In a traditional and religious country such as Egypt, running into an atheist can be particularly rare. What is even rarer, perhaps, is meeting a woman who has converted directly from the strict Salafi doctrine of Islam to atheism.
Off Egypt’s North Coast, I spoke to Noha Mahmoud Salem, a physician who made this bold transition from a religious lifestyle to skepticism in the existence of God.
Having worn a veil since the age of 15, and later donning a niqab, she decided to take it off nine years ago and release herself from what she says are the confines of her religion, which she now considers a mere myth.
Coming out as an atheist did not make her very popular. Going public with her beliefs cost her a marriage that had lasted for 29 years, as her husband adhered to strict verses from the Koran forbidding men from marrying atheist women.
Noha was also alienated from all her friends and family. Her mother, who was against her wearing a veil at the age of 15, was also against her taking it off, telling her to leave home because she no longer prayed or fast. Noha now lives in a compound on the beach.
Noha tells us about her childhood, from growing up in a pious home to rejecting religion. Her family was traditionally religious as her father prayed every morning and read from the the Koran in the hopes it would protect him from evil. But he never forced her mother to pray.
As a child, Noha was forced to wear the veil when her Arabic language teacher in high school told her she should wear one because a good student should also have good morals.
Noha initially accepted her religion happily, learning the Koran by heart and even winning a prize for Koranic recitation 20 years ago. At the Faculty of Medicine, she met Mona Imam, wife of former presidential advisor Essam al-Haddad, son of Brotherhood spokesperson Jihad al Haddad. It was Mona who asked Noha to wear a niqab, which she agreed to.
At the age of 24, she married a colleague who was three years her senior. As her marriage went on for five years, she began to doubt the existence of God. Part of the reason was her husband.
One day, her husband slapped her face. When she complained to her father, he told her God gave husbands the right to beat their wives as stated in the verse of Al-Nisa’ Sura.
Then she began to wonder how God could give the right to a husband to abandon and beat his wife, let alone that he could be married to another at the same time. How could that be when Islam forbids beating animals? Are women inferior to animals? Is it because women are physically weaker than men and cannot fight back? How could they be allowed to be so humiliated?
Nonetheless, Noha was angry at her husband for not following the prophet’s orders forbidding someone to slap another person's face.
Noha's relationship with her husband began to deteriorate. She says her husband was always away working, leaving her alone at home. He refused to buy her a television set, claiming it was ‘haram.’
Noha once complained to her husband, pointing out his hypocracy after seeing him watch television at his mother’s place. He responded to her comlaint by beating her in front of his mother.
This then made her rethink the entire Koran, not just one sura. She read in a reference book that the said the sura came under circumstances that no longer exist in modern time and culture.
As Noha's believes changed, her family noticed and thought she had an obsessive-compulsive disorder, which a doctor had claimed to have noticed at first sight. Noha initially believed them as her family had a history with the illness.
With time, she began to feel that she was not sick. She took off the niqab, stopped praying and started to express her ideas freely. Confronting her family, she showed them an attestation confirming that her ideas had nothing to do with any obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Then she stopped arguing, especially when she realized that Islam imposes harsh sentences on atheists, such as execution. Meanwhile, her family continued to treat her as if she were helplessly sick.
She began to see that there was nothing sacred in life and that change is the main, constant feature of life. She considered it illogical for her to accept provisions laid down more than 500 hundred years ago in an environment that no longer exists.
She wondered further what kind of religion forces a husband to divorce his wife only because she has different beliefs.
Noha has since met another man who is also an atheist. To please her parents, they had to marry in a religious ceremony and utter the oath of marriage under the law of Allah and His Messenger, although they were not convinced of it. Strangely enough, her ex-husband gave 1000 pounds as a wedding gift.
She had a problem with verses telling her what to wear and what not to wear. She considered her body her own and thought that she was capable of deciding for herself what was decent and what was not.
Noha also disagrees with verses in the Koran pertaining to a woman’s body. “A woman cannot remarry except after three menstrual periods so as to make sure she is not pregnant,” she says. “Modern science can prove it right away with a blood test.”
She says the afterlife, reward and punishment are meant to give a spiritual dwelling to the body which is incompatible with the mind. “We allow and disallow things in the name of heaven and hell,” she says. “The prophet orders us to refrain from eating onions and garlic though they are good for the body.”
Noha does not believe in the unknown, nor does she believe in souls. “This was all invented by religion,” she says. “A human being is a series of cells with DNA that generate, get old and then die. After death is like before being: simply nothing.”
Noha tries to fill in the gap that was created by her different way of thinking, especially as she lost her friends. “I reject religious rites, but accept religious values that promote good,” she says.
Surprisingly, Noha voted for President Mohamed Morsy even though he hails from the Muslim Brotherhood. “I agree with the ideas of the Islamists as far as they move people to do good,” she added.
Noha finds solace in the sea. She stopped sharing about her thoughts with people other than with individuals she would only see once and never again.