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The controversial Dutch Somali feminist Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s autobiography Infidel led to death threats from numerous Muslim organizations. (© John Van Hasselt / Corbis)

Ayaan Hirsi Ali on Protecting Women From Militant Islam

Even in democratic nations, mothers and daughters are held back from basic freedoms

So you are looking at the circumstances of girls and young women in particular, in Muslim communities across the United States. How did your experiences in Europe inform your efforts in the United States?  

My experience in Europe was that a girl would go to the police saying, “I am afraid that my father is going to kill me. ” In the beginning, the police would just laugh and say “What did you do?” or “If you were my daughter, I would kill you too,”—as a joke, you know. And then these girls would be killed. Or the girl would come to the police and say, “If you don’t help me, I will be kidnapped, I will be taken abroad, I’ll never be able to come back because they will take my papers.” People wouldn’t believe them. They thought,  “These are teenage girls, saying and doing what teenagers do.” Only after that did they find these claims were true and the girls were vanishing.

What I did in Holland was change attitudes, make sure that when you are confronted with problems like this from girls, that certain communities—teachers, social workers, child protection agencies, policemen—needed to pursue these cases.

Do you feel that your message is beginning to register here in the United States?

Yes. The United States is a million times bigger than Holland. When I look at what we’re doing in New York and what the State Department is doing now, awareness is increasing. Our goal is that every American knows that it is wrong for families to control the sexuality of girls and women and to stop them from education, from work.

How does your work have its roots in your history as a refugee from many kinds of oppression, in many cultures?

The way I see my job or the work I do is: Here is the meeting of two cultures, the Muslim culture and Western culture. Some of the Muslims living here in the West, like women, are faced with problems that Westerners don’t see. I see it because I’m familiar with patterns that for many may seem “strange” and therefore hidden. So if I create awareness, then a woman asking for help, from the type of culture that I come from, will be understood.

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