Poetry Madness

Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, February 11th, 2007
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The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam

by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Variants of Abuse

A review by Maria Golia

[Ed. Note. This review discusses the contents and context of two books: The Caged Virgin and Shattering the Stereotypes.]

In 1992, the Somali-born author of The Caged Virgin, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, arrived in Holland as a refugee. She was granted citizenship in 1997, and in 2003 was elected to Parliament, where she served for three years before her abrupt resignation. Hirsi Ali collaborated with the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, writing the screenplay for Submission 1, a film about women suffering from a repressive Islam. When van Gogh was murdered by a Muslim in 2004, Hirsi Ali's life was threatened and her celebrity enhanced. In 2005, Time magazine named her one of the "world's 100 most influential people".

A photograph in the New York Review of Books (October 5, 2006) shows the attractive Hirsi Ali at a Time-sponsored party, chortling with another influential person, Condoleezza Rice. In the accompanying review, Timothy Garton Ash notes his "enormous respect for her courage, sincerity and clarity". The American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a think tank close to the Bush Administration, apparently feels the same way. They gave Hirsi Ali a fellowship after her withdrawal from Dutch politics. This was due, in part, to the controversy surrounding her falsification of personal data when requesting asylum, but also to her opposition to Dutch tolerance and multiculturalism on the ground that it perpetuates "backwardness", especially in Muslim immigrants.

Muslim immigrants "only rarely take advantage of the opportunities offered in education and employment", she writes in The Caged Virgin, and a restrictive Islam is what is holding them back. "By our Western standards, Mohammed is a perverse man. A tyrant. If you don't do as he says, you will end up in hell. That reminds me of those megalomaniac rulers, Bin Laden, Khomeini, Saddam....You are shocked to hear me say these things...you forget where I am from. I used to be a Muslim; I know what I'm talking about." This qualification may have impressed the AEI, but it does not equip Hirsi Ali to indict a religion and the multifarious peoples that profess it. It is not that she says outright that all Muslims are fundamentalists; she just attributes fundamentalist beliefs and practices to all Muslims.

She is tired of hearing "ad nauseam" that "a single Islam does not exist", implying she knows it to be the dominant faith in forty countries, and that Arabs constitute a quarter of all Muslims. Yet she finds it appropriate to make statements such as these: "In a community of over 1.2 billion faithful, knowledge, progress and prosperity are not primary aspirations"; "The cultural expressions of the majority of Muslims are still at the premodern stage of development"; "Human curiosity in Muslims has been curtailed".

Although it is admittedly hard to footnote sprawling generalizations, Hirsi Ali cites her references infrequently. A favoured source, however, is David Pryce-Jones, Senior Editor of the National Review, an influential publication in US neoconservative circles. Hirsi Ali echoes Pryce-Jones and the like-minded Bernard Lewis in her discussion of "the mental world of Islam", a dark planet governed by "tribal values" essentially at odds with those of the enlightened West. In Hirsi Ali's mental world, the link between Islam and violence is clear, and she assumes, perhaps all too correctly, that it is clear to the reader as well. "Muslims were involved in two thirds of the 32 armed conflicts in the year 2000", she claims, without corroboration. Presumably the Muslims were either fighting themselves or some unsuspecting adversary. Ironically, being a "fierce believer" in the rights of the individual, as she repeatedly describes herself, doesn't prevent Hirsi Ali from painting all Muslims with the same bloody brush. She may abhor the lack of individual freedoms in many Muslim-majority countries, but the distinctions and interplay between religious and political control systems, as well as the repercussions of Western interventionism do not interest her. Indeed, Hirsi Ali's politics are unencumbered by nuance.

Predictably, her meatiest bone of contention is Islam's treatment of women, particularly the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). Since she seems well versed in the topic, it is disingenuous not to have mentioned that FGM is neither pervasive in Muslim societies, nor practised exclusively by Muslims. It occurs most widely across a swath of sub-Saharan Africa where it is a social custom long observed by Christians and Muslims alike. It is not practised, for instance, in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, or South and South-east Asia. According to Amnesty International, FGM was, however, used by doctors in England and the United States as recently as the 1950s, as a treatment for hysteria, lesbianism, masturbation and other perceived forms of deviance in girls and women. The notion that sexism, not Islam per se, has made women vulnerable to all manner of abuse, is not considered.

Likewise, Hirsi Ali erroneously states that "there is a strict taboo in Muslim families on talking about birth control, abortion and sexual violence". Islam, like the Judaeo-Christian traditions, bans premarital sex, but it does not ban birth control. The Prophet Muhammad advocated coitus interruptus -- not the most effective means of family planning, but in keeping with Islam's encouragement of sexual activity as a source of marital pleasure, not solely of procreation. Egypt's state-sponsored birth control programmes began in the 1960s. In Iran, condoms manufactured in a government-operated facility are distributed through clinics and state-sponsored family planning centres. By contrast, the Vatican, which condemns "artificial" birth control, recently announced that its ban on condoms may be lifted -- for married couples where one partner is HIV-positive.

