Ideas can be dangerous. I have learnt that the hard way. But I know that when it comes to freedom and human rights these precious ideas, so valued in the West, are worth fighting for. As a young Muslim woman, born in Somalia, I abandoned my family to avoid an arranged marriage to a distant cousin and fled to Holland. I was just 23 and I had no idea back then that my refusal to submit to a traditional Muslim woman’s life would come to dominate my whole career.
So for me, the debate that is raging about the veil, particularly the niqab, which covers most of the woman’s face save for the eyes, goes to the very heart of the matter of liberty for Islamic women. Not just freedom for its own sake, but from a life of repression, subordination and violence.
Last week, for example, a senior Muslim cleric in Australia alluded in a sermon to unveiled women as “uncovered meat”. Sheikh Taj El Din al-Hilaly’s remarks prompted outrage, but he will have many faithful followers who agree with him.
Such insults to women are all the more reason to welcome the recent stand by Jack Straw and Tony Blair on the niqab. Not only is it a “visible mark of separation” as Straw described it, but also a visible sign of subjugation. At the same time it serves to condemn the male as well. If I were a man I would find it insulting because it supposes that all men are incapable of sexual self-restraint.
Like Straw I have also drawn on my experience of dealing with constituents. I served three years as an MP in the Dutch parliament, devoting myself to speaking out about female rights in Islamic societies. I often had to translate for poor women immigrants who were usually barely educated and nearly always in thrall to men.
In Islamic societies the veil functions as a constant reminder to the outside world of a stifling morality that makes a Muslim man’s honour entirely dependent on the respectable, obedient behaviour of the female members of his family.
I am living proof that Muslim women in the West can only benefit from turning away from the principles in their faith that justify subordination and embracing those of liberty in their host cultures. But there is a high price for urging Muslims to examine their beliefs. I have received death threats for becoming an infidel and two years ago the airing of a film about the oppression of women which I made with the director Theo van Gogh resulted in his murder by an Islamic terrorist.
The arguments for and against the veil will rage on, but what increasingly alarms me is the emergence of a post 9/11 generation of young women in the West who are out to make a statement by wearing the niqab. They enjoy all the western freedoms but choose to flaunt the veil. They are the female equivalent of the radical young men who travel to Pakistan and come back wanting to blow up trains.
Such men see themselves as companions of the prophet and they are “high” on religion. Both groups have completely succumbed to totalitarian seduction; they are the worst enemies of Islam, both to its image and to its chances of reformation.
The existence of this noisy female minority, many of them wealthy and educated, hides the fact that there are thousands of poorer women in Europe and millions across the Muslim world who have no voice and no choice. They are punished and threatened for daring to follow a different path.
In my book The Caged Virgin (Simon & Schuster) I tell the story of my friend Samira Ahmed, a 24-year-old girlishly pretty woman with a smile that seduces even the gloomiest of faces. Born to a family who left Morocco in the early 1980s and settled in the Netherlands, she is one of 10 children.
In the summer of 2005 I attended her graduation ceremony in Amsterdam where she received a diploma in education and a record 10 score (the highest possible) for her thesis. But behind the celebration lay tragedy. When I arrived for her graduation I noticed the happy class, a total of 35 students, gathered in clusters around coffee stands. Family and friends accompanied the students, chatting, carrying gifts and flowers. But not for Samira: no one from her family showed up.
Two years earlier Samira had had to sneak away from home because she wanted to live in a student house like her other friends. At home she had shared a bedroom with her siblings and every move she made was monitored by her mother and sisters; outside the house her brothers kept watch. They all wanted to ensure that she would not become westernised.
Samira had endured terrible physical and psychological violence at home. Her family always had a pretext to question her, go through her stuff and forbid her from setting foot outside the house. She was beaten frequently. She could bear it no longer and left.
Soon afterwards, in the summer of 2003, she got in touch with me. I went with her to the police to file a complaint against her brothers, who had threatened to murder her. According to them Samira’s death was the only way to avenge the shame she had brought upon the family for leaving their parents’ house. The police said they could do nothing. They said there were thousands of other women like her and it was not the police’s duty to intervene in family matters.
Ever since she left Samira has been in hiding, moving from house to house and depending on the kindness of strangers. Mostly she is brave and faces life with a powerful optimism. Sometimes, however, she has a sad, drawn look on her face that betrays her worries.
Today, on her graduation day, she is glowing, clutching her diploma. Her worries are far from over, though. She has no money; she has to find a job — and with her Moroccan name that will be far from easy. She also lives in fear of being discovered by her brothers and slaughtered. This is no joke, for in just two police regions in Holland 11 Muslim girls were killed by their families in a year.
It is women like Samira who politicians need to target because they hold the key to the future. They are going to become mothers and they are going to be the mothers of sons. We need to focus on them in order to prevent the next generation falling into the trap of the jihadist’s promise.
To my mind there are three categories of Muslim women living in the European Union who we need to reach. First, there are girls like Samira, intelligent and willing to take a chance on shaping their individual futures along a path they choose for themselves. They face many obstacles as they try to assimilate in western society and some may lose their lives trying to attain their dreams.
Second, there are girls and women who are very dependent and attached to their families but who cleverly forge a way to lead a double life. Instead of confronting their families and arguing about their adherence to custom and religion, these girls use a more tactful approach. When with family (in the broadest sense of the word, which also includes their community) they put on their headscarves and at home obey every whim of their parents and menfolk.
Outside the home, however, they lead the life of an average western woman: they have a job, dress fashionably, have a boyfriend, drink alcohol, attend cocktail parties and even manage to travel away from home.
The third group are the utterly vulnerable. Some of these girls are imported as brides or domestic workers from the country of origin of the immigrants with whom they come to live. These girls are removed from school once they attain puberty and locked up at home. Their families get away with this form of modern slavery because the authorities rarely take notice of these young women.
The girls have often been brought up to be absolutely obedient; they perform household chores in the house of their parents or husband without question. They can hardly read or write.
When they marry they generally bear as many children as their individual fertility allows. When they miscarry most of them view this as God’s will, not as a lack of proper healthcare which they are usually prevented from seeking for religious reasons.
When a woman in this subjugated state is violently abused by husband, brother or father, she considers it her own fault and promises to behave better in the future.
Some abused women may be tempted to rebel by running away or informing the authorities when their life becomes too painful. Those who act on such a temptation are likely to be killed by their own family or husband, or end up in prostitution or in women’s shelters. Some who have shown signs of rebellion are lured back to their country of origin by parents or husbands and simply dumped there.
For a while now I have been asserting that the most effective way for EU governments to deal with their Muslim minorities is to empower the Muslim women living within their borders.
The best tool for that is education. Yet the education systems of some EU countries are going through a crisis of neglect, particularly with regard to immigrant children. And in the matter of faith schools we are now paying the price of mixing education with ideology.
I think religion is taking up far too much time, attention and space in our society. Blair needs to look at the segregation of boys and girls and ask himself why young girls in primary schools are veiled. Are we saying that five and six-year-olds are sexual symbols, “uncovered meat”? As a society we must understand that saving young girls from all kinds of repression is important. Many are removed from school when they reach puberty, often when they start to behave like British teenagers. That is the precise moment when teachers, mentors and feminists need to identify those girls at risk, those who want to be emancipated and who face the risk of forced marriages and violence.
We want women like Samira to choose the career they want, the number of children they want and the husbands they want. We want them to be free. Girls like her need our help so badly.
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