Sunday, November 19, 2006

Title: The Caged Virgin

Author: Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Publisher: Free Press, 2006
208 pages
ISBN: 0743288335

It's obviously what I've been waiting for all my life: a secular crusader - armed with enlightenment philosophy, the stamp of the liberal establishment and the promise of sexual freedom - swooping into my harem and liberating me from my "ignorant," "uncritical," "dishonest" and "oppressed" Muslim existence. At least that's what Ayaan Hirsi Ali thinks I've been waiting for. Her latest book, The Caged Virgin, is a collection of essays intended to unveil the sexual terrorism she says is inherent in Islam. In reality, it is a smash-and-grab aggregation of inconsistencies, platitudes and poor scholarship.

Hirsi Ali was born Ayaan Hirsi Magan in Somalia in 1969, but grew up in Kenya. As a young adult, she moved to Germany and later the Netherlands, allegedly to escape a forced marriage. She learnt Dutch and put herself through a degree. She soon became a prominent and controversial politician - a brown face made welcome by her shrill denunciations of Islam, the Prophet Muhammad and Europe's "backward Muslims." Last year, Time hailed her as one of the world's "100 most influential people." The Economist described her as a "cultural ideologue of the new right."

However, the publication of The Caged Virgin couldn't have come at a worse time for Hirsi Ali, a woman who has built her career on being a victim. In May, a Dutch television documentary alleged that her story didn't add up. The programme's makers (who travelled to Kenya to speak to her family and those who knew her as a child) claimed that Hirsi Ali had lied to enter the Netherlands and had fabricated her past. The political friends who had made her the darling of the Dutch right speedily retreated from her side. As author and academic Jytte Klausen, who knows Hirsi Ali, recently claimed: "She wasn't forced into a marriage. She had an amicable relationship with her husband, as well as with the rest of her family. It was not true that she had to hide from her family for years."

Now that that doubt has been cast on the experiences she relies on to give her arguments authority, her new book reads more like a whimper than a bang.

Practically all of Hirsi Ali's conclusions are based on her own "tortured" experiences and observations of Islam. Besides the superficial references to Qur'anic verses and the occasional Prophetic saying, she provides little evidence to back up her claims that the Muslim woman is a caged virgin - sexualized, segregated, universally denied human rights - and that Islamic theology is responsible for this. Hirsi Ali is not breaking new ground.

Others, such as the controversial Fatima Mernissi and Leila Ahmed, have been here before, except that their work is meatier, making reference to classical texts and engaging in important historical debates. The Caged Virgin is the cheap tabloid version - accessible, flimsy, forgettable.

The sad thing is that many of the concerns Hirsi Ali raises - forced marriage, female genital mutilation, sexual violence, lack of education, economic underachievement and the obsession with static gender roles - are genuine challenges facing Muslim (and many other) women. Hirsi Ali makes some thoughtful points - except that they are lost among the inaccuracies, exaggerations and omissions. To demonstrate Islam's obsession with female sexuality, for example, Hirsi Ali quotes the Qur'anic verse calling on women to behave modestly, but conveniently omits the first part of the verse, which demands the same of men before it addresses women. The picture Hirsi Ali paints of Gestapo-like Muslim homes is laughable. She writes that "lies are constantly being told about the most intimate matters . . . Children learn from their mothers that it pays to lie. Mistrust is everywhere and lies rule." Perhaps she wrote this so she would have a defence when her own lies were revealed.

Reading Hirsi Ali, you would think that she and a handful of other enlightened women, like her good friend Irshad Manji, are the only ones who have figured all this out. Apparently, the majority of Muslims women are conditioned from birth by their religion not to think. This misrepresentation is a tragic disservice to the women Hirsi Ali seeks to liberate.

