On Tuesday 13th of October, the Room for Discussion Podcast welcomed Ayaan Hirsi Ali: a feminist, activist, author, scholar and former Dutch politician. This interviewee was born in Somalia but immigrated to the Netherlands in 1992 at the age of 23 in order to escape an arranged marriage. After receiving refugee status, she fought her way into Leiden University to study political science. Ayaan has become mostly known for her fight for (Muslim) women’s rights, including the fight against forced marriages and female genital mutilation. She was also a member of the liberal-conservative party VVD in the Dutch parliament. Ayaan currently lives in the United States where she works as a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and leads the AHA Foundation she founded.
The conversation started by engaging with Ayaan’s upbringing and experience living around the world. The fact that she lived in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya before seeking asylum in the Netherlands has taught her to adapt quickly to new environments, which has made it easier for her to integrate into Dutch society. However, her fellow asylum seekers rarely had a similar experience. As she mentions, adapting to the new norms, language, lower social status and climate was incredibly difficult for them at the time, causing their discontented isolation from the rest of society. Ayaan believes the Dutch state held partial responsibility for refugees’ poor assimilation – something she thinks has likely improved since 1992. As a result of her experience of working as a Dutch-Somali interpreter for various public services, she gained an insight into how Dutch policies used to fail immigrants in offering a prosperous and fulfilling life besides providing shelter, resulting in the creation of an underclass of people.
During this period, Ayaan became acquainted with the individualistic liberal values of Western societies as opposed to the collectivistic and religious ones of the communities she was raised in. With time, this made her become critical of the violation of the Muslim girls’ rights, such as the unequal access to education and honour killings. Her condemnation of Islamic norms, especially when it comes to the treatment of women, resulted in various death threats from Islamic extremists. Probably her most famous work in this regard was the collaboration on “Submission: Part 1” with Theo Van Gogh, a Dutch film director assassinated for producing the movie. Ayaan expressed her view that the Islamic idea of a Holy War against infidels which resulted in Theo’s death is still a significant problem in global society. She criticised governments for refusing to define this as a problem, hindering the development of an appropriate policy.
ON DUTCH POLITICS
The conversation then switched to Dutch politics due to the interviewee’s first-hand experience as an MP. Here Ayaan expressed her opposition to the idea of diversity quotas, claiming that the empirical evidence clearly shows that such policies do not result in actual changes but are rather a symbolic idea pushed forward to collect votes. Moreover, the podcast engaged with the topic of growing populist parties in the Netherlands. In this regard, Ayaan said that she favours traditional parties due to their established infrastructure, institutional memory and experience. Still, she does think they need restructuring. Precisely, she believes the flaws of the traditional political agenda, such as the neglected topics of immigration, Islam and the democratic deficit within the EU, need to be amended.
On the topic of the Dutch ban on wearing a burka, Ayaan maintains the government should not restrict anyone’s freedom of self-expression. Despite condemning the idea of women having to cover up in order to prevent male sexual arousal, she opposes the legal burka restriction. She believes providing institutions with the autonomy to form their own guidelines is the right strategy. On the other hand, she believes there are much more critical issues that this debate overlooks, such as domestic violence and threats towards Muslim women who refuse to wear a burka. Therefore, she holds that the public discussion in this regard is wrongly formulated. Instead of focusing on issues of national security, the everyday well-being of Muslim women should be given more attention.
Comparing her experience of living in the Netherlands and in the US, Ayaan emphasised that the main difference is in public consensus versus political polarisation. When it comes to the current trends in the US, Ayaan holds firm opinions on the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM) and cancel culture. While the interviewee does not deny the presence of racial disparities and racism in the US, she believes there is no better place in the world for minorities to live in and hence disagrees with the BLM rhetoric. She considers their discourse flawed in a sense that it does not help black communities prosper but rather neglects more important tabooed topics such as violence within black households. In her opinion, the BLM ideas are too radical, mainly in the context of proclaiming the whole US population as racist and demanding a complete reorganisation of the American economic system into the extreme left-wing direction. Still, she compliments the BLM for encouraging the polemic on what used to be unpopular topics such as the reform of the prison system.
ON CANCEL CULTURE
When it comes to the cancel culture trend, Ayaan believes the movement is pushed by a loud minority that applies postmodernist theories which narrowly observe social relations through the lense of power relations. What she considers wrong is these activists’ view of the world as constrained by oppressive structures which can be changed through policing language and, subsequently, restricting free speech. Aside from jihadism, she believes cancel culture is likely the worst development of modern society. Ayaan herself has been cancelled for apparently having Islamophobic views which makes her emphatic towards those who loose their reputation, job and livelihood as a result of getting cancelled for freely expressing their opinions.
In her opinion, this culture dangerously restricts the freedom of thought in academia as well: asking about the underlying reasons for differing susceptibility to COVID-19 infection among diverse ethnic groups is now forbidden according to her personal experience. She considers the idea of providing safe space at universities mistaken: universities should teach students how to think and not what to think. The concept of policing language is wrong in her view since creating the atmosphere where not making anyone offended is a priority is inherently micro aggressive. On the contrary, students should be faced with a broad spectrum of perspectives, while having the opportunity to receive expert mental health help if needed and not a “safe space”.
ON EMPOWERING WOMEN
Lastly, Ayaan addressed audience questions. Asked about the proper strategy to fight for equal rights of men and women on a global level, she said that enabling girls to stay in school and providing them with access to sanitary services are the most crucial steps. Nevertheless, she is aware that these contrast with cultural and religious dogmas in the developing world. Although she acknowledges that even Islamic countries are seeing improvements in this aspect, she deems these changes too slow and painful. Importantly, Ayaan does not consider Western liberal countries Utopian either. There are still fights to ensure the respect of all humans’ rights. However, she believes many modern feminists are too preoccupied with being woke instead of paying attention to oppressed women in developing nations. When asked what advice she would give to men in this regard, it is to offer women protection when they are being suppressed. Although modern feminists focus on women protecting themselves, Ayaan claims men mustn’t stay behind, especially when it comes to the increasing attacks on women in public spaces. Instead of performative justice and woke activism, Ayaan calls for concrete action in order to make public space safe again for all women.