The Ayaan Hirsi Ali Playbook: Muslim reactions to news of FGM

Last month, prosecutors brought charges against two Bohra physicians in Michigan for allegedly performing female genital mutilation on several young girls. Read more about the story here.

altM’s, Samar Kaukab, shares her thoughts:

Here is a well-known aphorism: It is hard to see that which is invisible. Take oxygen. It surrounds us; without it we would cease to exist. Yet, most of us do not walk around “seeing” oxygen. Like oxygen, there are other invisibilities that permeate our worlds, are unavoidable even. Unlike oxygen, sometimes the things that remain invisible to us are cataclysmic. Violence against women and girls is one of those things. The “otherization” of a minority, religious group is one of those things, too.

On Thursday afternoon, news broke about a Michigan-based female physician facing federal charges for allegedly performing female genital mutilation (FGM) on young girls. The news was shocking and brought it with the sighs and exhaustion of American Muslim communities tired of being in the news yet again for violent acts, and particularly violent acts against women.

Unfortunately, some early responses from within majority group American Muslim communities to this news have been troubling. These responses have been all too eager to lean on the distance many Muslim activists have carefully attempted to create between the “actual” beliefs and practices of most Muslims and the outright xenophobic claims of people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali–well-resourced provocateurs who rely heavily on false narratives and a fetishization of Islam as the singular source of violence against women. Many a social media talking head or community pundit offered their typically hollow talking points disdain for violence against women. Except here things took a different turn. As further information about the physician was released, she was identified as being a member of the Bohra community.

The capacity to create distance suddenly became easier. This could be explained. This could be turned into something distant, something to be seen with an anthropological lens. The subtle, yet piercing comments could be seen all over WhatsApp and Facebook conversations.

“Oh, this isn’t from our community. This is a practice those Muslims partake in.”

“I don’t really know much about them.”

“This is something that Dawoodi Bohras do in their religious practices.”

On its face, these comments could be seen as relatively innocuous. Yet, they’re not. The invisibility of the “other,” here the Bohra community, is front and center. They are not us. We are not them. There’s something uniquely problematic about the way they treat women. It’s in their culture. It comes from their religious beliefs. Sound familiar? That is because, for any Western Muslim, it should be. It’s a page right off the Ayaan Hirsi Ali playbook, except this time stated by the very people who dream about the day they could enter a debate with Ayaan and friends – so long as it is about Muslims, like us.

So how should we be reacting to this news? By centering what is important and essential: horrific incidences of violence against women and girls occurred. The alleged FGM is yet another example of the insidious ways in which the bodies of women and girls are damaged in the name of patriarchy, in both particular and universal ways. There is no room for mincing words: this violence, these practices, are immoral and illegal. It is not enough to merely say any form of violence against women and girls is abhorrent. These practices and the patriarchal cultural beliefs that support them need to be rooted out and prevented. Resources must be provided to victims and their families. Opportunities to make the invisible visible must be actively pursued. Yet, how does that happen?

Cultural change happens by centering voices that are most relevant. In this particular instance, members of the Bohra community are the experts. Rather than seeing Bohra communities and their unexplored “beliefs” as the problem, understand that the activists who are fighting the hardest on these issues come from within this very community. Their fight is fueled by their faith, the very faith that is being callously denigrated and demonized all over social media.

Before the otherizing comments on Facebook and WhatsApp continue even a minute further, find an expert. Find someone from within that community who is well-versed on these issues. Do your work, they exist. Not only do they exist, many women and men have been at the frontline of changing patriarchal cultural norms from within. Support and uplift these voices.

Learn about the many efforts coming from within the Bohra community to eliminate the abhorrent practice of FGM. Legitimate efforts that can actually affect cultural change and address the many complex ways in which women and girls are exploited and made invisible will necessarily come from within those very communities. These are the voices and efforts that must be privileged.

To not be like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, we must center what needs to be centered; namely, Muslim women and girls. We must actually care for them. When we reduce the sexual violence that occurs in particular Muslim communities to sectarian divides and perpetuate dangerous myths and tropes about already persecuted minority Muslim communities, we do not care for Muslim women and girls.

