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Ayaan Hirsi Ali: The (Feminist) Cheese Stands Alone

June 16, 2010

Photo from Infidel

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Somali refugee-cum-global freedom fighter, says we must evolve to survive, casting off the antiquated shell of what we’ve known.

For Ali this shell is the cloak of religion, specifically Islam, which she claims is an inherently intolerant religion that oppresses the individual, especially women. The individual – alone, free, thinking and questioning – should prevail.

But when your own personal freedom is your holy grail, it can be hard to work for the good of the group and it can be hard to relate to the plight of others. Hirsi Ali has been dubbed a “feminist freedom fighter”, but her best-selling memoir Infidel, the provocative story of her life, in which she grows up as an Islamic fundamentalist in Somalia and Saudi Arabia, later escaping an arranged marriage to seek refuge in the Netherlands and eventually become a well-known politician and intellectual there, is too self-absorbed to evoke a people’s warrior.

Above all else, Hirsi Ali’s story is one of an individual’s dogged pursuit of personal freedom. This individual happens to be a woman, and so some of the hardships she endures are unique in that way.  But somehow she doesn’t connect these intense personal experiences to the larger feminist project.

As a young woman, Ali grew up in Somalia and Saudi Arabia.  She was controlled, physically and verbally abused, and underwent genital cutting and forced marriage.  She eventually sought refuge in Holland, lying to obtain a permanent residency, and then eventually becoming a well-known member of parliament.

Infidel is a memoir, so its very essence is self-reflection. While she certainly doesn’t lack critical thinking and a dissenting spirit, she rather lacks the ability to connect these characteristics to the good of others. Her memoir paints her own maniacal pursuit of her personal freedom, causing grief, outrage, and even death of friends and family along the way.  Hirsi Ali comes across as human, but not so empathetic.  She seems to lack a sense of consequence.

When you absent yourself entirely from a system, in this case Islam, how effective or empathetic can you be as a “feminist freedom fighter” on behalf of those still immersed within it? 

Instead, Hirsi Ali positions herself as a diametric opposite – speaking out against Islam when virtually no one else will and enduring constant death threats (and consequent 24-hour security).  This isolates her in a way, cuts her off in her activism.  She is not a woman of the people, but a woman alone, pressing ahead when no one else will.

Hirsi Ali presents an interesting and controversial picture of feminism to be sure.  In a review of her latest book, Nomad, Nick Kristof refers to her as a “gadfly.” She is confounding and aggravating to feminists because she has most recently landed a gig at the conservative DC think tank the American Enterprise Institute, where she has rubbed shoulders with such  Bush’s cronies as David Frum (“access of evil”).

And while Hirsi Ali continues to stand alone, she evokes another powerful feminist critic of Islam, Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi.  While Hirsi Ali fled when she could, Ebadi weathered the Islamic Revolution in Iran, losing her career and her freedom while observing the Revolution first engage and empower women, then discard them as means to an end.

Despite continual oppression and discrimination, she worked doggedly from within to change and expand the system, eventually being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She accepted the award on behalf of what her life symbolized writ large, not on behalf of her as an individual.

So, change from within or complete departure?  Depends on for whose freedom you’re fighting and how much you want to leave behind.  What Hirsi Ali is doing, leading dissent from Islam, is amazingly brave.  Atheism writ large is still a surprisingly risky activism as it is; add Fatwas and angry Imams and the peril is exponential.

But her project is so laser-focused, so individually-driven, that she loses out on the relatability and the empathy of a movement-starter.  I think change from within almost always takes more deftness, more finesse, though perhaps heralded with fewer fireworks.

  1. June 16, 2010 10:07 am

    I didn’t finish reading Infidel because, well, I found it offensive. Not on a personal level, but more for people who aren’t familiar with Islam, and take it to mean that all Muslim women have similar experiences that Ayaan Hirsi has had. I applaud her for her activism, but I agree with you that it is so individually-driven.

  2. Amanda permalink
    June 16, 2010 10:48 am

    I agree that it is difficult to come to terms with Hirsi Ali’s tunnel vision activism that only, very generically, resembles a feminist perspective. Her anti-Islam/religion stance excludes a substantial population of women and people and does little to liberate or empower. While I commend her for sharing her experiences and having the ability to break free from an oppressive situation, I do not think she does much in terms of contributing to the feminist movement.

  3. Anisa permalink
    June 16, 2010 7:04 pm

    I’m really glad you posted this…as a Muslim feminist I’ve always wondered how the larger feminist community perceives Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I’ve heard a lot about her and know her story, but I know little of what most people think of her. Coming from the community that I do, it’s hard to understand her words, since her interpretation of Islam is completely different. Though I haven’t read her new book yet, I’m curious to read about her specific arguments against Islam.

  4. John permalink
    June 17, 2010 10:30 pm

    Although it is from last year, I think you may find this book review useful. The author comes from a Muslim perspective and reviews her works. The link is here … it is good to hear other opinions and ideas.

    Hope you find it interesting.

  5. Rida permalink
    June 18, 2010 6:06 am

    Thanks John. Glad that article mentioned about Manji. Hypocrisy is certainly there.

  6. Kyle permalink
    June 30, 2010 4:05 am

    The reason Ayaan Hirsi Ali can’t go anywhere without a body guard is because she collaborated on a video called “Submission” with Theo Van Goeh (subsequently murdered) which details the oppression of Muslim women. The reason she has to work with a conservative think tank is because no liberal one would hire her out of “respect” for Islam (read “fear of”).

    The fact that she has to endure this charge of being “offensive” from feminists when she is the one putting her life on the line to help women is so morally revolting I don’t even really know what to say.

    I simply can’t believe that supposed feminists have any respect for religion, especially one like Islam, which makes Christianity look tame by comparison. You can say that some white guy like me doesn’t understand it, but the fact is that people taking the literal (and more violent) interpretation of the text will always be on stronger theological ground than the people who prefer to read between the lines.


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