As the campaign for the Dutch elections gathers pace, few stories are more remarkable than that of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Coming to the Netherlands from Somalia, she attracted much attention with her passionate pleas for the emancipation of Muslim women. But she really made the headlines when death threats forced her to go into hiding. And she was back in the news some weeks later, when she switched political sides from the Dutch labour party to the right-wing liberal VVD.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, now 33, was born in the Somali capital Mogadishu. The daughter of a Somali politician, she grew up as a typical Muslim girl. In her infant years, she underwent the traditional local ritual of genital mutilation. When Somalia was plunged into turmoil, the family moved to Saudi Arabia, where she was forced to wear a veil and stay indoors.
In 1992, she fled to the Netherlands to escape an arranged marriage with her Canadian cousin. After receiving asylum, she made an active effort to integrate into Dutch society and quickly climbed the social ladder. She soon mastered the Dutch language and took on cleaning jobs before going to university to study political science.
Mrs Hirsi Ali joined the Labour Party’s scientific office and made a name for herself pressing for the integration of Muslim immigrants and the protection of Muslim women. Calling herself an ex-Muslim, she documented thousands of cases of physical violence of these women, including beatings, incest and sexual abuse, and railed against the Dutch authorities for doing too little to stop these practices.
Her statements triggered a torrent of abuse and even death threats, and Mrs Ali found herself on the run again. She went into hiding late last year and spent some time abroad, but returned after receiving police protection. She is determined to continue her mission to promote integration and improve the plight of Muslim women. This also explains why she made the unprecedented switch from the Labour Party to the Conservative VVD in the run-up to the January 22 polls.
“What made me change my mind about the Labour Party was that they really lost touch with the electorate on several points, particularly on how to deal with foreigners from non-Western countries and the position of women there… They’ve thrown away their social-democratic ideals in practice on these issues, and that made me think about leaving the Labour Party and then Neelie Kroes, our former Conservative Traffic Minister, said ‘if you really care about those women so much, you now have an opportunity to do something about it in parliament…'”
It was an offer she could not refuse. After all, this was a party that would support her campaign for the emancipation of Muslim women and the integration of minorities. From the VVD’s perspective, having an immigrant woman in its ranks would lend credibility to the party’s tough policy on immigration. Mrs Hirsi Ali, however, rejects any suggestion that she is being used as a token.
“I think the danger is always there in the West, but I also think it’s the responsibility of the person concerned to make sure that he or she doesn’t become a token. I’m not planning to be a token.”
Mrs Hirsi Ali stresses that she agrees with the main thrust of the VVD political programme; its emphasis on immigration, security and the cost-effectiveness of policies. But she begs to differ on the party’s perception that “the Netherlands is full” – a term she would never use because of its extreme right-wing connotations.
Pressing women’s issues
Mrs Hirsi Ali is confident that, once the elections are over, the VVD will give her sufficient latitude to put her ideas into practice.
“I intend to start on shelter homes, and turn them into women’s liberating centres, where women not only get therapy and food, but also training on how to become autonomous. These programmes would be designed especially for Muslim women, because there are no programmes at all. They tend to go to the shelter for a while and then go back to a very abusive environment and then they come and go again.”
“And all these women have kids and these kids are completely neglected and some of them, the younger boys, turn out to be delinquents. I think we can prevent that by giving them training.”
“In addition, Muslim women with jobs are generally unfairly rewarded. I think we must do something about it, not by way of government, but by revitalizing women’s organisations, which are almost defunct now in the Netherlands. These organizations must be brought back to life. I can do that from Parliament, it doesn’t have to be government policy.”