A Life in Violent Motion

A Life in Violent Motion

The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam
by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Simon & Schuster, 2006, 208 pp., $16.99



This lightweight book is being reviewed everywhere because of the following intensely engaging facts: Its author, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, was born into a prominent Muslim family in Somalia in 1969. Her father, Hirsi Magan, was a leader of the anticommunist opposition and was forced to flee Somalia—followed by his family—to Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and finally, Kenya. During these years of strict Muslim girlhood, her grandmother saw to it that Ayaan had a clitoridectomy.

When Hirsi Ali was twenty-two, her father arranged a marriage for her to a cousin she didn’t know who lived in Canada. (Her family disputes this story of coercion.) On her way from Kenya to Canada for the wedding, she slipped away to Holland and applied for asylum. Friendly Dutch social service workers advised her to tell a few lies to escape detection by her family and to make her plight seem more urgent. She changed her age and her name and claimed she had come straight from war-torn Somalia. Asylum was granted.

From that point in 1992 until now, hers is the story of a meteor. She learned Dutch, served as a translator for Somali immigrants, got a degree in political science, gained citizenship in 1997, and became active in the social-democratic Labor Party.

Disgusted by the party’s flaccid multiculturalism, which she saw as coddling tyrannical Islamic patriarchs and isolating Muslim immigrants, particularly women, from western values and human rights protections, she switched to the conservative liberal VVD party. (As she explains, in the United States this would be like moving from the Democrats to the Republicans.) Her new party invited her to run for Parliament, where she won a seat in 2003. Called a traitor by some and a hero by others, from this highly visible platform she began the vocal criticism of the religion of Islam in general, and western policies toward Muslim immigrants in particular, which has made her famous—and infamous.

In 2004 she wrote the script for Theo Van Gogh’s film Submission, Part One. Passages from the Koran that call for the domination of men over women scroll over the bodies of Muslim women—a quite literal statement of Hirsi Ali’s thesis in The Caged Virgin that the Koran officially authorizes violence against women, that its words inscribe male power on their bodies.

The film was controversial, to say the least; a radical Dutch jihadist of Moroccan descent shot the director Van Gogh on the street, slit his throat, and drove a letter into his corpse with a knife. The letter promised that Hirsi Ali would die next. Since then, she has been guarded by Dutch security twenty-four hours a day; her neighbors have driven her out of her apartment, claiming that her presence endangers them.

On top of this public crisis came the announcement from the minister of immigration in her own party, Rita Verdonk, that the lies Hirsi Ali told in 1992 made her application for citizenship invalid. There is irony in this twist of the story, because both women agree about the need for strict monitoring of Muslim immigrants. Verdonk seems to have believed that Hirsi Ali should be punished like any other fraudulent asylum seeker. But over the years Hirsi Ali had made no secret of what she had done, including a full disclosure to her party before she ran for office.

Aside from personal rivalries, which are hard to assess from this distance, Verdonk’s sudden and dramatic threat to cancel Hirsi Ali’s citizenship is probably best read against the backdrop of the growing angst in the Netherlands about the country’s traditional openness to immigrants. Holland’s venerable ideal of pillarization, in which every group is tolerated—but not integrated—in Dutch society, came under direct fire with the spectacular rise of Pim Fortuyn, who ran for office in 2002 on the political platform that Holland was “full” and that further immigration would undermine Dutch culture. (Assassinated only a few days before the 2002 election, the populist, openly gay Fortuyn was one of Hirsi Ali’s role models.)

Verdonk’s move to strip Hirsi Ali of her citizenship upset people from many points of the political compass, both nationally and internationally. In May, a small party in the center-right government, D66, issued an ultimatum that if Rita Verdonk was allowed to continue as minister for immigration it would withdraw from the ruling coalition. In a hasty response to the growing sympathy for Hirsi Ali and the continuing furor over immigration policy, Verdonk found a loophole to allow Hirsi Ali to keep her citizenship. But conflicted feelings about immigration were running too high; when Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende refused to fire Verdonk, D66 dropped out, and the government fell in June 2006.

What next? Ayaan Hirsi Ali has resigned from Parliament. Though she continues to have Dutch citizenship, she has stated her intention to move to the United States in September 2006 to be a Fellow of the American Enterprise Institute.


Inevitably, reviewers of The Caged Virgin are caught between judging the ins and outs of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s celebrity and evaluating the book itself, which is a loose (and often redundant) assemblage of brief articles, interviews, fragments of autobiography, an open letter of advice and encouragement to Muslim women who want to leave home, and the script for Submission. On one level, this uneven collection is easy to dismiss as the usual thinly argued, attention-getting propaganda of political candidates everywhere who cobble this kind of apologia together by the carload.

