“Being different is considered a crime”: The story of a Muslim woman in Cuba

On International Women’s Day, CSW shares the first of several testimonies from women in Cuba who have been targeted on account of their religion or belief. Today, we hear from a Muslim woman in the country, whose name has been redacted for security reasons.

I graduated from university in visual arts in 1990.

Everything was fine until I converted to Islam at the age of 24, in September 2004. At the time I was making a living by drawing pictures at the airport, but after I became a Muslim, I was immediately expelled because of supposed security concerns.

Targeted at home

Some time after [my conversion], in 2007, Pakistani students in Santa Clara and other provinces began to visit our home.[1] Sometimes they would spend days with us, during which time our house was [constantly] watched. At times people in plainclothes were stationed right outside our door, or electric company inspectors or workers for the anti-mosquito campaign[2] would visit at odd times of the day, times when we know they do not usually inspect for areas of standing water.

In [redacted] for example, a small group began to meet at our home every Friday for prescribed prayers as well as to study the Quran, hadiths (traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings to him), and to learn and teach the basics of Islam.

My husband and I played an important role in this, as we looked after the entire organization as well as giving some classes to the new Muslims.

This house of prayers operated until 20 December 2017, when an agent who went by the name José[3] invaded our home without a search warrant, claiming that: “I’m sure you have a bomb there.” At the time I was praying, so my husband tried to prevent him from entering [the house] but the agent pushed him to the ground, injuring his hand and forcibly entered the place of prayers.

They took my husband and detained him for several hours that day without giving him medical attention.

At a certain point we discovered that some of the people who frequented our house under the pretext of learning about Islam were in reality undercover agents in the service of the G2 [Intelligence Directorate]; one of them even confessed to this.

We decided to close the Musala (house of prayer) for this reason and in order to avoid other acts of violence in our home.

We were forced to endure ridicule and mistreatment on many occasions; no matter where we went, it never took long for someone to appear and to let us know that they were there just for us. We were even watched and harassed when we went to live at the [redacted] beach.

Targeted at work

In 2007, during the same period, I was invited to work as a curator at the [redacted] gallery. I was very happy to accept [this position], as I am an independent artist associated with the Cuban Fund of Cultural Assets, I have also been legally registered as an [artistic] creator in the National Registry since I graduated.

However, when I arrived at the provincial Ministry of Culture office to sign the [employment] contract I was informed that my certificate was invalid because I had not completed social service. My [status as an officially registered artist] would not have been possible had I not completed my social service in a timely manner.  I had fulfilled the requirement for social service with the Council of Performing Arts after graduation, but when I checked with the Council of Performing Arts, my service was missing from their files.

[Because of this], I was forced to complete my social service twice. In addition, this also meant that I was ineligible for maternity pay, which, at the time, was only for workers and I “was not yet [a worker].”

In August 2008, due to the fact that my pregnancy was reaching full term (my eldest daughter was born 30 September 2008), I managed to obtain a valid leave without pay for one year as long as I rejoined the social service in September 2009. So my second year of compulsory social service began in September 2009. This was due to conclude in September 2010 but this was delayed and didn’t happen until October.

Between December 2007 and October 2010, while I was working in the [redacted] gallery, I was constantly harassed by an official who called himself José (the same one who invaded my family’s home [in 2017]). He would constantly approach me, claiming he wanted to learn about Islam until one day I finally faced him and told him I did not have to speak with him; if he wanted to know about Islam he should talk to my husband.

From that point on, [the authorities] changed their strategy and put more pressure on the gallery director. As they could not do anything legally to fire me because I complied with everything in the correct way, the agent José began to tell the director that I should not be allowed to dress in the Islamic way, that he could not allow me to give seminars and talks about art, which was part of my job as a gallery curator. In short they pressured the director to fire me.

It was for these reasons that the director of the [redacted] gallery was forced to prevent me from offering lectures and from participating in public activities that were part of my job. When an exhibit was held, I had to submit my work far earlier than was normal. At times they put pressure on the other artists to discourage them from working with me.

‘Horror’. Credit: The author

There were two occasions when I succeeded in exhibiting my Islamic paintings; both times however, they removed my work, claiming that it [was because it] had nothing to do with Cuban culture, a culture inherited from the Spanish which in turn inherited much from Arab culture.

In October 2010 the curator of [redacted’s] main gallery (art centre) invited me to give a conference on women in Islamic society but it never took place due to obstacles that were imposed by senior individuals in the art scene.[4]

The curator who invited me, a young feminist, protested this, which resulted in her being fired from the art centre. In solidarity with her, I requested to be let go so I could stop working in state centres.

Targeted in all aspects of life

Some TV journalists wanted to interview me about the exhibits, but they always ended up telling me that if I didn’t remove my hijab, the interview would not work, and I would not be invited on television.

At the hospital, while giving birth, women are stripped naked. At that point there is no option to request to be treated only by a female doctor, so you are naked in front of a team of doctors. For them it is normal; for me it was humiliating. When I asked if they would at least let me cover my head with a piece of green fabric, they responded (using vulgar language): what for if I was going to have my private parts exposed anyway?

Entering the bank, in 2016, I was also asked to remove my hijab. It was not the first time that I had been there to pay my social security. I had never had any problems, but that morning everything was different. When I protested, the guard unfastened his gun holster, so to avoid bigger problems for my husband I decided to leave the bank. It was very humiliating, but everywhere I went this happened, suddenly everything changed.

Working with the Cuban Fund of Cultural Assets allows me to market my drawings in hotels. Due to growing needs and my husband’s difficulty obtaining steady work, I have been forced to go in person to the hotels. This has meant having to choose between wearing the hijab and being able to work. I resumed that work in October 2019, of course in those hotels I am not allowed to perform prayers or any act of worship, there I have to completely hide my belief. Remember that these hotels are owned by the FAR (Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces), even so I am sure that I am closely monitored because they always place me right in front of the security cameras.

I am afraid that if I wear a head covering, I will just continue to be humiliated and I do not have the strength. Even at the airport, you cannot attempt to leave Cuba wearing the hijab without pressure from state security.

“Being different is considered a crime”

On 31 January 2020 I received some ugly messages on my phone. Coincidentally, minutes after, agents who go by the names Antonio and Paula[5] came to our home under the pretext of “talking about religion.” We reported this [the messages] to the two agents. The messages were sent from Havana from numbers that, through our own investigations, we later learned were from [state] security, but the agents who dealt with us (Antonio and Paula) behaved as if they were of no importance.  Now we think they were trying to fabricate a crime against us.

It is not possible to recount all of the suffering and the worry that we have about the future of our daughters, in a country where being different is considered a crime and something to be crushed. In this country we have no right to practice Islam, unless you are willing to live under constant harassment and persecution from the government and its henchmen.

[1] Cuba hosts a large number of foreign students.

[2] Cuba carries out regular mosquito inspections and fumigations in an attempt to combat outbreaks of malaria, dengue, zika and other mosquito borne illnesses

[3] Name changed to protect the author

[4] Names and titles removed to protect the author

[5] Names changed to protect the author