the caged virgin
The caged virgin an emancipation proclamation for women and Islam / Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Free Press, 2006 ISBN 0743288335. Original title Maagdenkooi & Zoontjesfabriek.
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The Caged Virgin Sings An Interview with Ayaan Hirsi Ali by Lorna Tychostup
A visit to the US marking the publication of the English translation of The Caged Virgin in early May was marred upon Hirsi Ali's return to the Netherlands, where she was greeted with the revocation of her Dutch citizenship. Why? She lied about her name and age on her original asylum application—a fact Hirsi Ali had stated repeatedly and publicly for years. Her consequent resignation from Parliament sparked outrage and support from virtually all of her fellow parliamentarians and saw the Minister of Immigration, Rita Verdonk, a colleague and supporter of Hirsi Ali's who ordered the cancellation, agree to reconsider.
The hubbub over Hirsi Ali's citizenship status overshadowed the May 2 US release of The Caged Virgin, which includes the original script of Submission, and chapters titled, "Genital Mutilation Must Not Be Tolerated," "Ten Tips for Muslim Women Who Want to Leave," "The Need For Self-Reflection Within Islam," "Why Can't We Take a Critical Look at Ourselves?" "Bin Laden's Nightmare," and "Freedom Requires Constant Vigilance." A child of repression and student of democracy, Hirsi Ali reminds us that repression under the guise of religious belief is not freedom, and that protection of freedom and democracy is the responsibility of each individual.
Chronogram senior editor Lorna Tychostup interviewed Hirsi Ali just hours before her flight back to the Netherlands.
Lorna Tychostup: In your book, you write that running away from an arranged marriage at the age of 22 helped you to see the important elements of Islam you had not seen before and that you feel are responsible for the Muslim nations lagging behind those of the West: Fear, that Islam knows only one moral source, the prophet Mohammad who is infallible, and that Islam is dominated by a sexual morality that stems from a pre-medieval Arab tribal culture where women are seen as the property of male family members and the value of a woman is essentially reduced to her hymen.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Yes. The first one, which is everything in the Koran, is the absolute word of God and that you cannot dispute it. It has, in my eyes, limited first the imagination and then the curiosity of the Muslim individual. The infallibility of the prophet has stopped Muslims from gaining knowledge from other subjects. The central morality thinking has killed the advantage of girls and women and it has, as I think it's Bernard Lewis who quotes a Muslim man from the 1860s who said, "We have the Muslim nation, which is paralyzed on one side." That is, treating women as pets and as subhuman, and that has only contributed to their backwardness as the civilization as a whole.
LT: It's more than just the holding back of half a population; is it subjugation?
AHA: Yes. I explain in my book in the essay titled, "The Virgin's Cage." When you say we are going to confine women to their houses, and deny them education, deny them the freedom to go after their own happiness, then you make the woman into a slave. Those who are weak, as slaves are, use the power of the weak: manipulation, lies - which are forms of resistance. So instead of working and teaching [the] community, Muslims succeeded in limiting the imagination of the woman. Making her into one who is more ignorant. I want to give an example of a young Moroccan girl who I translated for who told me about how her mother lived. Her mother was married at the age of 13 and now has 10 children. As a little girl, growing up in Holland, when she asked her mother, "How do I do homework?" or "This is what I experience. What can I do with this?" all the mother could say was that she didn't know. At one time the little girl was translating and interpreting for the mother—advancing the dependent cycle. When the little girl became a teenager, because it was haram [forbidden] to go outside the house and do whatever teenage girls do—
LT: She became imprisoned?
AHA: Yes. Virtually cut off [from] her education curriculum. For her to do anything she wanted to do in freedom, she had to tell lies. She would tell her mother that she was going to visit her cousins but she wouldn't visit her cousins. She would go and meet with boys and then she would lie about it. And when they discovered her lying, and this is something that goes for all repressive societies and especially for Muslim societies—when you are repressed you are still a human being so you do things that contribute to your own happiness. In the case of women, because they are asked, they resort to telling lies [about] what they want and what they want to do. And the little boys are around their mothers all the time and see how their mother's [cope]. They hear their mothers telling lies. They hear their mothers manipulating. They hear their mothers constantly screaming and crying and appealing to the pity and emotion of the father and their surroundings. And this is the means of communication that they learn. The fact that these women are in a cage leaves everybody in that cage.
