One of my greatest heroines is Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
This year I read her memoir, Infidel and was fascinated with her story and her strength to continue educating people about her experience as a woman born into Islam.
Ayaan was born in Mogadishu, Somalia and her father was a liberal minded Somali politician. Her father was very against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) but when Ayaan was 5 years old and her father was imprisoned for his political beliefs, her grandmother called together a group of women to perform the traditional procedure on her. FGM is the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia (usually removing the clitoris) practiced in 28 countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. There are an estimated 140 million women and girls who have experienced FGM. It is usually performed between age four and puberty using a razor or scissors. In Type III FGM, all of the inner and outer labia as well as the clitoris are removed and the wound is sewn shut allowing for only a tiny hole for urine and menstrual blood to pass through. This wound is re-opened on their wedding night by cutting it open with a knife or is forced open through intercourse. Girls must undergo this because of a cultural belief that it promotes chastity and fidelity while reducing sexual desires. As a child, Ayaan was a devout Muslim and followed the book very strictly, sympathizing with the Muslim Brotherhood and wearing a hijab to school even when the other students did not.
At 8 years old, her family left Somalia to go to Saudi Arabia, followed by Ethiopia and finally Kenya. Each of these countries shaped her perspective on Islam as traditions were followed in varying degrees in each place. Ayaan began secretly reading books in English with heroines who pushed the limits of what society pressed upon them and eventually she began to question Islam and the beliefs she had been raised to strictly adhere to.
“Adults never explained anything. They saw children as akin to small animals, creatures who had to be tugged and beaten into adulthood before they were worthy of information and discussion.”
In her teenage years, her friends were placed into arranged marriages to men they didn’t love. She saw how these women suffered as their husbands treated them as inferior, sexual slaves. Ayaan also saw how excruciating sex was for her friends as their labia had been sewn shut as children and was violently forced open during sex with their husbands. She dreamed, like most girls her age, of a happy marriage with someone she loved, just like she read in the American books.
“As a reader, I could put on someone else’s shoes and live through [their] adventures, borrow [their] individuality and make choices that I didn’t have at home.”
Eventually, her father arranged for her to be married to a distant cousin who she did not know very well (enough to notice that he was not very intelligent) and did not love. She went to Germany to visit family before her trip to meet her husband in Canada. While in Germany, she decided to escape and ran away to the Netherlands where she sought political refuge.
“I was not running away from Islam, or to democracy. I didn’t have any big ideas then. I was just a young girl and wanted some way to be me; so I bolted into the unknown.”
She started studying Dutch and in order to earn money to support herself, she worked as a Somali-Dutch interpreter/translator in the refugee centers and hostels for battered women.
“As a woman you are better off in life earning your own money. You couldn’t prevent your husband from leaving you or taking another wife, but you could have some of your dignity if you didn’t have to beg him for financial support.”
After a while she decided to go to college and graduated from Leiden University with a degree in Political Science. While she was studying she became increasingly disappointed with Islam and the restrictions it placed on women as inferior beings in society.
“People accuse me of having interiorized a feeling of racial inferiority, so that I attack my own culture out of self-hatred, because I want to be white. This is a tiresome argument. Tell me, is freedom then only for white people? Is it self-love to adhere to my ancestors’ traditions and mutilate my daughters? To agree to be humiliated and powerless? To watch passively as my countrymen abuse women and slaughter each other in pointless disputes? When I came to a new culture, where I saw for the first time that human relations could be different, would it have been self-love to see that as a foreign cult, which Muslims are forbidden to practice?”
After reading about Osama Bin Laden’s preachings and the attacks on September 11th, she denounced Islam and became an atheist. She began to critique Islam for its faults, write articles and speak openly on TV about her new beliefs. She became an elected member of the House of Representatives in the Dutch parliament in 2003.
“It was not a lunatic fringe who felt this way about America and the West. I knew that a vast mass of Muslims would see the attacks as justified retaliation against the infidel enemies of Islam.”
Because of her unabashed way of speaking out about her controversial beliefs, she began receiving many death threats and had to go into hiding.
“Some things must be said, and there are times when silence becomes an accomplice to injustice.”
She wrote the script for a film called Submission, which showed a Muslim woman dressed in a burqa with text from the Quran written on her skin justifying the subjugation of women. In 2004, Theo van Gogh, the Dutch producer of the film was killed in broad daylight in Amsterdam because of his involvement in the film. The knife, which was used to stab him to death, was stuck into his chest with a letter to Ayaan, saying she would be next.
Ayaan, devastated by the death of her friend, still did not regret making the film, stating that denying the truth of it would go against everything she believed in. Eventually Ayaan had to resign from her position in parliament because the death threats interfered with her ability to effectively hold office. Holland was also no longer able nor willing to protect her, revoking her citizenship. She fled to the U.S. where she was finally granted citizenship this year. She has founded a women’s rights organization called the AHA Foundation and currently a fellow at Harvard University. She is married to a British historian and public commentator and they have a son named Thomas.
“It is always difficult to make the transition to a modern world. I moved from the world of faith to the world of reason – from the world of excision and forced marriage to the world of sexual emancipation. Having made that journey, I know that one of those worlds is simply better than the other. Not because of its flashy gadgets, but fundamentally, because of its values”
I haven’t read a book like this which has such powerful imagery in a very long time. Ayaan brings the reader into her story to the level that you begin to feel her pain and long for her survival. She doesn’t present her life story in search of pity but in a matter of fact, this is just what happened. She is strong and shows us how to be strong too, encouraging others to practice critical thinking instead of falling into the common belief of those around us. It is exciting to watch her soul search and constantly re-discover herself throughout the book, while also fearing for her as she faces the dangers of speaking her mind.
I love this book because it is the personal account of a woman who has survived the ugly side to Islam found in certain countries. I don’t believe that her story is the same as every Muslim woman but it obviously is the same for many and we need to see this. Many Americans hate Islam because they don’t know anything about it but that won’t get us anywhere. It’s so important for us to take it upon ourselves to learn more and study about Islam before judging someone else’s culture and religious beliefs. I believe there are positive and negative sides to Islam just as there are to any other religion. Ayaan’s reasons for renouncing Islam are her own. She has the right to do so because she lived it.
“Many well-meaning Dutch people have told me in all earnestness that nothing in Islamic culture incites abuse of women, that this is just a terrible misunderstanding. Men all over the world beat their women, I am constantly informed. In reality, these Westerners are the ones who misunderstand Islam. The Quaran mandates these punishments. It gives a legitimate basis for abuse, so that the perpetrators feel no shame and are not hounded by their conscience of their community. I wanted my art exhibit to make it difficult for people to look away from this problem. I wanted secular, non-Muslim people to stop kidding themselves that “Islam is peace and tolerance.”