Islam permits abortion only under certain circumstances, but several former Soviet countries with Muslim constituencies, as well as Tunisia and Turkey, allow it. As for sexual violence: in Egypt, at least, the topic is open for discussion. In presenting sexual violence as a pernicious side effect of the Islamic faith, Hirsi Ali does not trouble herself with parallels or comparisons. It would have been interesting, for example, to learn if levels of violence towards women in Muslim countries rival those of the United States, where one in six women are victims of sexual assault annually, according to that country's America's Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

This is not to say that women do not suffer violence, or are not grievously denied their rights in the name of Islam. Hirsi Ali's affirmation that "Islam's biggest weakness is its treatment of women" is valid. But that treatment varies dramatically from place to place, family to family, as do the socio-economic and political factors that influence it. Hirsi Ali seems far more interested in indicting Islam than helping damaged women, whose horror stories she conveniently trots out whenever she needs to bludgeon home a broadsided point. Convinced that Muslims are incapable of the self-criticism required to root out gender discrimination and other injustices, she overlooks longstanding calls for political and social reform, and the fact that Muslim women today are at the forefront of campaigns for fresh interpretations of Islamic jurisprudence. She is at her most pretentious when appointing herself spokesperson for Muslim women "unable to speak for themselves", while ignoring the extensive scholarship, field studies and literature produced by them.

Women staff thousands of organizations throughout the Muslim world, dedicated to eradicating FGM and female illiteracy, and to raising women's awareness of health issues alongside their religious and legal rights. It is a long and painstaking process to change legislation and deeply entrenched attitudes, as local activists are aware, and one that requires an understanding of context and coalition-building, not to mention compassion and subtlety. Hirsi Ali's proposal for eradicating FGM among immigrant Muslims consists of penalizing it, and subjecting girls to physical examinations to ensure their parents' compliance. Paradoxically, this sort of institutionalized violence occurs in Turkey, where the State reserves the right to examine women to ascertain their virginity.

By disregarding the struggle for women's rights -- both the progress and setbacks -- in Muslim-majority countries, Hirsi Ali does those committed to the cause, and consequently those she claims to want to help, a grave injustice. The very title of her book reinforces stereotypes while providing no new information about the evolving status of Muslim women in their own and adopted countries. It overlooks Muslim women's participation in economies, elections and government. Likewise, in discounting the contributions of fruitfully integrated first-generation Muslims and immigrants to their societies, Hirsi Ali fuels the isolationism she claims to oppose.

"I do not despise Islam", she says, without offering a shred of evidence to the contrary. While acknowledging that her criticism has been called "harsh, offensive and harmful", Hirsi Ali is undeterred. She has no patience for liberals who prefer dialogue to diatribe. "Murderers are being protected", she shrieks. Although Hirsi Ali states that it was not her intention to provide Islamophobes with ammunition, this is exactly what her one-dimensional portrayal of Islam does.

She would do well to read the second book under review, Shattering the Stereotypes, edited by Fawzia Afzal Khan, a scholar and playwright. It is a collection of fiction, non-fiction, religious discourse, poetry and plays, written by Muslim-American women from different ethnic and professional backgrounds. Their varied perspectives, and experiences in America and elsewhere, provide the sense of the individual so lacking in The Caged Virgin. These women, mostly immigrants and first-generation citizens, are articulate, questioning and often humorous.

The range of genres assembled in Shattering the Stereotypes serves Afzal Khan's aim of portraying "the myriad realities and multiple allegiances" obscured by the label "Muslim Woman", while amplifying the book's emotional and intellectual impact. The creative writing, exploring the dilemmas of faith and polity, helps personalize the issues, and diffuse the fear and mistrust arising from misinformation. For anyone genuinely interested in understanding the diversity of Islam, here is the mind-broadening equivalent of several books, and an enticement to read still more.

It is noteworthy that Afzal Khan was excluded from a year-long seminar at her university, entitled "The Many Faces of the Muslim World", despite being the only Muslim faculty member. America's gathering undertow of anti-Muslim feeling is evident in several of the book's selections. The theme's recurrence suggests the ascendancy of divisive, biased rhetoric in press and media, and the corresponding need for more penetrating analysis. Always engaging, never strident, Shattering the Stereotypes answers that need admirably.

Maria Golia writes an opinion column for the Beirut Daily Star. A long-time resident of Egypt, she is author of Cairo: City of Sand, 2004.

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