I think, however, that it is better read as a more honorable form, as polemic. Hirsi Ali is, above all, disputatious; she is angry, passionate, and hits the ground arguing—with western policymakers, liberal multiculturalists, and anyone soft on such cultural practices as female genital mutilation, honor killings of women for lost virginity or any other form of independence, forced marriages, domestic violence, narrow religion-based education, or censorship through fatwa.

These outcries carry several kinds of authority. They come from an insider who has suffered and who empathizes with the sufferings of the Muslim women she met as an interpreter in Dutch shelters. They come from a committed activist who is clearly motivated by feminist beliefs and who has taken serious risks to defy a number of patriarchal institutions in both East and West.

Her outraged tales of damage, evil, and injustice are sometimes mythic, heroic, romantic—they are examples of a genre easily manipulated by the likes of Laura Bush—but such tales can be bearers, too, of important information and new beliefs; they are the sorts of tales from which liberation struggles are made. One would not want to silence their tellers. Hirsi Ali indicts Islam in ways both cogent and silly, but her project arises out of her own struggles; her desire to “emancipate” her sisters is easily read as a sweeping insult to what she calls “backward” Islam, but she claims no superior distance; if she is currying favor with a postcolonial West, she does so earnestly, like a convert, never cynically—and at a personal price.

There is a whole cluster of objections to The Caged Virgin that only illustrate the reason for Hirsi Ali’s indictment of Islamic fundamentalism. Those who say the book should never have been written confirm Hirsi Ali’s intemperate generalizations about censorship, authoritarianism, and religious absolutism. As one British human rights group puts it: “In a democracy there is no right not to be offended.” For example, Hirsi Ali’s film Submission has often been reviewed as an unnecessarily aggressive provocation, with its texts from the Koran and its half-clothed female bodies. But what standards of propriety are such critics defending? Some are objecting to nudity, others to blasphemy; still others are deferring in a patronizing way to those who make such objections. Ayaan Hirsi Ali deserves to be defended vigorously against all such moralistic attacks and against those who support these repressive and authoritarian sensibilities in the name of respect for Islam. Her polemics deserve to be heard and to be debated, and no indictment of her book that calls for its suppression can be the bearer of a serious argument against her.

But after claiming this honorable standing for angry, critical, unbending critique, one must ask the following question: how effective, how convincing, how well thought through is Hirsi Ali’s polemic against Islam’s traditions and what she names as current Muslim practices? Here are her key arguments: Muhammad is a bad prophet; his authoritarian teachings, his polygamy, his lying, and his military violence are the source of the Islamic failure to progress on all fronts. She wants “another Voltaire,” a turn toward rational secularization. She sees contemporary Islam, as a whole, as a pathological manifestation of anti-modernism; in spite of any local variations, the same basic problems “confront most of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims spread over five continents.” Islam’s treatment of women is endemic and criminal, a central cause of the weakness of its religious, cultural, and economic life. She sees all modern Muslim practices as essentially authoritarian and praises the West for its tradition of hermeneutics.

If only things were this simple—or no, let me put that another way: It would be truly terrifying if things were this simple, the trouble with Islam this seamless, the march of cause and effect this direct, a straight line between Muhammad’s child brides and modern sexual repressions. Instead, changes and new ideas are continually being generated through differences among those complex and far-flung 1.2 billion and through still larger geopolitical forces.

It’s not that she has no right to generalize but that she does not generalize well. In her account, the West is a happy place where individuals debate in free exchanges uninflected by differences of power. She writes blithely: “Self-criticism for Muslims is possible in the West, because the West, primarily the United States, is waging war on Islamic terrorism.” Western governments “have free trade practices and an open market, and people may spend their recreational time as they wish.” Promiscuously jumbled lists like this are a Hirsi Ali specialty: free trade and free Sunday outings.

In the West, God is a private matter and religion doesn’t intrude in politics. Westerners were once more primitive than, say, the Moors in Spain, but as Muslims became more intolerant after the twelfth century, “the Judeo-Christian West realized it needed to improve, and its people began learning, traveling, and exploring.” In this sentence we have Hirsi Ali’s account of the age of exploration and the development of colonialism.

Nor is this unthinking acceptance of the long western tradition of orientalism an aberration. Hirsi Ali believes that it is time that Muslims stop blaming colonialism and poverty for their troubles and begin to take responsibility for their uncivilized culture and religion:

[M]any Muslims refuse to attribute responsibility for their misery to their own community or to the sexual morality imposed by their religion. Instead, they blame Allah, the Devil, or other external sources such as the Jews, Americans, or colonialism. Muslims don’t recognize that, in fact, the pursuit of a life based on their own Holy Book is the most significant source of their unhappiness.

Again, it’s the promiscuity of that list of false causes that gives the game away. All social explanations are as one to Hirsi Ali—mere excuses, when one should be pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps and joining western culture without whining complaints or ambivalence. Her prescription is tough love, and one of her suggestions for helping Muslim women in the Netherlands is, shockingly, a coercive, racial profiling, policy nightmare: “a screening program that could help prevent female circumcision. Girls from ‘high-risk countries’ should be checked once a year to see if they have been circumcised.” (The nineteenth-century feminist activist Josephine Butler, who spent years opposing such state invasions into female bodies, must be rolling in her grave.)

Hirsi Ali doesn’t seem to see the contradictions here. For all her praise of fullness in political dialogue, her enlightenment-without-tears is as flat as her description of a universally failing Islam. And though she mentions others who are trying to build an anti-fundamentalist Muslim movement, she seems not to have taken on the challenges posed by the international exchange now going on among scholars and activists who seek to critique both fundamentalist practices and, at the same time, the western social contexts in which such violent and repressive practices now bloom.

Here, for example, on the subject of context, is Arjun Appadurai in Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger:

Given the systemic compromise of national economic sovereignty that is built into the logic of globalization, and given the increasing strain this puts on states to behave as trustees of the interests of a territorially defined and confined “people,” minorities are the major site for displacing the anxieties of many states about their own minority or marginality (real or imagined) in a world of a few megastates, of unruly economic flows and compromised sovereignties. Minorities, in a word, are metaphors and reminders of the betrayal of the classical national project. And it is this betrayal—actually rooted in the failure of the nation-state to preserve its promise to be the guarantor of national sovereignty—that underwrites the worldwide impulse to extrude or to eliminate minorities.

The Netherlands, where Hirsi Ali developed her thought and her activism, is a country now torn by the anxiety about identity and nationhood that Appadurai describes. By her own admission only some of almost a million Muslims in the Netherlands embrace fundamentalist practices, but Hirsi Ali has made herself a public actor in the Dutch drama in which Muslims are herded together in the national imagination and are seen as the poisoned source of a new, threatening international chaos.

If there is a nugget that can be saved from The Caged Virgin, it lies in the book’s fervent feminism, in Hirsi Ali’s fresh outrage at the manipulation of women as the objects, not subjects of history. But here, too, her work is one-dimensional. Happily, and in contrast, there are many others who are struggling to bring feminism, anti-racism, and internationalism together in the same conversation. To give but one of many possible examples of this burgeoning discussion, Uma Narayan takes on the problem of generalizing about culture with illuminating subtlety. First she criticizes what she calls “the package picture of cultures,” in which each culture is a neatly packed, sealed off entity: “I believe that these packages are more badly wrapped and their contexts more fumbled than is often assumed and that there is a variety of political agendas that determine who and what are assigned places inside and outside a particular cultural package.” Coming from this angle, Narayan is in a strong position to criticize a number of forms of generalization. Hirsi Ali’s way of assigning a unified meaning to all Muslim cultures everywhere is one of Narayan’s targets, but another is the multiculturalist assumption that cultures need to be protected as solidly bounded entities that must not be judged from “outside.” For Narayan, culture is dynamic, its boundaries shifting, and the reductionist she criticizes may be an Islamicist, or a harsh judge of Islam, or a western feminist so worried about imposing sameness on “the other” that she can miss cross-cultural similarities, internal cultural divisions, and possible intercultural alliances.

Leti Volpp carries this kind of analysis still further by asking, “When do we call behavior ‘cultural’?” Her research explores how a court or a social agency decides if an act, for instance a wife beating, is to be judged as a part of a culturally agreed on, shared scenario and when it is to be judged as an individual, aberrant crime. Her argument doesn’t throw out “culture” but insists that everyone has it; the decision to highlight culture in some cases and not others as the source of social behavior is always political. Wife beating is common in the United States, but it is not usually considered the cultural essence of what being an American is, an emergency that urgently requires a basic rethinking of American institutions.

Still other writers, too numerous to mention, are trying to disentangle feminism from its colonial past. Hirsi Ali calls for the emancipation of her poor, uncivilized, and ignorant sisters, joining a long tradition of compromised colonial sympathy, while many others are trying to find a feminism that does not collude, for example, with George W. Bush’s hypocritical claim that one reason the United States is in Afghanistan is to “free women.”

Ever since Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1989, and increasingly in the post–September 11 world, both Muslim and western feminists have been evolving ways to speak against repression, violence, and sexism in ways that do not make Muslims the convenient scapegoats for the global leap in these disturbing behaviors. For example, the London-based international group Women Against Fundamentalism was founded in response to the left’s silence about Rushdie, the fear that it would be racist to criticize the fatwa. The group defines fundamentalisms as “modern political movements that use religion as a basis for their attempt to win or consolidate power and extend social control.” WAF held demonstrations in support of Rushdie but against the western use of this crisis to create convenient new global enemies.

The group Women Living Under Muslim Laws (founded in 1984) points out that Muslim women themselves will make the critique that can get beyond the old impasse of multicultural tolerance on the one hand and western colonial paternalism on the other. And, increasingly, Muslim women are being heard. The women’s group Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores Nor Submissives) played an important role in the recent immigrant uprisings in France, protesting both the rapes they had suffered in their own communities and the western stereotype that they are passive victims.

Writers and activists such as Janet Afary, Leila Ahmed, Karen Armstrong, Homi Bbabba, Samira Bellil, Seyla Benhabib, Shirin Ebadia, Marieme Hélie-Lucas, Deniz Kandiyoti, Frances Kissling, Saba Mahmood, Fatima Mernissi, Valentine Moghadam, Nadine Naber, Taslima Nasrin, Katha Pollitt, Saskia Sassen, Joan W. Scott, Gayatri Spivack, Meredith Tax, and Ellen Willis—to mention arbitrarily only a few of many—are creating less reductive, more richly descriptive accounts of the reasons for new forms of terror and vicious internal policing arising in pressured communities all over the world. They are expanding the conceptual space for critique that Hirsi Ali wants but can’t begin to establish on her static East-West map.

In spite of this developing dialogue, efforts to bring together these different levels of discussion—about the changing situation of women, globalization, the manipulation of immigration—are still in an early stage. These discourses have different histories and don’t fit together clearly. For example, at my own university, The New School, the Gender Studies M.A. program was canceled in 1998 at the very time when there was growing interest in developing the university’s capacity to contribute to globalization debates. Some argued that gender and race questions can now be mainstreamed in these debates, that gender and race can and will be added as variables and stirred into the mix. But those who follow the history of feminist thought will recognize that we have been here before. The specific dynamics of identity refuse to melt away. There is much more theoretical and strategic thinking ahead for anyone, like Hirsi Ali, who hopes to have an impact on the current restructuring of international relationships.


It is my intention here to reject the two positions that commonly have been taken up about Hirsi Ali. On one side, Time magazine has named her one of its “100 most influential people of 2005,” Glamour has made her its “Hero of the Month,” and Reader’s Digest its “European of the Year”; on the other side, Amina Mire of The New Black Magazine has dismissed her as a token and sees her celebrity as entirely manipulated by European hypocrisy, “the Eurocentric commodification of Ayaan as a propaganda image.” Taken as a representative of Muslim women, Hirsi Ali is entirely vulnerable to Mire’s charge, and taken as a media phenomenon, she is a loose cannon—there’s no knowing where her stray influence may land.

But, taken as what Doris Lessing calls “a small personal voice,” Ayaan Hirsi Ali becomes more interesting. Hers is a life in violent motion. She is leaving the Netherlands now for Washington. If her feminism is nothing more than libertarian individualism, she will be happy—and welcome—at the American Enterprise Institute. If she continues to believe that the West should scourge the rest of the world in the name of feminism and enlightenment values, she might even be momentarily useful to Institute Fellows like Lynne Cheney, Newt Gingrich, or Jeanne Kirkpatrick.

But will she really be satisfied where feminist rhetoric is skin-deep and where “liberty” means no real support for women’s liberation? What if she wants more for women? And what if she stumbles on the fault lines of the U.S. invasion of Iraq? She ends her book on a new note of criticism, warning the West not to torture suspected terrorists or suspend their legal rights. Such acts “corrupt western systems” and destroy western “openness.” Her hymn to the West concludes that if the open countries misbehave in these ways, the enlightened powers will seem to the rest of the world to be “hypocritical and morally confused.” Indeed!

Fearful of being a victim, Ayaan Hirsi Ali decided to side with power, aligning herself with U.S. fundamentalism and violence in the hope that the U.S. version would crush the Islamic version she has confronted since childhood. But once she arrives in the belly of the beast, can disillusionment be far behind? She will no doubt move on again, and I am curious to see where. In the meantime, we must wish her the luck to evade her potential assassins whose wish it is that her story end right here.

Ann Snitow is professor of literature and gender studies at The New School. Her anthology The Feminist Memoir Project, edited with Rachel Blau DuPlessis, will be reissued by Rutgers University Press this winter.