The first time I heard of Ayaan Hirsi Ali was after the ruthless murder of Theo van Gogh by a Moroccan radical Islamist, Mohammed Bouyeri, on November 2, 2004 on a street in Amsterdam. The cause of his assassination was his movie Submission, scripted by Ayaan, which depicted a thinly veiled Muslim woman with texts from the Quran inscribed on her naked body. This was a sufficient provocation. Afterward, Ayaan’s life was threatened and she had to live for some time in hiding. This incident is described both in the Introduction and in the last chapter (before the Epilogue) of Ayaan’s book. The book thus begins and ends with this tragic epic.
Although my interest in Ayaan and the aftermath of van Gogh’s murder had begun to wane, I was constantly intrigued inwardly by this Somali Muslim woman who had infuriated Muslims all over the world with her provocative writings. I wanted to know more about her; her autobiography, Infidel, tells it all.
Infidel begins (after the Introduction) with a chapter on “Bloodlines” in which Ayaan outlines her ancestral lineage quite in detail. Due to polygamy, which was a rule rather than exception in Somalia, the families were large. Although she was born to socially well-positioned parents, her life to adulthood was one big struggle. From her native Somalia, she immigrated to Saudi Arabia when she was quite young. There, she was acculturated in the Muslim orthodox Wahabism. She was overawed by the country and its people because Prophet Muhammad was born there. She unquestioningly accepted whatever she learned of Islamic rituals because it couldn’t have been otherwise.
Returning to Somalia, she, her mother and grandmother strictly adhered to Islamic practice, which they had learned in Saudi Arabia. Her father, Hirsi Magan Isse, was well-educated and relatively broadminded, and although he could have rightly guided her, he had little time to spend with his family because he was occupied in political ventures which took him away–into self-imposed exile in Ethiopia. In fact, later on he would desert (but not divorce) his wife and marry another woman in Ethiopia without even informing Ayaan’s mother. He took his third wife later with the blessing of his estranged wife and children. Men were all-powerful and women were to obey willy-nilly. This was the way of life in which Ayaan was born and bred.
The Islam which she and her mother had come to know in Saudi Arabia dictated, “Men do not pray alongside women. Women pray behind because though they cover themselves for prayer, that cloth could shift and uncover a piece of clothing or skin which could distract men and lead them into sin.” They accepted it and practiced it. Men were superior to women, period, without any ifs or buts.
Due to a civil war in Somalia and the unstable political conditions in Ethiopia, Ayaan and her family spent most of their lives in exile, first in Ethiopia, after leaving Saudi Arabia, and then in Nairobi, Kenya, where Ayaan went to high school. Her father shuttled between Somalia and Ethiopia and later moved to Nairobi.
Ayaan was gentle and submissive, particularly in childhood. One day after school, another child hit her and she just walked away. This was not a rule of growing up in Somalia. Her older cousin, Sanyar, drilled into her by admonishing, “I don’t want you to ever let another child hit you or make you cry. Fight. If you don’t fight for your honor, you’re a slave.” And that was the worst curse.
At home, Ayaan’s mother beat her at the slightest excuse. It was not that she didn’t love Ayaan, rather it was a way of life. She beat her to instill discipline and obedience. Ayaan describes one beating quite graphically in the book. She writes, “My mother beat me–really beat me–and then she said, ‘I’m not going to untie you. You can sleep on the floor tonight.’ Around three in the morning, Ma came back in from her bedroom and released me, and I fell asleep. At eight, it was time to go to school. I was blurry and off balance, and just before lunchtime, I fainted.” She was 14 at the time. The beatings continued until she was twenty.
This kind of harsh upbringing hardened her for an independent life later on. Her younger sister, Haweya, was quite different from Ayaan right from the start. Haweya would take her mother’s beatings but wouldn’t flinch or cry–and she said “no” to anything which her mother asked her to do that she didn’t want to do.
For religious education, Ayaan went to a Quranic School for Women in Nairobi. Her teacher, Sister Aziza, was very orthodox and entrenched in the teachings of the Egyptian fundamentalist “Akhwan-al-Muslimeen” (the Muslims’ Brotherhood) whose influence was deep in East Africa. She laid down the basic rules for practice and belief, and that was it. They could not be questioned because they were from Allah. Although she took questions from her students, the Islamic doctrines were firm and inflexible no matter how naive they seemed to be.
In the beginning, it was not so difficult for Ayaan to follow the Islamic instruction because everything was ordained by Allah. When doubts raised their their head, Ayaan rationalized that it was her lack of comprehension rather than some defect in the doctrines themselves. But things were destined to change.
When she was 17, Ayaan started musing, “If God were merciful, then why did Muslims have to shun non-Muslims–even attack them–to establish a state based on Allah’s laws? If He was just, then why were women so downtrodden? I began collecting together all the verses in the Quran that said God was wise, God was omnipotent, God was just–and there were many. I pondered them. Clearly, in real life, Muslim women were not ‘different but equal,’ as Sister Aziza maintained. The Quran said, ‘Men rule over women.’ In the eyes of the law and in every detail of daily life, we were clearly worth less than men.” The mind which had been sealed by uncritical religious instruction gradually began to open up.
In the first thirteen chapters of Infidel, Ayaan remains a steadfast Muslim, although doubts had already started creeping into her mind. The fourteenth chapter is titled “Leaving God.” Leaving God was a great relief to her, a sort of Nirvana, which released her from the mental shackles that had almost paralyzed her thinking processes. She was shocked and jolted by the 9/11 tragedy to think objectively about Islam. She writes, “The little shutter at the back of my mind, where I pushed all my dissonant thoughts, snapped open after the 9/11 attack, and it refused to close again.” Her skepticism was facilitated by her graduate education at age twenty-five at the University of Leiden, where she was prompted to think independently and verify her facts empirically. So, one day on a vacation to Corfu, she stood in front of a mirror and looking into it declared loudly, “‘I don’t believe in God’ … I said it slowly enunciating it carefully, in Somali. And I felt relief.” She was now free from all kinds of mental strictures.
Nevertheless, she was forced by her father into a marriage with a Somali man who was born into a very respectable, almost royal, family. He had his business in Canada and lived there. Ayaan was expected to go to Canada to live with her husband. It was a great marriage from a traditional point of view, but Ayaan didn’t like the man as her husband and didn’t want to spend the rest of her life with him.
Her father secured a passport for her, and thought she would be able to get a visa for Canada with relative ease and in less time from a European country rather than from Somalia. He arranged for her to go to Germany for this purpose so that she could travel to Canada as soon as possible. After reaching Dusseldorf, Ayaan changed her mind and went to Holland, instead, on the advice of some of her friends. She was advised to seek refugee status in Holland and live there. She succeeded in obtaining refugee status in Holland. She learned the Dutch language, went to school there, and succeeded in obtaining admission into the prestigious Leiden University. She obtained a Master’s degree in Political Science. She also worked as a translator to earn her livelihood. It was a hard life, but with patience and perseverance she made it.
She entered into politics and eventually became a Member of the Dutch Parliament. She did TV programs, wrote articles in renowned newspapers and journals showing the totalitarian aspects of Islam, and delivered speeches underlining the need to reform Islam. She became a familiar household name on the continent and overseas. In the process, she made numerous enemies.
Ayaan was stripped of her Dutch citizenship in 2006 on the grounds that she had lied in order to obtain refugee status in Holland. She had acknowledged that she had falsified her date of birth, changed her name from Ayaan Hirsi Magan to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and that she had come to Holland directly from Somalia and not from Germany. It took eleven years for the Dutch government to act and decide to retract her citizenship. Surely, there was some politics mixed up in her case. Ayaan had not only antagonized a large portion of the Muslim immigrant population in Holland by her harsh criticism of Islam and Prophet Muhammad, but she had made a lot of enemies in the political arena as well. They were jealous of her meteoric rise from a nondescript Somali refugee to the coveted office of Member of Parliament.
Eventually, she left Holland to come to the U.S. to work with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. She writes, “At the risk of repeating myself, I am not leaving Holland because of the issue of my Dutch citizenship: it is entirely a personal decision, made long before the citizenship saga.”
She describes her motivation for writing this book in these words: “The decision to write this book didn’t come to me easily. Why would I expose such private memories to the world? … My central concern is that women in Islam are oppressed. That oppression of women causes Muslim women and Muslim men, too, to lag behind the West. It creates a culture that generates more backwardness with every generation. It would be better for everyone–for Muslims, above all–if this situation could change.” She sounds very honest and sincere in her objective. Time magazine named her as one of its one hundred “most influential people in the world,” in 2005.
The book was published by Free Press, New York, in 2007. It is quite interesting, although repetitive of some details here and there. It makes a useful addition to the growing literature critiquing Islam, and emphasizing the need to reform its narrow and restrictive approach to life. Many Muslim women writers including Naema Tahir, Asra Nomani, Mohja Kahf among scores of others are playing an important role for the emancipation of women.