My sister read, reviewed, and recommended this book months ago, and I finally got around to reading it recently. Though I started it weeks ago, it was slow going for awhile, perhaps because it was so depressing. I found myself leaving it on the night stand for a week at a time, but I picked it back up this vacation, and I flew through the remaining 3/4 of it. While not particularly good writing (as is the case with so many memoirs), it is a fascinating and ultimately uplifting story of self-discovery, will, and commitment to an important cause. The result is the the power to bring change—possibly world-wide change.
The author, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, was born to a Muslim family in Somalia. But because of civil war and general unrest in Somalia, her family moved around: Saudi Arabia, Kenya, Ethiopia, back to Somalia. Yet, no matter where they lived, the constant in her life was a fundamentalist Muslim upbringing, including female genital mutilation (FMG), arranged marriage, and complete female submission. The other constants were beatings by her mother (an unhappy, lonely, oppressed woman), forced prayer, inability to earn a living, and lack of exposure to Western ideas. Yet she was lucky. Because her father and her family lineage were part of a powerful clan, they never lacked food or shelter, and she had access to an education and Western books. Her early years were painful, and though it didn’t get much better, as she grew, she began to question and to think for herself. Her turning point came when she was betrothed to a man she neither knew nor respected nor loved. Since she could not disobey her father (though she did tell him she did not wish to marry this man), she married this Muslim stranger anyway. However, while waiting for her visa in Germany, where she was enroute to join her husband—a Somalian living in Canada—she fled to Holland and asked for refugee status. There, she went to school, became a translator, divorced her husband, graduated from University, and ultimately became a member of Parliament.
This was a long and arduous journey. Along the way, she continued to question her Muslim religion, and by the time she was studying political science at the University of Leiden, she renounced her Muslim faith and became athiest. Her platform in Parliament was to denounce Muslim oppression of women and immigration practices. Being a very tolerant country, Holland (and other Western countries) felt that immigrants should be able to maintain their cultural and religious roots; but Ali argues that by tolerating such roots, Muslims in Western countries are continuing to practice the ancient rituals of FMG and oppression of women which results in arranged marriages, wife beating, honor killings, lack of education, and ultimate submission. In doing so, immigrants will never assimilate to a new country or a new culture; rather, they will continue to live with ancient rituals in small enclaves, never advancing or changing the role of women. She argues that Islam is not a religion of peace but rather a religion of war and of oppression, and that Westerners who believe Islam to be a religion of peace are fooling themselves. She goes on to say that anyone who actually reads the Quran can see that Islam is not about peace and love, but about war and fear and female submission. Yet it is easy to see why organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood flourish, despite their commitment to female submission and intolerance of “unbelievers.”: the Brotherhood brings stability to a country unraveling from clan fighting, civil war, and constant violence. It brings schools, food, money, and shelter. It takes care of basic needs that the governments ignore. Thus, it grows more powerful, and as it does so, more women are veiled, more women lose all freedom.
Ali has written articles, produced a film, and has spoken out about these issues ever since her days at the University. She has received death threats for years, she has been disowned by her father and her clan, and she has been a controversial figure in Western society for so forcefully speaking out against Islam. Since writing this memoir, she has written another book, Nomad: From Islam to America, and she has moved to the United States where she teaches at Harvard and works for a conservative think tank.
This memoir drags at times because there are so many names and events encompassing every aspect of her life from childhood to age 35 or so, but I could look past that as I was sucked into her story. Of course, I realize I’m only getting her story, and since she is such a controversial figure, there is certainly another side to consider. I don’t doubt that the events of her life are true, but I’d need to consider that there may be another side to her current beliefs. Surely I recognize that many Muslims do not agree with her condemnation of Islam. But I respect what she has done: bring awareness to ancient—and often illegal—practices like FGM, honor killings, and domestic abuse that she feels are still central tenets of Islam. She has people talking and expressing their views. And expression is always better than silence.