Muslim women — particularly Muslim women with complex identities who come from already marginalized communities — do not deserve simplistic analyses that flatten their lives, their stories, and their own advocacy. Sexual violence will not be addressed by talking heads who see victims as “others.” Ayaan Hirsi Ali is not helping women by not actually entering and engaging the spaces where activism and advocacy already exists from within. Neither are we addressing the issue of FGM when we choose to render invisible the efforts of those who already working on this issue.


Samar Kaukab is an altM columnist and Advisory Board member. You can follow her on Twitter @samarkaukab.


Photo Credit: Garry Knight


  • Judith Armatolos says:

    Thank you Samar for your article. it contains considerable wisdom, I feel. I am not a Muslim, in fact, an Agnostic, so my entry into the debate is as a concerned female citizen. I want to question the often repeated claim that female circumcision is not part of Islam. Sunan Abu Dawud, Book-41, Hadith-5251 purports to be of the Prophet permitting a “moderate” cut. Other small elements of the sacred texts of Islam also seem to support some violence against women, child marriage and complete sexual submission by wives. I know that Muslim scholars claim that these apparent ethical standards can be dismissed by a complex contextualisation of the sacred texts but you know as well as I do that this contextualisation and revision is not supported by all Muslim, scholars of otherwise. In fact, these misogynist attitudes are enshrined in law in many Muslim countries and there is little if anything the general populations of such countries can do to counter those in power. In the responses from Muslims despondent about being misjudged I rarely see any convincing rhetoric about the theological disputes regarding how, when and why certain teachings can be interpreted in ways that are not literal. There is little point convincing the critics of Islam, nor in targeting Ayaan Hursi Ali. She raised important issues, just as you do and the wiser response is to take each point separately, intellectually and openly.
    The energy of Muslims as right minded as yourself, should be in convincing those Muslims who prefer the misogynist interpretations. Non-Muslims have a legitimate right to feel worried about Islam given its terrible manifestation in so many parts of the world. I know Islam can manifest wondrously but I am not calmed by the minority who interpret it in this way. I think they are at risk from the hot headed, misogynistic hotheads as much as the non-believing critics.
    Most of the time I hear Muslims claim that their sacred texts, particularly the Quran is the perfect word of God and protected from alteration. Children, from the earliest ages are taught this and also taught to fear questioning of this premise and I strongly feel that Muslims will be locked in a dangerous internal dispute, with the power in the hands of the hotheads until they are freed from this restricting and potentially mind numbing belief. I want to enter into discussions with Muslims but despite knowing many, I have never felt they were open to deep conversation, but rather threatened by anything that questioned their beliefs. Maybe it is a certain resistance to open discussion within Muslims that makes the voice of Hursi Ali sound like a relief to those outside your community. Many people want tolerance and acceptance but Muslims cam do more to be open to others rather than see themselves as victims. Muslims are suppressed but other Muslims more than by non-Muslims.

    • Guest says:

      # JUDITH ARMATOLOS – I understand your comments were made out of complete sincerity but for an agnostic who admits to having limited discussions with Muslims about their beliefs (you blame Muslims for this of course), you appear to have very solid opinions about what you think is wrong about our community claiming that we should stop seeing ourselves as victims and that we suffer more suppression from each than non-Muslims (I assume from this comment that you know little of the Muslim world’s history), weaving a vision of confused Muslims making weak claims of contextualisation with a small minority who practice Islam wondrously while our children are brought up in a culture of fear. All said very politely of course.

      The first mistake non-Muslims make is kindly requesting that Muslims please stop treating the Qur’an as the word of God. Have you read the Qur’an that you can make such a request and did you understand the context of what you were reading? Have you studied the Hadith and do you understand the difference between what is considered authentic and what is not?

      It may sound like a reasonable logical request in a secular world that treats God and faith as a fairy-tale but please understand that asking that of a Muslim is like requesting that we stop believing Muhammed is God’s Messenger which is part of our declaration of faith. Based on my chats with my many non-Muslim colleagues and friends all of which have never read the Qur’an, the average non-Muslims true knowledge and understanding of Islam can be summed up in a 3 line paragraph mostly driven by what they read in an Orientalist book or saw on tv rather than scholarly facts. So when Muslims hear this request, we think “oh dear, another ignorant (and arrogant) sap dictating how I should follow my faith”. I cannot tell you enough about all the times well-meaning non-Muslims wanted “deep discussion” and ended up approaching me with a set of accusations and assumptions about Islam and Muslims that they expected me to prove or disprove so that I could convince them of my humanity.

