Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Essays on Women and Islam #WITMonth

Book review: The Caged Virgin, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Amazon / Book Depository)

Any Muslim who asks critical questions about Islam is immediately branded a “deserter.” A Muslim who advocates the exploration of sources for morality, in addition to those of the Prophet Muhammad, will be threatened with death, and a woman who withdraws from the virgins’ cage is branded a whore.

I hope to be able to make a contribution to ending the degrading treatment of Muslim women and girls by using my knowledge and experience of the Muslim faith.

The Caged Virgin was the first of Somali-born, Dutch-American activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s books addressing modern Islam and her experiences within and leaving the religion. She would hit her stride with Infidela memoir chronicling her childhood in Somalia and adolescence in multiple African and Middle Eastern countries. It details how she started down a path towards radicalization before eventually escaping an arranged marriage by seeking asylum in the Netherlands. But living in the West wasn’t easy either, with a religious social background that didn’t prepare her for much of what she’d encounter. She’s unconcerned about offending after all this, pointing out that “the fear of offending leads to the perpetuation of injustice and human suffering.”

She’s a controversial figure for many reasons, from her work as a Dutch parliamentarian focusing on immigrant women’s rights, to the vocal stance she’s taken on Islam needing reformation and the critical examinations other major religions have undergone in their evolution. She worked with Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh on her short film “Submission,” which criticized women’s treatment in Islam and for which van Gogh was murdered on an Amsterdam street.

In clarifying her positions, she recounts criticism she’s received, including that she’s too harsh: “And what do the cultural experts say? ‘You should have said it in a different way.’ But since Theo van Gogh’s death, I have been convinced more than ever that I must say it in my way only and have my criticism.”

In addition to women’s rights, Ali highlights the difficulties of cultural integration, a thorny topic if ever there was one. She argues that it’s difficult for immigrants from Islamic countries to integrate in Western society without additional help from those with cultural sensitivities and understandings, like she herself provided as an interpreter in the Netherlands.

Removed from social strictures of her upbringing, she saw the religion in a different light that allowed her to isolate three elements of Islam that struck her especially upon settling in the West. One of these, which gets the most attention in these essays, is the focus on sexual morality, which she explains was derived from “tribal Arab values dating from the time the Prophet received his instructions from Allah,” in which “the essence of a woman is reduced to her hymen.”

The other elements emphasize a fear and submission-based relationship with God and the infallibility of the Prophet Muhammad as Islam’s sole moral source. Building on these three elements and their history, cultural significance and practice, her thesis is how they “explain largely why Muslim nations are lagging behind the West and, more recently, also lagging behind Asia. In order to break through the mental bars of this trinity … we must begin with a critical self-examination.”

The Caged Virgin, although wonderfully translated without any linguistic stutters, is less shaped by personal storytelling than Infidel or NomadBut it introduces and provides a solid overview of several topics she would focus on in these, and introduces some of the personal stories she would later delve deeper into.

One of the hardest topics to read about is female genital mutilation. I’ll let her take it from here:

I have nothing against religion as a source of comfort. Rituals and prayers can provide support, and I am not asking anyone to give those up. But I do reject religion as a moral gauge, a guideline for life. And this applies above all to Islam, which is an all-pervasive religion, dominating every step of your life.

People blame me for not drawing a distinction between religion and culture. Female circumcision, they say, has nothing to do with Islam, because this cruel ritual does not take place in all Islamic societies. But Islam demands that you enter marriage as a virgin. The virginity dogma is safeguarded by locking girls up in their homes and sewing their outer labia together.

She calls it “the most underestimated violation of human rights and women’s rights worldwide.”

Although some ideas and her unforgiving presentation ruffle feathers, she traces concepts carefully to their sources and makes intelligent arguments about practice based on her experience and that of women she’s worked with in Europe, not to mention her work for organizations like Amnesty International, where she was on the board of directors.

She is a critic of Islam, that’s undeniable, but she’s not trying to burn the whole thing down; rather, to shine a light on where human rights are being violated and emphasize how to remedy that. And she’s proved her own point with the death threats she’s received for speaking out. She draws parallels with others, like Salman Rushdie, who share this space with her. Ali says that in order to achieve a sea change, “we will need the help of the liberal West, whose interests are greatly served by a reform of Islam. But above all, we Muslims must help each other.”

The Caged Virgin:
An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam

by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, translated from Dutch by Jane Brown
published 2004

Amazon / Book Depository

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16 thoughts on “Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Essays on Women and Islam #WITMonth

    1. She talks about that in her memoir Infidel, which I really can’t recommend enough, it’s extraordinary. She eventually left the Netherlands because of it, it was too dangerous for her to keep living there. She describes first coming to the US and living in hotel rooms with bodyguards, it’s just unimaginable. I agree, she’s had an amazing journey.

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  1. Wonderful review! What a brave woman, but good for her for speaking her truth and fighting to save other girls and women. I admit, the dogma of any religion is something that I’ve never been able to really understand, how a person surrenders themselves fully to it, especially to this extent.

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    1. It’s the same for me, I struggle to understand it. I’ve always thought she had such an interesting perspective because she had started becoming radicalized at one point and then ended up leaving the religion entirely. So she really demonstrates thoroughly what she went through and why, it’s fascinating.

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  2. I now feel all kinds of iffy about this book. If someone makes an argument, I want it backed up with sources. However, if they are arguing by using only their experiences, I want them to write a memoir and let me come to my own conclusions.

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  3. I…have very mixed feelings about Ayaan Hirsi Ali. As a former Muslim-turned-atheist myself I get where she’s coming from – and she makes some valid points -but I’m also wary of her rhetoric. I also had a reactionary Islam-is-uniquely-terrible phase when I was a teenager, but I grew out of it, and she…didn’t.

    Films like Submission lack nuance and tend to portray Islam and the Middle East as uniquely misogynistic compared to the enlightened West. Honestly, if Ali weren’t a former Muslim herself, her rhetoric could easily be called Islamophobic and borderline racist, and it definitely perpetuates Orientalist views. She shows no understanding of the effects of imperialism and globalism on Islamic/Middle Eastern cultures.

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  4. Your review is timely – I am about to buy Infidel on Kindle. (It’s on offer for 99p. They probably reduced it as she has a new book out.) I will read Infidel first. I also have in my wish list Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh.

    On the topic of Women in Translation I just finished a book you might like (if you have not already read it). It’s translated from German, so with your fluent German you could read it in the original. It’s The Scholl Case by Anja Reich-Osang about a former mayor in Germany accused of murdering his wife of 50 years. I liked its lowkey tone and the glimpse it gave of former East Germany and life after reunification.

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    1. I didn’t realize she had a new book out, good to know! Infidel is incredible, it’s absolutely worth your 99p! And probably better to read first of hers, because she establishes her background and you kind of get to know her and her history, where she’s coming from and why. Let me know what you think of it! I didn’t even know there was a book about Theo van Gogh’s death, that’s good to know. I’ll have to look for it as I don’t know much about it beyond reading her account of it in Infidel and what I remember from the news.

      I have read The Scholl Case! I read it a few years ago when it was first published in English. I liked it, it was very lowkey as you say, and kind of a unique choice for translated nonfiction… I feel like I don’t see true crime in translation that much! That whole story of their strange relationship and sort of agreement in partnering was so bizarre but fascinating!
      I really should try more to read in German but I always feel so tired of it since my work usually involves reading so much German. It’s a welcome break any time I’m editing something that was originally written in English. I’m not usually in the mood to keep reading German after doing translation and editing work but I really probably should, I guess…

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  5. Oh dear I am so sorry but I have misled you – I meant that Ali’s new book was the book you are reviewing here, but now I realise it’s not a new book at all – 2004. I did not read all the details properly. Story of my life. Sorry! Also I was being a smart arse re Amazon promotions. Serves Me Right.

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