One of the earlier and most remarkable memories of my youth is a conversation with my grandmother. I had many conversations with her, or rather monologues, but this particular one stands out as she imparted the most important insights of her teachings. It was the moment when I understood how much I was worth. My value was approximately the same as a piece of sheep fat in the sun.
We were on our front yard of white sand. It was a hot day, like almost all days in Mogadishu. There was nothing unusual about the flies that irritated us or the ants that I avoided for fear of their sharp, agonizing bites. If they happened to crawl under my dress or I sat on them accidentally they would punish me with a sting that made me shriek with pain. That shrieking and hopping about would earn disapproval and even a slap from Grandmother.
I think I was 6 or 7 on that day, maybe younger, but I know I was not 8 because my family had not yet left Somalia. Grandmother was moralizing as usual. On that day, like all other days, she was admonishing me to remember my place.
“Cross your legs,” she said, “lower your gaze. You must learn not to laugh, and if you must laugh then see to it that you don’t cackle like the neighbor’s hen.” We had no chickens but the noise of the neighbors’ hens screeching and hooting and trespassing was enough for me to get the message.
“If you must go outside make sure you are accompanied and that you and your company walk as far away from men as possible,” she said.
To my grandmother’s annoyance, I responded with the question: “But Grandmother, what about Mahad?” My brother Mahad never seemed to invite this kind of endless preaching from Grandmother. She answered me like the obtuse child she decided I was.
“Mahad is a man! Your misfortune is that you were born with a split between your legs. And now, we the family must cope with that reality!”
I thought: There was yet another thing I did wrong and I did not have the ability to set right. If only I wasn’t so dimwitted; if only I understood how I was to blame for the flaw that granny abhorred so much.
“Ayaan, you are stubborn, you are reckless and you ask too many questions. That is a fatal combination. Disobedience in women is crushed and you are disobedient. It is in you, it is in your bone marrow. I can only attempt to tell you what is right.”
Grandmother pointed to a piece of sheep fat on the ground. It was covered with ants, and flies were zooming above it, landing on it, sucking it. It was a vile piece of meat that was being warmed by the sun, and a trickle of fat seeped out of it. She said: “You are like that piece of sheep fat in the sun. If you transgress, I warn you men will be no more merciful to you than those flies and ants are to that piece of fat.”
A lot has changed in my life since those days in the sun with Grandmother. Today when I look back I see that I have proven her wrong. I disobeyed, true to my nature, I transgressed, but I avoided the destiny of the sheep fat.
Sitting in an airplane, I have on my lap the memoir of Nujood Ali. The title of the book is “I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced.” My reading list contains another book, by Elizabeth Gilbert. It is called “Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia.” The reason I associate the two books is because of their description of marriage and divorce, and particularly the word “painful.”
Nujood was 8 years old when a delivery man approached her father in Sana, Yemen. After the initial expression of hospitality, the delivery man stated his business: He was looking for a wife. Nujood’s two older sisters were already married, so she was the logical bride, regardless of her age. Her father accepted $750 in dowry money and gave away his 8-year-old daughter. When Nujood’s mother and sisters appealed to him, pleading that she was too young to get married, the father responded with the excuse used by all Muslim fathers who marry off their daughters before they come of age: “Too young? When the Prophet wed Aisha she was only 9.”
In fact, Muhammad wed Aisha when she was 6. According to Scripture, the Prophet waited for Aisha to begin menstruating before consummating the marriage. Nujood’s new husband, Faez, showed no such restraint.
In painful detail, Nujood describes a real nightmare on her wedding night: How she runs away, how she seeks help, how she struggles, how he touches her and she wriggles out of his arms, how she calls out to her mother- in-law. “Aunty,” she screams, “somebody help me!” But there was silence. She describes how he gets hold of her, his awful smell, a mixture of tobacco and onions. She recounts the childish threat she makes — “I will tell my father” — and the husband’s reply: “You can tell your father whatever you like. He signed the marriage contract, he gave me permission to marry you.”
From the time Nujood was able to gather her wits about her she set about planning her escape. The story is recommended reading for anyone who seriously wants to understand what Muslim women can be subjected to.
In Yemen, Nujood’s father, her husband, the judges, the policemen and the broader society — with the exception of a very few — view her situation as normal. And Yemen is by no means unique.
When I turn to Elizabeth Gilbert’s description of a painful divorce it becomes clear to me what feminism has accomplished in the West. Gilbert decides to divorce her husband not because he was forced upon her, but because there is something intangible that he cannot give her. She chose to marry him. Every decision she made was voluntary: to marry him, to buy property with him, even to try for a child. Yet still she felt unfulfilled.
The deep sense of dissatisfaction leads her to abandon her marriage, the life of a privileged woman. She goes to Italy to find a piece of herself, the pleasure of eating. She goes to India to find another piece of herself: the pleasure of devotion. In Indonesia she finds yet another piece of herself: the balance between the pleasures of eating and praying. In India she finds a guru who answers her spiritual needs.
Gilbert’s story shows what feminism can achieve elsewhere, especially in the Muslim world.
But her story also demonstrates something else. Those women in the West who, like Gilbert, have harvested what the early feminists fought for have almost no affinity for women like Nujood — and like me when I was a little girl.
This is not to pass judgment on Gilbert. On the contrary, I admire her intellectual honesty and her pursuit of self-knowledge. The woman I have become in the West now feels closer to the Gilberts of this world than the Nujoods. But I find myself asking as I read these two books: What can current Western feminism offer the Nujoods?
I often am asked by my Western audiences: “Where did feminism go wrong?” I think the answer is staring us in the face. Western feminism hasn’t gone wrong at all — it has accomplished its mission so completely that a woman like Elizabeth Gilbert can marry freely and then leave her husband equally freely, purely in order to pursue her own culinary and religious inclinations. The victory of feminism allows women like Gilbert to shape their own destinies.
But there is a price for this victory: The price is a solipsism so complete that a great many Western women have lost the ability to empathize with women not only in the Islamic world, but also in China, India and other countries; women whose suffering takes forms that are now largely unknown in the West, save in the ghettos of immigrants. They are too busy hunting for the perfect prayer mat or pasta to give two hoots about a case of child-rape in Yemen.
The best we can hope for is not for the West to invade other countries in the hope of emancipating their women. That is neither realistic nor desirable (and remains our least plausible war aim in Afghanistan).
The best we can hope for is a neo-feminism that reminds women in the West of the initial phases of their liberation movement. Those phases not only highlighted the subjugation of women, they set out to dismantle the foundations of their cages. For the dream of liberation to come true for women in the East it is imperative that we seek to shatter the underpinnings of their subjugation, which are now enshrined in religion and custom.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who escaped an arranged marriage in her native Somalia by immigrating to the Netherlands. She now lives in Washington, where she is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.