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The Caged Virgin By Ayaan Hirsi Ali

 

Translated from the Dutch by Jane Brown. New York: Free Press, 2006, 187 pp., $19.95 hardcover.

Reviewed by Kathy Davis

 

 

As I write this, Dutch politics are in turmoil. The coalition government has been forced to resign amid infighting over a failed attempt to strip the prominent young Somali-born politician, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, of her Dutch citizenship. The grounds are that she had falsified her name when she applied for asylum in 1992 to escape an arranged marriage, because she feared reprisals from her family. This is only the most recent in a long string of conflicts surrounding Hirsi Ali, who is both admired and hated for her critique of Islam and its treatment of women.


Hirsi Ali first achieved international fame for her film Submission (2004), a critique of the representation of women in the Q'uran, which she made with the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh. The film inflamed an already polarized Muslim community in the Netherlands. Death threats against Hirsi Ali appeared on Muslim Internet sites and in rap songs, compelling her to go into hiding and put herself under the constant protection of body guards. In 2004, van Gogh was murdered while riding his bike in Amsterdam by a young Muslim extremist, who pinned a letter to the chest of the dying man with the announcement, "Hirsi Ali, you're next."

 

The murder sent a shock wave through the Netherlands, which had long prided itself on its tolerance and multiculturalism. Indeed, the speed with which these values have disappeared is disconcerting. Dutch society is now characterized by an anti-immigration backlash that includes hard-line policies on migration and deportation, the burning of mosques, and a crack-down on fundamentalist Muslims. According to a recent survey, ten percent of formerly "tolerant" Dutch citizens now admit that they are "racist," and 25 percent are "against foreigners."

 

Hirsi Ali has been an important player in these debates, and her critics argue that she has been a catalyst in the present "multicultural drama," exacerbating antagonisms between Muslims and non-Muslims. Originally a member of the Labor Party, she joined the Conservative Party when it promised to give her a platform for addressing the plight of immigrant women, which she felt Labor had neglected. While the Conservatives were clearly motivated by self-interest and saw Hirsi Ali as a useful pawn in their campaign to curb the flow of immigrants from Muslim nations, she fooled everyone by following her own course of action. She has become a thorn in the side of her new party, often speaking out of turn and refusing to engage in the you-butter-my-bread-and-I'll-butter-yours of party politics.

 

The Muslim community dislikes her intensely, and few Muslim women seem to feel that she represents their interests. Progressives and feminists feel ambivalent. Hirsi Ali raises many issues of concern for feminists--domestic violence, female circumcision, educational opportunities for women, legal equality--but many find her anti-Islamic stance too hot to handle and have responded by ignoring her. For the media, however, Hirsi Ali has been a boon. Scarcely a day goes by without at least one article about her in the daily newspapers. She has appeared on countless talk shows, conversing knowledgeably and intelligently with seasoned politicians, never wavering from her path. In addition to being highly media-genic, she combines clarity and a radical vision with humor and soft-spoken charm.

 

The Caged Virgin is a collection of essays, interviews, autobiographical sketches, columns, and lectures, most of which were published in Dutch over a period of several years. As Hirsi Ali puts it, the book is a "call to arms" for the emancipation of Muslim women from the religious and cultural oppression of Islam. Her underlying theme is the Islamic "cult of virginity," which she says is responsible for a host of cruel practices against women throughout their lives: genital excision to ensure a girl's virginity before marriage, hymen reconstructions to ensure a girl's marriageability, and reinfibulation after childbirth to return her to a state of virginity. In Hirsi Aliâ's view, Islam is responsible for a sexual morality that "reduces a woman to her hymen" and equates a man's honor with the respectable and obedient behavior of his female family members. This, she says, explains a whole range of ills perpetrated against Muslim women: forced marriages, marital rape and domestic violence, compulsory veiling, honor killings, exclusion from the public domain, economic dependence, and lack of legal rights (for example, when a woman's passport is dependent upon her marital partner, she risks deportation if she leaves the relationship).

 

Throughout the book, Hirsi Ali draws upon her experiences as a Somalian girl who was raised as a Muslim, educated in religious schools, circumcised at an early age, and forced into an unwanted marriage with a distant cousin. She makes a passionate and convincing argument for the necessity of freeing women from the constraints of tradition and religion, which rob them of their freedom and self-determination, turning them into little more than "production plants for sons." As she puts it, one of the reasons that Muslim nations are perennially "lagging behind the West," is the extreme sexual inequality embedded in the religion and the culture. This inequality is damaging to the Muslim world not only because the talents of one-half of the population are wasted, but also because Muslim children are often raised by "downtrodden and illiterate mothers."

