Ayaan Hirsi Ali
(Free Press, New York, 2007, 353 pg.)
reviewed by Lynn Spreen
As Christopher Hitchens points out in his introduction to Infidel, this is really two books. The first is the compelling story of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a little girl born in Somalia in 1969, into a life of tribal alliances and divides, brutal misogyny, religious fanaticism, and political turmoil. The second is about her intellectual awakening in the West, where, after escaping an arranged marriage, she makes a life for herself in Holland, even becoming a member of the Dutch parliament. She becomes so vocal a critic of Islam that it is said she now lives in America under constant armed guard.
To make my point about her brutal childhood: One day when her father – a moderate Muslim in the context of his surroundings, but only in such context – is in a Somali jail for his political activities, Ali’s grandmother, a cultural and religious fanatic, violates the father’s wishes and effects the circumcision of the six-year-old Ali and her four-year-old sister. Let’s be clear: in some versions of female circumcision, as in this case, an itinerant male circumciser cuts off the clitoris with a pair of scissors while female relatives hold down the screaming child on a table. Then the girl’s remaining labia is sewn together to form a hard band of scarring, with only a small opening for the expression of urine. Later, when the girl is mature, sexual intercourse will require tearing the flesh with forceful penetration to create an opening of sufficient size for entry. This procedure is performed to ensure the purity of the female. Ali is taught that she is, by virtue of gender, voiceless, powerless, and a source of sexual provocation which can only be subdued by head-to-toe covering and total obedience.
Due to political turmoil, her family is yanked from one impoverished, squalid home to another. Over the course of her youth she lives in Somalia, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, and Kenya. As a child and young woman, she is taught to submit to Allah and men in general, that obedience must be absolute, and that to question this obedience, even in one’s thoughts, is to invite eternal punishment in hell.
During most of her youth, her mother is abandoned by her father, who marries twice again and fathers more children while still in the original marriage. Ali’s mother is dependent for her family’s survival on a monthly payment from the father or his clan, but the money is barely enough to keep them fed and housed.
Violence is endemic throughout her childhood. Everyone beats Ali, from her frustrated, depressed mother to her self-righteous teachers to the visiting religious instructor. As the eldest daughter she is the family’s domestic slave, washing, cleaning, and cooking for her family of five in addition to school and homework. When she fails to satisfy her unhappy mother, the mother ties her up with rope and beats her with a stick. One day, the teenaged Ali rebels. Rather than labor over the cumbersome ritual of making ink from charcoal, milk and water for her religious lesson, she locks herself in the bathroom in spite of demands from her mother and the ma’alim (teacher). When the house is quiet, Ali comes out and begins housework. She notices that her mother has left the front gate unlocked, a very unusual circumstance for this crime-ridden Nairobi neighborhood. When Ali goes to lock the gate, the ma’alim appears and cracks her on the wrist with a stick. He and another man pull her into her house, blindfold her, and beat her. The beating ends when the ma’alim throws her against the wall hard enough to for Ali to hear a cracking noise in her head.
The men quickly leave. Ali feels terrible and goes to bed. She sleeps undisturbed until the next morning, awakening to her mother screaming at her to start housework. The mother beats, kicks, and bites her lethargic daughter. The grandmother joins in. The two women tie Ali up, beat her all day long, and leave her tied on the floor until three in the morning. She faints at school the next day, goes home, and in an attempt to kill herself, takes an overdose of what turns out to be vitamin pills. Several days later, a visiting aunt notices her injury and insists she be taken to the hospital, where she has life-saving surgery for complications of a fractured skull. She remains in the hospital for twelve days. At the end of this narration, Ali writes, “It was while I was in the hospital that I saw for the first time that my mother did, truly, love me, deep in her heart, and that all the abuse wasn’t really directed at me, but at the world, which had taken her rightful life away….” I would argue that what would at first glance appear to be evidence of a full-blown case of Stockholm Syndrome is instead the origin of a passion for women’s rights that will blossom once she reaches Europe.
A final example of her status as chattel (ever notice it rhymes with cattle?) is the fact that her beloved father promises her in marriage to a man he has known for two hours, based on the man’s impressive physical appearance and the fact that he is of their clan, although he resides in Canada. The man is visiting family in Nairobi to find a bride because the Somali girls in Canada were “too Westernized…they dressed indecently, disobeyed their husbands, mixed freely with men,” and were thus impure, in his view. When Ali and her brother meet the man the next day, they find him to be quite stupid and arrogant. Nevertheless, within days the men sign off on the requisite paperwork and presto, Ali is a married woman, without consent, wedding, or even the necessity of leaving her house. When she is sent to Germany to await her visa to Canada, she is dumbstruck by the cleanliness, organization, and orderliness of the West. Far from the lawless hedonism she was taught to expect, here she feels she is accorded autonomy and respect by virtue of nothing more or less than her status as a human being. Intoxicated by the possibility of freedom, she escapes to the Netherlands, where she is welcomed into the arms of a generous immigration policy.
Egged on by new friends in the refugee camp, Ali begins wearing baggy jeans and riding a bicycle. She even whacks off her long hair. Hungry for knowledge, she quickly learns Dutch and, already fluent in English, becomes a translator for Somali refugees, first as a volunteer and then for pay. She attends college, gets a job, and develops a social network. Within ten years she wins a seat in the Dutch parliament, although she is most passionate about the issue of women’s rights in relation to extreme Islamist fundamentalism. In 2004 she makes a film, “Submission,” demonstrating her belief that the Qu’uran virtually demands the enslavement and torture of women. In 2005 her film maker, Theo van Gogh, is murdered. A note reviling Ali is stuck to his chest by a deeply-buried knife. The note, signed by a Muslim fanatic, sparks a new and painfully divisive debate among the Dutch about their liberal immigration policy, and the question of tolerance toward those who seem prone to violent interpretation of the Qu’uran. In time she becomes a magnet for extremist hostility, wears out her welcome in the Netherlands, and moves to the United States. She is now employed by the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank, where, according to the AEI’s website, she “researches the relationship between the West and Islam, women's rights in Islam, violence against women propagated by religious and cultural arguments, and Islam in Europe.” She is a best-selling author and a popular international speaker.
While I’m not prepared to analyze the book from a philosophical or political point of view, I will tell you why I found it a compelling good read. First, as a Westerner, it’s impossible for me to see a woman covered from head to toe by a burkha or other ethnic garment, with only her eyes showing, and not wonder who she is as an individual. Second, as we watch the decimation of societies in Somalia and Sudan on CNN, I wonder about the mothers and children who suffer so much. It’s easy to be detached, but I am sometimes trapped by the eyes of an overwrought child, seeing my own kids in his or her eyes. Ali describes growing up in such a life, and then triumphing over it, and this alone makes for a satisfying story.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali raises the question of whether the dictates of the Qu’uran are or are not static and inflexible. While she argues that a strict interpretation practically demands that violence be done to fellow humans, other voices disagree, saying that the Qu’uran is no more compulsive than the Christian bible. Some would say that her argument is uncomfortable, as acquiescence practically requires intolerance toward Islam as a response, whereas most of us are just coming out of our own American dark ages of intolerance by and toward Christianity. As we move toward the gentle light of objectivity and acceptance of those who are different from us, Ayaan Hirsi Ali urges us to think harder.