Breaking The Chains: The Battle To Find and Use My Voice
When filmmaker Theo van Gogh was murdered on an Amsterdam street, a message was attached to his body: Ayaan Hirsi Ali was next. As a Dutch parliament member, Ali worked to secure basic human rights for female Muslim immigrants. She shares her journey, from a forced marriage to a new life in the West.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an outspoken defender of women's rights in Islamic societies. Hirsi Ali was born in Mogadishu, Somalia. She escaped an arranged marriage by immigrating to the Netherlands in 1992, and served as a member of the Dutch parliament from 2003 to 2006.
In parliament, she worked on furthering the integration of non-Western immigrants into Dutch society, and on defending the rights of women in Dutch Muslim society. In 2004, together with director Theo van Gogh, she made "Submission," a film about the oppression of women in conservative Islamic cultures.
Mary G. F. Bitterman
Before becoming President of The Bernard Osher Foundation, Mary G.F. Bitterman most recently served as President and CEO of The James Irvine Foundation, an independent grantmaking foundation serving Californians, and as President and CEO of KQED, one of the leading public broadcasting centers in the United States. She has served also as Executive Director of the Hawaii Public Broadcasting Authority, Director of the Voice of America, Director of the Hawaii State Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs, and Director of the East-West Center's Institute of Culture and Communication.
Bitterman currently is a director (and Chairman) of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), The Bernard Osher Foundation, Bank of Hawaii, Barclays Global Investors, Santa Clara University, and the Commonwealth Club of California. She has produced several documentaries for public television and has written on telecommunications development and the role of media in developing societies. She is an Honorary Member of the National Presswomen's Federation and a Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration. Bitterman received her B.A. from Santa Clara University and her M.A. and Ph.D. from Bryn Mawr College.
Good evening and welcome to this evening's meeting of the Commonwealth Club of California. I amMary Bitterman President of The Bernard Osher Foundation and a member of the Board of Directors ofthe Commonwealth Club of California. Tonight's program is a good lit event, under written by the veryfoundation for which I work and its our pleasure this evening and certainly mine to welcome ourdistinguished speaker Ayaan Hirsi Ali, International Human Rights activist and author of the book 'Infidel'.I know that many of you in this evening's audience and those who will read Ayaan's book will beinterested to know that she was born in Somalia and raised in a strict Muslim family and extended clan.She has survived civil war, female mutilation, brutal beatings in adolescence as a devout believerduring the rise of the Muslim brotherhood and life in four troubled, unstable countries largely ruled by despots.At the age of 22 she escaped from a forced marriage and sought asylum in the Netherlands where sheearned her degree in political science at Holland's oldest and very distinguished University at Leiden andfought for the rights of Muslim immigrant women and the reform of Islam as a member of the DutchParliament. She is now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC.Ayaan, we warmly welcome you.Thank you very much. Thank you.I am pleased to know that Ayaan is in the good company of colleagues like Norm Ornstein at theAmerican Enterprise Institute. So I know that on the East coast you are being well looked after.Thank you.I know that there are some members of our audience this evening who have not yet had a chance toread your book. And I wondered if you might provide just a brief synopsis of your childhood. Thechallenges that you faced in your childhood and teen years and what you count is the most enduringlessons learnt from those early experiences. I think that provides a backdrop for so many things thatoccurred afterwards and I think it's an important starting point.I was born in Somalia on the 13th of November 1969. 1969 is significant, because on the 21st ofOctober, 1969 in Somalia power was seized by force by a man who belonged to the military and thepower he seized was from a temporary government left behind by the Italians and the British afterdecolonization. It's what we nowadays call, the so-called interim government.My father who was involved in the politics of that he was running in becoming a member of parliamentwas put in jail and many of his colleagues were killed and it's in that context that I am born.Seven years after my birth, maybe eight years, my mother sneaks me, my sister and little brother out ofSomalia and we go to Saudi Arabia following my father who had escaped from prison. And the manwho had helped him escape a director of the jail in Mogadishu, but then a very close member of theclan of my father and was killed for helping my father escape. So that's the political context. I come toSaudi Arabia, I was an eight year old girl and the first thing that I noticed is that women are covered inblack and my little sister and I, full of a sense of adventure. We didn't have toys, we hadn't learn toamuse ourselves the way western children do and full of curiosity, full of energy running around wesaw women and we could not distinguish their front side from their backside. And we ran about streetsand on the pavement saying when one of them took out her hand from the shroud to reach for a childwe both screamed they have hands and that is my memory of Saudi Arabia.The sex segregation, the different spaces for men and women, for boys and girls in Somalia until myeighth age and I attended Madrasa or Koran school with little boys. My brother and I were treateddifferently that was very clear but