Ayaan Hirsi Ali on Protecting Women From Militant Islam

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

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

In the United States, author and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali continues her work on behalf of Muslim women and girls with her eponymous Ayaan Hirsi Ali Foundation.  She spoke with Smithsonian about the Foundation’s mission and its ongoing efforts to protect Muslim women in this country from oppression and violence.

Could you discuss the work of the AHA Foundation, the essence of your goal and what your future plans are?

The foundation’s mission is to protect women from violence justified in the name of culture and religion. By religion, first and foremost I mean militant Islam. The violence that these women encounter is the result of their desire to be free. The freedom they seek is to pursue education; freedom to work, and most importantly, freedom to own their own bodies. To be mistresses of their own bodies, they want to choose their own mate, to choose how many children they have. In some Muslim households, this is not possible.

As soon as young women make these kinds of lifestyle choices, they are confronted by violence justified in the name of honor. The families say, “If you do this, you will smear my family honor,” and so fathers and brothers and so on stop them from doing that. If these girls persist in their cause, they are beaten, locked up at home, forced into marriages they don’t want; some are killed. The mission of the foundation is to bring awareness to these practices. We educate the relevant agencies that this kind of domestic violence is different from domestic violence common in the West.

As a Western woman, you could be a victim of violence in your home, your husband or your brother or someone could beat you. The perpetrator, if caught, would be punished for that; it is recognized that battering women is wrong. Women are protected.

In the type of violence I am talking about, most of these fellows are law-abiding, affectionate men. The problem arises when the father feels that his perceived honor is shamed.

Our goal at the AHA foundation is to educate all relevant agencies—to influence, to inform and to investigate. We’ve begun a project with the John Jay College in New York, collecting data on how many types of these cases we have in the United States.

We’re talking to the State Department on how to deal with forced marriages. Young women here in America are taken back to their country of origin, the country of the parents. Their papers are confiscated; they are forced to marry. What we’re doing with the State Department is to help those girls to return, and to protect girls who are here from that kind of practice.

In the case of female genital mutilation, it’s very hard to enforce laws. Girls are taken on summer vacation to their countries of origin. So how do you know it’s happening?

The foundation speaks to women’s shelters, to prosecutors and to anyone else that deals with violence— the Justice Department, members of Congress. We want them to know that this is the type of woman who is faced with this type of violence.

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.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.