A Broader Horizon

Ophelia Benson

Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali (New York: Free Press, 2007, ISBN 978- 0-7432-8968-9) 353 pp. Cloth $26.


The issue of Islam and women’s rights is both a hot topic and a neglected one—a subject some people worry about and others ignore or sweep under the carpet. It is, in fact, an issue on which progressive opinion is split between multiculturalists, Third Worldists, and postcolonialists on the one hand, and liberal universalists, secularists, and feminists on the other. The latter group pays attention to the ways Islam opposes women’s rights; the former murmurs about Eurocentrism and cultural imperialism.

There are, fortunately, many women, both ex-Muslims and reformist believers, who are working hard to inform the world about what life is really like for women under Islam: women such as Seyran Ates and Necla Kelek in Germany, Fadela Amara in France, Homa Arjomand and Irshad Manji in Canada, Maryam Namazie and Azam Kamguian in the UK, and Taslima Nasrin in India. One of the best-known is Ayaan Hirsi Ali, born in Somalia, raised in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and Kenya, and married to a stranger against her will; refugee, graduate student, translator, junior researcher for the Labor Party, and MP; author, screenwriter of the film Submission, campaigner for the rights of women under Islam, target of death threats. Her colleague in making Submission, Theo van Gogh, was shot and stabbed to death on an Amsterdam street in November 2004; since then Hirsi Ali has been under twenty-four-hour protection.

Timothy Garton Ash, in The New York Review of Books, called Hirsi Ali “a brave, outspoken, slightly simplistic Enlightenment fundamentalist.” It is tempting to wish that anyone who labels Hirsi Ali an “Enlightenment fundamentalist” be required to read Infidel. Hirsi Ali has had an unusually broad and varied sampling of life as a girl and woman under Islam, and her reasons for preferring enlightenment, freedom and women’s rights are neither frivolous nor trivial— and it is a perversion of meaning to call them “fundamentalist.”

The book falls into two halves, divided by Hirsi Ali’s flight to Germany at age twenty-two. The split is most obviously before and after Europe, but it is also between youth and adulthood, the world of family and the wider world, the kitchen and the parliament, obedience and independence, theocracy and secularism, religion and atheism, violence and peace, failed states and flourishing ones.

Hirsi Ali meets one kind of violence at the age of five, when (in her mother’s absence and while her father is in prison for being an enemy of Somali dictator Siad Barré) her grandmother has her excised—held down while her clitoris and labia are cut off with scissors and then sewn up, all without anesthetic and with Hirsi Ali in agonizing pain. After her father escaped from prison, the family moved to Saudi Arabia—where her mother was hissed at by men in the street because she was a woman outside unaccompanied by a man, where her school spent four fifths of its time on the Qur’an, and where her teacher called her “aswad abda”: black slave-girl. “I hated Saudi Arabia,” she says. The family moved to Ethiopia and then Kenya. In Nairobi she was beaten up by a ma’alim—an Islamic teacher her mother had hired; he bashed her head against a wall and fractured her skull.

When she was sixteen, a new teacher arrived to teach Islamic studies: Sister Aziza, who was different from any teacher she’d ever had—a zealot, but one who taught without coercion. Before long, Hirsi Ali wanted to be like Sister Aziza. “I wanted to be pure, and good, and serve Allah.” She began to pray five times a day, and she had a huge black cloak made for herself.

The Muslim Brotherhood was becoming influential at the time. Hirsi Ali was drawn to a discussion group of young Muslims at a community center: young people who were dissatisfied with the teaching at the madrassahs (as was Irshad Manji in her madrassah in Richmond, British Columbia) and who sought deeper learning. “They wanted to immerse themselves in it as a minutely detailed way of life, a passion, a constant internal pursuit.” The same paradox as that in Sister Aziza’s class is present: fundamentalism combined with inquiry: “The intention was to live according to the ancient ways in every detail of our lives. We weren’t just learning a text by heart: we were discussing its meaning and how it applied to us every day.” It’s a familiar and perennially interesting picture—of people ardently channeling their energies and intellects and even questions into greater obedience and submission.

There were clear advantages to the influence of the Brotherhood: less drug addiction and less corruption. Nevertheless, Hirsi Ali always had questions and doubts. She marveled at the imams’ obsession with women and how much skin they showed, and she was infuriated by the unequal rules for women.

One day in January 1992, her father told her that he had found her a husband: a Canadian named Osman Moussa, a distant cousin with a highly paid job. She was appalled, and then she met Osman Moussa and was more appalled: “he was dull, trite, and a bigot, a dyed-in-the-wool Brotherhood type.” She went to her father and tried to refuse, but he dismissed her refusal. She was not forced at gunpoint, she notes, but she had no realistic way out.

She went to Germany on her way to Canada to join Osman Moussa, and once there she realized she could simply disappear. “I knew that another kind of life was possible. I had read about it, and now I could see it, smell it in the air around me: the kind of life I had always wanted, with a real education, a real job, a real marriage. I wanted to make my own decisions. I wanted to become a person, an individual, with a life of my own.” And so it was. She went to the Netherlands. She registered with the immigration police and then went to the refugee aid office, where the woman who interviewed her said the forced marriage would not be grounds for refugee status. Hirsi Ali would have to claim “clear, specific fear of persecution.” So she did—she invented a story, a fact that she admits she is not proud of, and she got a pink card. As an A-status refugee she could work, attend university, and apply for naturalization in five years. She learned Dutch, went to vocational college, and attended the University of Leiden to study political science. She “wanted to understand why life in Holland was so different from life in Africa. Why there was so much peace, security, and wealth in Europe. What the causes of war were, and how you built peace.” She thought about it all the time. “This was an infidel country,” one whose way of life Muslims were supposed to reject. Why then was it so much better run, why did it make people’s lives so much better? “Why should infidels have peace and Muslims be killing each other?”

Everyone told her political science was a bad choice of study, but she loved it; she was beginning to understand good governance. She came to understand the Dutch attachment to freedom and why Holland was key to the European Enlightenment. “Sometimes it seemed as if almost every page I read challenged me as a Muslim.” At the same time she worked as a Somali-Dutch translator, where she got “another kind of education—an education in suffering, abuse, pain, misery, and the evils of ignorance.” In the battered women’s shelters, nearly all of the women were from Morocco, Turkey, Afghanistan, and Somalia. She began to wonder why so many Muslims were there.

She got a job as a junior researcher for the Labor Party and began work on September 3, 2001. On September 11 she found herself watching CNN footage of the planes hitting the towers and thinking “Oh Allah, please let it not be Muslims who did this.” Like many people, she became obsessed with the subject, searching newspapers and the Internet looking for understanding. All the nagging questions and doubts she’d had about Islam were sharpened and pulled together—and she began to speak out. She wrote newspaper articles and spoke on TV about integration, government funding of Qur’an-based schools, human rights, and, above all, the status and treatment of women. She realized she was an atheist: “The everpresent prospect of hellfire lifted, and my horizon seemed broader.” She was able to grasp her basic inner rejection of the value of submission and obedience. “In Islam you are Allah’s slave: you submit, and thus, ideally, you are devoid of personal will. You are not a free individual.”

Hirsi Ali wanted to be a free individual herself, and she wanted that option to be available to other people as well— to her ummah, one might say. The little shutter at the back of her mind, where she pushed all her dissonant thoughts, had snapped open and refused to close again. It’s been open ever since.

Ophelia Benson

Ophelia Benson edits the Butterflies and Wheels website. She was formerly associate editor of Philosopher’s Magazine and has coauthored several books, including The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense (Souvenir Press, 2004), Why Truth Matters (Continuum Books, 2006), and Does God Hate Women? (Bloomsbury Academic, 2009).


Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali (New York: Free Press, 2007, ISBN 978- 0-7432-8968-9) 353 pp. Cloth $26. The issue of Islam and women’s rights is both a hot topic and a neglected one—a subject some people worry about and others ignore or sweep under the carpet. It is, in fact, an issue on which progressive …

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