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Infidel is Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s 2006 memoir and tells of her remarkable journey from impoverished Somalia to the Dutch parliament. It’s also about her intellectual and spiritual journey, as her mind was broadened by Western ideas and she began to question the Muslim faith that is so deeply ingrained in Somali culture.
I read Infidel as part of the 2021 Thoughtful Reading Challenge. May’s challenge was to read a biography of a famous mother in honor of Mother’s Day. Hirsi Ali has a son, but he was born after this book was published. There isn’t any content about her own experience as a mother, but there are plenty of harrowing stories about her life with her abusive mother.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Somalia to devout Muslim parents. Her father was an intellectual who was vocally opposed to the Somali dictatorial regime at the time, which landed him in jail. After he escaped, he spent many years in neighboring Ethiopia, organizing resistance to the Somali dictator. He was well-known and revered for being a freedom fighter.
His absence meant Hirsi Ali’s mother had to raise their three children mostly without him, often relying on money from clansmen to survive. Because it wasn’t safe for them in Somalia, the family moved to Saudi Arabia. They also lived in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Hirsi Ali also moved back to Somalia for a period of time until it was racked by civil war and she was forced to flee.
Her grandmother was also a prominent figure in her life, teaching her how to recite her ancestry (important in Somalia for identifying clan affiliations) and overseeing her genital mutilation (thanks, grandma).
Thankfully, her father insisted she and her brother and sister go to school, which included both traditional topics and learning about the Muslim faith. Hirsi Ali supplemented this learning by devouring novels from the West, many of them steamy romances. She credits them with showing her another way of life, where men and women were equal and women could marry for love, not duty.
In her teen years and into her early twenties, she focused on exploring and strengthening her Muslim faith, even associating with the Muslim Brotherhood for a while. But she was bothered by what she perceived as hypocrisy – for example, if Islam professed that men and women were equal, why did only women have to cover up and ask permission to leave the house?
A turning point in Hirsi Ali’s life came when her father forced her to marry a stranger, a Somali man that lived in Canada. She went to Germany to wait for her Canadian visa and used the opportunity to abandon the marriage and seek asylum in the Netherlands. She eventually earned a master’s degree, soaking up information about world history and political philosophy along the way. She was driven to learn why secular, Western countries like Holland were so prosperous and well-ordered, while Muslim countries like Somalia were chaotic and impoverished.
She began to think Islam was the problem because she believed it is rigid and oppresses women. She was worried about how Holland was letting refugees set up their own clannish neighborhoods and schools instead of encouraging assimilation. She viewed this as allowing the continued oppression of women on Dutch soil, in complete contradiction to Dutch values.
She became outspoken about Islam, which gained her notoriety and death threats. The producer of her film about women’s subjugation was killed by an Islamic terrorist, which rocked the Netherlands. She was elected to the Dutch parliament, where she championed policies to improve the lives of Muslim women and children. But she spent much of that time in hiding in the US or moving from safe space to safe space in Holland.
Infidel ends with the story about how she nearly had her Dutch citizenship revoked because she lied on her asylum application. It was a highly controversial event that led to the dissolution of the ruling government.
Quite a story, huh?
Since then, Hirsi Ali has moved to the US, where she works for the Hoover Institute and started a nonprofit focused on improving Muslim women’s lives in America. She was also put on an Al-Quaida hit list and labeled as an Islamaphobe by the Southern Poverty Law Center – for daring to criticize Islam.
Whoo! This was a long post, but I didn’t want to shortchange her fascinating story. I highly recommend Infidel. It’s a well-written, insider’s view about a culture that many of us don’t know about. Additionally, Hirsi Ali’s transformation from refugee to member of parliament is pretty amazing. What I shared is just the tip of iceberg. There’s a lot more to the story and it’s very thought-provoking, told by a woman brave enough to speak her mind about one of multicultural society’s untouchable topics.
Thanks, Deb, for the recommendation!
If you made it through this very wordy post and read a biography of a famous mother this month, please tell us all about it in the comments.
Reminder – June’s challenge is to read a book with twins in it. (BTW – my twins just graduated from high school #proudmom) If you need some ideas, here are some novels I’m considering:
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy