Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Infidel. Free Press. 353 pages. $26.00
Nonie Darwish. Now They Call Me Infidel: Why I Renounced Jihad for America, Israel, and the War on Terror. Sentinel. 272 pages. $23.95
From sources as diverse as Bernard Lewis and the un’s Arab Human Development Report we hear the argument that improving the status of women is essential to reform in the Muslim world. But understanding what this entails demands more than statistics about female literacy rates. The memoirs of two exceptional women, born into very different circumstances in the Muslim world, provide a glimpse into the scale of this problem. Chief among the many virtues of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel and Nonie Darwish’s Now They Call Me Infidel, is that they show the cruelty and banal petty oppression that encircles Muslim women.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, has become a figure on the international stage and an outspoken critic of radical Islam. In Infidel she tells the dramatic, almost unbelievable, story of her life so far. She was born into a prominent Somali clan, the daughter of a leader in the opposition to Somali dictator Siad Barre and something of a modernizer. Her father instructed that his family break with tradition and not excise the genitals of his daughters. While he was imprisoned his children were in the care of their maternal grandmother, who arranged the procedure. The Islam practiced by the Somalis was relaxed and combined with local traditions, but it remained central to the Somali identity. When political pressure forced the family to leave Somalia, Hirsi Ali’s mother refused at first to go to Ethiopia, both because it was Somalia’s longstanding enemy and because it was a predominantly Christian country. Instead they relocated to Saudi Arabia, where Hirsi Ali endured the difficulties of functioning in a country where women are not permitted out of the home without a male escort. They then moved briefly to Ethiopia, where she saw, first-hand, the impact of clan loyalties on the Somali opposition. Hirsi Ali’s mother, unhappy with barracks life, eventually took her three children to Nairobi, where the family survived on aid from wealthier Somali exiles.
Hirsi Ali grew to adulthood in Nairobi, where she was educated at a Western school and swept up in the rising Islamist tide. As a teenager she was an adherent of the rapidly expanding Muslim Brotherhood. She wore a hijab and attended prayers. But she could not reconcile the internal contradictions of the Muslim Brotherhood’s interpretation of Islam, particularly the inequality between men and women and the vilification of the West and non-Muslims. At the same time, she was going to films, reading English literature and Harlequin romance novels, and even dating surreptitiously. Her friends began to enter arranged marriages. Their descriptions of married life, particularly the passionless sex, horrified her. She put off her own suitors, but her father, though in many ways a liberal modernizer, had three wives himself and ignored his daughter’s objections to an arranged marriage with a prominent clan member. Her prospective husband was in Canada, and in 1992 Hirsi Ali was sent to live with relatives in Germany while she waited for a Canadian visa. Stunned by the order and cleanliness of the West, she also found herself quite able to navigate it. She began plotting her escape: She traveled to the Netherlands under the guise of visiting a family member, hoping to make her way to England. On learning of the lax asylum standards in the Netherlands, she decided to stay there instead. She was accepted as a refugee under false pretenses, having claimed that she was fleeing from Somalia’s civil war and given a false name and birth date.
If the book had ended with Hirsi Ali’s building a new life in the Netherlands, it would have been a fitting end to an amazing story. But the story does not end there. Seeking to discover why some places had governments that worked well and others did not, she obtained a university degree in politics. She also worked as a translator for Dutch police and social services agencies with Somali immigrants, and here she saw the ills of her native society — particularly the abuse of women — being imported into her adopted country. She was disturbed to find the Dutch acquiescing to immigrant demands to establish enclaves, rather than assimilating the immigrants into Dutch society.
Hirsi Ali entered politics as a researcher with a think tank. In the wake of 9/11, as Dutch elites insisted that terrorism was an aberration from Islam, Hirsi Ali argued the opposite — that Islam justified terrorism. As her criticisms of Islam became more pointed, Dutch elites recoiled from her message and Muslims began threatening her life; but she had touched a popular chord. She was elected to the Dutch parliament, where she pressed for Dutch police to track honor killings. With Theo Van Gogh she made the short film, Submission, about the treatment of women under Islam, which scandalized Muslims. In November 2004, Van Gogh was stabbed to death in broad daylight by a young Muslim. Dutch authorities, unprepared for this kind of terrorist threat, whisked Hirsi Ali out of the country and kept her confined under harsh and occasionally surreal conditions in rural locations in the United States and Germany. At the same time, as part of a political power play, there was an effort to strip her of her Dutch citizenship based on the false information she had provided when applying for asylum. Ultimately, seeking time to write and think, and finding the security requirements and constant moving in the Netherlands too onerous, Hirsi Ali resigned from the Dutch parliament and accepted a position at the American Enterprise Institute.
This bare summary does no justice Hirsi Ali’s page-turning memoir. From her harrowing description of her excision, to the details of life in Saudi Arabia, where little boys can turn off their mothers’ television programs, Hirsi Ali’s book illustrates the world of her origin, the values and principles that drive it, and the astounding level of violence that permeates it. Her wide-eyed descriptions of her first encounters with Western life are touching: police who are courteous and helpful, a religion that emphasizes dialogue and love rather than fear and submission, and marriages that are entered voluntarily and consist of two equal partners.
The life of Nonie Darwish, as she chronicles it in Now They Call Me Infidel: Why I Renounced Jihad for America, Israel, and the War on Terror, lacks the drama of Hirsi Ali’s experience, though there are many parallels. Darwish’s father was a highly regarded Egyptian military officer who was killed in Gaza by the Israelis just before the 1956 Suez War. (She describes growing up singing songs praising martyrdom in the battle with Israel as the state-controlled press churned out anti-Semitic diatribes.) Born into Egypt’s elite, Darwish was not directly touched by the worst aspects of the oppression of women, but she was not unaware of it. Honor killings were a regular theme in Egyptian literature and cinema, and the family’s maids told terrible stories of being raped by previous employers. A raped woman is considered to have dishonored the family; the only way for the family to restore its honor is to kill her. Darwish’s widowed mother could not remarry — it would have been dishonoring the memory of the shahid (martyr). At the same time, not having a male head of the household left the family vulnerable to rumor. The outgoing Darwish was warned by her mother to watch her behavior; otherwise the family might be suspected of improprieties. Dating and normal mixing between the sexes was simply impossible for young Egyptians, and marriages were arranged. Darwish relates the poignant sight of her mother walking, fully clothed, along the shoreline during beach vacations. Her mother joked about being young again and donning a bathing suit and swimming, but actually doing so would have been scandalous.
What is remarkable about Darwish’s narrative is that by the 1950s Egypt had been attempting to modernize for nearly a century and a half, and Nasser, who crushed the Muslim Brotherhood, was supposedly a great progressive figure. Yet, even at the very apex of Egypt’s secular elite society, the heavy hand of tradition trapped women. At the same time, while few Egyptians were devout, no one would criticize Islam. Darwish gives a sense of the extent to which Islam and tribal traditions saturate Muslim societies with most of the region’s ostensibly secular political movements and politicians, including Fatah, the Baath Party, and Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, emerging from this milieu.
Like Hirsi Ali, Darwish possessed an innate sense that allowed her to see through her society’s shibboleths. As a young woman she found Egyptian bravado prior to the Six Day War unbelievable and was unsurprised when Nasser’s adventure ended in a tragic defeat. And she realized early that she needed to leave Egypt, though her exodus in 1978 was more prosaic: She followed her Copt boyfriend, who had family in Los Angeles, to the United States. She was impressed by the general order and cleanliness she found there, and equally so in the message of love and tolerance she heard in Christianity. Still, like Hirsi Ali in the Netherlands, Darwish found that the Middle East had followed her to the West. Not a regular mosque-goer, when she did attend she was surprised by the vitriol and dogmatism. She noticed more and more Muslim women at malls and on campuses in full hijab.
On a visit to Egypt more than two decades later, Darwish was shocked by the poverty and anger (particularly at the United States), and the growing religious extremism. She was grateful when her plane landed in Los Angeles. It was September 10, 2001.
She was doubly shocked when the responses of her friends and relatives in Egypt vacillated between denying that Arabs had perpetrated 9/11 and assertions that the United States had had it coming. She began writing and speaking, trying to warn Americans of the nature of the terrorist threat and providing a different Arab perspective. She was even moved to defend Israel, and came to understand that it was Nasser and the mad ideologies that dominated the Muslim world that took her father’s life, not Israel.
Hirsi Ali’s chronicle of her first encounters with Western life is touching: a religion emphasizing love rather than fear and submission, and marriages entered voluntarily.
While Hirsi Ali hews closely to her life story, Darwish addresses the broader impact of the traditions and restrictions that bind Muslim women. She explains how the tradition of polygamy reduces the status of Muslim women, by making husbands masters over their wives. A husband can easily, under the law, take a second wife if his first one displeases him, and she will have no legal recourse. This creates unhealthy alliances between mothers and sons, as mothers rely on their sons to protect them and advance their fortunes. Darwish points out that Arab men also suffer under this system. They are deprived of the joys and emotional depth of the voluntary monogamous marriage, which has been a cornerstone of western civilization. Of course, many Muslim couples love each other and remain monogamous, but this is not a central value of many of the societies of the greater Middle East.
Many of the worst customs prevailing in the Muslim world (honor killings, female genital mutilation, polygamy), as well as the general practice of restricting the sphere of activity of women, existed before Islam and are characteristics of tribalism. Although this social structure evolved as a response to the requirements of desert life, aspects of it have remained strong and it continues to define settled life in towns and rural areas throughout the greater Middle East and parts of Africa. The overwhelming centrality of extended family in daily life defines politics and has stifled the growth of civil society and entrepreneurial commerce. Hirsi Ali describes her relief at life in the Netherlands, where clan affiliation does not matter.
Westernized Muslims may reach into Muslim tradition and craft a modern Islam that is in accord with liberal democratic values. Alternately, tribal societies may develop mechanisms to change in the face of modernity. But Islam fused with tribalism creates an all-encompassing worldview and provides a theological framework reinforcing ancient customs. Islam permits, but does not require, female circumcision. Nevertheless, in communities where it is prevalent, most people, including local religious authorities, believe the procedure is required. This presumed fusion of Islam and tribalism was exemplified during a parliamentary debate in Jordan over establishing harsher sentences for men who killed female relatives who had violated family honor, when one Senator argued, “whether we like it or not, women are not equal to men in Islam. Adulterous women are much worse than adulterous men because women determine the lineage.”
In What Went Wrong Bernard Lewis writes that when buying Western weapons was insufficient to reverse Middle Eastern military decline, Middle Eastern nations adopted Western uniforms and martial music. But the systems and principles underpinning Western success were not imported. Women’s rights may follow a similar path. Some Muslim nations may be adopting reforms on behalf of women’s rights, but without changing the underlying value system. Egypt has made strides against female genital mutilation, and polygamy has been outlawed in several Muslim nations and is being redefined as socially unacceptable in others. Some states, responding to international pressure against them over egregious acts against women in the name of family honor, have begun to take steps against honor killings. These reforms, welcome though they are, are enacted under Western pressure and to maintain a veneer of modernity. It is not clear that the underlying principles of equality and personal liberty are also being adopted. Efforts to expand women’s education in the Muslim world appear more promising, although considering the generally poor quality of education in the region this initiative may also have a limited impact.
Muslim societies, trapped between religion and culture, have changed only slowly over centuries. But the lives of Darwish and Hirsi Ali offer a few possibilities for change. Both women were educated at Western schools, giving them the skills, particularly fluency in English, they needed to fend for themselves in a modern society. Darwish worked for a U.S. company, helping her achieve a certain measure of financial independence. Improving the educational and economic opportunities open to women, along with the attendant legal reforms, would give women greater autonomy. But the economies of the greater Middle East have been essentially stagnant for decades, and deeper changes will be necessary.
Other possibilities lie in the realm of ideas. Western literature and films, and even romance novels, inspired both women. These stories fostered a longing for romance and planted the seeds of individualism. In discussing reform, Hirsi Ali claims that Islam needs a Voltaire, and Darwish observes that creating the freedom to leave Islam is essential — only then, she says, will Islam be forced to compete equally for adherents. Today an individual who openly leaves Islam is an apostate and, as Hirsi Ali can attest, marked for death.
Fostering reform in the Muslim world is the great challenge of this century. But it is a challenge that cannot be evaded. Both Darwish and Hirsi Ali give warning that radical Islam is on the rise within the West itself and that immigrant communities are bringing tribal social structures with them. But their books are more than jeremiads. They are both also love stories of a sort: Two impressive, able women from backgrounds that squelched their talents came to the West and fell in love with the values espoused by Western societies and the opportunities and freedoms they provide. This message is also vital. If the West is to aid efforts to reform the Muslim world, it will need to believe in itself first. Darwish and Hirsi Ali provide a timely reminder, from people intimately familiar with the alternative, that Western societies and liberal democratic values are good and worth defending.