Near the end of January, I started to read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s autobiography Infidel. Infidel is a haunting, invigorating, and humbling read. It is divided into “two books”, according to Christopher Hitchens who is the author of the Forward in Infidel. He explains:
“The first (book) is a fascinating memoir of participation in..cross-border and cross cultural migration…the other journey described here..is a gradual emancipation of the self from the ‘mind forged manacles’ of theocracy” (Ali xiii-xxiv)
Fifteen chapters later, my mind is flooded with depictions of Ali learning the rules of survival as a child in Matabaan, running across Ethiopia, building upon religious questions in Kenya, traveling to Holland to seek refuge, and more. Hitchens’s depiction of Ali’s autobiography is extremely accurate, and I’ll add a description of my own to the mix: Ali embarks on a physical and religious pilgrimage in Infidel. The wisdom and experiences she has slowly (and painfully) pave the way for her to move forward in feminist thinking and religious awareness.
Ali’s religious pilgrimage begins with Islam and eventually moves towards atheism. In Somalia, her family held a more basic and lax belief in Islam that was influenced by tribal culture and familial ties; however, it is when Ali, her siblings, and her mother move to Saudi Arabia that she begins to question her faith. She writes:
“We had learned part of Quran by heart…although we had never understood more than a word..because it was in Arabic. But the teacher in Mecca said we recited it disrespectfully…we had to learn it all again, but this time with reverent pauses. Apparently, understanding wasn’t the point” (Ali 42).
The point the teacher above was stressing was submission; readers will see as Ali delves deeper into her relationship with Islam, she is also struggling to not submit her entire self to the religion. Regardless of where readers find themselves in Ali’s autobiography, she always makes a point of repeated her need to question/research beliefs, the Quran, or whichever ideologies she talks about in different chapters. This was (and still is) a process that I find myself relating to every time I start a new chapter in this book.This is one of the darkest and most harrowing parts of her autobiography that took me weeks to swallow.
Ali’s physical and religious pilgrimages are not always exciting–they are grim, raw, and very real. The way Ali crafts her journey towards feminism and away from Islam has opened my eyes to the beauty of memoir and how its structure can educate readers, narrate a story, and illuminate ideals about Islam, the tribulations of Muslim women, and cross-cultural migration that were otherwise unknown or hazy to some individuals who pick up this book (including myself).
I was raised in a Christian household that was lax, at first, but when I reached my 20’s my parent’s house became more rigid with going to church, reading the Bible, and living a Christian life. As Ali traveled, she learned that she had to develop a “dialogue with her deity” (Ali xxi) in order to decipher the questions she had about Islam and being a “true Muslim woman”. I went to Africa and Russia on the premise of delivering the Word to primary school students and college students, and prayed that my relationship to God would be strengthened during these trips.
God was silent, and I was angry.
Back then, I tried channeling my anger into problem-solving to figure out what I needed to do to get back on track with my faith. Yet, the more I read, prayed, and conversed with God the more frustrated I became. Honestly, I gained more wisdom and experience speaking to the locals I met in the Kotokata village in Ghana and the forests of Losevo in Russia than when I was doing Bible studies with the students in both of these places. It seemed as though I was slowly moving away from Christianity and towards the dark unknown; I’m still there today, but a dim light has begun to break through the dark.
At the beginning of Infidel, Ali’s grandmother quotes this proverb:
“When you’re born a woman, you must live as a woman” (Ali 49).
I say, very politely, “Hell no.” Ali’s courage and determination to free herself from the bonds of her Islamic upbringing and towards a brighter sense of self is what is motivating me to keep learning, keep fighting, and keep searching for the light that feminism has brought into my life.