Ayaan Hirsi Ali at the Centre for Independent Studies. Photo: Steven Siewert
To some she is a hero, a feminist warrior who overcame incredible physical and emotional barriers to become one of Time’s 100 most influential people in the world. To others, she is a propagator of hate, a charlatan who reduces the faith of more than 1.6 billion of the world’s inhabitants to ‘a sensationalist byline.’
Whichever side of the fence you sit, there is no doubt that when Ayaan Hirsi Ali speaks, people listen. And on April 7, she will be speaking at Daily Life’s All About Women forum at the Sydney Opera House. Her talk, ‘Free and Equal: What It Really Means’, is sure to be a festival highlight.
I spoke to Ayaan, by telephone to the US, about women, feminism and Islam.
RUBY HAMAD: The title of your talk is ‘Free and Equal’. Can you give me a quick rundown on what it means to be free and equal?
AYAAN HIRSI ALI: ‘Free and equal’ is not only before the law but morally. In the context of multiculturalism, what we are seeing is, the white man is held to a moral standard that, in the West, men (who have immigrated) from other cultures are not held to. Women need to be protected even when it’s justified by religious, traditional or cultural arguments.
To be specific, if a white man sold his daughter into marriage, most people would be appalled and there’d be an outrage in any national context in any country in the West. But when it’s a man from Pakistan or Somalia or Yemen or India, then what you see is this, ‘Oh yes, but...’
RH: So we make excuses?
RH: In Nomad, you throw down the gauntlet to Western feminists, saying we need to have zero tolerance for things like wife beatings and honour killings when they occur in the West, and that if we are ‘true feminists’, that’s our top priority.
RH: But, are these really tolerated in the West? Because when things like Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) come to light, the people involved are arrested, as happened here last year, when Sheik Shabbir Vaziri was arrested for performing circumcision on two young girls.
AHA: What I see is a condemnation of the symptom itself. If you find the perpetrator, that’s well and good but there’s no mechanism of detecting how many girls have actually undergone it and who dealt it. So when there is a prosecution, it’s almost always symbolic and then we move on to the next subject and then years later we see the whole cycle again. But what we (Western society) don’t do is get to the core condition in the way traditional feminists did in the West.
Traditional feminists questioned core principles and examined the relationship between men and women and they didn’t make a pass for the Church (or) for anybody. And if I look at Western feminists, they continue to fight that fight. Here, in the United States, one issue is, ‘Why is it that women are not breaking through the glass ceiling?’ And they look at work culture and they point out how assumptions, convictions, traditions, the way we bring up our daughters, etc, how that feeds the system of injustice. But we don’t do that for immigrants. In fact, we do the opposite.
RH: How can Western feminists fight against practices like FGM when there are women from these cultures that defend them? You put it down to lack of education and lack of choice but in a recent article (for Daily Life) Dr Fuambai Sia Ahmadu, a research scholar and advisor to the VP of Sierra Leonne, wrote about her experience of voluntarily undergoing female circumcision at (approx) age 20. She criticises Western feminists for vilifying what she calls a joyous ‘celebration of womanhood’ and points out that procedures like labiaplasty in the West, which also, in a sense, mutilate vaginas are increasing. What would you say to her?
AHA: The issue of female circumcision is easy because we have a distinction between adults and children. If you have a genital operation at age 20, that’s something very different from a five year old -a minor- being subjected under terrible conditions to the cutting of her genitals. If you look at any of these ‘operations’, you see the child kicking and screaming and struggling against it.
RH: But some of the response was, ‘Yes, she is right, labiasplasty is the same thing.’ I was a bit upset at this because I count myself as a Western feminist although I am from (an Arab) background and I understand how non-Western women bristle when Western feminists appear to tell them what to do. But, I was disappointed when some Australian feminists agreed with her.
AHA: Well, it seems to me that Western feminists are really looking for the easy way out here. So they will cling to the testimony of women like that.
RH: Do you think part of it is white guilt?
