In horribly oppressive theocratic countries, these five remarkable women bust out to find a freedom that many of us in America fear and hide from under the veils of self-imposed constraints. A wake up call to the American fundamentalists who demand more religious based laws and education. Theocracies exist and they often grow into ugly regimes.
The autobiography, entitled Infidel by Ayaan Kirsi Ali, drags gruesome truths out from the shadows of Muslim society that otherwise remain in the darkness of closed circles and communications controlled by Islamic authorities. Ayaan exposes the hidden workings of a backward society gripped tightly in religious fervor.
Ayaan shows us how the social threads in many Muslim countries weave tightly together to form a tough fabric that binds, conceals, and controls every aspect of a person’s life. The social fabric consumes all individual freedoms that we in the West take for granted.
Faith in a religion can burn so feverishly that it consumes the human spirit in the flames of dogma, superstitions, and traditions. In many Islamic countries, the religion fuels itself into an increasingly intense heat as each of its members imposes the rules of conduct on others.
The self-policing in these Muslim societies operates in ways similar to the Stasi police in the old Soviet Union where every person is coerced to control the next by threat of dishonor, ostracizing…corporal and mental punishment, prison…torture. If any one member falls out of rank from the strict confines of conduct, that person, and any one related by family or even by clan, suffers draconian consequences.
Here we discover the religious version of Orwell’s 1984. The state, driven by a closed and dictatorial ideology of God, imposes absolute conformity over its people to the point where the human soul is consumed by the bitter, resentful relationships in which every man and woman is expected to abide by and enforce the strict rules of behavior by violent force.
The Islamic faith has allowed an extreme totalitarian regime to take root and grow into every part of a person’s existence in such countries as Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, …the places where Ayaan lived as a girl. This religious belief and law forms the authority from a sacred book, the Koran (and other supplements of Sharia and hadiths…) which everyone reads as the absolute word of God. The culture that Ayaan experiences day by day represents the ultimate of a fundamentalist regime where church and state form the same authoritative body.
If nothing else, Ayaan’s view of a religious regime, a theocracy, serves as a wake-up call the popular religious culture in the US. If taken too far, the mixing of religion with politics can lead to a cancerous growth, eating away at individual spirituality. Fundamentalism is the same no matter where a fervent believer thumps a holy text as the absolute word of God.
Ayaan shows how the right mix of luck and choice can transform even the most hopeless existence. To some extent, Ayaan succeeds in obtaining her goal: individual freedom and self-expression. She overcomes seemingly insurmountable obstacles by passing over the word “no” that many people say to her.
First, as comfortable American readers, we cringe in disgust at the brutal everyday lives of most Muslim women. Ayaan wrote Submission, the short film about Islamic misogyny that led to the murder of its director, the Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh, in 2004, and Ayaan’s memoir testifies how much bitter experience lay buried in the film's foundations. The film revolves around women and quotes from the Koran giving men free use of violence to manage their female possessions. Such as: “As to those women on whose part you fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them, scourge them…”
One story among many: as a girl in Somalia, Hirsi Ali was expected to do all the household chores while her brother, Mahad, the man of the house, skipped off free. If she rebelled, her mother thrashed her; tying her up and whipping her until she repented. Her teachers beat her, too, once so badly that her skull fractured and the resulting brain hemorrhage nearly killed her.
Later, in Saudi Arabia, social pressure confines her to stay forever inside, housebound, unable to step outside without a male chaperone for fear of being raped, and, if raped, disgraced and disowned. At five years old, she was circumcised - "excised" she calls it - and sewn up, so that her husband would later know she was a virgin.
After all, what honorable Muslim could even contemplate a woman with her genitals still attached as God designed them?
Ayaan’s memoir is not the only one that has slipped out of the tight control of Islamic authorities.
Carmen bin Laden’s memoir depicts the same society with its violently enforced laws and codes of conduct. Only Carmen tells her story from the perspective of a woman entrapped in “a smooth gold-fish bowl” with no exit. As the wife of a Saudi from one of wealthiest families in the country, she enjoys the view from an ivory tower, but alas, it serves only as a prison constraining thought, movement, and behavior.
The series of memoirs by Jean Sasson, in collaboration with an anonymous Muslim princess, shows us virtually the same social dynamics where women live as playful pleasure and breeding tools for men’s amusement. The tone echoes a deep bitter and resigned hopelessness.
In her memoir, In the Name of Honour, Mukhtar Mai, a Pakistani woman, was gang-raped by order of a local court in a tribal dispute. Instead of remaining silent by shame as a victim, she took control and dragged her attackers all the way to national court and setting a precedence and example –a cause célèbre beyond her village and country.