still we went to school together. We played together and we were aMuslim country. But Saudi Arabia's Islam was much more pure, much more true and we Somalis werethen, at that time, considered the barbarians, the Muslims who did not really understand Islam.We left Saudi Arabia a year later. We were deported and we were deported because my father wouldnot let go of his passion to be involved in Somalia politics. Once in Saudi Arabia he had to promise theSaudi government that he was not going to be involved with Somali politics. Somalia was a member ofthe Arab League and a friendly nation to Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabia did not want to harborrebellions or rebellious people, insurgents if you can call them, in Saudi Arabia.So my father was given a choice from one day to the next. You either leave the country within 24 hoursor you butt out of politics in Somalia and he said I am going to leave the country within 24 hours andso he was deported. Because the Saudi government had an agreement with the United Nations HighCommissioner for refugees they could not return us to Somalia. If they returned us to Somalia myfather would be killed, my mother would probably also be killed and so we had to make a choice. Mymother did not want to go to a Non-Islamic land. My father wanted to take us to Ethiopia. They foughtand fought. He is the man, he won, we went to Ethiopia.We lived there for one and a half years in which case my mother lost her baby, started to suffer andmade very, very clear that it was not the best place to bring up three small children. It was a huge houseand it was an opposition house and they were men living there all involved in the opposition politics ofSomalia. So my father said well we can go back to Kenya he did not want to return us to Saudi Arabiaor any other Arab country. He despised the Arabs and he thought there was a difference between Arabs and Islam.So we ended up in Kenya and we remained in Kenya and I was 10 years old when we arrived therebetween 1980 until, in my case, 1992 when a man came from Canada looking for a wife. Heapproached my father and he said I am looking - well you have five daughters and said you are areputable man. I am of the clan, I am hard working young man living in Canada and my father said,well Ayaan is the girl for you. And there is no question about that. They made the deal and I becamehis wife but you don't totally become a wife officially you have to go to your husband and you needofficial paperwork for that, the immigration paper work and my husband had to go to Canada and tostart preparing that in Kenya. They couldn't prepare that because at that time in 1991 because of thecivil war, the queues in front of the Canadian embassy, of Somalis trying to get their family one way orthe other to Canada was so long that it would take forever before I could ever go to Canada.So an uncle of mine, part of the extended clan family in Germany offered and said we want Ayaan. Ican offer you she can come here and then we can arrange the immigration paperwork from Germany.Once I got to Germany and I stayed there for two days I found the opportunity to live I wanted to go tothe UK and discovered unfortunately that there is a sea between the UK and the continent. And then theyoung boy in whose mother's house I was staying 14-years old told me but you can take the train toHolland and they will not ask for a Visa. I did not tell him of my plans he was simply excited to be ableto know more than I did and to be...In the summer and I went to Holland and I asked for asylum and that was on the 24th of July 1992 andbetween 1992 and 2001, I was a refugee, a translator, interpreter, a student of political science and Ihad a simulated introduction to society; so much so, that I really was an average I had become inpractice an an average European woman with the attitude of an average 31-year-old Europeanwoman. And when the 11th of September came, that affected us all of course. And it affected me in away that I had to answer the appeal from the European leaders and western leaders who said whocalled on to Muslims, all Muslims and said, please stand up and say this is not done in my religion, onthe one hand and on the other hand, Bin Laden, and his followers again appealing to the Muslim andsaying, "We are engaged in holy war against an enemy of infidels, who wants to destroy Islam. Where do you stand?"So if you are a Muslim, on the 11th of September living in the West, and probably elsewhere, there wasno neutral ground. You are either with the West or you are not. Now, what I did being a Muslim andattached to my faith I thought I will first of all first of all find out if what Bin Laden is saying istrue? And I started to download his speeches from the Internet, compared his quotations with the HolyKoran and the Hadid which is the moral guidelines that Prophet Mohammad has left behind. You cancompare them to some kind of traffic book on how to behave and how to behave.And I was shocked and disappointed and saddened to find out that what he was saying was consistentand that what I had been telling my friends you know, and it, not all Muslims are fundamentalist andIslam is peace and so on. That it was just pretty much hogwash and that I had first of all to find as anindividual a way out between my conscience and my beliefs and my behavior. And I ended up beingan atheist. And I am not propagating in that transition of being a from being a very devout Muslim,to what I've become now.I am not propagating that Muslims become atheists, all I am saying is fellow Muslims must look at thatconsistency between the message of Bin Laden and what the Koran says, and what the Prophet says;acknowledge, and review it and change it. And that has earned me the label of Infidel. Because if youchange what is written in the Koran, if you reviewed, if you acknowledge that there is somethingwrong with the Koran or with the faith, then you are ultimately an Infidel.