Review of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s ‘Infidel’

Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book seems at once both alien and familiar. Alien, because it describes a world in Somalia when the entire country consisted of clans and sub-clans, each of whom  looked down on some other clan. It was a world where fathers and male relatives decided who girls would marry (and when), and where husbands  beating their wives was regarded as normal.

It seems familiar, because she discusses the questions which caused her to doubt her Muslim religious faith, and because they seem strikingly familiar to me, an ex-Christian.

Born on November 13 1969, Ayaan spent the first eight years of her life In Somalia. There she was made to recite her lineage back 800 years to the beginning of the Darrod Clan. When meeting strangers, they would often recite their ancestries to establish if they belonged to the same clan or subclans. When misfortune strikes, your clan looked after you. At the same time, the clan resembled a small town, in which everybody seemed to know everybody else’s business.

Everybody in the book seemed preoccupied with honour: what preserves it and what takes it away. The girls were not allowed going out by themselves in case they are thought to be loose women. They had the capacity to lead men astray by arousing impure thoughts and actions. (Some of these sounds like a description my catholic ex-wife gives of England in the early 1960s). At the same time, when her brother was locked out of the house for being out too late, he cried and was rebuked by his mother: “Think of your honor. Men don’t cry.” Ayaan was encouraged to engage in a fist fight with another girl at elementary school. Her friends egged her on, “Come on coward, think of your honor.”

Ayaan’s father was a leader on the losing side of a power struggle in Somalia, and when she was eight they had to flee in the middle of the night and fly to Saudi Arabia. The new country didn’t impress her. The religious preaching there had a constant emphasis on sin.  And she says, “…as soon as we left the mosque, Saudi Arabia meant intense heat and filth and cruelty. People had their heads cut off in public squares.” (p.43) The family moved to Ethiopia.  (The attempt to overthrow Barre in Somalia was being orchestrated from Ethiopia ) Then in 1980, she moved to Kenya as, after a failed coup against the ruler of Somalia, they could obtain refugee status in Kenya.

At around fourteen, she began to rebel against her religious education. In Kenya she began to read English novels, including Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, and others: cheap Harlequins. But these contained a subversive message: “Buried in all these books was a message: women had a choice. Heroines fell in love, they fought off family obstacles and questions of wealth and status and they married the man they chose.” (p.79) However, the arrival of a new religious teacher at school (Sister Aziza) set the young Ali on a religious path. She began to dress in more complete head to toe coverings. She learned, and later questioned, that her testimony is worth only half that of a man under Islamic law, that women have to be sexually available to their husbands at any time, and that she may not travel out of the house without a male companion.

However she was troubled by the doctrine of predestination (as are many Christians). Her religious teacher told her it is her duty to convert her Kenyan Christian friends to Islam to save them from burning in hell. But if God created the world, knowing in advance – indeed having predestined – that certain people would be saved and others not, why attempt to convert her Kenyan Christian friends to Islam. What was the point? As the Kenyan state began to disintegrate, people turned more and more to religion.

Around here, Ayaan’s sense of the lack of control women have over their lives under Islam becomes a major theme. You can be promised off in marriage to a man you’ve never met, your husband has the right to beat you and “My mother had so little control over her own life that she hadn’t even known when her husband had gotten married again.” (p.93)

By 1987, the Islamic Brotherhood – founded in Egypt but bank-rolled by Saudi Arabia – was gaining influence in Kenya. AIDS was an open topic of conversation and – guess what – the solution was abstinence. (p.106.) As one who remembers the same controversies in the western world, it all sounds so depressing. The conflict between religion and freedom of choice keeps coming up.

“I always found it uncomfortable to be opposed to the west. For me Britain and America were the countries in my books where there was decency and individual choice.” (p.109)

In 1989, by which time Ali is 19, the controversy over Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses had erupted and Ali recalls going to a public burning of the book.

By 1990, at the age of twenty, the rebellion against Said Barre over, Ayaan returned to Mogadishu in Somalia.

Forced into a marriage she didn’t want, she had to travel via Germany to go to her new husband in Canada. Instead, on July 24, 1992, she crossed the border into Holland and went to a refugee camp, and gave her grandfather’s surname as hers, changing her birthdate by two years and claimed refugee status.

Seeing Europe for the first time, she says that because she was born a woman under Islam, “I might have a decent life, but I would always be dependent – always – on someone treating me well. I knew that another kind of life was possible. I had read about it and now I could see it, smell it, in the air around me: the kind of life I had always wanted, with a real education, a real job, a real marriage. I wanted to make my own decisions. I wanted to become a person, an individual. With a life of my own.” (p.187)  She fabricated a story, (she does not tell us the details) which was designed to get her refugee status in Holland.

She saw concepts like individual choice and equality between men and women improving people’s lives. Her Dutch became good enough to become a Somali-Dutch translator, and eventually a member of parliament, where she campaigned against the funding of religious based Islamic schools, on the basis that they taught inequality of men and women.

The kind of mental struggle Ayaan goes through in the space of a few years seems to be ones that the western world went through over decades. The idea that husbands didn’t have the right to beat their wives, that woman had an equal right to an education, that women did not have to be always and without exception sexually available to their husbands: these attitudes took decades to change. Ali underwent them in the space of a few years. After cooperating in a short film on women and Islam, her film producer was murdered, with a note stabbed to his chest saying she was next. She ended up living in the US, as her safety can no longer be guaranteed in Holland.

Perhaps the best quote on which to end this review is one that sums up Ali’s attitude to Islam and women:  “I am a one-issue politician, I decided. I still am. I am also convinced that this is the largest , most important issue that our society and our planet will face this century. Every society that is still in the grip of Islam oppresses women and also lags behind in development. Most of these societies are poor, many are full of conflict and war. Societies that respect the rights of women and their freedom are wealthy and peaceful.” (p.296)

[An afterthought: One possible criticism of Ayaan Hirsi-Ali is that she generalizes too much from the three countries she experienced.  For example  Indonesia (where I have traveled) and Turkey are never mentioned in Infidel, and Indonesia in Islam seems rather different to the Middle East ad North Africa.   It would be interesting to find a Muslim writer on the subject of the status of women in Indonesia and Turkey, the two biggest Muslim-majority democracies. If I find one, I’ll add it to this review.]

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