By Maggie Hall
Maggie is a former Chair of Brighton Humanists, a member of the Humanists UK Dialogue Network, and a Humanists UK School Speaker. She is also a retired Teacher of Speech and Drama. In this article she shares how her local humanist group helped an asylum seeker in desperate need.
Two years ago, Shiva (not her real name) left her home country of Iran to spend some time as a tourist in the UK. She was travelling alone, her husband unable to join her because of work. On the day she was due to return home, she received the devastating news that her husband had been arrested and imprisoned for “apostasy” (renouncing or abandoning a religious belief). She knew that if she were to return to Iran the same fate would await her, as she too had rejected Islam and become an atheist some years before. She feared imprisonment because, in Iran, female prisoners are often raped and tortured. Both she and her husband could even face execution.
In desperation, Shiva began to interrogate the internet in an attempt to find any person or organisation that might be able to help her. Eventually she found Refugee Action, an organisation which helps refugees to seek asylum in the UK. Through that organisation she made contact with a solicitor, who helped her through the process of applying for asylum. She also found Humanists UK and Faith to Faithless, which is the section of Humanists UK which supports apostates from high control religions. Through them she also found that Brighton Humanists was the nearest humanist group to Crawley, where Shiva had been placed in temporary hotel accommodation by the Home Office while her asylum application was being processed.
I met up with Shiva and Roz Mercer, Chair of Brighton Humanists, in a pub in Brighton, where Shiva told me her story. It was clear that relating her experiences was difficult for her and we had to pause a few times so that she could collect herself and continue. Some biographical details have been omitted in order to protect her identity.
Shiva said that her childhood in Iran had been very difficult. Her father was a very strict Shia Muslim who followed Quranic injunctions that place a man at the head of his family, and his children, particularly the female ones, under his complete domination. Shiva explained that, under this strict interpretation of the Quran, women are not permitted to make any decisions for themselves. Everything must be decided by the nearest male relative. Under Sharia law, the evidence of a woman in legal matters only carries half the weight of that of a man. There must be evidence from two women to equal the value of that of one man. Furthermore, women only receive half the portion of an inheritance of a deceased parent as their male siblings.
Even as a small child, Shiva remembers being forced to wear full hijab at all times. Like many little girls she was fond of bright colours, but the only colour she was permitted to wear was black. She was never able to leave the house unaccompanied. When her male cousins visited she was not permitted to play with them. Watching wrestling matches on TV was banned for Shiva and her sisters because it would expose them to the sight of male bodies.
When Shiva was a teenager, her younger sister, then aged twelve, was forced into a marriage with a mullah (a local Islamic leader). Shiva was devastated by this and her eyes filled with tears as she related it. "She was a child", she said. "She didn’t even understand what marriage means or what happens between a man and a woman".
Things were to get even worse for Shiva when she discovered that her father was intending the same fate for her, a marriage to another local mullah. When she protested, her father subjected her to a violent physical attack from which she still bears the scars. Terrified, she escaped from the house and sought safety in the house of her uncle, her mother’s brother. Her location was kept secret from her father for a year, but one day he followed her mother and discovered where she was living. A violent confrontation ensued between her uncle, who was determined to protect Shiva, and her father, who was intent on inflicting further physical violence on her. Thankfully, her uncle prevailed, and Shiva continued to live under his protection and to continue her education, eventually even gaining a place at university, a rare achievement for a woman in strict religious Muslim families in Iran, graduating with a BA in English Translation.
"No one in Iran ever talks about what they actually think or believe because it is far too dangerous."
Little by little, because of her horrendous experiences of Islam, Shiva lost any religious belief she may have had, but as she explained to me, no one in Iran ever talks about what they actually think or believe because it is far too dangerous. However, at university she became close friends with another young woman who, she eventually discovered, shared her view of Islam. This friend introduced Shiva to certain books which were critical of Islam. This was a great risk for both Shiva and her friend, because these books were, of course, illegal to own and anyone caught with them was in danger of imprisonment or even death. The books’ authors would also be in danger of their lives. Later, she also discovered The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins, which finally confirmed her rejection of all religion.
After university, Shiva found a job as a teacher, and met the man who was to become her husband. They had been married for several years on that awful day when, about to return home from her UK holiday, she received the dreadful news of his imprisonment.
Once introduced to Brighton Humanists, Shiva made an effort to attend their events whenever she could manage it. Brighton is a long way from Crawley and she has little money to spare for train or bus fares, so the group has helped her with these from time to time. The Home Office paid for her hotel accommodation and food plus £8.00 per week for other expenses, which was loaded onto an Aspen card (a debit payment card given to UK asylum seekers by the Home Office which provides basic subsistence support).
Shiva's membership of Brighton Humanists was "a significant contribution" to the success of her asylum application.
Roz Mercer told me that Brighton Humanists supported Shiva’s asylum application with a letter confirming that she is an active participant in the group and that she would be in mortal danger if she returned to Iran, due to her atheism. Shiva’s solicitor said that it was a significant contribution to the success of her application. The whole process took twenty-two months and a gruelling two-hour Home Office interview.
Shiva said that her experience of living in the UK has, so far, been a positive one. She has found no antipathy towards her as an immigrant, and has met with nothing but kindness from people here. One thing that has really surprised her is the diversity of religions and beliefs, and the fact that people of different faiths or of no faith can be friends was a real revelation to her. It came as a stark contrast to what she had experienced in Iran, where it is perfectly permissible for anyone to kill a person who is found to be an unbeliever.
Although Shiva has now been granted leave to remain, her troubles are by no means over. At the time of writing she is expecting any day to receive a letter of eviction from her hotel, as she is no longer an asylum seeker, and will be expected to find alternative accommodation at very short notice. She has no family in the UK, and since she has as yet no job she has no idea what she will do or where she will live. Brighton Humanists is continuing to support her as much as possible and searching for other organisations that may be able to help, but unless some accommodation can be found for her she will shortly be homeless.
Meanwhile, Shiva’s husband is still in prison in Iran and she has had very little news of him, other than that he is being kept in poor conditions and has lost a lot of weight. “I am very worried about him”, she told me, tearfully.
I have occasionally been asked, and indeed have often asked myself, what are humanist groups for? Are they just a comfortable club for humanists with intellectual leanings to meet and listen to a lecture once a month or perhaps to debate current issues and air their opinions on various topics, many of which do not impact them directly? Much of the time this may indeed be the case, but once in a while a local group might be faced with an opportunity to do something that actually makes a significant difference to the life of a person who desperately needs it. That, to me, is what local groups should really be for. No country is a perfect Utopia and the UK certainly does have its problems, but, after my conversation with Shiva, when I hear people complaining about how awful it is here, I’m very tempted to ask them if they would like to swap their problems with someone like Shiva.
An update on Shiva's situation
At almost literally the eleventh hour before Shiva was to be evicted, with no idea of where she would go, Crawley Council provided her with further temporary accommodation. She can now seek employment in the UK.