Islam and Muslim Women in the West

In The Guardian, a review of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s The Caged Virgin and Ian Buruma’s Murder in Amsterdam.

The Caged Virgin is a shocking read. Ayaan Hirsi Ali rages at crimes that are done to women by men: from forced marriage to female genital mutilation; from denial of education to sexual abuse within the family. Her fury about these crimes makes her essays vibrant and inspiring, as she reminds her readers that women do not have to accept violence in the home or stunted ambitions: “You know you are worth more than this!” Hirsi Ali calls to her female readers. “You think and dream about your freedom! You no longer have to tolerate oppression.”

Female visionaries who break out of traditional societies often set other people’s teeth on edge. To their detractors, Andrea Dworkin was a fantasist, Emmeline Pankhurst was an egoist, and even Mary Wollstonecraft was a hyena in petticoats. For someone like Hirsi Ali a love-it-or-loathe-it fierce confidence was absolutely essential for her to become the woman she is now; she came from a Somali family which moved to Saudi Arabia and then to Kenya without losing its oppressive sense of tradition. She herself underwent female genital mutilation and was threatened with a forced marriage; if she had not decided to trust her own anger rather than other people’s opinions, how else would she have found the confidence to defy that weight of tradition?

Yet Hirsi Ali’s position in this book and in Submission, the film she made with Theo Van Gogh, is problematic in a very particular way. What sticks in the throats of many of her readers is not her feminism, but her anti-Islamism. It is not patriarchy as a whole that she is battling with, but a specific patriarchy sanctioned by a specific religion. “Islam is strongly dominated by a sexual morality derived from tribal Arab values dating from the time the Prophet received his instructions from Allah, a culture in which women were the property of their fathers … The essence of a woman is reduced to her hymen. Her veil functions as a constant reminder to the outside world of this stifling morality.”.

An excerpt from Buruma’s Murder in Amsterdam can be found here in Jewcy