Reading Ayaan Hirsi Ali on the District Line.


by Esmerelda Weatherwax (Oct. 2006)



I like to read on the train while travelling to work and it was during these journeys that I read The Caged Virgin – A Muslim Woman’s Cry for reason by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.  Whenever a veiled woman got on the train and sat near me I would raise the book a little; I will never know if note was taken, and any such woman inspired to buy and read her own copy.

The copy I have is the paperback translation into English published in July with two extra essays.  The book is not, as some thought when it was first published in the Netherlands two years ago, an autobiography.  There is a brief autobiographical chapter, but rather the book is a series of self contained essays on issues affecting Muslim women, oppression and Islam generally.  

Before you even get to the first essay, the preface sets the scene with its three important elements of Islam.  A theme that comes up again and again.

i] That a Muslim’s relationship with God is one of fear. (Fear I think better described as terror, rather than the concept in the English phrase “God-fearing” of awe or respect)

ii] Islam knows only one moral source – Mohammed.

iii] Domination by a sexual morality of 7th century Arab tribal values. 

But Miss Hirsi Ali is optimistic about the possibility of reform, even though she is disappointed with the lack of support from the people she looked to for such support, that is, the secular liberals of the west. “The adherents to the gospel of multiculturalism refuse to criticise people whom they see as victims” She is quite scathing about this.  

Chapter 8 is Bin Laden’s Nightmare – an Interview with Irshad Manji.  In which she challenges Manji about how she can reconcile her assertion that “in theory Islam is a beautiful and tolerant religion” with Mohammed’s marriage to the 9 year old Aisha.  The one thing they do agree on is their bewilderment that liberal secular westerners are so afraid of taking a stance against the abuses of Islam. 

One of the things she talks about in many of the chapters is the practice of female genital mutilation, FGM, sometimes sanitised by being called female circumcision. There is a whole chapter entitled Genital Mutilation Must Not Be Tolerated, which sets out her suggestions for prevention and eradication. She is specifically talking about the institutions within Dutch Social Services but I think her suggestions would translate to most of Western Europe, and Australasia 

In the essay Four Women’s Lives she outlines case studies of women she met when she worked as a translator at a centre for asylum seekers. In one a young woman is denying that she could possibly be pregnant because her genital stitching remains intact.

Hirsi Ali writes “The sewing together of the vaginal walls is not, strictly speaking, an Islamic custom.  The Prophet Mohammed says in the Koran that boys should be circumcised, but no mention is made of female circumcision. . . Muslim scholars have never condemned the ritual of female circumcision because in Islam the importance of virginity at marriage counts so heavily. When they came into contact with this tribal ritual they must have thought “Hey, wouldn’t that be a good way to guarantee a girl’s virginity? Excellent!”   

In the chapter A Brief Personal History of my Emancipation she explains how she left Islam once she admitted to herself that she is an atheist.  A friend lent her a copy of The Atheist Manifesto by Herman Philpse and she realised that it described the thoughts she herself had about religion. I find it sad that she still sees God, even though she believes that he does not exist, as the petrifying, capricious and cruel creature that is how Allah is portrayed. The loving God we Christians and Jews know is, to her, still the oppressive deity she grew up with but, “tamed by reasonable people and moved to the believer’s private conscience”  Elsewhere in that chapter she speaks of her sorrow that she was alienated from her father for so long, and the tragic death of her sister Haweya.  When Haweya started to assert her independence the pressure exerted on her caused a nervous breakdown.  She was deemed to be bewitched and an exorcist was brought in.  She still retained the wit to tell the exorcist “if you are capable of releasing such extraordinary powers you should use them to heal your rotten teeth”  Eventually Haweya died, Hirsi Ali believes of exhaustion following too many beatings. 

Her sister’s death must have influenced her own actions when she claimed asylum in Holland  That chapter is followed by a transcript of the film Submission and a description of her intentions for Submission II and III.  She speaks of her work with Theo van Gogh and his murder elsewhere. 

Because of the essay nature of the book she returns to the theme of submission and oppression many times throughout.  However these are subjects which bear repeating. I would recommend the book to anyone interested in Islam, or women’s experience.  Each of the 17 essays stands alone, none is very long, and all are thought provoking. 

She is a brave woman. If she believes that Islam can reform itself with an enlightenment similar to that experienced by Christianity in the 18th century I must respect that belief, even though my personal opinion is that such an enlightenment would produce a completely new religion, one that would then be persecuted for apostacy by the original Islam. Her optimism for the future, and her faith in the the ultimate power of the human spirit, despite the murder of her colleague and the threats to herself is to be admired.

The Caged Virgin by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, translation by Jane Brown, dedicated to the Spirit of Liberty, published in Great Britain by the Free Press 2006. ISBN 0-7432-9501-3 

To be published February 2007 – Infidel, The Story of My Enlightenment which is a more conventional autobiography.  

Her website is accessible through the link “Our Favourite People” or here.  Her most recent piece describes her meeting with Oriana Fallaci.



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Esmerelda Weatherwax is a regular contributor to the Iconoclast, our community blog. To view her entries please click here.




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