom.
I waited while he closed the shop and then came back and asked me what I wanted of him. I told him I needed to get to my embassy and he laughed and said that it was four hours away by car in Riyadh. "Can you take me?", I asked and for a moment he pondered it and smiled.
"How can you ask someone to drive you to a city four hours away?" he asked. I asked "Then can you give me a bottle of water and take me to the edge of town so I could walk?"
That made him laugh and he said "Silly girl, you want to walk 325 kilometers through the desert to Riyadh?" "What other choice do I have?" I asked. He laughed again and told me to follow him quickly into his car.
We drove for a long while with me sitting in the back and I began to become afraid that maybe he was taking me to the police. I finally summoned the courage and asked "So where are you taking me papa?"
At that question I saw his eyes soften and he asked, "Why do you ask daughter, didn't you want to take a ride to Riyadh?"
The Phillipine Embassy
We drove for hours and finally the desert gave way to the outskirts of Riyadh. It was late night and the shopkeeper had to stop a few times to ask where he could find the Philippines embassy. Finally he stopped the car in front of a white building with a black gate and the words "Embassy of the Philippines" on a sign beside it. A policeman quickly appeared from nowhere and asked what we were doing. The shopkeeper replied that I was his housemaid and that he was leaving me at the embassy. The policemen accepted that and walked away leaving us alone. The old shopkeeper patted my arm and reached into a pocket and produced a 50 riyal note. "Be careful my daughter," he said and I gave him a quick hug before rushing to the gate of the embassy.
The Filipino guard at the gate looked on and quickly let me inside when I approached the gate. "You are lucky," he said, "the police are there to stop runaways from getting to the embassy".
The Imam of course would not accept my departure easily since he was afraid that I might report what he had done. He filed charges with the police claiming that I had stolen money and jewelry from his home. That, along with the fact that I had no passport and that my residency paperwork was long expired prevented me from being allowed to get a visa to leave the country. The embassy issued a new passport, but I could not depart while legal charges were pending and until the issue of the expired residence was resolved and fines paid.
I remained a virtual prisoner there in my embassy for seven months until my family raised enough money from home to pay off the Imam so that he eventually relented and dropped the charges. One of his Salafist lawyers also brought a letter for me to sign which was another part of his demand before he would drop the charges. In the letter I had to sign that I had committed immoral acts while living in his household and he promised me that he would use it against me if I ever told anyone what he had done. This letter along with the horrible photographs he had taken of me were sufficient that I would be completely discredited if he ever exposed them. The legal issues were not the main concern for me, but the absolute disgrace if these were ever to be seen by my family and neighbors.