LT: Including the men?
AHA: Yes, including the men, because sons have to watch their mothers deal all the time. They can't help her but they learn how to survive. And the survival methods she employs are manipulation, appeals to the emotion, lies, and that kind of thing. Denial. Self-denial. And that is what we see across the Arab Islamic world right now. It is a terrible crisis and everybody is really lying about it. Denying. Manipulating others.
LT: Including the men?
AHA: Including the men, especially the men. Freeing the women, I think if that were to be achieved, would free the whole of society.
LT: You specifically talk about emancipation. You write: "Emancipation doesn't mean the liberation of the community of the faithful or its safeguarding from the power of evil outside forces, such as colonialism, capitalism, the Jews, and the Americans. It means the liberation of the individual from that same community of the faithful. And to liberate him—or herself as an individual, he or she must first come to think differently about sexuality. What do you mean by "thinking differently about sexuality?
AHA: Sexuality is now thought of as something that is sinful that will be punished only by hell. And female sexuality takes away the honor of the whole family. There is this obsession with the virginity of the girls and the virginity of the woman before she is married. And there is this incredible jealously of the Arab Islamic mind that if a wife were to go outside [the home] without the permission of her husband she would engage in sex and therefore dishonor him. Now if there isn't a [radical] shift from that sick outlook on sexuality then this whole obsession [with] virginity [will] make slaves of women who are free: those who can't become free individuals and engage in learning and in teaching their children the same self-reliance that they themselves have experienced. That's why in the book I try to compare Christian women and Muslim women, and Jewish women and Muslim women. All three monotheistic religions say abominable things in their holy books about women. But the Christians and the Jews have moved on because the social control and the control of the churches and religious leaders have been replaced with individual self-control. And Muslim individuals, whether they are women or men, have not been taught self-control. They are controlled by the society. Our conscience is outside of us. It [consists of] angels on shoulders, people in the neighborhood watching you and your family and so on. But [this conscience] is not an ego. Its not a conscience that is in your own head that tells you don't do this because it is bad for you. What we are told is: "Don't engage in illicit sex or promiscuity, because you will go to hell, or because other people will see it." So then you engage in it. [Laughs] I am sorry, it sounds ridiculous. But it a self-defeating strategy.
LT: Billy Joel sang: "Come out Virginia, don't let me wait / You Catholic girls start much too late." The Christians in this country had a tremendous amount of repression but once they were out of their mother's and father's eyes... I went to a public elementary school and later was transferred to a Catholic school. I couldn't believe the difference. The Catholics were totally out of control.
AHA: And that is what sexual repression does. This issue is so urgent. Let me give you an example. The whole HIV epidemic is being discussed and talked about and combated in Africa, Latin America, China, and India. But Arab Islamic countries have yet to start because they are in huge denial that it doesn't exist because we are Muslim.
LT: I worked in Iraq before the war and foreigners staying longer than a couple of weeks were made to take AIDS tests to maintain visas. Under Saddam, it was accepted that AIDS could come into the country, they accepted how it was spread, and they wanted to keep their population clear of it.
AHA: For all his bad deeds, Saddam was a secular man at heart. And now they have put the Sharia and family law in the constitution.
LT: Well, we'll have to see how they define Sharia. A version of Sharia is in the Moudwana [family law] in Morocco and it is agreeable to the fundamentalists. But how will it be defined in Iraq? As it is defined in Iran? Or as it is defined in Morocco?
AHA: I think they will define it in the Moroccan way, but the fundamentalists in Iraq are getting a lot of influence and they may define it as they define [it] in Afghanistan, where there is a lot of debate on the position of women in theory, but in practice, when the subjugation starts, the state will not interfere and protect the women. And in all the Arab Islamic countries that are secular that is the whole point. Even if Sharia is not in the law—look at a country like Jordan. If a father kills his daughter, the state will not interfere.
LT: Among those of us who have had to wear a hijab [headcovering] to disguise being Western, we talk about the fact that if a woman is veiled, her attraction quotient to Arab men increases. These same men have daughters and wives, and they will go outside the marriage. It does not make a difference if the woman wears a wedding ring. She is still propositioned. Some men propose the "joy marriage," where you both sign a short-term contract that allows for sexual relations even if the man is married. And yet there is this contradiction that when the woman enters into a marriage she must be virginal and pure. It is not surprising that more of these people aren't crazy.
