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By Shakira Hussein - posted Friday, 1 June 2007

The rise of mass communications has enabled writers to reach a far wider potential audience. It has also enabled those who wish to respond with abuse or intimidation to do so with much less effort.

Google and email facilitate the efficient delivery of all forms of abuse, from petty personal observations to death threats.

Most are simply deleted.


The death threat received by Ayaan Hirsi Ali demanded to be taken more seriously, mostly because of its mode of delivery: staked to the dying body of Theo Van Gogh, her collaborator in producing the film Submission, Part One, which depicted abused women with verses from the Koran inscribed on their semi-naked bodies. Van Gogh's murder provides Hirsi Ali's autobiography with an arresting opening and lends moral weight to her unrelenting critique of Islam. It is possible to reach some opinion about a person based on the identity of their enemies, and that Hirsi Ali is hated by murderous fanatics speaks in her favour.

However, she is also intensely disliked by large numbers of Muslim women, including many who could never be described as religious extremists. There are more than two sides to her story, and while her autobiography is a gripping and lively read, there are conclusions to be drawn from it other than those that she presents.

Her early childhood in Somalia was overshadowed by the imprisonment of her father, a prominent opponent of the government. She was raised by her mother and grandmother, neither of whom conform to stereotypes of passive Muslim women. Her mother had demanded a divorce from her first husband before marrying the man of her choice. Her grandmother taught her daughters a traditional self-defence move: "Run around behind a man, squat down, reach between his legs under his sarong, and yank his testicles hard."

Her father is described as a relatively enlightened man, who insisted that his daughters not be genitally mutilated (a cultural rather than religious practice). Her grandmother, convinced this would leave the girls unmarriageable, had the gruesome operation performed while their mother was away.

After her father's escape from prison the family lived in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and finally Kenya. Suffering from the miseries of exile and a deteriorating marriage, her mother sank into depression; her daughters bore the brunt of her violent rages and were subjected to beatings. But by Hirsi Ali's account, it was a decision taken by her hitherto enlightened father that changed her life. He contracted her marriage with a cousin who lived in Canada. En route to meet her new husband, she bolted for The Netherlands, where she claimed asylum.

As Hirsi Ali admits, the story she told in her asylum application was fiction. Some of her supporters have described this as a technicality, involving minor alterations to her name and date of birth. But her lies were more fundamental. She described herself as having just fled Somalia, then caught up in a brutal civil war, rather than Kenya, where she had been legally resident for years.


Gender oppression is seldom taken seriously in asylum applications but it seems unlikely that even if it were, Hirsi Ali would have qualified. Her father neither committed nor threatened violence, and she was later reconciled with her parents. Hirsi Ali has described herself in interviews as "a very bogus asylum-seeker".

I do not condemn her for this. The Netherlands provided her with opportunities she would never otherwise have had, and she became a productive citizen, learning Dutch, attending university, finding good employment. However, it is hard to understand how someone with her history could justify entering parliament as a member of a party committed to curtailing immigration and deporting anyone who had "lied" on visa applications.

Hirsi Ali says she spoke in support of a Bosnian teenager who had returned to The Netherlands on a tourist visa to finish school after her family's asylum application was rejected. But in the circumstances, private pleading hardly seems enough.

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First published in The Australian on February 10, 2007. Infidel By Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Free Press, $34.95.

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About the Author

Shakira Hussein is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Melbourne specialising in Muslim women, gendered violence and racism.

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