I've been working up to writing this post for a while. After reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali's biography Infidel, I needed some time to really think the whole thing through. This also involved listening to a bunch of interviews with her and about her and doing some research on stuff I never thought I would, like the difference between Dutch political parties. I guess in some ways what attracted me to Hirsi Ali is that she completely bewilders liberals in our country. I was listening to an interview on NPR yesterday and one woman who called in said that Hirsi Ali was the new Ann Coulter while the guest on the program was saying that she's the new Salman Rushdie. While I can understand the Coulter comparison because she is known to make huge sweeping statements that piss people off I overall think that Ayaan Hirsi Ali might be one of the best thinkers and voices in our country due to the fact that by stating her own experiences and their outcomes she has been able to get many American liberals and democrats so in a tizzy that they out themselves as either naive or completely limited in their progressive tactics. While I also identify as a liberal I find it really upsetting that many who share my views won't accept the opinions or suggestions of a woman raised in the Islamic/ Arabic world. They instead would like to have their own ideas of how it works, without help from those who have been there.
Ayaan Hirsi Ai was born in Somalia. Her biography opens in the deserts in Somalia with her grandmother teaching her to recite her "bloodline" back 300 years. This bloodline can be called upon at many times- when her mother needs financial help, when Ayaan is mugged at gunpoint - reciting it is important because if you share a relative the person you are telling it to is obliged to lend you a hand- or stop mugging you. During Ayaan's childhood her family lives in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and Kenya. During this time they spend time being devoutly religious in Saudi Arabia where the culture, at least at the time, has it so that her mother can not go outside without bringing her 10 year old son with her, so that she will be in the company of a man. Ayaan's father Hirsi Magan Isse is a scholar and leader in the Somalian Revolution. While he studied in the US, (where he married his first wife) he became opposed to the tradition of female genital mutilation. As an aside, for those of you who don't know, female genital mutilation or cutting can range from a cut to the clitoris to the cutting off of clitoris, labia majora, and minora and basically sewing you up so you are flat but for a small hole for pee and menstrual blood. Unfortunately, while her father was opposed to this practice he was away often and the grandmother made sure that five year old Ayaan and her younger sister were circumcised. Ayaan says that her sisters spirit was changed from that day on.
When the family eventually settled in Nairobi, Kenya, Ayaan attended the English speaking Muslim Girls Secondary School where she was became enamored as a teenager with a teacher who inspired her to follow the more devout Saudi Arabian following of Islam. Ayaan wore a hijab which was rare in Kenya at the time and followed the Qur'an living "by the Book, for the Book". She also agreed with the fatwa declared against Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. It was cool to read about the underground books that were popular among the girls at her school. Nancy Drew and romance novels created the seed of rebellion in the young Ayaan, filling her mind with the girl sleuth's independence and the romances' acceptance of female desire. Ayaan often wondered why it was so imperative that women completely cover themselves to quell the desires of Muslim men - shouldn't the men perhaps cover too so that the women were not aroused. The running theme of desire and literally cloaked sexuality was frightening. Girls taught from a young age that should they be raped it would be their fault. It didn't matter if you were covered from head to toe and ran with all your might it was surely your fault. You would be a disgrace to your family and were better off dead than un-pure. Ayaan comments on how even how you smelled or the sound of your heels under the hijab could be taken as a come on.
While many of her friends had been married off as pre-teens and teens, Ayaan continued on to secretarial school in Nairobi after finishing secondary school. She had a secret boyfriend for a while, a Kenyan friend of her brother. They kissed a little but eventually split up due to differing religions. Ayaan's father had left years ago and married a third wife, news that sort of had to go through the grapevine to get back to her mother. However, it was rude to show any thing other than politeness to your husband's wives who came before or after you and Ayaan actually lives for a time with his first wife and her two daughters. Her mother who had once been fairly independent when she decided to leave the country for the city as a young woman, but became what can only be read as severely depressed. She was reliant on extended family for money and turned to Ayaan as her oldest to do most of the chores and serve as a whipping post. At one point both her mother and her Qur'an teacher gave Ayaan such a beating that bones in her face are broken. These beating involve laying on the floor while you allow them to tie your wrists and feet together. The next day a family friend insists that Ayaan be taken to the hospital and treated. Its pretty amazing to me that Ayaan at this point is very understanding of her mothers situation and doesn't seem to hold the experience against her.
At some point after secretarial school Ayaan has a secret wedding to a good looking and flirtatious cousin. Her parents don't know about it and interestingly enough as a woman you don't have to attend your own wedding. If some male member of your family speaks for you it's good enough. The newlyweds have one terrible night at a hotel - the process of having sex after a female circumcision is obviously difficult. Then he leaves for a trip to Sweden where he ends up meeting and marrying a Swedish woman.
As the Somalian revolution picks up Ayaan travels back to help a group of relatives and friends get across the border to Kenya. Many of the refugees stay at her mothers house which while chaotic manages to give her mother a sense of purpose for a while.
Eventually Ayaan's father returns after having not seen her since childhood and one day decides that he met a really great guy at mosque that he wants her to marry. The guy lives in Canada but is visiting to find a wife. Ayaan's critiques of him are hilariously typical of any girl- he's balding and doesn't seem smart enough. However, her father won't listen and the arrangements are made for her to marry. Ayaan's secret previous marriage is exposed by the relative who posed as her witness but it is decided that it is invalid since her father or brother didn't give permission. Ayaan doesn't attend this new wedding but spends the day running errands and hanging out with her sister. The married couple has one week together before he returns to Canada. Ayaan is to follow on a later flight.
However, she is determined that the man is a "bigot" and an "idiot" and when the flight has a layover in Germany she makes her getaway move. She has a relative there that she stays with and the basics of running hot water and duvet covers are amazing to her. The women seem naked to her and its amazing that couples on the street actually hold hands and kiss. Although she wants to escape to England she decides that the Netherlands is easier. She quickly travels to the Netherlands and files for political asylum and after staying in a refugee camp receives a residence permit. She changes her last name from Magan to Ali, however her family and husband do eventually find out about her whereabouts. Ayaan is pretty far gone at this point though, she's lost the hijab and is riding a bicycle and the families efforts to bring her back fail over and over again. Ayaan also manages to buck what the Dutch system expects for her as well. She learns more and more of the Dutch language and insists on going to high quality schools and working as more than a secretary. She studied Political Science at the Leiden University and read everything she could. Freud opened her eyes to a sense of moral code that exists outside of religion which she counts as being revolutionary to her thinking. While working as a translator for the Rotterdam refugee center her views of the difference between the two cultures became even stronger. In Infidel she gives the example of explaining to Somalian parents that it was not appropriate for their kid to beat other kids up at school because being the first to throw a punch is not respected or admired in their new country. The concept of honor and its ties to violence were a large part of the conflicts she dealt with. Yet, this job also made her critical of elements of the refugee and immigration system in the Netherlands. The country's acceptance of all cultures lead to financial support of state funded religious schools and institutions which she saw as aiding in a continuation of the conflicts they were escaping.
After attaining her Masters degree at Leiden, Ayaan took a job at a think tank linked to the Dutch Labour Party. Yet, after 9-11 she began questioning the Qur'an and after reading The Atheist's Manifesto decided to renounce her faith. Her public appearances picked up and she began to speak publicly about her critique of Islamic culture. She spoke out for the rights of Muslim women which often times conflicted with the basics of traditional Muslim law. After publishing her book The Son Factory she began to receive death threats. Around this time Ayaan decided to leave the Labour Party and was elected to a Parliamentary seat as part of the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy. Wikipedia points out that although this was based on beliefs she was also about to loose her state funded protection. The People's Party is a more conservative party mainly in financial ways but they also believe "The principle of non-discrimination should be given more importance than the exercise of religion", which is something many conservative Americans might not be down with.
Around this time she collaborated with film director Theo Van Gogh to make the short movie Submission in which parts of the Qur'an were painted on a Muslim woman's body which is visible through a see through veil. Death threats were sent to both Ayan and Theo and in November 2004 a Dutch Morrocan citizen killed Theo Van Gogh. In the middle of the day on a busy street he was shot 8 times and one knife was used to slit his throat and another knife to stab a five page letter into his chest. The letter among other things threatened Jews and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Ayaan immediately went into hiding both in her own country and for a time in the U.S. She returned to Parliament in 2005 but didn't quiet down about her opinions. In 2006 along with Salman Rushdie and 10 other intellectuals she signed Manifesto: Together facing the new Totalitarianism.
The movie sort of reminded me of this line by Hussein Chalayan from 1998.
Eventually Ayaan was evicted due to her neighbors complaining about the constant security measures. Around this time it also became evident that she had lied on her refugee papers - claiming she had escaped from the Somali revolution (instead of the fact that she aided in helping others) to attain political asylum status. In 2007 Ayaan Hirsi Ali moved to the U.S. and has become one of our most polarizing and complicated figures. She is working for the American Enterprise, a conservative think tank. I do disagree with some of her views - mostly some off handed comments that immigrants should pick themselves up by their own bootstraps. I think maybe some of this confusion is because Dutch politics are very different from US ones. Dutch society is vastly more giving to its poor and immigrated and set up in a way that provides more equal opportunities.
Although there are awesome liberals here who support her, such as Cornel West, and this guy who was on NPR the other day there are also tons who devalue her opinions because they aren't all accepting. I do believe that there are plenty of ways to keep the Muslim faith in a productive and progressive way but like almost all ancient religions there are incredibly repressive and dangerous elements to clinging to the "by the book" way of life. Imagine if our country tried to run its government off the old testament - can you even imagine one family living by that old testament code without being dragged into Child and Family services. In one interview I watched Ayaan try to explain this and the interviewer cited the killing of abortion provider Dr. Tiller as an example of how the U.S. is also a dangerously religious country. Ayaan pointed out the obvious difference - that is illegal in the U.S. - there are laws set up to provide the killer with a trial and when he is convicted sentence him to prison.
These days Ayaan Hirsi Ali is working incredibly hard for the rights and safety and freedom of all women, not just the upper middle class white ones. There are many gray zones to morality but protecting religious rights instead of the bodies and minds of women is in my opinion wrong no matter what the religion. I don't support priests abusing little boys so we shouldn't support the beatings, marriages, or genital mutilation of little girls for the sake of political correctness. Marx once stated that the origin of man's exploitation of man is man's exploitation of women. So perhaps if we follow this line of thinking and follow Ayaan Hirsi Ali's goals to emancipate women we can figure out some of the larger issues of our countries conflicts with the Muslim/Arabic world.