 

Hirsi Ali's critique of Islam is absolute, and the reader accustomed to a more balanced or nuanced account may find The Caged Virgin hard to take. Although Hirsi Ali pays lip-service to the individual's right to religious freedom and the comfort religion offers to many, she basically regards Islam as irrational, backward, and mired in tradition. She does not believe--as do some Islamic feminists, for example--that Islam can be reformed or that its tenets, depending upon how they are interpreted, are compatible with equality between the sexes. In her view, slavish allegiance to Allah and the prophet Mohammed and willingness to live according to a moral and legal code dating from the seventh century have placed "blinders" on most Muslims. Even liberal or nonpracticing Muslims are afraid to take a critical look at their religion. It is this cowardliness, according to Hirsi Ali, that prevents Islam from undergoing the necessary transformations that would make it a viable religion in twenty-first century.

 

In contrast to her uniformly critical stance toward Islam, Hirsi Ali's portrayal of Western values often appears naïve, even starry-eyed. She is a fervent supporter of the Enlightenment ideals of individual freedom, equality, and democracy, arguing, for example, that freedom to express one's opinion is much more important than protecting the "image of Islam." (She cites the Danish cartoon episode as a case in point.) She embraces reason and the pursuit of knowledge, insisting that what the Muslim world needs is its "own Voltaire." While she is strangely inattentive to the less-than-innocent role of the West in global inequalities of power, not to mention the deplorable military aggression of the US in Iraq, she is perceptive in her critique of the tendency in the West to treat Muslims as perennial victims who cannot be criticized. This displays a lamentable indifference to the problems facing Muslim women, in particular, and a moral double-standard that reserves universal human rights for individuals living in Western democracies. Hirsi Ali has nothing good to say about the cultural relativism that she views as rampant in many liberal democracies. She is incensed when liberals willingly accept practices for Muslims than they would emphatically reject for themselves. She argues instead that it is only through a critical and open engagement with liberal ideas that Muslims will be taken--and indeed, can take themselves--seriously.

 

Hirsi Ali is a whistle-blower. She presents herself as someone who sees a dangerous situation and feels a moral obligation to make it public. Like any whistle-blower, she deserves admiration for her courage. She has willingly risked isolation, public defamation, and even death to tell the truth as she sees it. It is not surprising that she has received public acclaim throughout Europe for her bravery--including the Danish Freedom prize, the Swedish Democracy Prize, and the Coq d'Honneur. She was one of the few women to be included in Time magazine's "100 Most Influential People of 2005." But, like most whistle-blowers, she evokes discomfort and irritation as well. She steps on people's toes, rocks the boat, and, of course, willfully and persistently ignores the complexities of the situation. A whistle-blower is, by definition, a lonely hero, and it is here that I had the most difficulties with her book. In The Caged Virgin, Hirsi Ali seems to be the only one who has smelled the coffee when it comes to the plight of Muslim women and the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism. This is ironic, given the numerous and highly visible organizations in the Netherlands devoted to the very issues that she claims are most near and dear to her heart. Hirsi Ali gives little credit to the many Muslim intellectuals of both sexes who have been involved in lively debates about multiculturalism in the Netherlands and possible alliances between Islam and democracy. It is not on Hirsi Ali's agenda to build bridges, and here, ultimately, lies the weakness of her book.

 

Read The Caged Virgin less as a contribution to understanding the complexities of multiculturalism or the complicated realities of the lives of Muslim women than as a manifesto or wake-up call. You will not always agree with what Hirsi Ali says, but she has managed to get the most important and troubling issues of the day on the agenda, in such a way that you cannot avoid thinking about them. As I write this, Hirsi Ali has left the Netherlands for the US to take a position in the neoconservative think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute. Given the present mood in the US, she will in all probability become a poster child for conservative, "clash of civilizations" thinking. But without a doubt she will also make sure that immigrant women's rights to control their bodies, their lives, and their destinies get a hearing. You can look forward to some fireworks.

 

Kathy Davis lives and works in the Netherlands. She is a senior researcher at the Research Institute for Culture and History in Utrecht and has written extensively about women and healthcare, feminist politics of the body, and transnational feminism. Her most recent book is the forthcoming The Making of Our Bodies, Ourselves. How Feminist Knowledge Travels across Borders (2007).

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