**This blog was submitted to the AHA Foundation as part of an “I Am Inspired by Ayaan” Call for Essays. The statements contained herein are not the views of the AHA Foundation but instead are a personal narrative by one of our terrific supporters.**
“I am inspired” does not even begin to describe how I feel touched by Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s work. This is one woman who has beaten the odds, broken the silence and bravely put up with hate and threats, if only to create the space necessary to debate the oppression facing women who are unfortunately born to cultural and religious subjugation.
Let me introduce myself and begin by saying that, I am a BIG fan of her work. In principle, my way of thinking is the same as that of Ayaan. I am against ANY religion whatsoever that suppresses individual freedoms of whatever nature. And I admire Ayaan’s insurmountable bravery in standing up for what she believes in. She inspires me and ignites a fire in me to fight oppression, in my own little way.
Like Ayaan, I was born to a Somali-Muslim community. I underwent FGM at the age of six, and have been told what to do for all of my childhood.
I will give a few examples of my struggles so that I can tell Ayaan that she is not the only woman, born Muslim, who thinks there is something wrong with Islam’s way of picking on women.
At a very early age, I became aware of the belittlement towards women in my community/religion. There were various times I asked myself why people looked down upon the girl child. Why the boy child could get away with mischief while the girl child could not so much as just be a child. There were several instances of my own childhood but a few stood out for me.
I was in in standard six (equivalent of Grade 4 I think), when one day I came home from school and I found a local Sheikh sat with my parents telling them that he had seen me with a group of boys. According to him I was acting in a manner “unbecoming” of a Muslim girl and I ought to be punished.
The “unbecoming” manner he was talking about was, simply playing football with my classmates in an open field near my school. Like any other 10 year old, I could not understand how playing football was so “shameful”, to the point of warranting punishment. And punishment in these types of settings does not entail taking away privileges like cell phone or computer – there were no privileges. Punishment entailed physical beating. That night I did receive a beating from my mother who told me to never play with boys again.
What confused me the more at that tender age was how easy it was for my mother to just take his word for it. Considering that I knew, even at that innocent age, that he wasn’t being completely honest with them. There was a way he looked at me in the field, which can be termed as definitely “unbecoming” of a devout Sheikh.
The very same Sheik would later, (in a matter of weeks actually), be accused of defiling a 9-year-old girl – who later died due to injuries sustained from her rape ordeal. Needless to say, he got away with it because it was “just an accusation and no one could prove anything”. In hindsight, I shuttered when I remembered how he looked at me. It stuck in my mind and I still remember his eyes to this very day.
As I grew older, when I started my secondary school – I attended a boarding school run by nuns – I began to feel a sense of freedom I had never felt before. I was a teen and I was becoming aware of my sexuality and the world in general. I listened to less and less of the Qoran and more of music. I wore trousers and I befriended boys. I took pictures at school without my Muslim gear and I simply enjoyed the freedom of showing off my long hair. During school breaks however, I would go back to wearing my hijab, keeping my school life a secret. Keeping my music a secret.
One day, my mother found my stash – my music collection and the pictures I took at school – and decided to burn them because they were inappropriate. So briefly, I ran away from home and spent about two days at my non-Muslim friend’s house. I envied my friend because she could play music on their stereo. Having nowhere to go, I returned home. That evening I heard my mother tell our neighbour, one day I would “bring shame” to my family. That stuck in my mind too.
When I finished high school, I joined Journalism school. I studied hard and as soon as I got my first job – TV reporter – I announced to my family I had plans to move out of our house in Nairobi’s suburbs.
This move elicited all manner of hostility both from my family and the community at large. You see – it is unheard of for an unmarried Muslim woman to want to live alone. In fact, it was widely assumed that the only motivation an unmarried woman would want to leave her parents home, was the “freedom to fornicate”.
I used the most diplomatic means to negotiate why I needed to move, explaining that I just wanted to find my own path. They were so hostile to the idea to an extent where a clan meeting was called to ‘tame’ me. I was beaten, tied up and a cleansing ritual was performed on me. The ritual entailed, reading the Qoran so loudly in my ear, to ‘exorcise’ me of evil spirits. This also entailed some more Sheiks whipping me in pretext of whipping the ‘djinn’ in me. Except the bruises where on my body and not on the ‘Djinn’s
Thus began the journey of my own freedom. And this is where Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s work comes into my story. I first started reading about Ayaan right after my moving-away ordeal. This was around 2004, a year after she won her Dutch parliamentary seat. Like many in Muslim communities who knew very little of the goings on around the world, I must say the brief read I had was not one that left me with a lot of awe. The article that appeared in the Kenyan newspaper “The Daily Nation” was subjective and painted Ayaan as a woman seeking the “Whiteman’s” respect by trashing her faith and culture.
I was also young, with turmoil’s of my own to overcome so I did not busy myself with finding out more. But I do remember saying to myself, so what? Why don’t they leave the poor girl alone?
For the next 10 years, I just lived my life, fighting my own struggles not fully aware of how she had affected me. Today, at 33 years old and married to a non-Muslim by choice, it is only a couple of years ago that I began vigorously following her work at the AHA foundation and realized how much space she has created for women to speak. I follow all her debates on YouTube and each time I am left perplexed by her courage.
I have also started thinking about becoming an atheist myself. For a long time I have rejected all that was imposed on me, but I have never fully denounced religion, I am seriously considering it now. I have visited several online forums including the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain (CEMB), where I have not only come across tremendous amount of knowledge, but I have seen how much women like Ayaan are admired all over the world.
More than anyone, I think I understand the amount of courage it takes to do what Ayaan is doing for women. And because of her, women like me can make personal choices and even raise their voices, even in places where it is still not safe to do so.