It's strange how many times she says "we Muslims" in her book. For someone who is an atheist and claims not to be a "Muslim," such appeals to sisterly solidarity are disingenuous. It's a not-so-clever attempt to lend authenticity to her argument: clearly, if a Muslim criticises her religion, then it must be bad. Muslims are not homogenous - they do not all think, act and believe in the same way. Islam manifests itself through a vast array of experiences. As a British Muslim, for instance, I am as Western as I am anything else. Hirsi Ali has fallen into the trap of identity politics. Being a Muslim is a religious moniker - Muslims are not a tribe or a race. You don't have to be Muslim to criticise Islam or Muslims, but at least be honest about it.

Long before Hirsi Ali arrived in Europe, Muslim women were fighting against ignorance, religious prejudice and cultural misunderstanding. They are still pushing the boundaries, playing an increasingly important public role and advocating real long-term change - slowly but surely. For groups such as London's An Nisa Society, which pioneered programs in sexual health, domestic violence and mental health two decades ago, Islam is a potent, powerful ally. Many Muslim women want to maintain a strong, spiritual connection with their faith - a choice Hirsi Ali seeks to deny them. These brave women sadly do not have the luxury of monetary resources, bodyguards, spin doctors and PR agencies - things that Hirsi Ali takes for granted.

She recently said that her audience consists mainly of Muslims. Nonsense. Her hatred of Islam and her patronising attitude towards Muslim women who disagree with her makes her ideas palatable only to the "white liberals" whose prejudices about Islam and Muslims she reinforces. In fact, anyone who works with Muslim communities, respecting their faith but seeking positive change, is accused of forging a "satanic pact . . . [making] their living by representing Muslim interests, extending aid to them, and cooperating with them in their development."

For Hirsi Ali, the answer is clear: Islam is at fault and needs to be discarded. But her experiences are not mine, or those of the many Muslim women I work with every day. We are, it seems, to believe that the obsession with female virginity is at the heart of every Muslim malaise. Such pseudo-sociological scat wouldn't pass muster in an A-level exam.

Hirsi Ali also suffers from historical amnesia. She is so caught up in her undergraduate political science training that she can't see beyond Spinoza, Voltaire and Kant. "Reading works," she says, "by Western thinkers is regarded as disrespectful to the Prophet and Allah's message." Who says this? Nor does Hirsi Ali add that the catalyst for the Enlightenment lay in the knowledge-transfer from Muslim civilisation to Europe through Andalusia. The notions of female personhood, independence of wealth and the right to education are as old as Islam itself. The biographies of scholars and saints during the classical age include thousands of female ulama (religious scholars), with many leading universities being established by wealthy women of means.

Prophet Muhammad's first love was a woman 15 years older than himself. Khadija was not only a widow (a non-virgin, I'll have you know), she was a businesswoman who proposed marriage to the young Muhammad, an honest and trusted worker in her business. They lived 27 years together before Khadija died. Fast forward to today, where I am surrounded by loving, functional Muslim families that defy Hirsi Ali's statements. Even Yusuf Qaradawi, the Qatar-based cleric who Hirsi Ali condemns, is married to a sprightly senior al-Jazeera journalist. I met her at a conference in Istanbul last weekend. She defies every stereotype, sitting at the head table with her husband and other major scholars.

Muslims, frankly, pay too much attention to Hirsi Ali. She isn't interested in a genuine engagement with Muslim women. She is content to be an outsider posing as a co-religionist. This may win her favour elsewhere, but not in the communities she seeks to reform.

Incidentally, Hirsi Ali has just had her Gloria Gaynor moment. The Dutch political establishment now wants her forgiveness and has put pressure on the immigration minister to reverse her decision to take away Hirsi Ali's citizenship. But Hirsi Ali has found new chums at the American Enterprise Institute, the neo-con high temple in Washington, DC. The trouble is that it is Hirsi Ali herself who is caged - by her lack of scholarship and her myopic sense of identity and history. These credentials may carry weight with the neo-cons she will now advise. They ought not to with the rest of us.


* This article was originally published in the New Statesman magazine on July 24, 2006 and is republished without editorial changes and with the writer's permission.
** Fareena Alam is the editor of Q-News, the Muslim magazine –

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