Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Cannonball Read #40: Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Apparently this is the section of the Cannonball Read where I read about Islam a lot. I first heard of this book when I was taking a course called Terrorism and the Modern World last fall, and just recently, a work friend of mine handed me a copy of it, saying it was really excellent, if a little graphic in parts. It took me about five hours to finish it.

***There will be spoilers throughout; Ali is a political figure whose story is fairly well known, so I am not going to worry too much about keeping the details under wraps. ***

There is something uncomfortable about non-fiction of this stripe, because you want to think that the greatest monstrosities only exist in the imagination. The range of problematic thinking that is required for people to carry out this kind of punishment is truly frightening, and it's far too easy for those of us in the West to brush these actions off as Things That Do Not Happen. It's books like these, from women like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, that remind us that they do and that we as a global society have in no way resolved gender discrimination. There may have been a time when these issues were local and had no global reach, but as world trade and development in communications and travel technologies progress, we now must understand the way these problems affect the health of the world as a whole.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Somalia, but more importantly, she was born into an extremely tribal corner of the Muslim world. The book opens with Ayaan's grandmother's lessons in their heritage, going back countless generations, inbuing the young girls with a sense of tradition and community. This is the kind of awareness of history and family that is often lacking in the Western world, but as we come to see, it also becomes a binding tie that traps Somali children in the small world of tribal family and Islamic tradition. There is no progress, no future for these kids; you just do as your relatives have always done, even if there are other ways offered by modernity. Over time, her family would become increasingly strict, with her parents shoving her towards Islam even as they declined to answer her questions. Here the churches of the world should take note - you must be willing to engage questions about inconsistencies and complex theological points if you want to preserve your believers' adherence. "Because I said so" has never worked on anyone. It should be noted that Islam is inherently difficult to interact with in this manner, because the Qu'ran is understood as the direct word of Allah, free of human editing or influence.

Until Hirsi Ali escaped from Africa, she underwent and witnessed a horrifying array of abuses - women beaten routinely and for the most insignificant infractions, child brides shuttled off to older men, women marginalized at every turn, murders of family members whose relatives had offended the tribe somehow. It is a true testament to both Hirsi Ali's inner strength and to the horror of her childhood surroundings that one emerges from this book feeling that Ayaan's own female circumcision was one of the lesser offenses of her life. How she manages to concern herself with the pain and suffering of other women after undergoing such a horrific process is frankly amazing. She gives a very precise, graphic but not sensational account of her excision, and describes her sister's operation the same way. These genital mutilations cause a lifetime of pain for the women who suffer them; for those unaware, the external parts of the vagina are cut off to varying degrees, and then the cuts are sewn together so that when the woman eventually has sex, the man must force the healed and now sealed vagina open. Oh, and by the way, even after sex and childbirth, the vagina may heal over again, which lets the woman go through the entire experience again. This of course is all to say nothing of the less than sanitary conditions in which these operations generally occur, opening the door to infection, complications and death. If your knees aren't around your ears right now in complete squicked out horror, I don't know what to tell you. That is pain beyond anything I can imagine. Still, Hirsi Ali somehow overcomes an experience that leaves many women (not least her own sister) with crippling neuroses and social problems, to say nothing of physical trauma.

Perhaps the most interesting - and important - aspect of this book is the remarkable journey from devout Muslim to Western feminist that Ayaan takes. It is an essential presentation of the way Islam works its way into people's lives and how difficult the language and dogma of the religion make it to question the religion once you have entered it. Ayaan begins life under the tribal culture of her mother and grandmother, which adheres to a certain loose understanding of some basic Muslim tenets but has more to do with the tribal traditions of their ancestors than hardline Islamic extremism. In time, Ayaan begins attending Muslim madrassas and takes up a very strict Islamic doctrine, wearing a full burqa and doing her best to assimilate to the Muslim life. I think it's important to note that she repeatedly mentions that she felt very positive about her adoption of the burqa and later iterations of covering. Western commentators often see women's coverings in Islamic society as purely punitive and of great offense to the wearers, but it's important to understand that you are looking at a cultural phenomenon that is often freely chosen and affords to the adopter certain good feeling in accordance with their Islamic mindset. The burqa, for Hirsi Ali, brought her closer to Allah and made her feel that she was improving herself. Eventually, Ayaan would drop these traditions as she experimented with her life as a woman in the West, but her explanation of the benefits gleaned from wearing traditional Islamic garb is important to one's understanding of the Muslim mind.

Hirsi Ali finally escaped to Holland and became a Dutch citizen. She would later become an outspoken Member of Parliament, and after working with producer Theo van Gogh on his film Submission would eventually go into hiding. Van Gogh was murdered and his body found with a death threat against Hirsi Ali, and this pushed her into hiding despite her desire to live publicly in the name of free speech. She has also worked with Geert Wilders, producer of the film Fitna, a direct challenge to the assertion that Islam is a religion of peace. She and her many allies have dedicated their lives to fighting against the injustices of Islam and against the subjugation of women everywhere.

The worst thing about discrimination and prejudice is that they cut both ways. This is crystal clear in Hirsi Ali's book; the women may be the ones who suffer most obviously, but the men are just as trapped in these ideologies. In large part, they are simply unable to think outside of the way things currently are. Ayaan's father is presented as a fairly forward-thinking Muslim who takes a more interpretive approach to Islam and affords his female children more respect than most of the other male Muslims in the book, but when Ayaan begins to challenge the traditional gender roles he resists and is unable to accept her actions. Think of how sad it is that entire societies are indoctrinated into this kind of mindset, how limiting that is and how anchored to their traditional ways they all are. Traditions shouldn't be cast aside for the sake of progress, but they should be supplemented by new ideas and actions as time goes on and the world changes. If these adaptations cannot take place, the society will be unable to participate effectively in economic and social prosperity, and is doomed to remain precisely as it is.

Reading this book right before the shootings in Pittsburgh was deeply troubling. There have been several excellent commentaries on the nature and permissibility of misogynist violence, and many of them point out that we have become so accustomed to certain sexual predations and violence being the exclusive purview of women that it's hardly a blip on the radar when a man shoots 10 Amish schoolgirls after releasing all the boys. Without published screeds condemning women like Pittsburgh gunman George Sodini left, the misogynist bent of these crimes often goes unnoted and even if there is a mention of this attitude in the commissar of such a crime, it has a certain obivous feeling to it. "Women just have to deal with rape. Women just have to accept that men feel this way about them. Women have to accept this risk. Women just have to understand that this is their lot in life." Just as in the Muslim world of Ali's upbringing, men are just as trapped as women by these dynamics - male rape victims are seldom taken seriously and frequently mocked, and the same goes for male victims of domestic abuse, because these are Crimes That Happen To Women. Read Infidel, think about what can be done to make that particular violence stop but do not, under any circumstances, think that we in the West - or the religiously diverse world - have set aside our gender conflicts. Our gender problems have evolved just as our societies have, and we do ourselves an immense disservice by ignoring that fact.

384 pages

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