Column: Living past religious trauma and reconnecting with my past

By Amina Sergazina, Staff Reporter

Kailey Ryan

I was 7 years old when my grandma from my dad’s side made me promise her that one day I will marry a Kazakh Muslim boy, and in exchange for that promise, I got a chocolate bar.

More than a decade later, I rejected the religion I was pressured in and cut her off from my life.

Kazakhstan, my home country, has a predominantly Muslim population, more specifically Sunni Islam. While many associate Islam with a hijab, women in Kazakhstan are not forced to wear it, and they choose not to. But I noticed that creates an unsettling feeling of superiority in people toward Muslim women who do. It was always unsettling to me that people with the same belief system would shame others for choosing to wear a hijab.

For the longest time I rejected not only Islam, but my own culture and even my native language. When I discovered spirituality, I found a way to connect again through an ancient religion of my ancestors, Tengriism. A big part of Tengriism was the sacrifice of animals such as sheep and horses and prayer for rich crops. After the sacrifice everyone would gather for celebration and games. Similar tradition is still followed in Kazakhstan when during memorable life events and celebrations, like birthdays, we sacrifice a sheep or a horse to cook and eat.

Tengri is the God of the sky and the whole belief system revolves around living in harmony with nature, as nomads depended on the environment. This belief system was predominant in Mongolia, Kazakhstan and some regions of Russia.

I always feel at ease and connected to myself when I’m in nature. During my research, the biggest part of Tengriism I connected with was the respect for other religions and understanding there is no one-size-fits-all way to believe in God.

A lot of the time my grandma and family would look down on people of other religions. I was told I should be friends only with Muslim girls, and they never approved of my Christian or atheist friends.

Every meal I would have at my grandma’s house, my family would make me pray and frown if I didn’t participate. It always gave me anxiety that I had no choice, and I always wondered, “If Allah is real, wouldn’t he know I’m pretending to pray?” I always thought if I were Allah, I would not want a fake and forced prayer from a child.

While I was never forced to wear a hijab, every time I would wear a crop top or shorts, my grandma and aunt would shame me.

My only good memory connected to Islam was Eid, a celebration at the end of fasting for Ramadan. My family would visit each other, and we would eat a lot of amazing food. It was always filled with laughter, and I loved seeing my cousins.

While I don’t plan to practice Tengriism, learning more about alternative ways to connect to my roots, like these practices, make me feel closer to who I am and less detached from my roots.

Currently, I have cut out half of my family more than a year ago, for many reasons, but mainly for forcing religion on me. The last straw was during the time I dated my ex-partner in 2020.

When I said he is not Kazakh – and what’s more frightening to my family, not Muslim – my grandma pretended she was okay. Later that day she sent audio messages to my other grandma about how she couldn’t sleep or eat because of my decision.

She was genuinely crying over my choice because it wasn’t in line with her perception of me. Ever since then, I have never once picked up her phone call or anyone from my dad’s side of the family.

I decided to live past my trauma, and while I sit in my room thousands of miles away from her, looking at the sky through the window, I feel free.