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
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
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 homes."
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
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
"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
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
"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
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 Islam "backward."
"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
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 Dutch."
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 January.
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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