It didn’t take long for me to appreciate that this is a biography like no other. Ayaan Hirsi Ali has had an extraordinary life. Coming from rural Somalia, she has been circumcised, assaulted, betrayed, cursed and threatened with death. She has witnessed famine, family breakdown, forced marriage, misogeny, madness and hardline religious intolerance. A close friends of hers has been assassinated. And yet, despite this she managed to get elected to political office in the Netherlands, with her story playing a central role in the downfall of its government in 2006. She was regarded recently as one of the world’s most influential people.
Ayaan’s story is one of great courage: as a child she was ridiculed as dull and stupid, and yet over time she managed to assert herself: rejecting the spouse chosen by her father and in so doing, leaving Africa for Holland. From there, she saught an education for herself. Over time, she rejected Islam and the deeply held cultural traditions of her people, embracing instead the great freedoms that we in the developed world often take for granted. Despite an ongoing threat against her by extremist groups, she continues to campaign uncompromisingly against Islamic fundamentalism.
The story that she paints from her time in Somalia, Kenya and Saudi Arabia is not pretty. Cultural, traditional and religious factors still hold sway to an extent unimaginable in the West. To many, simplistic edicts from the distant past are far more important than the complex accomodations and hard-won understandings of modern society. Women and children are treated as second-class citizens. The law of Allah holds absolute sway, brooking no opposition, promising a nirvana that fails even the most cursory empirical test.
She casts a critical eye on Muslims in Europe, asking why it is that so many of them have failed to properly integrate into Western society. To her, the future must be one of integration, not multiculturalism. She has no time for those who believe that coexistence without challenge is necessary for European societies. In her opinion, traditionalism is not on an equal footing with modernity: those who stand up for the traditionalists serve only to delay and frustrate the cause of human rights for those whom they purport to represent. It is a compelling argument.
Many sections in the book are heart-rending. It is excruciating to read about how she and her siblings were subjected to the horrors of genital mutilation; how her weary and depressed mother inflicted all her frustrations on her daughters through unrelenting physical abuse; how her father rejected her and cursed her; and how her sister succumbed to the misery of mental illness. All these stories are told with much sadness and little malice. It is clear that her family remain close to her heart, despite everything she has been through.
This is a powerful, uncompromising book that has that rare quality of being difficult to put down.