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

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.

  • 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!

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