AHA: Yes. Many are, in Holland also. I know people don't want to look at this, but if you look at the mental health census, the number of Muslims in Holland is proportionately overly represented in both the mental institutions and in the shelters for battered women. And most of this has to do with the dissonance that comes with the sexual morality. You are living in a free, permissive, tolerant Western society and [yet] as an individual living there you are in no way prepared for your own sexuality. So when girls and boys enter into the teenage group, they are like these Catholic girls you speak of—[sexuality] gets completely out of control. We have so-called gang rapes where 12-year-olds join in.
LT: Twelve-year-old boys?
AHA: Yes. They join in. Groups of 12-year-olds and older boys engaging in this. And the parents, when they are confronted with this, simply deny it. They say, "It's not my son. It's the other boy."
LT: In my opinion, your explanation of power by way of the Elite triangle and the Mass triangle pretty much hits to the heart of the problems in Iraq. You begin by citing a pre-modern lack of development in the 22 Islamic countries as per the findings of a UN Development Program Arab Human Development Report published in July 2002. You then state that in accordance with tribal culture, power is concentrated in these countries in an "Elite" triangle of power that stagnates the masses, who respond with a triangle of power of their own. In the "Elite" triangle, there is a king or president at the top, then the army, and last the clergy. Each enforces the other, and all its members come from the same family, clan, or tribe and are related by marriage. Their power is, in part, based on these relationships. The "Mass" triangle of power is in response to stagnation of the power elite triangle. Corruption and apathy is the main response of the masses to this stagnation. Only a section of the population has access to public services through the clan or tribe, and these people take advantage of the endemic corruption within civil service and business communities. A portion of Western financial aid is taken by this dominant group, which is out to enrich itself and often resorts to bribery and blackmail. The rest of the population accepts this because this is all they have ever known. The result is a rise in fundamentalism because these folks will not accept the existing balance of power.
Please explain these triangles of power in the Islamic world and how they relate to the growth of fundamentalism and significant increases of internal and external migration.
AHA: Let's take any Muslim country that is ruled by any despot. What you see is a society that is repressed in every possible way. Individuals in that society want to cope. They want to cope with the poverty, insecurity, and diseases, with all of the challenges that a society under those circumstances can face. Let's divide the people into the "Leadership" and into the "Masses." The Leadership has divided itself into three, [and has] a symbiotic relationship where you have a despot at the top, then the army, and the clergy. And they share power, and its all overlapping. So how do the Masses react? These Arab Islamic countries are not only despotic but they are also tribal. And in tribalism, you are trying to get as much power as possible for your own tribe and in your own tribe; you try to take up the power. So you have people among the masses who share power with the leadership through the tribal line. But not everyone is from a powerful tribe and not everyone is eloquent. A second reaction is to be apathetic. And in their apathy, when things really get out of hand, they either move—as we see in mass migration from all these countries—or they fall into the hands of the fundamentalists. Fundamentalism is a grassroots movement, which is a reaction to the clergy of the Elite Triangle, who are seen to be betraying the people.
LT: In what way?
AHA: In the fact that they use religion not so much as they say: "This is the best religion and it is all about honesty, charity, kindness, and goodness," but to their own needs. That's why it is very complicated and it isn't difficult to get into the fundamentalist movement. In these countries the fundamentalists are providing everything that the government should have been providing: health, education, and in some countries even the cleaning of the streets and that kind of thing. And so you have more and more people who are repressed by their own states willingly moving into the arms of the fundamentalists. And since everyone is brought up to believe that the prophet Mohammad is the only moral guide, then under these options, the fundamentalists are the one's with the best message and the most consistent program. The fundamentalists, or their clergy who work along with the elite, who are in power via the army, are very hypocritical when it comes to their own position, and when it comes to criticizing the leadership.
LT: In chapter 17, A Call For Clear Thinking, you bring the issues of terrorism, fundamentalist Islam, its adherence to a literal interpretation of the Koran, and subordination of women not to the laps of Bin Laden, Hassan al-Banna, Khomeni, or Sayyid Qutb, but directly to the lap of the prophet Mohammad, who you call a pre-medieval figure to whom these four men, along with all faithful Muslims in today's world, look to for guidance and seek to emulate in principle and practical matters, under all circumstances, to the point of "how to blow your nose and with what foot to step into a bathroom." You point to the historical fact that to "spread his visions and teachings, which he believed to be from God, and to consolidate his secular power, Mohammad built the House of Islam using military tactics, that included mass killing, torture, targeted assassination, lying, and the indiscriminate destruction of productive goods," and how today's terrorists quote Mohammad's deeds and edicts to "justify their actions" and call others to arms. You write: "In their thinking about radical Muslim terrorism, most politicians, journalists, intellectuals, and other commentators have avoided the core issue of the debate, which is Mohammad's example."
