This was a very hard book to read. I’ve been involved, in a small way, in human rights issues since I was a teenager. I’ve read all about the horrors human beings can inflict on others, and have an idea of the scale and scope of the problem. But there is something particularly difficult about reading a continuous narrative of a childhood and youth spent in a world of ignorance, violence, and oppression of women.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Somalia, and has also lived in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and Kenya. She lived in a family and society infused with the bigotry and brutality of Islam and tribal culture. She was subject to beatings, mutilation, and control over her life, mainly because she was female. Her own mother and grandmother beat her frequently (though she never blamed them), and forced her to neglect her studies to do the housework. Her Quran teacher fractured her skull when she tired of the mindless rote learning. She and her sister were crudely “excised” (against her absent father’s wishes) with scissors on the kitchen floor. In every chapter about her early life she describes new violations of her dignity as a human being.
Worse still was the enslavement of her mind. She was taught that their way was the best way, unlike the supposedly sinful, decadent, chaotic West. She was taught that if she showed her skin or her hair men would fly into a sexual frenzy and she would be responsible for their sin and damnation. In fact her whole clan’s honour rested in her “purity.” One false move and not only would she spend eternity burning in hell, but she would bring shame on her family and her entire clan. Clan is everything in Somali culture—it is who you are and it is your social safety net—so to dishonour your clan is just about the worst thing you can do.
Along with the honour culture came bigotry. Her clan was better than other clans, Somalis were better than Kenyans, Muslims were better than Christians (to say nothing of the Jews, on whom anything and everything can be blamed). There was a part of her that believed all this, or at least went along with it for the sake of survival, but there was also a part of her that questioned it. When she saw a woman in a refugee camp dying of her wounds from a gang rape and not only abandoned but actively shunned by people who called themselves holy and righteous, she knew there was a problem with her religion and her culture.
A forced marriage turned out to be the means of her escape. She was married off to a Somali-Canadian, without her consent of course. The woman’s consent is not strictly necessary under Islamic law. She did not have to be present at the marriage ceremony and did not have to sign anything or make any vows. It was simply a transaction between her father and the intended husband. She had no way out of a life of servitude except to flee, which she did during a layover in Germany. With tremendous courage she just walked out, got on a train to the Netherlands, and found asylum.
She was amazed by what she saw in Europe. Everything was clean and orderly. The trains and buses ran on time. Officials not only did not extort bribes, but they were actually helpful. People in general were peaceful and friendly, not the demons she had been warned about. A man could be sitting right next to a woman in a tight-fitting top and show no signs whatsoever of impending rape. Men and women had relationships as they chose and society did not crumble around them. Everything she had been told about the “unbelievers” was a lie.
It took some time for her brain to catch up with what she was seeing, but it did and she was mentally as well as legally emancipated. Not all the women with her background were able to escape their internalized cages, though. She worked as a government translator for a while and saw numerous women from Somalia and other Muslim countries who were brutalized by their husbands but refused to complain because it was their belief that they had to be obedient or else they would go to hell. The Quran instructs men to beat their wives for insubordination and the commandment could be carried out with impunity even in a free country with equal rights for women because Allah’s eternal punishment was always hanging over these women’s heads. She also knew about the ongoing genital mutilation and honour killings, though her native Dutch friends and colleagues wouldn’t believe it.
Hirsi Ali also couldn’t help but observe that other Muslim refugees and immigrants did not do well in Dutch society. They came from places where bribery and clan association got you in the door, and were not used to meeting impartial requirements and following rules. Whenever they were refused something they blamed racism, rather than their own lack of effort, and retreated into resentment and victimhood. Some, like Hirsi Ali, did understand that they just needed to work and follow the rules to succeed, but they were not the majority. Muslim immigrants as a group, from all races and nationalities, were disproportionately unsuccessful in the Netherlands. When she started sharing her observations publicly is when her new troubles started.
It’s a bit odd reading a book about such recent history. These are things that have all happened in my lifetime, and I have read about Hirsi Ali before. It’s easy when reading a book to feel transported into another world, but this book is about my world. The man Hirsi Ali was forced to marry lives in my country. She was forced out of Holland by death threats and had to take refuge in the country I can see from my local beach. Wherever she is right at this moment, I know she is in the company of bodyguards because of her criticism of a religion that calls itself peaceful.
Her main concern is the effect of Islam on women, so it’s appropriate to post this on International Women’s Day. While woman have always and everywhere been the targets of violence and exploitation, there are few cases where such abuse is enshrined as God’s law. That is a barrier to the advancement of Muslim women, and it is Hirsi Ali’s hope that Islam will modernize and leave behind ancient tribal customs and keep only what is truly good and peaceful in Islam. The fact that there are many Muslims who are peaceful, who would never dream of imposing their morality on others (even their own daughters), or of using violence to express their grievances, is encouraging. But the black and white letters of the Quran remain, and until those are no longer considered the exact words of God, the subjugation of women in the name of Islam is likely continue.
While reading this book I often wondered what made Hirsi Ali different? How did she know there was something wrong with her culture even before she left it? Why did she thrive in the West, and not spiral into dependence and depression like her own sister, and so many others, did? How could she be so open to appreciating how good life is in the West, when she had always been taught that it was an evil place? She does not talk about this in her book. Perhaps it is simply a gift. But it might have had a little to do with books:
In school we read good books, Charlotte Brontë, Jane Austen, and Daphne du Maurier; out of school, Halwa’s sisters kept us supplied with cheap Harlequins. These were trashy soap opera-like novels, but they were exciting—sexually exciting. And buried in all of these books was a message: women had a choice. Heroines fell in love, they fought off family obstacles and questions of wealth and status, and they married the man they chose.
If that was what she gleaned from literature—that women could choose—then it’s no wonder that her forced marriage was the final straw for her. She could be beaten and shamed into some semblance of submission, but she could not be told who to marry.
Her freedom has cost her a great deal, and fighting for the freedom of Muslim women has cost her and others a great deal too. In 2004 she made a short film with Theo van Gogh named Submission, which addresses the issue of violence against women in Islam. Later that year van Gogh was murdered in the street, in broad daylight, and a fatwa against Hirsi Ali was pinned to van Gogh’s chest—with a knife. This is what she and other critics of Islam are up against.
I apologize for the long post, but this is undoubtedly the greatest social issue in the world in our time. I really don’t know what is to be done other than to support the incredibly brave people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali who are risking their lives to open a debate about Islam. I think if we don’t debate about it in words, then we will go back to debating about it with swords, and no one wins that way.
In memory of Theo van Gogh, who gave his life for free speech and women’s rights, and in honour of Ayaan Hirsi Ali on International Women’s Day, here is Submission.