Everything about this book is shocking. The words are gentle, yet the message is powerful and the story spectacular. It’s an autobiographical account of a woman’s birth in Somalia, growing up in Saudi Arabia, Kenya and Ethiopia, and migrating first to the Netherlands where she is elected to Parliament and then to the United States, where she is on a mission to exorcise the ghosts of Islam.
“We froze the moral outlook of billions of people into the mindset of the Arab desert in the seventh century,” she writes. “We were not just servants of Allah, we were slaves.”
The author’s account of her early life in Somalia is hair-raising. She gives a blood-curling description of her experience of forced circumcision at the age of five, as also that of her elder brother and younger sister, all performed on the same day at the initiative of her maternal grandmother. “Female genital mutilation predates Islam. Not all Muslims do this, and a few of the peoples who do are not Islamic. But in Somalia where virtually every girl is excised, the practice is always justified in the name of Islam.” Though she squarely condemns FGM, she does not ask the question why boys need to be circumcised.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali talks of her stay in Saudi Arabia, where gender based segregation was strictly enforced and public beheadings were commonplace. “It was a normal, routine thing: after the Friday noon prayer you could go home for lunch, or you could go and watch the executions. Hands were cut off. Men were flogged. Women were stoned.” The author points out that the Prophet did say, “Wage war on the unbelievers.” She adds, “Christians can cease to believe in God. But for a Muslim, to cease believing in Allah is a lethal offence. Apostates merit death: on that the Quran and the hadith are clear.”
She prayed five times a day and wore the veil. But soon she began to question her own beliefs. Was her religious instructor Boqol Sawm translating the Quran properly? “Surely Allah could not have said that men should beat their wives when they were disobedient? Surely a woman’s statement in court should be worth the same as a man’s?” She describes her gradual loss of faith, her life in Europe where she learnt that human rights and dignity were cherished values, her outspokenness and the heavy price she had to pay for it, the murder of her friend Theo Van Gogh in the Netherlands, her persecution by religious extremists, and her eventual escape to America, the land of the free.
Today she continues to write and speak out. Fearlessly – but with bodyguards. Her speeches and debates are all over Youtube. As there is a fatwa against her anyway, she can keep writing anything and it can’t get any worse. She says in the Introduction to this book: “People ask me if I have some kind of death wish, to keep saying the things I do. The answer is no: I would like to keep on living. However, some things must be said, and there are times when silence becomes an accomplice to injustice.”
Overall Assessment: Thought provoking. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is possibly one of the most impressive voices of the 21st century.
AUTHOR: Ayaan Hirsi Ali
PUBLISHER: The Free Press
Date of Publication: 2007
Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.