In 1984, I was toddling through life in South Carolina learning about Noah’s Ark in children’s church and playing blissfully through my childhood. I was in a home where my educated mother had given up her career to stay at home so that I wouldn’t drown in the under-achieving public school system.
At the same time, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali born woman, was living in Kenya attending a Muslim girls’ school and reading Wuthering Heights and Cry, the Beloved Country, her first exposure to a new world. “Books . . . [that] carried with them ideas–races were equal, women were equal to men–and concepts of freedom, struggle, and adventure that were new” (p. 69).
While reading her book Infidel , I frequently found myself identifying with the author, but only with the dates. The content of this book and the story of her life were frequently overwhelming to me and yet this woman chose to bear her soul to communicate her story to her readers and as a warning to the Western world.
She acts as a small siren against what she describes as an inevitable clash of ideals. Ali brings the reader to this conclusion through a slow, but interesting examination of her own life and entrance into politics.
Ali was born in Somalia, but lived in several other African countries including Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. Her childhood was a consistent cycle of moving to survive the rise of another dictator or famine or war. While some readers may want to skip the intricacies of Somalian politics, most will find her family’s voyage through Africa and Islam fascinating.
Early in her childhood her home was dominated primarily by an animistic-tribal influenced Islam, but under the instruction of her father, she began a purer form which called for memorizing the Koran and going to Muslim schools.
She was soon introduced to the stricter sect of Islam, The Muslim Brotherhood. They argue that women should be fully covered in a hijab. Ali participated in this form of covering at times in her adolescent. The Muslim women that participated in this form of submission would often try to assert their independence by wearing perfume or high heels under their head-to-toe coverings. The Muslim Brotherhood also argued that the Koran should be learned in Arabic by rout memorization, often by non-Arabic speakers who were ignorant of its teachings.
The Muslim clerics would often preach fiery sermons of separation, warning of wickedness, and despair to segregated audiences. Women satt behind a curtain where they could barely see the preacher.
Saudi men would lock the women into their homes when going off to work because they should not be seen in public without a male escort.
After reaching maturity, Ali was married to a distant cousin from Canada. Her father was her representative at her wedding; according to Islamic law, she was not needed for the marriage to be solidified. Sometime later Ali left her family in Kenya to live with her new husband who was already living in Canada. While in Germany she left the protection of her distant relatives and managed to escape to the Netherlands.
The rest of the book describes her desire to find asylum, but even more to find a place of freedom–freedom of thought and action. Pursuing a university degree, negotiating the freedom and responsibilities thrust upon her, and searching out the basis of her own personal faith are Ali’s subjects for the rest of the book.
While in the Netherlands she collaborated with Theo Van Gogh to create short films about Islamic women. Theo was later murdered by a man protesting his “blasphemy” against Allah. Ali has received multiple death threats and yet she continues to speak out against the torture, subjugation, and even death that many Islamic women endure.
Yet she writes that “many well-meaning Dutch people have told me in all earnestness that nothing in Islamic culture incites the abuse of women, that this is just a terrible misunderstanding. Men all over the world beat their women, [Ali is] constantly informed. In reality, these Westerners are the ones who misunderstand Islam. The Quran mandates these punishments. It gives a legitimate basis for abuse, so that the perpetrators feel no shame and are not hounded by their conscience or their community . . . [Ali] wanted secular, non-Muslim people to stop kidding themselves that “Islam is peace and tolerance” (p. 307).
She also discusses “honor killings” that take place in Islamic communities. In an effort to bring this issue to light in the Dutch parliament, she did some studies. “Between October 2004 and May 2005, eleven Muslim girls were killed by their families” in just two of twenty-five regions in Holland (p. 309). Ali has since fought for the rights of women, including safety from domestic abuse, access to education, and, sadly, abortion access.
So while she does point up the inevitable coming clash of these Titans, Ali’s cure is to modernize Islam and to secularize society. She does not see the ultimate need of a heart change.
Reading audience: Anyone interested in African history, Islam, or autobiography. She does discuss several starting details in the Islamic religion, including child abuse. She is not gratuitous, but this book is not for the faint of heart.