We do no favors when we shut our eyes to this link

The Wall Street Journal has a condensed version of what would have been Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s talk at Brandeis had they not rudely withdrawn her invitation to receive an honorary degree. (Yes, I’m spelling it out in full every time.)

You deserve better memories than 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombing. And you are not the only ones. In Syria, at least 120,000 people have been killed, not simply in battle, but in wholesale massacres, in a civil war that is increasingly waged across a sectarian divide. Violence is escalating in Iraq, in Lebanon, in Libya, in Egypt. And far more than was the case when you were born, organized violence in the world today is disproportionately concentrated in the Muslim world.

Another striking feature of the countries I have just named, and of the Middle East generally, is that violence against women is also increasing. In Saudi Arabia, there has been a noticeable rise in the practice of female genital mutilation. In Egypt, 99% of women report being sexually harassed and up to 80 sexual assaults occur in a single day.

Especially troubling is the way the status of women as second-class citizens is being cemented in legislation. In Iraq, a law is being proposed that lowers to 9 the legal age at which a girl can be forced into marriage. That same law would give a husband the right to deny his wife permission to leave the house.

Is this a good trend? No, it’s not a good trend. Is it completely unconnected to Islam? Hardly.

Two decades ago, not even the bleakest pessimist would have anticipated all that has gone wrong in the part of world where I grew up. After so many victories for feminism in the West, no one would have predicted that women’s basic human rights would actually be reduced in so many countries as the 20th century gave way to the 21st.

But at that point, it might surprise her detractors to learn, she takes a turn to optimism.

Today, however, I am going to predict a better future, because I believe that the pendulum has swung almost as far as it possibly can in the wrong direction.

When I see millions of women in Afghanistan defying threats from the Taliban and lining up to vote; when I see women in Saudi Arabia defying an absurd ban on female driving; and when I see Tunisian women celebrating the conviction of a group of policemen for a heinous gang rape, I feel more optimistic than I did a few years ago. The misnamed Arab Spring has been a revolution full of disappointments. But I believe it has created an opportunity for traditional forms of authority—including patriarchal authority—to be challenged, and even for the religious justifications for the oppression of women to be questioned.

Yet for that opportunity to be fulfilled, we in the West must provide the right kind of encouragement. Just as the city of Boston was once the cradle of a new ideal of liberty, we need to return to our roots by becoming once again a beacon of free thought and civility for the 21st century. When there is injustice, we need to speak out, not simply with condemnation, but with concrete actions.

One of the best places to do that is in our institutions of higher learning. We need to make our universities temples not of dogmatic orthodoxy, but of truly critical thinking, where all ideas are welcome and where civil debate is encouraged. I’m used to being shouted down on campuses, so I am grateful for the opportunity to address you today. I do not expect all of you to agree with me, but I very much appreciate your willingness to listen.


Well that didn’t work out.

How embarrassing.

Shame on you, Brandeis.

I stand before you as someone who is fighting for women’s and girls’ basic rights globally. And I stand before you as someone who is not afraid to ask difficult questions about the role of religion in that fight.

The connection between violence, particularly violence against women, and Islam is too clear to be ignored. We do no favors to students, faculty, nonbelievers and people of faith when we shut our eyes to this link, when we excuse rather than reflect.

Or when we silence brave women who talk about that connection.


  1. Sastra says

    Wow. Just wow.

    I wonder which part Brandeis specifically disagrees with. Let’s have a Counterpoint… if they dare.

    This is so frustrating.

  2. quixote says

    That’s the voice Brandeis shuts down so that a bunch of medieval troglodytes can stay comfortable.

    Words just fail.

  3. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    I love this.

    While open war is a horrible thing, in the aftermath of 6 days and Yom Kippur, with the Camp David agreement of Begin and Sedat, I had thought things would be much better for Israel in the 21st century than they are. But they aren’t. And I honestly think that episodes like the terrifying and shameful Beit Shemesh attacks on schoolgirls are more likely to occur when men in a community feel fear and uncertainty.

    It is undeniable that too much of this anti-woman action (and anti-woman violence) in the area Hirsi Ali describes is affirmed by too many muslims. But I think the conflict and war bring out sexism in complex ways. That sexism may receive imprimatur from Islam or Judaism (or Christianity or Shinto, etc.), and I certainly think that needs the incredible push back given by Hirsi Ali. But I think that if religion falls away while the bombs are themselves still falling, that other excuses will be developed.

    The causes of feminism and peace are inextricably intertwined.

  4. karmacat says

    I had a thought that it would be great if she could be invited to speak at the Women in Secularism conference. And the recording of the talk could be sent to Brandeis. However, I know there is probably a lot of difficulties in being able to do all this.

  5. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    Excellent speech -and not bigoted but fighting bigotry and misogny adn oppression.

    Surely Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s critics including those here aren’t going to tell us that was wrong or somehow bad? Surely this is what more people need to hear not have it censored?

  6. R Johnston says

    Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a bloodthirsty right-wing fanatic who would bomb and invade islamic countries, killing civilians by the hundreds of thousands and millions on a whim, and who singles out Islam from other religious idiocies for disparate legal treatment in countries where Islam holds no actual power. She’s a disgrace to humanity and she should not be getting honorary degrees from any school interested in intellectual honesty. You insipid ongoing defense of her is several steps beyond highly disappointing.

  7. Katherine Woo says

    R Johnston stops by with a calm, measured critique.

    But seriously, behind their unhinged venom lies a disgusting attitude I see again and again among Islam apologists on the left: “in countries where Islam holds no actual power”.

    “Power” does not mean de jure or majority control.

    1. De facto power resides in family and minority communities, who can enforce norms not reflected in society at large. If a family threatens to disown a girl for not wearing hijab, that is raw power at work, even if by law Islam “holds no actual power”. For all the “social justice” rhetoric from the likes of RJ, it is amazing how little privilege checking gets done on this basic issue surrounding immigrant groups, a failure to check privilege exacerbated by selectively ‘listening’ to the voices of conservatism from said communities (e.g. the woman who “chooses” to wear hijab).

    2. When groups like CAIR can suppress public debates, suppress publication, etc. they do exercise power over the non-Muslim majority.

    3. When non-Muslims preemptively self-censor out of fear of offending Islam, Islam holds power.

    4. When countries like the UK officially endorse sharia-based legal proceedings, regardless of the limited purview, they are giving real power to Islam.

  8. Jackie, all dressed in black says

    R. Johnston,

    Wow, you really fit quite a few lies into one comment. You must practice.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *