As I perused the shelves of my favorite New York feminist bookstore, the sub-title, ‘An Emancipation Proclamation for Women’, jumped out as a prefect candidate for my inspiring holiday reading. Having recently read Voices of Resistance , I was keen to further explore the realm of Muslim feminist writings, and eagerly handed over my $25.
Unable to contain my enthusiasm, I took out my new book on the packed Brooklyn train and started to read, ready to be invigorated by some inspirational writing. However by the time I arrived home, I was far from inspired - I was irritated and confused. A third of the way through the book, I realized that Hirsi Ali has a very particular vision for the so-called ‘emancipation’ of women and Islam; a vision that requires all Muslim women to leave their ‘pre-modern’ existence and embrace the enlightenment of ‘the West’. By the end of the book, one could be forgiven for believing that all Muslim women were terribly oppressed, unhappy and uneducated; never left their homes, were ‘married off’ in their teens and uncritically adopted a religion and life that could not possibly be satisfying or liberatory. Hirsi Ali actually manages to disempower the women her book claims to speak to. This makes me wonder – who then, is this book written for?
In her opening chapter, Hirsi Ali briefly explains her background, and motivation for writing the book. This is expanded on in Chapter 6, which conveys her history as a girl who left her Muslim upbringing, sought refugee status in the Netherlands, attended university and found herself in Parliament. These chapters usefully put her argument into context; however Hirsi Ali also uses this as a means to legitimate herself as an ‘expert’ on Islam everywhere. This is problematic because she offers her opinions in a way that generalise her experience to that of any Muslim woman anywhere in the world. She fails acknowledge the diversity of Muslim communities and experiences, making far-reaching statements such “millions of Muslim women are sentenced to domestic work indoors and hours of endless boredom” and “very few Muslims are capable of looking at their faith critically” . These statements typify the language used throughout the book - factually ambiguous, value laden statements that are damaging to the many Muslim communities who are painted as something they are not.
Her project for liberation, while never clearly stated, can be adduced from discussion throughout the book. She argues that the “world of Islam” needs to embrace individual freedom, “the pursuit of reason” , separate church from State, develop science and technology and allow sexual freedom for women. Throughout the book she speaks of ‘the west’ and ‘Islam’ as counter-posed monoliths; describing Islam as “pre-modern” and “fossilized” , with Muslims “lagging behind the west” . The West is said to be ‘modern’ and ‘developed’; valuing education, employment and individual responsibility, with “several ideologies that exist alongside one another” . In this construction, Hirsi Ali imposes her own world view, and privileges her own experience of ‘liberation’. She assumes that all Muslim women who have not taken her path need emancipation, going as far as to say: “one day their blinkers will drop” .
It is unclear the position Hirsi Ali is writing from in this text. She identifies with her stated audience by saying ‘we Muslims’ throughout, however also self-identifies as an atheist and a member of ‘the west’. Further, she denounces authoritarianism, while at the same time arguing for state enforced solutions to many of her criticisms of Islam, such as compulsory screening of girls ‘at risk’ of genital mutilation . The most curious contradiction arises in her closing chapter, where she says that most Muslims are “decent and law-abiding people” who “are not fervent believers of every ritual of Islam” , a stark contrast to the pre-modern peoples in the rest of her text.
This begs the question then: Do Muslim women really need saving?