From: Wade T.Smith (email@example.com)
Date: Sat 09 Nov 2002 - 19:03:25 GMT
November 9, 2002
Behind the Veil: A Muslim Woman Speaks Out
By MARLISE SIMONS
AMSTERDAM — Ayaan Hirsi Ali had done well in the 10 years since she
arrived in the Netherlands as a young refugee from Somalia and, until a
few months ago, she lived a quiet life in her adopted land. Never did
she intend to create a national commotion.
She studied Dutch, took on cleaning jobs, went to university and worked
as a political scientist. She made a name for herself pressing for the
emancipation of Muslim women and documenting how thousands, living even
here, were subjected to beatings, incest and emotional and sexual abuse.
To the surprise of many, she became a leading voice condemning the
government's support for multiculturalism, programs costing millions of
dollars a year that she considers misplaced because they help keep
Muslim women isolated from Dutch society.
Then Ms. Hirsi Ali, 32, began receiving hate mail, anonymous messages
calling her a traitor to Islam and a slut. On several Web sites, other
Muslims said she deserved to be knifed and shot. Explicit death threats
by telephone soon followed. The police told her to change homes and the
mayor of Amsterdam sent bodyguards. She tried living in hiding. Finally,
last month, she became a refugee again, fleeing the Netherlands.
"I had to speak up," she said, in a telephone interview from her hiding
place, "because most spokesmen for Muslims are men and they deny or
belittle the enormous problems of Muslim women locked up in their Dutch
Her ordeal has caused an outcry in the Netherlands, a country already
uneasy with its recent waves of immigrants and asylum seekers, now
representing almost 10 percent of the population. Many Dutch see the
threats as an intolerable assault on the country's democratic
principles. The threats have also intensified a fierce debate — one that
can be heard these days across Europe — about what moral values and
rules of behavior immigrants should be expected to share.
Though absent, Ms. Hirsi Ali seems very present here. Her portrait has
appeared on magazine covers and television and there have been indignant
newspaper editorials and questions in Parliament. Some have called her
the Dutch Salman Rushdie. In paid advertisements, more than 100 Dutch
writers have offered her support.
"I've made people so angry because I'm talking from the inside, from
direct knowledge," she said. "It's seen as treason. I'm considered an
apostate and that's worse than an atheist."
The theme of injustice toward women in Islamic countries has become
common in the West, but it has gained fresh currency through Ms. Hirsi
Ali's European perspective, her study of Dutch immigrants and her own
life. Born in Mogadishu, she grew up a typical Muslim girl in Somalia.
When she was 5, she underwent the "cruel ritual," as she called it, of
genital cutting. When her father, a Somali opposition politician, had to
flee the country's political troubles, the family went to Saudi Arabia,
where, she said, she was kept veiled and, much of the time, indoors.
At 22, her father forced her to marry a distant cousin, a man she had
never seen. But a friend helped her to escape and she finally obtained
political asylum in the Netherlands.
She was shocked when, as a university student, she held a job as an
interpreter for Dutch immigration and social workers and discovered
hidden "suffering on a terrible scale" among Muslim women even in the
Netherlands. She entered safe houses for women and girls, most of them
Turkish and Moroccan immigrants, who had run away from domestic violence
or forced marriages. Many had secret abortions.
"Sexual abuse in the family causes the most pain because the trust is
violated on all levels," she said. "The father or the uncle say nothing,
nor do the mother and the sisters. It happens regularly — the incest,
the beatings, the abortions. Girls commit suicide. But no one says
anything. And social workers are sworn to professional secrecy."
More than 100 women a year have surgery to "restore" their virginity,
she estimates in her published work. While only 10 percent of the
population is non-Dutch, this group accounts for more than 60 percent of
abortions, "because the Muslim girls are kept ignorant," she said. Three
out of five Moroccan-Dutch girls — Moroccans are among the largest
immigrant groups — are forced to marry young men from villages back
home, to keep them under control, she said.
A year or so ago, Ms. Hirsi Ali's case might not have attracted so much
attention. But the mood in the Netherlands, as in much of Europe,
changed after Sept. 11, 2001. In the month that followed, there was an
unheard of backlash against the nearly one million Muslims living in the
Netherlands, with more than 70 attacks against mosques. Sept. 11 also
gave politicians licence to vent brewing animosities.
Among them was Pim Fortuyn, a maverick gay politician who was killed in
May, apparently by an animal rights activist. He said out loud what had
long been considered racist and politically incorrect — for example,
that conservative Muslim clerics were undermining certain Dutch values
like acceptance of homosexuality and the equality of men and women.
What Mr. Fortuyn did on the right, Ms. Hirsi Ali has done on the left.
Many in the Labor Party, where she worked on immigration issues, were
shocked when she told reporters that Mr. Fortuyn was right in calling
"At the very least Islam is facing backward and it has failed to provide
a moral framework for our time," she said in one conversation. "If the
West wants to help modernize Islam, it should invest in women because
they educate the children."
To do this, she argues for drastic changes in Dutch immigration policy.
The government, she says, should impose Dutch law on men who beat their
wives and daughters, even if the Muslim clergy say it is permissible. It
should also end teaching the immigrants in their own language and stop
paying for the more than 700 Islamic clubs, most of which, she said,
"are run by deeply conservative men and they perpetuate the segregation of women."
Her views, and the death threats, have divided Muslims, who account for
most immigrants here. Almost 20 Muslim associations have condemned the
threats, but at the same time faulted her for criticizing Islam. Hafid
Bouazza, a Dutch-Moroccan author who in the past has received letters
saying he will burn in hell for his writing, said the threats were
shocking. "No criticism of Islam is accepted from women," he said.
"Muslim women are particularly vulnerable."
Others were bitter. Ali Eddaudi, a Moroccan writer and cleric living
here, dismissed "all the fuss" over a Muslim woman who "panders to the
Ms. Hirsi Ali agrees that the criticism is so intense in part because
she is a woman. "I am a Muslim woman saying these things, and it has
provoked a lot of hatred," she said.
One thing is certain: the death threats against Ms. Hirsi Ali have given
more prominence to her ideas, which have now become the subject of
intense debate among Dutch policy makers. The Dutch Liberal Party has
invited her to become a candidate in the parliamentary elections next
She says she has accepted and hopes to return to the Netherlands, though
she fears for her safety. "Either I stop my work, or I learn to live
with the feeling that I'm not safe," she said. "I'm not stopping."
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