When you lose the terror of hell, you become free. But to lose that fear isn’t an easy matter. The book Infidel is about how a young girl grew into a freedom fighter, nurturing herself from a world of faith to a world of reason, leaving god, satan, angels, heaven and hell behind, finding a moral compass within herself and no longer within the pages of any sacred book.
Born in a once peaceful Somalia, conflict in Somalia sent her family fleeing as refugees. Ayaan then lived her childhood across Saudi-Arabia, Ethiopia and Nairobi. Between these spaces, she narrates her different experience of the Islamic religion as it is diluted and mixed with culture. It was for her a world cut between honour and shame, where women were pious slaves struggling and working under a long veil, constantly reminded of the necessity of covering female limbs and face to avoid chaos for men sighting the female flesh. Girls were shamed for being kinterley; she with the clitoris, thus ending with hacked vaginas. It was a world where a Virgin’s only response to a marriage proposal was dignified silence; it is honourable. For many women, a lost honour would mean death in the hand of their father, brother or husband.
Soon Ayaan became familiar with the concept of Difference and silently questioned it as shared in the interesting scene involving her father Abeh below.
‘Abeh would always protest and quote the Quran: “Paradise is at the feet of your mother!” But when we looked down at them, our mother’s bare feet were cracked from washing the floor every day, and Abeh’s were clad in expensive Italian Leather shoes.’
Beyond gender inequalities, sharp fragmentation of class, clan, tribes and castes existed in the different societies she grew in. But travelling secretly through the pages of fiction novels, she and her sister Haweya could conceptualize an egalitarian society where difference didn’t necessarily inform exclusion.
‘We read in 1984, Huckleberry Finn, The Thirty-Nine Steps. Later, we read English Translations of Russian Novels…we imagined the British moors in Wuthering Heights and the fight for racial equality in South Africa in Cry, the Beloved Country. An entire world of Western ideas began to take shape… later on there were sexy books: Valley of Dolls, Barbara Cartland, Danielle Steele. All these books, even the trashy ones, carried with them ideas – races were equal, women were equal to men.’
In such a world where there is no ‘self’ for a woman, any search for a self will remain a struggle. Life was harsh but Ayaan was lucky in a very rare manner. Her kind of luck is outstanding, marked by enormous good fortune. She captures the perils and triumphs of her life below.
‘How many girls born in Digfer Hospital in Mogadishu in November 1969 are even alive today? And how many have a real voice? … When I was born, my mother initially thought death had taken me away. But it didn’t. When I got Malaria and pneumonia, I recovered. When my genitals were cut, the wound healed. When bandit held a knife to my throat, he decided not to slit it. When my Quran teacher fractured my skull, the doctor who treated me kept death at bay.’
Taking a train to Amsterdam as a runaway bride, Ayaan took a chance at freedom; free from bondage to a husband chosen by her father. That act of courage changed her life completely. Ayaan will later obtain a political asylum in the Netherlands and grow to be elected a member of the House of Representatives of the Dutch Parliament.
In Holland, she found the freedom of expression; the freedom to think and choose her fight. On her political platform, Ayaan advanced her criticism for Women’s right, female genital mutilation, Religion and Islam. Her passion for what she believed in will later lead to her production of a controversial short-film ‘Submission’; a film that triggered the gruesome killing of her producer friend Theo Van Gogh and more so her having to live an endangered life with death threats.
As with this book Infidel, Ayaan’s message in the 10mins film ‘Submission’ challenges convention. Submission presents a young woman in direct dialogue with her deity; Allah. The message was strong; men and even women may look up and speak to Allah … it is possible to free oneself-to adapt one’s faith, to examine critically, and to think about the degree to which that faith is itself at the root of oppression.
I found it challenging to review a book whose author is not only accused of racial inferiority but also known for being Islamophobic by many of my friends. The foreword written by the Late Christopher Hitchens didn’t make it less controversial either. I have chosen to appreciate her bravery in exposing her private memories in a way I could relate with. I choose to critic Ayaan based on the validity of her arguments only. Her enquiries inarguably holds water; Is freedom then only for white people? Is it self-love to adhere to my ancestors’ traditions and mutilate my daughter? To agree to be humiliated and powerless? To watch passively as my countrymen abuse women and slaughter each other in pointless disputes?
I think it is for women like the late Farkhunda Malikzada that Ayaan writes. Despite Farkunda’s devotion to her faith, she is falsely accused of burning the Quran and being an American, hence lynched to a horrific death in the name of Islam by men who should have been fathers and brothers. Such are the paradoxes that challenge our faith. Indeed such women require a vocabulary for resistance, a new lens to conceptualize the gaps between the holy book and their reality. A deconstruction of the death and abuse of many women and men alike in the name of religion can only explain why development is hindered beneath some piece of sky. The mistreatment of women and girls remains the most critical human right issue globally.
From Islam to Christianity and others, there is a growing need to unlearn and reconstruct our understanding and interpretation of faith. This book by Ayaan presents a moving narrative, contributing to the wider understanding of the growing linkages between religion, culture and development or under-development.
While criticisms abound on her work, I hope we remember we have no right to question her narratives on how she has experienced life. In this book is a story about Ayaan, the daughter of Hirsi; the son of Magan-the son of Isse-the son of Guleid-the son of Ali. It’s the story of her life. In writing her story bravely, Ayaan inspires me to stop tiptoeing around the pretence of my faith and speak the truth even if my voice shakes.
Written by~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye