Ayaan Hirsi Ali on What the Future Holds for Muslim Women

Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Photo: Gage Skidmore)
The noted feminist advocate imagines how Islam's treatment of women could evolve in the years ahead.

Editor’s Note: The following piece is adapted from “Preserving the Values of the West,” the remarks delivered by Ayaan Hirsi Ali upon accepting the 2016 Philip Merrill Award for Outstanding Contributions to Liberal Arts Education alongside her husband, Niall Ferguson. It is reprinted here with permission.

The specific example I would like to address today is the relationship between men and women. All cultures have strong views on marriage, family, divorce, promiscuity, and parenting. Not all cultures are similar or interchangeable, however.

Within Islam today, I believe that we can distinguish three different groups of Muslims in the world based on how they envision and practice their faith, with important consequences for women.

The first group is the most problematic — the fundamentalists who envision a regime based on Shariah, Islamic religious law. They argue for an Islam largely or completely unchanged from its original seventh-century version and take it as a requirement of their faith that they impose it on everyone else.

I call them Medina Muslims, in that they see the forcible imposition of Shariah as their religious duty, following the example of the Prophet Muhammad when he was based in Medina. They exploit their fellow Muslims’ respect for Shariah law as a divine code that takes precedence over civil laws. It is only after they have laid this foundation that they are able to persuade their recruits to engage in jihad. There is no equality between men and women in their eyes, either legally or in daily practice.

The second group — and the clear majority throughout the Muslim world — consists of Muslims who are loyal to the core creed and worship devoutly but are not inclined to practice violence or even intolerance toward non-Muslims.

I call this group “Mecca Muslims,” after the first phase of Islam and the peaceful Qur’anic verses that were revealed in Mecca. In this group, the position of women is contested.

More recently, and partly in response to the rise of Islamic terrorism, a third group is emerging within Islam: Muslim reformers — or, as I call them, “modifying Muslims” — who promote the separation of religion from politics and other reforms. Although some are apostates, the majority of dissidents are believers, among them clerics who have come to realize that their religion must change if its followers are not to be condemned to an interminable cycle of political violence. Reformers generally favor equality between men and women.

The future of Islam and the world’s relationship with Muslims will be decided by which of the two minority groups — the Medina Muslims or the reformers — can win the support of the rather passive Meccan majority.

In the West, most people of good will are committed to providing women with equal rights and the opportunity to build a good future for themselves, to develop into autonomous human beings.

The people I would call “Medina Muslims” — men such as Sayyid Qutb, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, or Osama bin Laden — offer an alternative vision. They claim that their vision, based on Shariah law, is in all ways superior to the norms prevailing in the West. Medina Muslims churn out the statistics — which are of course widely available in the West — of divorce, single parenting, prostitution, the hook-up culture on American campuses. They offer crude and simple remedies: segregate the sexes; cover women from head to toe (the modesty doctrine) to prevent men from losing sexual control; marry girls off as early as possible on Shariah terms; and a list of other measures.

Medina Muslims claim that, when all of these Shariah measures toward women have been adopted, the vexing problems of promiscuity, children born out of wedlock, and the social chaos (fitna) they view in Western countries will cease. Yet Medina Muslims are uncomfortable when pressed to explain why Shariah measures implemented in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and to some extent in Pakistan have not resolved every conceivable social ill. On the contrary, what we see in those countries is often appalling mistreatment of women and especially of young girls.

In Saudi Arabia, a woman’s testimony is usually not accepted in criminal cases and is worth half a man’s testimony in civil cases. In 2009, Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh, said “a girl aged ten or twelve can be married. Those who think she’s too young are wrong and they are being unfair to her.”

In Iran, married women cannot leave the country without their husband’s permission. After a child is seven years old, custody of the child automatically goes to the father (unless the father is severely disqualified, for example insane). A mother also loses custody of her young children if she remarries.

In 2016, the chair of Pakistan’s Council of Islamic Ideology, an important advisory body, sanctioned “light” wife-beating.

Feminist academics in the West might be expected to call out Medina Muslims, or at least to enable students to think through the consequences of implementing Shariah measures such as we see in Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Yet what we see is rather different. It is striking how many American university professors and students reject any analysis of a real conflict between enlightened Western values and unreformed Shariah, even as Western civilization is mocked and its many contributions to human freedom and gender equality cynically dismissed.

This year, as one indication of the zeitgeist, Duke University’s Women Center created a new (optional) nine-week seminar that aims to have young men “critique and analyze their own masculinity and toxic masculinities.” With reasonable confidence, I predict that the men participating in these sessions will be well-intentioned, mild-mannered young American men, who are already inclined toward respect for women. One topic that will not be examined, I suspect, is Islamic law, or the conflict between Western notions of women’s equality and Islamic views on the subject.

At many American universities today, any critical examination pertaining to Islam, including Shariah and the treatment of women in Islam, is declared to be out of the realm of scrutiny. My thoughts on the crisis within Islam were so terrifying to Brandeis University — the university named for a champion of the First Amendment — that it withdrew its invitation to speak and accept an honorary degree. A strange irony that my story frightened the university more than the litany of honor killings and wholesale abuse of women in so many parts of the Islamic world.

This is a world turned upside down. A good education presupposes a free and open exchange of ideas on the basis of reason and reputable primary sources. This is why the work of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni matters: It calls clearly for the freedom to discuss and study the challenging issues of our times.


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