Reform or Renounce? Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Muslim Women

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born former Dutch parliamentarian and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute is clear about one thing: There is no hope for Muslim women who do not renounce their faith.  According to Hirsi Ali, Muslim women–constricted by Islam–cannot be feminists, live independently, enjoy their sexuality or escape the mental shackles that bind their intellect. She elucidates on this theme in her latest book, Nomad: From Islam to America, through letters written to family members with whom she has been estranged, owing to her own renunciation and public criticism of Islam.

In recent years, Hirsi Ali has been a huge success with the European right. An immigrant espousing anti-immigrant sentiments, willing and vocal in her criticism of the Muslim minority in the Netherlands, Hirsi Ali was quickly adopted as a political asset by Dutch conservative parties who could use her public disavowal of religious and cultural identity as a legitimate attack on multiculturalism. All this ended abruptly when she was divested of her Dutch citizenship after it was proven that she lied on her asylum application.

So now, Ali is in America and finds herself in a political conundrum. She is a feminist (as announced by the title of a recent piece run by The New York Times Magazine) but she is at a conservative collective, The American Enterprise Institute, which rarely, if ever, supports feminist concerns. The result resonates with the kind of opportunism seen too often at political think tanks. Hirsi Ali no longer simply suggests that Muslim women renounce their faith completely, but rather that they should look to Christianity instead of Islam for a religious identity. This is because Christianity, unlike Islam, has a “reform” branch that would allow them to ask questions. Unlike earlier writings, in which Hirsi Ali seemed to renounce all faith as a stricture on women’s self-realization, the political environs of the American Enterprise Institute seem to have softened her stance toward at least one faith.

But while she may be in the U.S. (and now a favorite of certain U.S. conservatives), Hirsi Ali remains distant and seemingly uninterested in the efforts of Muslim-American women to redefine their faith. Her book, while poignantly capturing the weight of structural inequalities crippling Muslim women from Somalia to Pakistan, refuses to take seriously the efforts of Western Muslim women who are refusing to let mullahs define Islam. One example of this is the “Pray In movement” launched last year through which groups of Muslim American women have insisted on praying front and center in mosques in non-violent protest against gender segregation. Similarly,this past Friday, June 11th, a Muslim Canadian woman named Raheel Raza led a mixed congregation of men and women at Oxford University in England, going against the stricture that says only men can lead communal prayers. In another reform effort, Laleh Bakhtiar, a scholar at the University of Chicago, has translated the Quran and challenged earlier translations of verses that supposedly allowed for men to “discipline” their wives. The work of all these women, and scores of others in Muslim countries, show the transformation of religious tradition instead of the handing off the task of defining faith to mullahs and religious clerics.

Hirsi Ali’s personal story is undoubtedly compelling. What is surprising is her refusal to recognize the subjective dimensions of spiritual belief and appreciate a concept of freedom that allows women to define their own paths to empowerment, even if they are different from her own. In remaining wedded to the binary that sees only renunciation of Islam as a true choice, Hirsi Ali fails to ask the more crucial questions posed by her own  biography. What can be done to save lives of women destroyed by patriarchal interpretations of Islam while reform is still a work in progress? Can these women, in Somalia and Pakistan, Egypt and Libya  find hope for the future in the  possibility of change even as their present is sacrificed to its slow pace? It is these question, rather than trite prescriptions that argue for superiority of one faith over another, that deserve the attention of feminists around the world.

Photo of Ayaan Hirsi Ali from Wikimedia Commons; public domain.


  1. In terms of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, I believe she is a crusader, someone to hold in the highest esteem. Not only has she defied everything she was taught to believe as right, but she continues to risk her life to educate fellow women, not of the Islamic faith of some of the horrors committed in the name of Islam. I am not sure as to where i stand on Islam being a wholly violent, and backwards religion. I am currently reading the Quran and my judgment will come from the end of the book. Ms. Ali is my idol and I encourage women everywhere to read her books, she fights for us all.

  2. Kate Black says:

    This is a wonderful analysis of Ali’s book/biography. She writes off a whole religion as being inherently evil to women which I find incredibly disrespectful because I myself am a Muslim (and involved in the Pray In Movement :D).

    In fact, Islamic Feminism is the philosophy I ascribe to-which Ali seems to totally disregard. Read Isabel Coleman’s new book “Paradise Beneath Her Feet” about the Islamic Feminist movement in the Middle East-an excellent account countering every claim Ali makes.

    And not to go on the defensive here, but it is important to remember that (unfortunatly) EVERY religion has at once suppressed women. Judaism, Catholicism (arguable still does in some sense?), Hinduism etc. The inequality and abuse of women worldwide is not due to religion. It is due to a culture that protects and seeks to justify the abuse of women.

    Remember, it wasn’t until the 1980’s that women were allowed to serve on juries. Why? They were not considered intelligent enough. Just 20 years ago!!

    It is a culture, not a religion. Religion is only used as a means to an end.

  3. I’ve seen this book on sale here in Australia. Being a former Dutch national and knowing about Ayaan Hirsi Ali I knew about her before she became a darling of the right. I used to admire her greatly in her early days. Now I know her to be simply an opportunist.

    She started out being a member of the PVDA which is a major left wing socialist party of the Netherlands of the kind that would be deemed pretty close to communist in the US. She switched to a right of centre party when the PVDA was becoming disconcerted with her increasing insistance on sending opportunistic Muslim asylum seekers back who are probably lying anyway because they want to spread their Muslim faith whilst destroying the wonderful Dutch way of life. Music to the ears of the right. Until, of course it was discovered that she lied and received asylum under false statements.

    She has not been divested of her Dutch nationality. It was debated whether she should be, but the decision was that she could retain her citizenship. It was eventually decided that the Netherlands taxpayers were no longer going to pay for her security in the US. Her security was paid for by the Dutch whilst she was in the US for a considerable time. She was furious when this was withdrawn, because she was not going to get protection from the evil Muslims from the American taxpayers.

    It is contrary to all she claimed she stood for to join this right wing conservative Christian think tank.

    She is an opportunist plain and simple. She contributes only more obfuscation to a debate on the place of religion in a Western democracy or the role of women in religion. Anything she has to say must be taken with a BIG grain of salt.

  4. While you are right to point out that Ali has a very narrow view about women and Islam, I think putting quotation marks around the word reform when discussing Christianity shows a similarly one-sided view of various Christian faith traditions. Even the Catholic Church has a reform wing led by feminist nuns and lay women.

  5. Jane Doe says:

    Maybe Ayaan believes that she's freeing Muslim women by supporting people who are itching to invade their countries and kill all of them.

    Of course, they'll be dead and stuff, but that's all right, because at least they'll be FREE!!!1

  6. I must say that I disagree with your assessment entirely. Ms. Ali grew up in Muslim Somolia, where she had her genitals mutilated by her parents, was forced to wear a headscarf, and escaped an arranged marriage to an older stranger. I think that she has a lot more insight into whether Islam can be "reformed" than people who have never lived in a Muslim majority country and been subject to Shariah law. I don't think the Mullahs in Saudi Arabia or Iran, who stone women to death and beat rape victims for being out without a chaperone would be very receptive to the "Pray in Movement".

    Why, when confronted with the horrible mysongny and abuse of power within religions, do religious people claim that the solution is to reform the religion? The best solution to religious problems is not a different religion, but less religion. Unenlightened myths will always be unenlightened myths. Please stop pretending otherwise.

    • I come from a muslim country. I was never forced to go through genital mutilation or forced to cover my head even though my parents were pretty traditional. As for FMG , this tradition never started with Islam. It was predominantly an african tradition that made its way into the Islam practised by some african muslim tribes. I had never even heard of the tradition when i was in Pakistan. There are horrible things that happen to women in Pakistan but again they are mostly tribal cultures which justify these cruelties under the banner of Islam. I have had my share of harrassments and even abuse at the hands of those who claim their superiority through religion but i found my strength in fighting them by showing them that this is their personalized version of a great religion— a religion that has always given me great strength and peace.

  7. It all comes down to a theory of decision-making and interpretation. If one believes, like Ayaan does, that books have only one true meaning, and that accepting any book as a guiding principle determines our decisions, then the Quran makes a plausible villain. If you believe, like I do, that books are never absorbed uncritically and plainly, nor the determining factor in our lives, but always mediated by context and our needs and powers, than a patriarchal and successfully internalized repression of critical thought informs her tragedy. Does the book demand a system of power, or does a system of power inform our interpretation of the book? I believe the latter has proven to be the case through liberation theology. There is nothing wrong with liberation on religious grounds, provided it is supplemented by critical thought. It can be.

  8. I find this article and some of the comments to be biased and lacking objectivity. Ayaan Hirsi Ali has made it clear that she is criticizing the ideals held by the social and political wings of Islam. She has provided clear evidence that as a system, it subjugates women in horrific ways. This evidence is provided in the religious text as well as the practices. That is reasoned criticism, not Islamophobia.

    Liberals and feminists (and I proudly identify as both) have decided to turn their back on her and to dismiss her firsthand experiences within Islamic culture and to accuse her of being a charlatan of some sort. Why? Because she works with people on the political right. Maybe that’s because they are the ones who extended support when she was in need of it.

    I would point out that male-dominated atheist and secular groups also embraced her (Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, etc.). These are people who are independent and not partisan thinkers.

    Feminists should be ashamed of themselves for treating Hirsi Ali in this manner. As a feminist, I am embarrassed by the treatment she has received in the American feminist community. While we sit around complaining about catcalling and “Blurred Lines,” she is risking her very life to stop honor killings, forced marriage, and female genital mutilation around the world. Get your priorities in order already!

    I encourage readers of this article to do your own research. There are plenty of books, articles, and videos where you can see Hirsi Ali speaking for herself and then you can judge for yourself whether you want to support and embrace her message instead of having what to think about her force fed by a partisan and biased article on an otherwise admirable publication.


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