Ayaan Hirsi Ali is the Somali-born feminist, writer, and politician who has been living under 24-hour guard since a promise to kill her was found pinned to the body of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gough with a butcher knife. Hirsi Ali had written the screenplay of his short film Submission, Pt I, which criticised the oppression of women under Islam.
When I first read about Hirsi Ali, I ran out that minute and bought her autobiography, Infidel. It then sadly sunk to the back of the reading queue; but, with the Archbishop of Canterbury's new promotion of Islamic religious law, it suddenly seemed to be very urgent that I read this. I did, and it's thrilling and terrifying and inspiring and eye-opening, and I strongly suggest you read it, too. (amazon.com, amazon.co.uk) She's my new, unrivaled, hero.
Reading and writing about her now are also incredibly timely, and urgent, because Ayaan Hirsi Ali may die. When she left the Netherlands life there had become impossible to live in the United States, the Dutch government stopped paying for the round-the-clock protection that is keeping her alive. The U.S. to it's everlasting shame has declined to pick up the tab. Last week, she petitioned the EU Parliament for help; and France may rise to the occasion, making her a citizen and protecting her. It's not yet clear what we can do for her though there's been some talk of private subscriptions to pay for her security, and there was a demonstration in her support, led by the philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, in Paris last week. Watch this space.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1969, into a traditional Islamic family and culture. Her grandmother had grown up nomadic, and had actually given birth to her mother while out herding goats. She delivered the baby under a tree, cut the umbilical cord with her knife, and got the flock home with the baby clutched to her breast.
Hirsi Ali's father had studied abroad, and was a dissident against the autocratic Somalian government, and was opposed to female genital mutilation. However, when he was out of the country, Hirsi Ali's grandmother and some other relatives held her down, along with her sister, and "excised" them both with a pair of scissors; then sewed them back up so they would be preserved for their future husbands.
Her family was forced to flee the country to Saudia Arabia, where they were exposed to more extreme practice of Islam. Soon after they were forced to Kenya but at that point, Saudi-financed religious teaching was spreading, and young Ayaan started studying the Koran more rigorously, as well as wearing a full hidjab over her school uniform. She was steeped in teaching about what was forbidden and what was allowed; what horrible torments would befall in her Hell if she was not dutiful; that being dutiful for a woman meant submitting totally to the rule of men; how the Jews were responsible for everything bad in the world; and how there was an evil worldwide crusade led by Jews and Americans to destroy Islam that must be resisted by jihad.
However, she was bright and curious and, after secondary school, adopted reading as a constant pursuit: first the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and Nancy Drew Mysteries; later, 1984, Huckleberry Finn, and Wuthering Heights.
From the age of 14, she saw her friends being sent off to arranged marriages, often to cousins. These women (and girls) had no say in the course of their lives, and they came back with stories of horrible wedding nights, and not much better married lives able to leave the house only with permission, and only covered up, for example. At age 22, Ayaan was betrothed by her father to a cousin she had never met, and sent to live with him in Canada. She flew first to Germany, where she was amazed at the cleanness and safety and efficiency of life there, as well as the freedom and equality for women:
While working her way through school in Holland, she took on a variety of menial jobs but also worked as a translator. She visited terrified and abused women in battered women's shelters, in asylum centers, in abortion clinics and became increasingly convinced there was a great deal central to Islam which was extremely hostile and harmful to women. She saw case after case of beaten and powerless Muslim women.
She studied social work, then political science at Holland's oldest and most prestigious university trying to understand why some political and social systems produced results like Holland, and some produced results like Somalia.
After gaining a master's degree, she went to work for a Dutch think tank, and became a frequent writer and speaker on issues around Islam and women. She was elected to the Dutch Parliament, where she first set about trying to get the police and government even to record the number of "honor" killings of Muslim women and girls in the Netherlands they did, and the results shocked everyone. Soon after came the 9/11 attacks and Hirsi Ali found her reaction to be different from everyone around her:
She got interested in using art to raise awareness about women's plight under Islam, and wrote a screenplay for a short film. It was made by her friend, the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gough. Not long after, van Gough was blasted off his bicycle by a gunman in the street; as he pleaded, in very Dutch fashion, "Can't we talk about this?", his throat was slit, and Hirsi Ali's death threat was stabbed to his chest. Hirsi Ali was whisked away by security, and has been living as a virtual prisoner, under a death sentence, ever since. She continues to write and speak and campaign for Muslim women, and for the reform of Islam.
It's recently occurred to me how amazing and indescribably courageous it is to take up a cause ignored or denied or soft-pedalled by almost everyone on the planet and, very possibly, to give her life for it. (Orwell also said, "To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.")
How will Ayaan Hirsi Ali's story end?