In Praise of Infidel (Book Review)
Author: Ali, Ayaan Hirsi
Publisher: Free Press
Reviewed By: Barbara Eisold, Vol. XXVII, No. 3, pp. 75-76
Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s autobiography, is an extraordinary document. It is the story of a highly intelligent, courageous young woman, contending with widely opposing traditions, at a time of enormous historical transition. It describes a different culture of childhood and its effects. But it also demonstrates the way in which the early emergence of the capacity to self-reflect can have an impact on later ability to think clearly, especially when anxiety is high.
Ali, an elegant woman of Somali descent, a past member of the Dutch parliament, came to world attention in 2006 as a result of the murder of Theo van Gogh, a filmmaker. He was slaughtered in broad daylight by a Dutch Moroccan, Mohammed Boyer, after the release of Submission, a film-short about the unchecked abuse of Muslim women, upon which he and Ali had collaborated.
Born in Somalia in November, 1969, Ali was the second of her parent’s three children, a boy and two girls. Because her clan lineage defined her status, her maternal grandmother (a person from “the equivalent of the Iron age,” illiterate, a nomad) beat and cajoled her at an early age into learning by heart eight hundred years of her father’s ancestry. “The names will make you strong,” her grandmother said. “If you dishonor them, you . . . will lead a wretched life and die alone.” (p.3) To her grandmother “feelings were a foolish self indulgence.” ( p8) Grandmother told stories, about brave women who presumably sacrificed to save the honor of their clan. From these Ali learned that a girl must guard against the unauthorized loss of her virginity, or risk a punishment worse than death.
Ali’s parents had been brave in other ways. As a young woman, her mother had defied tradition by divorcing her assigned husband and had moved with her young son to Mogadishu. Ali’s father, from a patrician family, had also come to Mogadishu. A “bold, learned, popular [man], born to rule,” (p.14) he had political ambitions and had started a literacy campaign. It was in one of his classes that her parents met. They were married in 1966.
Because of the political situation at the time, Ali’s rebel father had been forced into hiding. In 1972 he was finally arrested and thrown in prison. Very afraid that he would be killed, her mother made the children beg Allah for his protection every night, until she was six. In this way, Allah became an early presence in Ali’s life, a mysterious one, she says.
One of my first memories, from when I was perhaps three. . . is of watching my grandmother engaged in an inexplicable performance. She was crouching face down on her mat. . . with her nose on the floor. I thought she was playing. . . so I . . . made faces at her, poking. She ignored me, and continued bending up and down, muttering things that sounded maddeningly strange. . . Finally, she turned around to me with a very scary look. . . ‘Bastard child!’ she cursed,. . .biting my arm. . . ‘May you never even smell paradise!’ My cousin. . . explained that I had disturbed my grandmother. . . while she was talking to God, the most important moment in an adult’s life. . . I was startled. I knew for sure there had been nobody but Grandma and me in the room. (p. 20. italics added)
From the earliest time, then, Ali coolly affirmed her own sense of the reality of things, in spite of the power wielded by her grandmother and by religious belief.
With her father gone, life at home was organized when her mother was around, but often her mother disappeared, abandoning the children to the neglect of their grandmother. Beatings were common and not particularly feared. Her beloved sister, Haweya, a rebel from the start, and the one punished most, was Ali’s main companion. The family moved in and out of Mogadishu. Later the children went to school, where Ali was hit frequently by teachers and called kintirleey (she with a clitoris -unclean), by other children, whom she was taught to fight. Both her parents were opposed to female genital mutilation (FGM). Not so her grandmother. Thus, once, while her mother was away, her grandmother arranged for all three children to be circumcised, a terrible ordeal, especially for Haweya, whose rebelliousness re-opened wounds that then had to be recut.
Thanks to a clansman, Ali’s father eventually escaped prison. Thereupon his family moved to be close to him. Always dependent on the clan for care, they moved first to Saudi Arabia (where they were called slaves because they were dark skinned), then to Ethiopia, then to Kenya. Her parents fought constantly, her mother becoming more rigidly Muslim and unhappy. In Saudi Arabia, Ali discovered that her father “thought we children were wonderful.” He let his daughters pray with him, to the horror of their mother . At ten, she says, under the eyes of her father, “ I opened up the way a cactus blooms after rain. He showered me with attention. . . told me I was clever and pretty. . . He encouraged us to ask questions. . . From the beginning I was Abeh’s favorite.. . . he would hug me and say I was his only son. ( p 44 & 45& 50) ”. Independently she understood that, despite what she was told about the honor of being female, her educated father, with his beautiful shoes, had a far better life than her barefoot, burdened mother.
Each new country meant new customs, and new languages to learn. By the time she was eleven, Ali had learned Somali, Arabic, Amharic and English.
Meanwhile, at the behest of her mother, Ali was doing all the housework. This Haweya had refused (to be hit unendingly by their mother), but Ali submitted, in spite of the fact that her grades suffered as a consequence. She submitted to beatings as well, but never to religious teachings that confused her. Once, as a result, she received a fractured skull at the beating hands of a religious teacher, whose teachings she had dared to question. The decision to submit to beatings was a choice she made, in the context of her culture. When it came to beliefs, however, her father had valued her need to ask questions, which had solidly re-affirmed her own determination to do so.
In Nairobi, meanwhile, she read Nancy Drew, Huck Finn, 39 Steps, and later Jane Austen, the Brontes, Danielle Steele, Daphne De Maurier, Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, taking seriously that lives were lived differently elsewhere. There were crushes on boys, forbidden meetings, kisses. When menstruation happened, in lieu of any kind of earlier sex education, it was her brother who explained things and helped her to buy what she needed at the pharmacy.
Later Ali learned that her father had married someone else and had a child . “This was betrayal,” she writes. “ In the next days and weeks I told myself that I would never let this happen to me. I would never be dependent on anyone in this way” (presumably as her mother had been on her father for support and affection (p.93)). Thus the early capacity to hold a point of view, encouraged by her father, was emerging in the adolescent Ali in a clear resolve about her future.
Having identified dependence as the condition to avoid, Ali struggled with traditional Muslim ideas, nonetheless, thanks to a respected teacher. “It was as if my head had somehow been divided in two,” she writes. “When in Sister Aziza’s world, I was devout, meek and respectful of the many barriers. . . that restricted me to a very narrow role. The rest of the time I read novels and I lived in the world of my imagination, filled with daring.” (p. 117-118).
She and her sister decided to go to secretarial school. Afterwards, they worked at the U.N. Her brother arranged a marriage for her, a love match of sorts, without the consent of her father. In this way, very painfully , she lost her virginity. But there were no papers to prove that the marriage had taken place, so in the eyes of her family she was still pure.
Somalia, meanwhile, was at war. There were difficult moves for people she knew from one country to another. There was a daring, heart-wrenching visit to a refugee camp, to rescue the wife of a friend, who was depending on Ali, with her language skills and knowledge of border regulations, to get them back, safely, to Kenya. She succeeded in doing this. Her capacity to rely on herself and, at the same time, to be caring and coolly courageous, had by this time, become evident to her and to others. She was twenty.
In 1992, her father arranged to marry her to a well- to- do Canadian whom she had never met. Despite her dislike of the man, she agreed to the marriage, which was to be consummated in Canada. While still in Kenya, having assessed the situation with her usual cool judgement, she says,
I could not stand. . . up for my right to refuse this man. I did tell my father I didn’t want to marry him, but I felt unable to act on that. . .[In Kenya] I would have been disowned, shunned, deprived of the invisible protection of the clan. My mother and sister would also. . . be punished. I would have been seen as prey…potentially a victim of every kind of predator. I just couldn’t imagine having the strength to do it. (p.209)
Her husband paid for a ticket to Canada, which included a stay in Frankfurt. “For months,” she writes,” I had been thinking more and more frantically about how to undo the marriage my father had chosen for me. . . I didn’t want to . . . live the life. . . preordained for me from the time I was born a girl. . . I thought I would look for the right moment” (p.. 186). Once arrived in Germany, ( ”the women were bare – they seemed naked. So many white people.” “Everyone was anonymous here . . . I felt. . . free. . . safe..” p. 185 ), a plan of escape began to form.
I didn’t worry about loneliness or how I would live without my family. . .
I had my certificate from Valley Secretarial College. . . if I went to Canada. . . I would be dependent always– on someone treating me well.. . I knew that another kind of life was possible. I had read about it (p 186-187).
Thus, from Germany Ali went to live in Holland, where she had a friend.