      As an agnostic you obviously have your own approach to raising children with the freedom to believe or not to believe and would difficulty relating to any religious parent. I am familiar with the beloved theory of some non-Muslims which says that since Islam is a religion of force, that giving Muslim children the right to believe or disbelieve and question would lead to less Muslims and a weakening of Islam and that most Muslims are so out of indoctrination rather than belief or any intellectual regard. Highly insulting as it assumes Muslims are unable to think for themselves because we’re motivated by fear of a wrathful God which is utter claptrap. The Qur’an starts each major chapter with “In the Name of God the Most Beneficient, the Most Merciful”. It’s not a Book instilling fear but truthfully contains descriptions of good and evil, Hell and Heaven and of punishment and reward.

      In a perfect agnostic world we’d all beget children and give them free reign to make their own choices about whether there is a God or not. Islam teaches that God’s existence is a fact and as Muslims we are granted children as a privilege and to raise them as pious Muslims. The same can also be said of pious Christians and Jews who also want the same for their own children. We cannot apologise for this and nor is it open for debate. Many children of all religious backgrounds may suffer from a pressure to believe without question in the home and parents may use intimidation BUT this was never the case in my home growing up or that of my friends and family. We were taught with love, joy and understanding. Those who do use intimidation are thankfully in the minority. And for you to assume otherwise is a generalisation without you meaning for it to be so.

      As far as I see it, Muslims can re-interpret the Qur’an whilst still believing its’ the Word of God. If I look at the extremist Muslims that exist in my own community, our main problem is that their interpretation is driven by their own patriarchal cultures and their own chauvinism whilst ignoring the context in which Quranic verses were revealed and their intention. Yes that “contextualisation” that you casually dismiss and yet which is central to understanding the Qur’an. An example of an Islamic teaching gone wrong, the Prophet extolled the virtues of Muslims visiting the Mosque and his female followers certainly did so along with the male followers. Now fast-forward to the year 2017 and we women are being chastised for entering the mosque because its supposedly not a women’s place. Would you as an agnostic agree with the Prophet’s judgement or an extremist claiming to be a scholar? We also have to admit the fact that we did not have papacy or single main ruling religious body making it easy for anyone to interpret Quranic verses as they wish from the most liberal to the most fanatical. Further added to the problem is that some scholars travel to Pakistan to study for their religious qualifications, come back to our country and then attempt to force a village-mentality understanding of Islam in keeping with Pakistani rural traditions that local Muslims have difficulty identifying with.

      Please also understand that although the author of the article mentions Ayaan Hirsi Ali, most Muslims have never heard of her. She enjoys zero recognition with us and her works are almost exclusively geared toward non-Muslim an ex-Muslim audiences. She basically tells them “hey I’ve been there and seen the horrors of Islam. I’m warning you and telling you the truth of what’s to come and how it is”. Those who’ve heard of her consider her a danger largely because she has the ears of powerful politicians who set laws and policies which affect negatively Muslims every day.

      What you claim are the important issues she raises may be true in some cases but her Islamic experiences are mostly fraudulent accounts of her life which was disproved years ago. If someone lied to you repeatedly would you continue to believe what they say? How do you know which parts of their testimony is true and which is false? I would question the logic of anyone who holds her in high esteem when she has proven to be a pathological liar. She hob-nobs with Geert Wilders and Richard Spencer but this association is almost never mentioned by her admirers who insist on seeing her some sort of Islamic reformer, albeit an ex-Muslim one.

      I would make an observation of my own : non-Muslims have an unhealthy pre-occupation with anything connected to Muslims and Muslim women in particular. Our veils and bodies exceed your interest far more than the sexual violence and male patriarchy rampant in your back-yard. You swear to free us from the veil while punching and verbally abusing us in the streets for wearing it. Muslim women are at the same time perpetrators for willingly practicing veiling which many consider an affront to the West and then victims because we need to be freed from it.

