Louie Jerome
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Ayaan Hirsi Ali in Auckland

There is a lot of debate on what being a “feminist” entails these days. From what started as a movement to promote equal rights among men and women, today it could also include having gender quotas in elected office and boardroom positions or smearing menstrual fluid over your face when you disagree with a given opinion. Nonetheless, the consistent attribute in all strains of feminist movements is the idea of women’s empowerment.

In a couple of months’ time, New Zealand may be hosting a woman who can genuinely stake a claim to be a “feminist” and one who should garner the support of all those who claim to sympathize with the feminist movement. This woman is Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born former Dutch parliamentarian who is now an outspoken critic of the treatment of women in Islamic societies. For her record, Ayaan’s persona is somewhat of a double-edged sword: she attracts admiration for her achievements in the face of tribulations but also is a target for criticism for her take on the world’s most coddled religion.

The events company Think Inc. is hosting Ms. Ali on the 9th of April at the Bruce Mason Centre in Takapuna, Auckland. The speaking tour is aptly named, “Hero of Heresy”, which is an accurate description of Ali’s life. The event spans across the Tasman, with similar engagements in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne.

In 1992, Hirsi Ali left Somalia for Kenya and later Germany before finally settling down in the Netherlands as a refugee. Her departure was to escape a fixed marriage proposed by her family, wherein refusal to submit could result to an honour killing as is the case in many Islamic countries. A forced marriage was not the first abuse that Ali suffered in her devoutly-Muslim family, she was also a victim of female genital mutilation as a young lady – again, another barbaric practice rampant in Muslim societies.

Through her own grit and courage, Ali was granted asylum in the Netherlands where she first worked as a translator for new refugees and later worked as a researcher for the Dutch Labour Party. She was then chosen as a parliamentary candidate for the right-wing People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) in 2003. In that year’s election campaign, Ali courted headlines for bringing to light the domestic abuse of Muslim women commonplace in Dutch society.

While a member of the Dutch parliament, Ali became controversial once more when she declared in April of 2003 that under Western standards the Prophet Mohammad would be “considered a pedophile”. Those remarks made her a target among Dutch Muslims, but none more so than the episode which continues to haunt her even today.

Ayaan’s outspoken criticism of Islam led to her work with the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh on the movie “Submission”. The film criticized the treatment of women under Islamic societies, this led to the assassination of van Gogh later that year by a Muslim assailant. The assassin, Mohammed Bouyeri, admitted van Gogh was merely his first target – he admitted that Ali was also on his list. The latter would spend the next years of her life under protective custody, even until today, for her objection to the treatment of women in Muslim societies.

If her life story does not exemplify female empowerment, then it would be extremely unlikely to find one. Ayaan Hirsi Ali underwent tribulations that far exceeded that of the women who attended the Women’s March in the United States. If anyone should be called a feminist, Ali should be first in line. Yet, Ali is considered a controversial figure and endures protests at her speaking engagements. In 2014, Brandeis University cancelled their plan to award her with an honorary degree after numerous protests. The following year, similar demonstrations occurred at Duke University where she also was scheduled to speak.

This is the reason why the definition of feminism has become so convoluted, it is a movement designed to inspire women and celebrate empowering life stories – but only if the individual conforms to other views shared by the loudest voices of the movement. Ayaan Hirsi Ali fits that criteria, but because she does not hold similar views on Islam then she is considered an outsider. How revolting it must be to go through what she did and yet not be celebrated as much as Brianna Wu or Anita Sarkeesian who have accomplished nothing in their lives but are revered figures in the feminist movement.

Hopefully, New Zealand proves to be different and affords Ali the treatment she deserves as a women’s rights advocate. Our Prime Minister Bill English recently made headlines for admitting he does not know what a feminist is, someone should sponsor him a front row ticket so he can meet one.