There isn’t space here to review in detail the long list of Ali’s accomplishments in the West. Suffice it to say that, in a trial by clan elders, she was liberated from her marriage. (“ There was no regret, but I knew that I had cut myself off from everything that was meaningful and important to my family.” p. 208.). In addition, eventually she gave up Muslim dress, got permanent residency, learned Dutch fluently, became a government -registered translator, had a five year live-in relationship with a Dutchman, went to Leiden University, graduated with a degree in political science, went to work as a researcher for a political party, wrote articles on Muslim women, ran for a seat in Parliament (VVD party, center right) and won. Her thoughtful engagement with life intensified. This was in sharp contrast to her adored sister, Haweya, who fell apart in Europe and eventually died (“I think it had something to do with . . . the limitlessness of Holland;” Ali writes. “[Haweya said ] ‘I was used to fighting for every little thing, and suddenly there is nothing to fight for – everything is possible’” p. 254). Ali became more and more secular in her beliefs and more certain of the role she wanted to play, first to protect Muslim women and (later) to warn the West about the threats she believes are implicit in Islam.
At the age of 30 Ali gave up being Muslim, having to overcome her fear of hellfire to do so. This act is forbidden in Islam; it makes one “apostate”, which is punishable by death, according to the Koran. Perhaps for this reason, no other female reformer that I know of has taken this radical step. Iranian Shirin Ebadi, (2006) for example, who won the Nobel prize for work in defense of Muslim women and children, remains a strong proponent of her country/religion. She attributes the brutal treatment of Islamic women to “culture” rather than to Islam itself (2007). Others (for example, Irshad Marnji, a Canadian of Pakistani descent, Zainab Salbi from Iraq (2005), Queen Noor (2003), of Jordan, an American who converted to Islam) in spite of their activism in defense of Muslim women, remain in the faith. To leave it, in fact, may limit one’s power to be heard by other Muslims, those, at least, who fear a similar death threat themselves. (see Laurence, 2007 for more on this).
Ali, meanwhile, lost her Dutch citizenship in the uproar over van Gogh’s death, thanks to minister Rita Verdonk, who cancelled it because of false statements, already acknowledged by Ali on her asylum application. She is now living in Washington, an employee of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank. Indeed, this may be a reasonable choice for a woman who sees Islam as a faith bound by teachings 1300 years old, which insist on violence as a means to the end of Mohammad’s words about rightness. Ali believes we take this point of view too lightly in the West, that we are unaware, as we preach tolerance, to what dangers tolerance may lead. Whether or not I agree with her opinions or her professional choice, her position seems to have emerged from a long-honed capacity to assess personal and political experience carefully and then to act, in a manner which to her seems correct. How her thinking will develop, given her remarkable abilities, remains to be seen.
Baruma, I. (2006). Murder in Amsterdam. New York: Penguin.
Dwairy, M. (2006).Counseling and Psychotherapy with Arabs and Muslims. New York: Teachers College Press.
Ebadi, S. (2004) Interview. Asia Source.
Ebadi, S. & Moaveni, A. (2006). Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope. New York: Random House.
Laurence, J (2007). The Prophet of moderation: Tariq Ramadan’s quest to reclaim Islam. Foreign Affairs. 86: p.128-134.
Manji, I. (2003) The Trouble with Islam Today. New York: St. Martins Griffin.
Macfarquar, N. (2007) New translation prompts debate on Islamic verse. New York Times. 3/25, p. 23. Noor, Q. (2003). Leap of Faith: Memoirs of an Unexpected Life. New York: Miramax
Salbi, Z.& Becklund, L. (2005) Between Two Worlds. New York: Gotham
U.S. gov’t (2001). Report on prevalence of the practice of FGM.
© APA Div. 39 (Psychoanalysis). All rights reserved. Readers therefore must apply the same principles of fair use to the works in this electronic archive that they would to a published, printed archive. These works may be read online, downloaded for personal or educational use, or the URL of a document (from this server) included in another electronic document. No other distribution or mirroring of the texts is allowed. The texts themselves may not be published commercially (in print or electronic form), edited, or otherwise altered without the permission of the Division of Psychoanalysis. All other interest and rights in the works, including but not limited to the right to grant or deny permission for further reproduction of the works, the right to use material from the works in subsequent works, and the right to redistribute the works by electronic means, are retained by the Division of Psychoanalysis. Direct inquiries to the chair of the Publications Committee.