Hiding in the Light, Rifqa Bary. Colorado Springs: WaterBrook Press, 2015.
Summary: A memoir of Bary’s turning from Islam to Christianity during her teens, her flight from her family when she feared for her life, and her subsequent struggles to prevent the courts from forcibly returning her to her family.
Seven years ago, the story of Rifqa Bary was big news where I live. This teenager, from a Sri Lankan Muslim family had run away from her family after converting to Christian faith, and had taken shelter with a Florida family she met on Facebook. The news coverage showed caring and concerned parents trying to regain custody of their daughter, a diminutive teen age girl who felt her life was in danger, and court proceedings and actions in Florida and Ohio.
This book tells Rifqa’s side of the story. It is the story of a child growing up with Sri Lanka who, even at an early age, had a sense of the warm loving presence of God, was raised with the strict observances of Islam and came to America after an incident of sexual abuse by a male kin, a shameful occurrence not for him but for her. They lived first in New York City, and then in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. She tells a tale of domestic violence where male rage had to be borne by women. She lost the sight in one eye when her older brother threw a toy at her. She claims she was slapped about by her father for the tiniest infractions. At one point, she cried out for God, whoever God was, to show herself to her.
Through school friends, she began to learn about Christianity, started reading the Bible, and unbeknownst to her parents, attended a church. Eventually, she was baptized in a creek not far from, but hidden from her home. She continued to participate in Christian services and events, taking ever greater risks, while deceiving her parents as to her whereabouts until finally they became suspicious, began to threaten her, and limit her activity.
Things came to a head while her father was on a business trip, cut short by warnings from her Islamic Center to the family, that she needed to be dealt with. Given her father’s temper and threats, she fled, with the help of friends, taking refuge with a Florida couple she knew from Facebook. When the couple realized their own legal situation of harboring a runaway, they notified the authorities, beginning a long battle in both Florida and Ohio to keep Rifqa out of the custody of her parents, marked by several attorneys who were zealous advocates for her, and ultimately succeeded in keeping her in state custody, first in Florida, then in Ohio, until she turned 18.
Close to the time that she turned 18 she was discovered with a rare form of deadly uterine cancer. After surgery and beginning chemo, she decided to refuse further treatment and a hysterectomy. At this time, the cancer has not recurred and she is a college student studying philosophy and political science with the possible hope of becoming a lawyer.
I had several responses to this book. Throughout, I was struck by the deep faith that sustained this young woman through prison, fear for her life, court proceedings, difficult foster care situations, and cancer. A recurring theme were passages from scriptures and an accompanying “witness of the Spirit” that brought peace and courage. There is an undeniable genuineness of Christian experience and wholehearted dedication to Christ evident in this story.
I struggled with the deception of and flight from her parents. It troubled me that most of the Christians advising her before her flight were peers or just a few years older. It is clear to me that she made a free and un-coerced choice to embrace Christianity and had strong convictions about pursuing that faith. I don’t know if she would have listened to adult counsel had it been present. She goes against one pastor’s advice to wait until she was 18 to be baptized. I found myself wondering if both the threats from the family, the flight, getting others caught up in potential legal liabilities, and the protracted court fights might have been averted.
There is also her portrait of her parents, in marked contrast to how they presented themselves publicly. Here, I’m inclined to believe her narrative, given how hard it must be growing up in her culture to speak against one’s family in any way. Were the threats and danger to her life real? I do not fully understand honor-shame cultures but sense she was on good grounds to have the fears she did and to do everything in her power, having fled, to avoid being returned to this situation. However, I would not want to see this one family’s unfinished story used in a Muslim versus Christian polemic. That said, as I argued a few days ago, I believe it is a universal human right to be able to change one’s beliefs and to follow the dictates of one’s conscience and that honor and shame needs to be re-framed within a commitment to such rights.
Finally, I found troubling the descriptions of juvenile detention and foster care in both of the states where she sought shelter. I was thankful for the zealous advocates whose efforts prevailed against political and bureaucratic maneuverings that would have put her at risk of harm. I hope some of those who have oversight of these services will read this book and take a hard look at whether children really are being protected who need protection.
Rifqa Bary lives in an undisclosed location. The book title represents her sense of continuing to live in hiding and yet to be in the light of Christ. I hope for the day when she need no longer hide and that she continue to walk in the light no matter what she faces.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”