The feminist writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali lived out a new chapter of her controversial public life this month when Brandeis University abruptly withdrew its offer to bestow on her an honorary doctorate in May.
“She is a compelling public figure and advocate for women’s rights, and we respect and appreciate her work to protect and defend the rights of women and girls throughout the world,” said the university’s press release. “That said, we cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values.”
To some, the 44-year-old activist is a profile in courage, standing up to the misogyny that afflicts many Muslim women. To others, she is a shocking Islamophobe, mistakenly attributing her personal hardship to one of the three Abrahamic religions.
In 2008, Hirsi Ali won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for her gripping memoir, “Infidel,” a title apt to the political moment. It also reflects her struggle with a religion that she sees undergirding her genital mutilation in Somalia at age five, beatings that intensified as she grew, and a forced marriage at age 22. In “Infidel,” Hirsi Ali describes her abrupt defection to the Netherlands – where she learned Dutch and did janitorial work to put herself through university. In 2003, she was elected to Parliament.
Three years later, death threats and the assassination of a collaborator sent her into exile in the United States, where she took work as a visiting scholar for the American Enterprise Institute, and became a citizen in 2013.
“When Brandeis approached me with the offer of an honorary degree, I accepted partly because of the institution’s distinguished history; it was founded in 1948, in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust, as a co-educational, nonsectarian university at a time when many American universities still imposed rigid admission quotas on Jewish students,” Hirsi Ali said in a statement. “I assumed that Brandeis intended to honor me for my work as a defender of the rights of women against abuses that are often religious in origin. For over a decade, I have spoken out against such practices as female genital mutilation, so-called ‘honor killings,’ and applications of Sharia Law that justify such forms of domestic abuse as wife beating or child beating. Part of my work has been to question the role of Islam in legitimizing such abhorrent practices. So I was not surprised when my usual critics, notably the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), protested against my being honored in this way.”
Others weighed in. Roughly 85 faculty members signed a letter to the president of Brandeis decrying Hirsi Ali’s honorary degree, generally seen as sanctioning a body of work. A student petition objecting to her selection also circulated online. But when news of the rescinding broke, others objected to Brandeis’ about-face.
The Wall Street Journal published an abridged version of the remarks Hirsi Ali intended to deliver at graduation May 28. In her epilogue to “Infidel,” she writes, “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?”