Ayaan Hirsi Ali vs. the Mob
In the time of the British Raj, a range of cultural customs in the Indian subcontinent perplexed the colonial power, and a select number perturbed them. One especially distressing spectacle was the practice of suttee, an antique tradition of burning widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands.
One British officer, General Sir Charles Napier, was appalled upon coming across this ghastly scene, but he was beseeched by village elders to respect the time-honored rite. Napier’s response was at once sensitive and unsparing: “You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: When men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.”
The gallant Victorian approach toward women, if that is not too genial a description, is no longer fashionable in the West today. In spite of the great advances in women’s autonomy and Western society’s growing recognition of women’s equality with men, it is a sad fact that the concept of universal women’s rights has lost precious ground in the commanding heights of Western culture. Even the above retelling of Napier’s exploits is more liable to disturb contemporary readers than it is to delight them. “Well,” many people will say, “what were the British doing in India in the first place?”
In the more “progressive” precincts of the left, the notion of women’s rights has largely been reduced to sexual freedom and reproductive rights. And there is often a subliminal identification of the Muslim faith with the wretched of the earth that inhibits any criticism of those (even brutish misogynists) with a darker pigmentation hailing from what was once deemed the Third World. The American right, for its part, has also turned inward and barely registers how endangered women’s rights have become in the world beyond our borders. Since the disappointments of the Iraq War, American conservatives have found less and less to like about the role of morality in foreign policy, never mind showing solidarity with the oppressed and the downtrodden.
This manifest betrayal of feminism, and the jeopardy in which it has placed multitudes of women, is the theme of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s provocative new book Prey.1 Hirsi Ali’s subject is (as the subtitle says) “immigration, Islam, and the erosion of women’s rights,” but the negative reviews of the book and its author in civic society and the prestige press offer a microcosm of the crisis roiling the West. The Council on American-Islamic Relations and other Muslim groups do not even want the book to be read. In a peevish review of Prey, the New York Times’ Jill Filipovic chastised Hirsi Ali for her unapologetic defense of the rights of women in a Europe struggling to cope with mass migration from societies marked by patriarchy and polygamy.
Most readers will be aware that Hirsi Ali is a Somali-born women’s-rights activist with impressive bona fides on this question. After growing up in Muslim communities in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and Kenya (and suffering female genital mutilation), Hirsi Ali became a refugee and migrant to the Netherlands (in order to escape an arranged marriage). Having abandoned her faith, she rose to be a Dutch member of parliament and a prominent voice for the protection and empowerment of women in migrant communities. She collaborated with Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh to produce Submission, which criticizes the mistreatment of women in the name of Islam. After Van Gogh was murdered by an Islamist fanatic, and Hirsi Ali was pronounced the next target, she began to live under armed guard. Eventually she fled to the United States and became an American citizen.
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