Some would argue it is dangerous, deadly in fact, to open up this debate. What would you say to them?
AHA: I think it would be more dangerous to not to open it up. We all know ideas are stronger than any religion or group. And the ideas of the prophet Mohammad are being used to recruit and to get the support of millions of people. And these millions of people have been kept ignorant of the election [process] and all other forms and ideas that may lead to progress. So avoiding confrontation with the ideas will only lead to military confrontation, as we can see in Iraq, and as we have seen in Algeria, and as we are seeing in—
LT: Yes, but people open up this debate and get nailed. The cartoons, for instance—
AHA: The cartoons were a good thing. I just don't understand why the cartoons were seen to be something bad. What the cartoons did was, they put on the agenda, first of all, what these newspapers fear—which is that they fear self-censorship and they fear Islam. And the first reactions of the cartoons confirmed the fears. That's number one. And number two, it also showed Islam that the most important figure in the whole world is the prophet Mohammad, their moral guide. Don't touch him. And I would say, now would be the time to take the opportunity that the cartoons have given us and discuss: "OK, if he is the most important moral guide to you and he says, "Kill infidels. Subjugate the women. Don't engage with non-believers," what does that mean? We will not make drawings of him. Fine. But this is what he says. And I think the more we appeal to the reason of individual Muslims, the more individual Muslims will try and see the teachings of the prophet Mohammad for what they are. And in that way it becomes more and more difficult for people like Bin Laden on the one hand, and the tyrant in the Middle East on the other hand, to liberate the masses, when in fact, they want to dominate them. What you can see now, the masses they have all been kept ignorant.
LT: In some cases they choose to remain ignorant. I asked some of the Muslim members of my community about the cartoons. They all said, emphatically, that they were opposed to these cartoons. When I asked if they had seen them, they said no. I told them I had seen them. One man asked, "Where did you see them? Give me the link." He was so hungry to see them, yet he had already made a decision that they were bad. I gave the young man the link and asked him to e-mail me and tell me what he thought. I have not heard from him.
AHA: I had the same [problem] with Submission. Organizations denounced it before they had seen it. But this has to do with being socialized into believing that if you say or draw something about the prophet Mohammad, we will disapprove of it anyway. I had not read The Satanic Verses of Salman Rushdie in 1989, but thought he would have to be killed. You are not free when you are brought up in ignorance. But what you can do, as you say, is put the question forward.
LT: As an American, I look at democracy as an ongoing participatory event where in order to participate, one has to work to be educated, to self-educate themselves, and to be informed as to the issues. Does the example of the cartoons, and the reaction to them, shine light into the very crux of the issue of incompatibility between democracy and Islam?
AHA: Yes. I think the two just simply don't go together. Democracy is a product of intellectual labor. And here in the West, we try, as time goes by, to improve it all the time. And democracy now has been reduced simply to elections, which it shouldn't be. Democracy is more than just holding elections. Democracy is about the freedom of the individual and the state's [responsibility] to guarantee that freedom. A state that is run by the rule of law. A state that permits freedom of expression and the equality of all the human individuals, female or gay or whatever race. Now Islam, the doctrine of the prophet Mohammad, is not all that. If it's all about charity, fine, hospitality and so on and so forth. But the [Muslim] world is divided into "we" and "they." Women are subordinate to men. Gays are allowed no life. It goes on and on. So I think it is simply time to acknowledge these ideological differences and it is time for the West to say exactly where they stand in this and to tell individuals who hold onto this ideology, that people here in the West are here to defend these values which are the product of centuries of struggle among Westerners themselves. And what I have witnessed in Europe is that these values and freedoms are [being] given up too easily.
I have just entered a taxi and I think this conversation will now be censored because the taxi guy's name is Raheem Mohammad.
LT: Yes, I see. And you're in New York. [Laughs]
AHA: [Laughs] I don't think it will be very wise. I can only answer yes or no.