Ayaan Hirsi Ali and “Emancipation” for Women in Islam

At the Sydney Writers' Festival: Ayaan Hirsi Ali under the Western media spotlight!

My decision to construct an independent project based on the relationship between women and Islam was based on my own personal frustration with the anti-Islamic rhetoric that dominates the West.  I was eager to read material that offered a truly feminist perspective, but recognized the importance of understanding the multitude of opinions that exist within the literature.  Having heard so much about Ayaan Hirsi Ali while I was abroad, I figured it would be worthwhile to include one of her numerous texts in my syllabus.  After having read two books that offered a feminist understanding of the Qur’an and Islamic history, I felt I was prepared to handle Hirsi Ali’s strikingly different views, but nothing could have prepared me for the extreme hatred and contempt that she expressed in The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam.

She begins the book by briefly summarizing how different individuals responded to the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2011.  Whereas political leaders in the West saw these events as indicative of the need to simultaneously bridge and reinforce the divide between Western and Islamic cultures, Muslim individuals urged the world to understand that the actions of these nineteen men were not representative of the entire Islamic community.  Following this, Hirsi Ali poses the question that offers the framework for her entire book: “Was the aggression, the hatred inherent in Islam itself?” (viiii)

According to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the answer to this question is seemingly obvious.  She continuously asserts that the relationship between Allah and Muslims requires complete submission, unhappiness, and a lack of personal self-fulfillment.  For those that do not live according to the established principles, there are countless negative consequences.  Not only will they experience internal emotional struggle while confronting their own actions and thoughts, they will be criticized, maybe even completely isolated, from their communities.  She explains that the inequality that exists within Islamic societies is justified by the extreme language found within religious texts, only to be exacerbated by cultural attitudes.

In general, I found Hirsi Ali’s critiques of Islam to be under-theorized, poorly supported, and highly generalized.  Although she intended for this work to be a critique of Islam, I felt it was more a critique of all monotheistic religions.  Her bias against religion was highly evident in this work and her inability to understand the complexity of culture highly problematized the arguments she made.  Before getting into the text, I would like to turn the discussion to her documentary film about women and Islam, Submission.  This controversial film has been the subject of international praise and criticism, including death threats directed at Hirsi Ali.  She dedicates a chapter in her book to the first part of her film:

I could write for days about every time I took issue with her writing, but think it will be more effective to highlights passages that really effected me as a reader.

“The West needs to help Muslims help themselves, and not support them in their illusion by avoiding the underlying questions.  Despite the compassion and understanding one may feel for personal suffering, one cannot lose sight of the fact that this personal suffering is the inevitable result of the form Islam takes at home, at school, in everyday life, and in the media” (5).

A recurring theme throughout the book was the idea that the West represented the ideal, global standard for human rights.  She refers back to this countless times, ultimately concluding with this question:

“Why are Westerners so insecure about everything that is so wonderful about the West: political freedom; free press; freedom of expression; equal rights for women and men, gays and heterosexuals; critical thinking.  Why are Westerns reluctant to scrutinize ideas about faith?” (160)

Hirsi Ali’s disillusioned and unrealistic understanding of the current state of affairs in Western countries is astonishing.  She paints a picture of the West as a utopian land in which all individuals are considered and treated equally in all aspects of life, but fails to note the prevalence of institutional, individual, and symbolic discrimination.  Freedom is a completely abstract, ideal conception that only exists for individuals belonging to certain groups within society.  Economically privileged individuals that support the status quo are responsible for constructing the social institutions which contribute directly to our socialization; examples of this include the education system and the mass media.  Although all individuals have freedom of expression, those whose voices are heard are not those that challenge norms.  For example, mainstream news station ownership is concentrated in the hands of a select few individuals that come from a socially and politically homogenous group.  As this is a capitalist society, their goal is to maximize profit and increase their appeal to a wide audience.  Those with the most social buying power belong to the upper-classes and tend to have similar pro-capitalist attitudes.  Therefore, the mainstream media indirectly supports capitalism through the material they focus on and directly supports it by promoting the ideology of consumerism through advertising.

I was also deeply disturbed by her claim that people of different sexual and gender identities are considered equal in the west.  “Women and men, gays and heterosexuals” are surely not equals by any definition of the word.  Sexism and homophobia are deeply rooted in the dominant ideology; these attitudes manifest themselves in legislation which limits and violates the rights of women and individuals in the LGBTQ community, stereotypical representations in the media, violent crimes, and so much more.

Lastly, I found it very problematic that she equated Islam with personal suffering.  As I have previously written about, the inequality that is present in Islamic societies is not justified by any religious tests.  She claims that Muslim people are subscribing to an illusion which prevents them from understanding their own reality, but I find this extremely offensive.  Although there is a strong relationship between culture, religion, and politics in Islamic societies which is often used to justify social problems, the same can be said for Western societies in which Christian beliefs have laid the foundation for a “secular, democratic” society.

In an interview with Irshad Manji, Ayaan Hirsi Ali says, “I have read on the web that you have been dubbed Bin Laden’s nightmare.”  In response, Manji states, “I am openly lesbian.  Muslims are forced to regard this as sin.  We have held this view for hundreds of years, they say.  Is that a valid argument for rejecting homosexuals?  Because you have been doing it for such a long time?  The Koran states that the diversity of nature is a blessing.  That should shut them up” (75).

Again, the Qur’an does not justify or support inequality; in fact, it supports social justice and encourages all individuals to value diversity.  I thought the inclusion of this quote in the text was necessary as it offered a different perspective that I feel is a much more accurate representation of Islam.

“At the root of the problem is the Islamic concept of premarital sex.  What we need is a coherent cultural campaign to promote discussion about sexuality” (96).

Although I disagree with Hirsi Ali’s approach that singles out Islam, I do agree that we need to implement a campaign in which individuals can openly and honestly discuss issues of sexuality.  I feel that this needs to happen on a global scale because sexuality, particularly female and queer sexuality, are so stigmatized.  As countless studies have proven, gender equality is crucial for a country’s development and the well-being of individuals within that country.  If we do not learn how to discuss and appreciate our sexualities, the world will continue to be based on unequal power dynamics and social problems.

“So my party and I are in favor of introducing a screening program that could help prevent female circumcision.  Girls from ‘high-risk countries’ should be checked once a year to see if they have been circumcised” (103).

This quote was absolutely shocking.  Not only would this be invasive, but her formulation of what constitutes a “high-risk” country is clearly based on a negative bias towards Islam.  First, female circumcision is a practice that takes place in countries all over the world, regardless of geographic location and culture.  There is no checklist of factors for who will undergo circumcision and her attempt to establish these criterion is based on discrimination.  Although I agree that we need to take preventive steps to eradicate female circumcision, I think that this approach is extremely problematic.  Instead, we should focus on using a bottom-up approach based on education, cultural sensitivity, and women’s health.

“A spokesperson for the Netherlands Muslim Broadcasting Network says: ‘Hirsi Ali has a problem with these verses from the Koran.  But it is not the Koran that incites men to abuse women, it is the men themselves.  She should address them directly and invite them to discuss the matter.  Emancipation begins from within.  If you attack what people value, you will lose their trust” (140).

I completely agree with this quote!  The root cause of violence against women is not religion; it is patriarchy and misogyny.


7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jennifer Browdy
    Apr 08, 2011 @ 14:38:09

    Excellent critique of Hirsi Ali! Of course, patriarchy and misogyny are intertwined with Islam as well as Judeo-Christianity. But she doesn’t make enough of an attempt to distinguish between the original teachings of the Koran and the later voluminous, often misogynist commentaries–

    Now I understand why I have never been able to get through this book!


  2. LaScaramouche
    Apr 11, 2011 @ 10:42:31

    I want to thank you for writing this. I read “Infidel” and “Nomad” when they came out, and I’m ashamed to admit that I never thought very much about how logically absurd some of her statements are, especially when she extrapolates her horrific childhood experience to everyone else, and I’m even more embarrassed to admit that I never much questioned what she said.

    Thank you again.


  3. Sonia
    Apr 13, 2011 @ 21:54:17

    This is a lovely article and i completely agree with it. The problems that Hirsi Ali has gone through in her childhood needs to be addressed and dealt with through education and culture awareness. It’s completely absurd that she blames religion for this and feels government should alter people’s beliefs. There is no text in the Quran which requires female circumcision. It is practiced by Muslims and Christians for cultural reasons and not religious obligation. If God wanted the clitoris to be cut then why did he give it? This just shows how absurd it is to blame religion for man-made barbaric culture. Hirsi Ali is in complete elusion and creating religious hatred instead of addressing the real problem and finding solutions. Education and media is the only way to stop the barbaric act and not her pathetic idea of checking girls every year to see if she has been circumcised or not.


  4. Trackback: Voices: Irshad Manji – Critical thinking is required | The Calgary Gazette
  5. Trackback: Voices: Irshad Manji – Critical thinking is required | Canadian Views by Werner Patels
  6. Serenity
    Sep 01, 2011 @ 12:11:43

    Hi there!
    I loved this post! I feel the same way about Ayan Hirsi Ali, though I haven’t blogged about her yet. I read her book “The Caged Virgin” just to see what she has to offer her readers, but it was the typical BS we read about Islam and how a woman has to be stupid to be a Muslim! It was even more disturbing to read the sorta advice that she gives to Muslim women who “should” want to leave Islam, clearly, after having read her book. I say only a woman (or man) purely illiterate in Islam would believe even 20% of what Ali said in there. And it’s not that I was offended just because I’m a Muslim. It’s only that, as Asma Barlas says, when you talk as if there’s an inherent issue with “Islam,” you completely turn a blind eye at the work of, say, Muslim feminists and other individuals who are working desperately hard to offer intellectual and spiritual critiques of the practices and beliefs that have, over centuries, been termed “Islam” when it is really not “Islam.” The solution isn’t be to just abandon something; it should be to try to understand it from as many different angles as possible, if one wants to be really honest with oneself. And there, as at many other points, Ali proves herself to be an enemy of every woman out there.

    Also, did you note how she refers to herself as a Muslim in the beginning of the book? She’ll say something like “We Muslims” or “… us Muslims,” but after a few pages, it becomes “They Muslims” or “the Muslims,” etc. I thought it was her strategy to get more Muslim readers, as she considers herself “one of y’all” in the beginning, but once you get in the book, she’s no longer one of you.

    Anyway, thanks again for this! 😀


    • Serenity
      Sep 01, 2011 @ 12:15:03

      Loving this:

      ‘I was also deeply disturbed by her claim that people of different sexual and gender identities are considered equal in the west. “Women and men, gays and heterosexuals” are surely not equals by any definition of the word.’



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