      We suggest you read the Quran with sincerity and understanding and you laugh asking why you should read a book of nonsense. We suggest you speak to an authentic Islamic scholar and you complain you can’t because their explanations don’t make sense to you. We give you a book by non-Muslim academics like Nathan Lean, Juan Cole or Karen Armstrong and even Muslim Reza Aslan whose books explains Islam and Muslim world in its context and you scoff, tossing it in the bin and complain it’s too soft on Islam and Muslims. But you attend a lecture by Ayaan Hirsi Ali and you gush and applaud because at last here’s someone who understands the problem and raises the real issues. You say you want to engage with me but then make all sorts of generalisations and expect me to prove or disprove them without understanding even the basics. I know this because this is my personal experience with many non-Muslims.

      In closing you need to examine your own intentions. Do you want to sincerely learn about Islam and Muslims or is this an opportunity for you to convince Muslims that we need to abandon certain beliefs which coming from a non-Muslim is a sort of cultural patriarchy (white man’s burden anyone?)? If this is the case, that would explain why Muslims are reluctant to engage with you.

      Muslims are being spat on in the streets and attacked; our mosques are being burned down and kids being bullied. We are the victims of hate crimes and telling us to stop seeing ourselves as victims won’t make it go away but seeks to trivialise our fear and places the blame squarely on us. I know your intentions were good and I hope you’re not upset by what I have said and if I sound harsh forgive me as I am known for being direct but you made some comments and these are just the thoughts of one Muslim woman.

      • Judith Armatolos says:

        The response by an unnamed contributor to my comment above misconstrued almost all the points I made and also made huge generalisations about non-Muslims and included me within that net. Many of the generalisations are not only wrong they are hurtful, even slanderous. Apart from associating my name with all manner of arrogance, ignorance and hatefulness, the writer facetiously flipped anything positive I said around to insinuate that I couldn’t possibly be sincere. The response ended with an apology for being “harsh” with the excuse of having a “reputation of being direct” but in actual fact the reaction was wrong in fact and in attitude. Non-Muslims, even those who express criticism are not necessarily or even commonly wanting any harm to come to Muslims. We may all have different beliefs and different opinions and there may indeed be a gulf between non-Muslims and Muslims that cannot be bridged but to attempt to denigrate others because you feel they have no right to comment and because you don’t like the comments, which it seems were often mis-understood anyway, is counterproductive to peaceful co-existence.
        I have had a huge amount to do with the Muslim community. My granddaughters have a Muslim father! I have taught hundreds of Muslim students and developed bonds with them which I will take with me throughout my life. I do sincerely want the future to be a safe one for them and for all people, Muslims, ex-Muslims and non-Muslims. I just happen to be fairly certain that suppression ideas or of robust debate will lead us all towards a more dangerous future. I have practiced respect for the right of parents to bring their children up according to their belief for decades…I certainly do not deserve any insinuation that I have some notion of an agnostic utopia where this did not happen, however I strongly object to hierarchical control of scholarship or public meetings in the adult arena. My agnostic perfect world would contain universities wherein theological faculties would share the same setting as all other disciplines and where there wound be no restrictions on research, even if the concepts of truth collided.

        I certainly did not imply that Muslim families are not loving…this is just one of the accusations the writer felt comfortable in making. I do not have a negative opinion of the generalised intellectual capacity of Muslims..that is just nonsense and a clear indication that the writer was more interested in ridiculing me than in responding in a productive way. An objective study of religions will reveal that different religions at different times have promoted notions of hell with the effect, if not the intent of scaring populations into belief. The fear of the afterlife in combination with fear of social alienation, loss of custody of children, of imprisonment and even of execution for expressions of disbelief are features of many Muslim communities currently. I know that not all Muslim scholars agree with punishment for Apostasy but plenty do. I suggest this phenomena will continue to be a point of severe discomfort regarding Islam, to the non-believer. It is completely against the notion of freedom of religion and I would be happy to continue a conversation on this matter. Of course many non-Muslims have a concern about the advance of Muslim populations in their countries: There are reasons behind the tensions we are feeling but it can’t just be reiterated that Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance, with no coercion, when clearly it is not manifesting this way in many parts of the world.
        The issue of FGM was not really responded to in a way that was clear in the reply to my comment. I did not simplistically dismiss the scholarly work that ranks the reliability of the Hadith, nor the scholarship of Quranic interpretation. I know it to be detailed and to be taken seriously. The point remains that there are Muslim communities that continue FMG with the conviction that the practice is part of their Muslim identify, supported by THEIR interpretation of the Quran and Hadith, and linked through time to their beliefs about the earliest Muslim community. I took exception to the way criticism was directed at non-Muslims for thinking that FGM is Islamic. It is not for non-Muslims to tell those who still practice it, that they have the wrong interpretation of Islam! I was not simplistically dismissing anything. I was objecting to what seemed like a simplistic dismissal of the concept that FGM was connected to Islam,

