I recently read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Nomad, a follow-up to her autobiography Infidel. The latter details her survival of an abusive childhood in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya to life as a refugee fleeing a forced marriage in Holland, where Ayaan learns Dutch and ascends from factory worker to MP. It’s an inspiring story, sort of a Horatio Alger tale for a globalized world.
Nomad is partly a recounting of how her family’s rigid interpretation of the Quran brought catastrophe upon them, and partly a broader condemnation of Islam. The firs section describes how an unbending religious orientation invited a host of troubles: financial ruin, improperly treated mental illness and FGM inflicted upon Ayaan and her sister at young ages. The book describes how Islam’s obsession with female virginity inspired a state of denial among the women in her family that resulted in one having an a child out-of-wedlock and another contracting HIV.
Nomad is far more polemical than Infidel. The former begins with a pious, devout young girl faced with an abusive mother. Ayaan is determined to get an education despite maternal objections, eventually fleeing familial demands and seeking refuge in Holland. Although she condemns the strictness of her upbringing — which she describes as all too common in Islam — for much of the book, she remains a believer, albeit a lapsed one. In Infidel, she assumes a strong atheist position and is unapologetic in her condemnation of the religion.
Much of the book is a plea for Western feminists to intervene on behalf of Muslim women. When she discusses honor killings, child marriage, girls being yanked out of school and female genital mutilation, any counterargument seems moot.
American feminists — particularly those of the white, middle-class variety — can be caught in a double bind-if they become active in Muslim nations. Often they called “cultural imperialists,” with critics arguing that, because US feminists have yet to solve problems like rape and domestic violence and lack universal access to reproductive services, they are in no position to criticize other cultures until conditions in their own backyard are improved. It is gratifying to read a Somali argue that Western feminists should become allies with Muslim women.
Yet Ayaan ignores those who do work on behalf of Muslim women, such as Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn describe in their book Half the Sky. Despite the problems I had with that account (namely how it left out an entire continent), it’s an impressive work that doesn’t flinch from describing the oppression many faced by many women, Muslim and otherwise.
Then there is is microlending pioneer Muhammad Yunus, pioneer. As Yunus states, “…the more we lent money the more we were shouted at and condemned… we had male opposition, and it was translated into religious position. People said we were destroying their culture; that women needed to be kept at home because they weren’t supposed to have or handle money. I said, ‘“You keep your culture; I am creating a counterculture” (Bust, “A Few Good Men” Erin DeJesus).
At the end of the day, Ayan Hirsi Ali is not the only advocate of Muslim women, but she may be one of the loudest.