This is an autobiographical work that describes the remarkable life of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The book begins in Somalia, where Hirsi Ali was born and spent the early part of her childhood. It is here that Hirsi Ali discusses the second-class status of girls and the harrowing practice of female genital cutting, which she describes as it happened to her and her younger sister. Although her parents were against the practice, Hirsi Ali undergoes female genital cutting by the arrangement of her maternal grandmother, who states that if the clitoris is not cut, it will grow and end up dangling between the knees of the girl. This situation speaks to the variety of immediate reasons why different cultures engage in female genital cutting. They all revolve, however, around the disempowerment of girls and women and denying their basic human right to bodily integrity and sexuality. 

Due to civil unrest, Hirsi Ali and her family move around quite a bit while she is growing up, in places as distant as Saudi Arabia (where Hirsi Ali describes her childhood horror at seeing women clad in all black from head to toe), Ethiopia, and Kenya. Throughout her travels as a child and then a teenager, Hirsi Ali vacillates between being a staunch believer in Islam to questioning her faith, all while experiencing emotional, verbal, and savage physical abuse at the hands of her mother and, at one point, her Qur’an teacher. 

The action quickens at an incredible pace when Hirsi Ali’s father and community arrange for her to marry a Somali man who lives in Canada, even though Hirsi Ali does not consent to the marriage. It is telling when, on the day of her wedding ceremony, Hirsi Ali has a normal day at home while her father, her new husband, and the other men in her community have a celebration without her. In the Islamic ceremony, the bride only needs to be represented by a male guardian (father, brother, uncle, grandfather, etc) and does not physically need to be present. Hirsi Ali’s husband goes back to Canada and sends for her to join him. Rather than meeting her husband in Canada, Hirsi Ali manages to make her way to Amsterdam and apply for asylum. It is here that the reader watches Hirsi Ali confront a great amount of cognitive dissonance between what her Islamic upbringing has taught her about right and wrong versus what she personally experiences in the Netherlands, 

“The next morning, I decided to stage an experiment. I would walk out of the door without a headscarf. I was in my long green skirt and a long tunic, and I had my scarf in a bag with me in case of trouble, but I would not cover my hair. I planned to see what would happen...Absolutely nothing happened. The gardeners kept trimming the hedges. Nobody went into a fit...Nobody looked at me. If anything, I attracted less attention than when I was covering my head. Not one man went into a frenzy” (p. 195). 

Hirsi Ali is forthcoming about having lied on her asylum application to make her more likely to be approved. In the Netherlands, Hirsi Ali works as a Somali interpreter and, against all odds, goes on to attend college and obtain a degree in political science. While all of this is happening, Hirsi Ali is repeatedly impressed by Dutch society in their social order and equality between the sexes. She sees a glaring contrast between Dutch society and the lives of immigrant and refugee communities in the Netherlands. The Dutch, in an effort to be tolerant of immigrants and engage in multiculturalism, allowed Islamic religious schools to be established. Hirsi Ali, however, sees this as a way to sanction the systematic oppression of women in a democratic country. 

Hirsi Ali becomes politically active and becomes elected to the Dutch Parliament where she rails against this Dutch practice of allowing old-world religious edicts to coexist in a democratic land. As part of her fight against the sanctioning of hard-line Islam, Hirsi Ali writes a short film entitled Submission (which is the translation of the Arabic word “Islam”) that is produced by filmmaker Theo Van Gogh. The film speaks directly to the oppression of women in Islam.  At what is the climax of an already exciting book, Van Gogh is killed by a Muslim man who is clearly insulted by the film. Now, a publicly recognizable figure, Hirsi Ali’s life is in grave and immediate danger, and the Dutch parliament moves her from secure location to secure location (at one point, even as far as Boston) to protect her life. She is temporarily stripped of her Dutch citizenship on the basis of having lied on her asylum application, which effectively ends her political career in the Netherlands.  Hirsi Ali then re-locates to the United States. 


This autobiography speaks to the incredible strength and power of the author, who was able to rise above systematic misogyny, which met her at every corner and still become the master of her own fate. The most impressive part of this book is how beautifully it is written. The author had very limited formal schooling until she arrived in the Netherlands, yet she is able to construct her narrative and speak to her experiences so well. Hirsi Ali recognizes that her ability to rise up against her situation is unique when she states, 

“I don’t want my arguments to be considered sacrosanct because I have had horrible experiences; I haven’t. In reality, my life has been marked by enormous good fortune. How many girls born in Digfeer Hospital in Mogadishu in November 1969 are even alive today? And how many have a real voice?” (p. 348). 

A powerful aspect of this narration is how Hirsi Ali intellectualizes and objectively analyzes many of her experiences. Although she conveys the horror of being beaten by her mother, she does not simply condemn her mother and move on. Rather, she looks at the factors that would cause her mother to take out her anger in this way: a husband who leaves the family and marries another woman in a polygamous society, a lack of financial independence, living as a foreigner in a non-Muslim nation, and having a home country that is embroiled in war. While none of these factors justify the abuse of a child, Hirsi Ali elevates the conversation to include all of the forces with which a woman in her mother’s place must contend. 

Hirsi Ali uses her autobiography to rail against the Islamic faith. However, what motivates her to denounce her prior faith is her own lived experience: it is because she has been cut in the name of religion, beaten in the name of religion, and seen unthinkable inequality of the genders and of the races justified in the name of religion. Because Hirsi Ali denounces Islam based on her own experience in the faith rather than based on stereotypes or ignorance, it is much easier for the reader to accept her viewpoint as valid. The reader is shown that Hirsi Ali sees that gender equality and Islam as she experienced it are mutually exclusive, and so she must choose the one that is most important to her and denounce the other, 

“There are so many Muslim women in shelters here [The Netherlands], who have been beaten. The men who beat them say these women must obey because Islam requires it. I am exposing this relationship between our faith and the behavior of our men” (p. 286). 

Hirsi Ali’s journey speaks to how dangerous it is to become an advocate for gender equality in the face of long-established religion and cultural practices. Her life was threatened repeatedly, her associate murdered, and her political career for which she worked so hard was abruptly halted and stripped away from her. Yet, she still fights for the equality of girls and women, so many of whom are silenced and dehumanized in many parts of the world. The best explanation of Hirsi Ali’s viewpoints against Islam are provided by the author herself at the end of the book, 

“People often imply that I am angry because I am excised, or because my father married me off. They never fail to add that such things are rare in the modern Muslim world. The fact is that hundreds of millions of women around the world live in forced marriages, and six thousand small girls are excised every day. My excision in no way damaged my mental capacities; and I would like to be judged on the validity of my arguments, not as a victim. My central motivating concern is that women in Islam are oppressed” (p. 348). 


Atria Books

Place Published

New York

Page Count