AHA: It is white guilt (and that guilt is exploited by the Islamists and fundamentalists) but it’s also racism of its own kind. It’s a racism of low expectations. A moral racism. It’s, take a white man and you hold him to the highest, most pristine moral standards, but take people of colour, and say, ‘Well that’s just how they do it.’ You’re racist and you feel good at the same time.
RH: You talk about a ‘neo-feminism’ that will ‘shatter culturally and religiously imposed women’s oppression.’ What is your vision of that?
AHA: It would be good to revive true feminism. And that feminism takes all women. It doesn’t matter what race, what colour. What connects us is our human individuality. And feminism, if we mean it seriously, it has to be about the individual. We have to let go of groups. If you listen to multiculturalists, you read their work, it’s always about groups, communities. And, all of these groups, these entities, that’s abstract. But the human body is physical. You don’t cut the genitals of an abstract, you cut the genitals of an individual human being.
RH: Of a person.
AHA: Right. Over one hundred and forty million women who have been subjected to these practices; they were taken individually, one by one, and cut. There is no group thing there, right? And the women who are forced to wear the burqa, and the women who are subjected to honour killings: all of them individually. Each woman has to face the horror of her circumstances as an individual. And when we go there, and we put a face and a name to the issue, then it becomes very difficult to…to walk away from it.
RH: But again, do you think part of the problem is, it’s a tricky area to tread because, well, it’s hard to argue against the burqa, for example, when so many Muslim women who wear it say ‘But it’s my choice’.
AHA: I’m not arguing with their rights and their choice but I’m just saying it so happens there are women who don’t choose to wear it.
RH: But how do we navigate that?
AHA: Let’s stop debating the symptoms and look at the core convictions.
RH: And what are they?
AHA: We have a religion (Islam) that dictates exactly what the position of the woman is; it is at home, it’s with the children. She needs to cover her body to stop men from getting excited and aroused. That’s what we need to discuss as feminists. Are they fair? Or are they outdated and unjust? I want to argue they are outdated and they are unjust.
RH: But is it Islam itself that is causing this misogyny or is the religion used to justify the oppression? They are very selective in the verses they use to (control) women. There is actually no verse in the Koran that tells a woman to cover her face.
AHA: That is true. I’ve never argued that it’s the Koran. That is an inanimate object. But there are people, a billion and a half, maybe more, who believe that the content of the Koran are orders from God’s mouth that have to be obeyed. And the people who have an entrenched interest in that morality, who promote it, how do you respond to them? Do you go along and say, ‘It’s not in the Koran’, or do you say, ‘It’s in the Koran but it’s outdated, it’s false, unjust and by the way, there are better moral philosophies that have been tried and tested’?
RH: Instead of damning Islam entirely, how about encouraging the more progressive movements, like women who call themselves Muslim feminists and people who want to interpret the Koran to a more modern mindset?
AHA: I’ve looked at those groups and I’ve thought about, you know, they say 'this is a gradual process, you have to work within what people believe'. But again, let me point to the history of Western feminism, where both those who wanted to work within the Church ultimately started a dialogue –sometimes confrontational- with those who wanted radical change. And ultimately what happened was, a conversation was started about the place of the Bible in society, and in Western history what you see is the place of the Bible was pushed from the centre to the fringe and that’s what needs to happen with Islam.
With Western feminism’s past pioneers, there was no context of multiculturalism or moral relativism. People stood on either side. Either you were for the side of change or you were not. And now we are in a context where we (feminists) have actually won the argument but we are reintroducing these misogynist traditions and practices and they’re successful -the people who want to take us back are successful- because strangely they are using the vocabulary of freedom and equality to take us back. They say, ‘But, it’s my right and it’s my freedom.’ They’ll never grant those rights and freedoms to anyone else if they were in charge.
RH: What is the first thing Western feminists need to do?
AHA: We need to go back to (feminism’s) core values and we should also prioritise. I think the issue of work/life (balance) is very important but I wonder if it’s a top priority. I think women’s safety is the top priority.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali will appear at the All About Women Festival at the Sydney Opera House this weekend.