Ayaan Mirsad Ali is a name I remember from political news. She was a member of the Dutch parliament and a colleague of Theo van Gogh, who was assassinated because of a joint project they had worked on, about women’s experiences under Islam. This book, Infidel, is her memoir and was on the bookcase in youngest daughter’s house, where we are staying now. It’s interesting to browse the bookcases in homes – to find out about interests and opinions.
For most of us, I think our thoughts and ideas are shaped by the experiences life puts in our path. We can try to broaden and deepen our world views by reading, but even the topics and issues that are important to us are in part an effect of our experiences. This daughter lived in Qatar for several years. So she also has a book of essays, written by University students, about their perceptions of life “then” and “now” in this desert state, once a pearl fishers’ base and now an oil-rich modern city.
Ayaan’s life began in Somalia. She describes a life utterly dependent on men, even though her father was absent most of her childhood and remarried. She describes excision and infibulation at the age of five. She tells of her Qur’an teacher beating her (for not mixing the ink for her lesson, writing on a board similar to one we own, which I shall never look at the same again): she suffered a skull fracture. She lived with her mother and amongst her clan in Somalia, Saudi Arabia and Kenya. All conservative Moslem places. The memoir is harrowing reading.
The students, mostly, also grew up in conservative Moslem countries, but their stories include many fond memories of grandparents who grew up with the old ways (illiterate, veiled, living only in the family and with no career or power) even though they are so proud of the new ways, the opposite of all those elements. The wedding day is still clearly one of the most important days in a woman’s life, though very different now. Gone are the nine year old brides (one hopes this is true) but here is a massive fashion show and competitive overconsumption. From the students’ point of view, weddings are realities to describe, but I would be interested in older women’s views of what their actual marriage has been like.
I particularly contrast in my mind the strong independent streak that led Ayaan to flee from an unwanted arranged marriage to claim asylum in the Netherlands, with the fear a girl felt of being in and speaking in a class that included boys. Her being in that class was possible only because her brother did not veto it! But it was a development into the modern world.
The Enlightenment happened. The changes in thought, reliance on science and the perceived importance of the individual are historic changes. A chunk of Christianity, and a larger chunk of Islam, is still trying to ignore that.But the genie cannot be put back in the bottle.
Ayaan rejected Islam and otherworldly religion: My husband listened to a talk on Youtube in which she quietly, rationally and implacably stated her position. The students I read have not seen her problem. (yet?) Historically though, the Qur’an, even more than the Bible, has been interpreted in patriarchal ways, and the status of the Qur’an is such that the equivalent of Biblical scholarship, now two centuries old in Christianity, is much more difficult.
Islam in the west is coming to terms with the world around us in different ways. Recent comments I have read include a quote from Amina Wadud, an American Moslem who was the first woman in England to lead mixed gender Friday prayers ( which I attended, -as did women picketers from the local mosque) who says Qur’an interpretation “has been nearly exclusively male and androcentric”. A UK Moslem friend of mine posts on Facebook sites for women’s clothes which Ayaan’s custom in earlier years would not think Islamic. I know an american muslim convert (revert) and an Ahmaddiyah Muslim, who would be unacceptable to Aayan’s opponents. And a news article still open on my desk tells of war in the Central African Republic, the horrible loss of life and the effect on children abducted to live as child soldiers. This turbulence in so many African countries is clan and political power seeking, co-opting religion, and exacerbated by the legacy of colonialism.
Ayaan is a great campaigner for women’s rights, and a whistle blower about abuses, who has improved the lives of many, many people. But I cannot follow her in her absolute rejection of her religion. I hope that among the names of the Divine, “the Compassionate and Merciful” become more important to more Muslims. And to those who follow my religion too.