If you’re unfamiliar with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who wrote the memoir Infidel, she’s a Somali woman who fled to Europe to escape an arranged marriage, became a member of the Dutch Parliament, made a movie about Islam’s repression of women with Theo van Gogh (who was subsequently murdered by someone who was angered about the movie), and then relocated to the United States to work for a conservative think tank called the American Enterprise Institute. Except that it’s more complicated and more interesting than all that. For one thing, she traveled around a great deal as a child, moving from Somalia to Kenya to Saudi Arabia to Ethiopia (and I may have the chronology a bit mixed up, but you get the point). Raised by relatively liberal parents, she developed a strong innate sense of self and of ethical values. However, those same parents came to disappoint her over and over; her father by abandoning his family to lead a dissident group and to form new families, her mother by sinking into depression and beating Ayaan mercilessly.
I live in Minneapolis, where there are a lot of Somalis who are refugees from the collapsed state. Reading Hirsi Ali’s book was helpful in understanding a bit more about their culture, since I don’t have a lot of direct contact with Somali folks. For instance, when Hirsi Ali is in Holland, she is translating in a situation in which a Somali child has hit a Dutch child:
I had to ask to be released from the rule of strict translation so I could explain things. I told the teacher, “Where we come from, aggression is a survival tactic: we teach our children to hit first. You will have to explain more.”
The teacher looked at me as though I was mad. She explained that if all the children were allowed to hit each other, then it would be survival of the fittest: the strongest would bully the others. And the parents nodded. This satisfied them, because they wanted their child to be the strongest.
[The Somali parents discover that this is unacceptable in Holland, and an agreement is reached with the teacher.]
I cycled home thinking, “This is why Somalia is having a civil war and Holland isn’t.” It was all there. People in Hollan agree that violence is bad. They make a huge effort to teach their children to channela ggression and resolve their disputes verbally. They had analyzed conflict and set up institutions to regulate it. This is what it meant, to be citizens.
Somali society is very male-dominated, and most of the women are covered from head to toe. When I read the section in which Hirsi Ali describes her circumcision, it made me wonder how prevalent female circumcision/genital mutilation is in places like Minnesota. It sends shivers down my spine to read the details, and it horrifies me to think that little girls living in the same progressive place as me might be suffering from such an abusive, life-changing procedure. In the Somalia that Hirsi Ali describes, the purity of women is paramount, yet there seems to be a huge cognitive dissonance regarding how men treat women. If the women are pure, they should cover, not leave the house, be circumcised, etc. If the women leave the house without a man, even if they are “pure,” however, they become subject to harassment. And if a woman is not perceived as “pure” (the worst would be to have a child out of wedlock), she is subject to outright molestation. It’s an appalling system of gender inequality, and Hirsi Ali makes strong arguments for the need for change in her home society.
Female circumcision for Somali women like Hirsi Ali is about controlling women and their sexuality, but as Hirsi Ali discovers, Muslim women like her still have the same emotions and urges as non-circumcised and non-Muslim women. The mindset of her upbringing was that her Islamic faith (about which she becomes very rigid and then later very analytical) should make her different, physically, from non-Muslim people. Yet she cannot supress her desire for rationality, so she confronts over and over again the inconsistencies between her culture, her faith, and her own beliefs about rights and equality.
Hirsi Ali is so dedicated to her goal of rationality that she disavows her faith after spending time in Europe. Wearing pants doesn’t make European men lust uncontrollably after her, so she starts wearing pants all the time. She doesn’t wear a veil; she cuts her hair short. She becomes very Westernized and, as far as I could tell, she loves it. Following her work at a Dutch university (her perseverance through the academic bureaucracy is laudable), she works for a progressive political party as a researcher, and following September 11, 2001, she starts writing polemics and appearing on talk shows speaking out against the al-Qaeda face of Islam. I can’t tell if it’s naivete or self-assurance, but she’s astounded at the hostile reaction she gets, both from multiculturalist Dutch and from fundamentalist Muslims. After Theo van Gogh’s murder, she is flown from the country and hidden by the Dutch equivalent of the Secret Service.
One thing that I found totally charming about Hirsi Ali was her love of Western literature. She learns English as a young girl, and she can’t get enough of novels, even if they’re a bit trashy. Reading books like Jane Eyre develops her sense that women can make choices about whom they love and marry. It reminded me of Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi, an Iranian professor of literature; Nafisi leads her female students in secret book clubs wherein they read the “decadent” Western novels that the Iranian Revolution bans. Reading is very much a transformative experience for these women, and for Hirsi Ali.
There’s a lot in Infidel that I found intriguing, but what I definitely came away with was a sense of the strength of character necessary to stand up to your family, culture, religion, and nation. Hirsi Ali is the kind of person who epitomizes the word indomitable. Her story makes me admire her courage and be grateful that I don’t have to undertake the kind of personal transformation that she did to feel free and whole.