The elephant in the room: Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s ‘Nomad’ (Review)

This month I have the task of doing a book review. I’ve chosen a book within the so-called ‘New Atheist’ canon, although labels aside, this is a fascinating and challenging book for all concerned. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a person of numerous identities, many of which hold awkwardly together, and this is the essence of the title of her book: Nomad.

Ali is a woman. As a woman, she faces multiple discriminations; from her father, who is interestingly the daughter of Hirsi Magan Isse, a Somali revolutionary; from her grandmother, whose distrust of modernity was interesting in spite of her own personal defiance by defying patriarchal customs of her time and from her own community who see her as betraying her heritage.

Ali is a secularist. By studying in school was a defiance enough for her family, Ali came to study political science and immersed herself and identified with the values of the European Enlightenment. Ali makes an interesting case for the universality of the enlightenment values: of freedom of expression and the erosion of religious influence on civic society. From her background not just as an Arab, but a woman from an Arabic culture, she turns the values of the 17th and 18thC Enlightenment to apply beyond Europe. For her criticism of Islam, such as the insular fear of modernity and its values to practices which involve violence against women, Ali raises something very uncomfortable and unsayalbe in this day and age. Consider for instance in the UK that Baroness Warsi recently stated that Islamophobia is rife, while many comedians are known to have a secret rule to avoid critique of the religion due to the historical repercussions of Salman Rushdie. Ali was the writer of Theo Van Gogh’s film ‘Submission’, a film for which Van Gogh was murdered.

Ali is not a ‘feminist’. So many are unwilling to critique Islam, perhaps for the fear of association with extremist right-wing politics or for the threats. This is a topic very sensitive but important. Ali refuses the title of ‘feminist’ despite raising the issue of women in the Arab world, as well as the double oppression Arab women face when emigrating to the west with the pressure to conform to old cultural standards against their pressure to distance themselves from integrating with the society. Integrating to a a country once emigrating is often an issue for minority groups and it shows the many facets of the cultural diaspora that is contemporary Islam. Ali challenges so-called identifying feminists because ‘many’ (only one I recall was named – Germaine Greer) refused to critique Muslim country customs on the basis to the effect of  ‘we cannot judge other countries by our cultural standards’. That alone raises at least two or three distinct questions internal to a feminist discussion. For Ali, these issues for the women she describes are not so much a feminist issue, but a human rights issue.

Ali is a modern woman. Perhaps the end of the book shows how sympathetic Ali is to her late grandmother, who despite her defiance, did not approve of her granddaughter’s life. Ali describes how Somalia irrevocably changed once western innovations and modernity were introduced, electricity for instance, and new ways of thinking, and new ways of killing. For better and for worse, the innovations that modernity brought could not be reversed. Ali’s grandmother was a nomad who was forcibly married off to a man who left her for another woman, despite this she maintained her personal integrity within the confines of her patriarchy of the time. Ali describes her grandmother as a more successful matriarch keeping the clan in checkcompared to the woman her grandfather replaced her with, who, while the latter provided him with boys (a favoured gender in tribal society), was poor at other domestic duties. Ali sees the strength of her grandmother and those of many other women around her in the trials of everyday life. It is Ali’s conviction, as it is for many others, such as Nussbaum, that a key feature for social development in many countries involves providing more education and social mobility to women especially in their traditional caregiver roles of their society. While recognising this, Ali fights a battle of many fronts, from the dangerous public criticisms of Islam, both from the social othodoxy and her family’s ostracism of her; to the indifference of liberal intellectuals and so-called feminists who turn a blind eye. Ali shows herself as a Nomad of many fronts.