        I don’t think the Quran is the word of God, but I have read it, in fact, I have read various English translation. Unsuspectingly, the first one I read was an edition which found its way into a standard popular bookshop and which told me scorers of times that I should be killed because I did not believe. I later realised that this translation had it source in the adulterated versions produced by a Saudi Arabian network. It has been strongly implied to me that I have no right to suggest anything to Muslims but I will make exceptions to that and one will be to suggest that the existence of such easily obtainable translations of the “Quran” is possibly about the most important matter for Muslims to respond to. These books ( I don’t want to merit them by calling them the Quran) not only tell Muslims that they are ordered by God to murder a whole host of people, they severely tarnish the reputation of Islam simply because there is not enough awareness of existence of dubious translations.
        I have read more than 200 books on the histories of Judaism, Islam and Christianity and these have included perspectives that were critical, apologist and moderate. I have spent decade, reading and observing, and being silent about what I thought but I am concerned about where our world is headed and I do not want to be silent anymore. Religious beliefs, in multiple traditions, are being co-opted and manipulated by power mongers to convince huge populations to think antagonistically about each other. Everyday people need to resist this and keep talking to each other about all the difficult issues.

        As I write Donald Trump is in the Middle East telling Muslim leaders what they should do about their religion. I want to puke! if the respondent wanted to tell him to back off I would just agree but please don’t mistake all criticism as an attack.

  • Kareema Abdul-Khabir says:

    Would love to see a write up on some of the Bohra activists. Putting our own activists forward in the spotlight demonstrates Islamic belief and that the affected communities are the cure for their own problems-no great white hope needed!

  • Kubra Jawher says:

    For those of our sisters who are unaware, female circumcision is an obligatory Islamic duty. Did you know there are more ahadeeth specific to female circumcision than male circumcision?

    1) “When the (male) circumcised part meets the (female) circumcised part, bath becomes obligatory” (Ahmad, Tirmidhi)

    2) The hadith related by Abdullah Ibn Umar who states that the Prophet instructed some Ansar (Medinan) women visiting him to ‘be circumcised’ (Mukhtassar zawaid musnad al bazzar, Ibn Hajar).

    3) The hadith where the Prophet told Umm Atiyyah Al Ansariyyah, a lady who circumcised girls in Medina: “When you circumcise, cut plainly and do not cut severely, for it is beauty for the face and desirable for the husband” (Abu Dawud, Al Awsat of Tabarani and Tarikh Baghdad of Al Baghdadi).

    4) Umm Al Muhajir said: “I was captured with some girls from Byzantium. (Caliph) Uthman offered us Islam, but only myself and one other girl accepted Islam. Uthman said: ‘Go and circumcise them and purify them” (Adab al Mufrad of Bukhari)

    5) Umm Alqamah says that when the nieces of Ayisha’s brother were circumcised, ‘A’isha was asked: “Shall we call someone to amuse them?” “Yes” she replied (Adab Al Mufrad)

    The evidence is clear that female circumcision is Islamic and obligatory. Why would Hazrat Ayisha have her nieces circumcised and Caliph Uthman order women who had embraced Islam to be circumcised if it were not obligatory? Our best scholars including Imam Shafi, Imam Hanbal, Ibn Taymiyyah and Sheikh Jaddul Haqq declared it to be obligatory for women. A good Muslimah follows the fitra of circumcising and does not fall for Zionist misinformation regarding our religious duties. Besides, it benefits us in terms of genital hygiene and sexual pleasure. For more info please see:

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