Her•Story: Ayaan Hirsi Ali

I would like to be judged on the validity of my arguments, not as a victim.~ Ayaan Hirsi Ali


     On November 2, 2004, Theo van Gogh was riding his bicycle to work in Amsterdam when he was shot multiple times by Muhammad Bouyeri. Van Gogh’s murderer further mutilated his body, attempting to sever his head before using a knife to pin a letter to his body. The letter made threats to many groups such as Jews and Western countries, but it also made a very specific threat to the life of one person. That person was Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

     Ayaan Hirsi Magan Ali was born in Mogadishu, Somalia. She would move many times in her childhood, with her family eventually settling in Kenya. The common thread in all the places she lived was the dominating presence of Islam, and her upbringing was full of superstition. Her grandmother told her stories of men who could transform into hyenas. She was warned against making too much noise for fear she would awaken djinns. She was taught to be mistrustful, particularly of men. When her little brother Mahad asked her to look at something and then pushed her into a latrine, he was not punished. Instead Ayaan was punished for not sufficiently protecting herself. Perhaps most horrifyingly, she was subjected to female genital mutilation at the age of five, a torturous excision of her clitoris and inner labia conducted with scissors, in an effort to keep her sexually pure. Numerous people had the right to beat her.

     In 1992, Ali fled to the Netherlands to escape an arranged marriage. She began working as a Somali translator. During this work, she was exposed to many women who had been abused by their husbands. These women never fought back or pressed charges because such actions were forbidden by their religion. Ali was struck by the difference between refugee women and Dutch women. It wasn’t that Dutch women were never abused. It was that when Dutch women were abused, their community didn't blame the women, or tell them that they deserved to be hit because they were not obeying their husbands properly. The Dutch social services would naively ask abused refugee women if their families could help, not understanding that their religion dictated that families side with their male abusers. Ali tried, and failed, to find answers in the Quran. In her book Infidel, she notes that, “You must obey your husband if you are Muslim.  If you refuse your husband and he rapes you, that is your fault. Allah says husbands should beat their wives if they misbehave; it’s in the Quran.”

     The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 caused her further doubts. Though her colleagues, fueled by sympathy, rushed to assure her that they didn’t feel Islam played a role in the attacks, she felt differently. Reading The Atheist Manifesto was the final nail in the coffin. In 2002, Ali became an atheist. She described the process and the enormous relief it brought her in Infidel, writing, God, Satan, angels: these were all figments of human imagination. From now on I could step firmly on the ground that was under my feet and navigate based on my own reason and self-respect.”

     In 2004, she wrote the screenplay for Theo van Gogh’s short film Submission. The film portrays the various abuses of Muslim women, accompanied by the verses of the Quran used to justify these abuses written on the main actress’s skin. This film so enraged religious fundamentalists that it led to murder of the movie’s director and threats to the Ali’s life. Undeterred by the many threats against her life, Ali has gone on to found the AHA Foundation, which works to end forced marriage, genital mutilation, honor violence, and Sharia law.

     Secular Woman commends Ayaan Hirsi Ali. By speaking her mind about her secular beliefs in the face of terrifying threats meant to silence her, we feel she embodies our mission and values.

     Ayaan Hirsi Ali currently lives in the United States with her husband and son.

Laura Brady, Outreach Committee Member