First published by Robin Gilbert-Jones in 2012, this profile of Ayaan Hirsi Ali is the first installment in a new series by Imagine Athena on the great “Free Thinkers” of our time. We’ll also be looking at Bertrand Russell, George Orwell, and many more.
A child of the Darod clan, born in a Mogadishu hospital, her mother thought her an unremarkable and slow-witted child and her father, though he loved her, had expectations of her that went little further than obedience and submission. Defying their expectations Ayaan Hirsi Ali was to lead, by any measure, an extraordinary life. This life is all the more extraordinary when you consider that, by her own estimation, she may even be the only child born in that ward, on that day, who is still alive.
As a child her father was taken away from her by the political cause to which he was committed and her family struggled on first in Somalia, then Saudi Arabia and later Kenya. She was subjected to regular beatings, given little encouragement and, worst of all, subjected to ritualistic mutilation at the behest of her own grandmother. Her education consisted, in large part, of instructions on who to submit to and how, who to hate and despise as infidels, and the fate that awaited her in the hereafter if she were to renege on these instructions. She was taught that honour meant the recognition that her femininity was shameful and dirty, that it must be hidden lest it awaken in hapless males sinful urges that were beyond their control. She was taught that it is right and just to murder a man for writing a work of fiction.
When her beloved father returned to her he brought with him his expectations of her. By the time he had chosen a husband for her whom she did not love she had already begun to question these things that she had been taught, not possessing even an inkling of the trials that still lay ahead of her. Since then she has lived, in some form or another, a life on the run. She fled first to Holland where she was pursued by her clan. She lied on her asylum application to escape her marriage and changed her name to hide from her would-be captors. She endured the tribulations and burdens of an immigrant, underwent many crises of faith and identity and lost her sister to mental illness and suicide.
She may even be the only child born in that ward, on that day who is still alive.
She endured these tests, educated herself and rose to prominence in the Dutch parliament, having found a society that granted her the freedoms she was denied as a child. Working as a consultant and translator in an asylum centre she was never far from what she had left behind and saw many other women in the same or worse predicaments than the one she had, by sheer force of will, freed herself. She saw the contrast between this and the values of her new home. She sang its praises and sought to warn its people of the dangers posed by the extremism from which she fled. When she and a Dutch film director contrived to make a film showcasing the plight of women like her, those whom she had grown up with and had later worked with at the asylum centre, her fight really began. Theo Van Gogh was murdered on the 2 November 2004. First he was shot from his bike and then his throat cut. On his chest was pinned a note addressed to Ms Hirsi Ali, informing her of her own imminent murder and the eternal hellfire that awaited her. She was on the run again and to this day lives under armed guard in the United States, her life restricted by the threat of a gruesome death.
Throughout all of these experiences Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s life has been one of contrasts, of friendly embrace and spiteful rejection. She has found herself in the unique position of being hated by those who claim to enshrine the values of the secular liberalism she has come to love. In fact, she is hated precisely for asserting the greatness of those values. She is accused of cultural imperialism towards a culture from which she herself originates. She has been called a ‘chameleon’ of a woman – this has been quoted and re-quoted to a manipulative cunning, much like the ‘deceitful fox’ label her own father applied to her when she ran from the life of unhappy marriage and servitude he had planned for her.
It is her very adaptability and resilience that is most admirable about her. And it is the extent to which these qualities have been embraced, in solidarity, by the people and the places and the philosophies, to which she fled, that is most admirable about Western civilisation.