This is a meditation upon Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s third book, NOMAD: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through The Clash of Civilizations (Free Press, 2010). I was there during the late 60s-1970s feminist movement, both as a reporter and facilitator of women in the arts. To understand why Hirsi Ali is not the toast of that closely knit movement (though she should be), one must look at the evolution of the “second wave” feminists.
The leading lights were either primarily leftists, the children of leftists, or dissatisfied participants in the civil rights-antiwar movement that defined 1960s politics. In the late 1960s, certain movement “heavies” emerged, all male, and they were hogging the media’s attention. Women meanwhile, were used as traditional women always had been —as sexual objects, cheerleaders, and cooks. In this aspect, the antiwar and counter-culture hippie movements fused in the figure of Woman as Earth Mother.
Some of these young women weren’t pleased with their lack of access to fame or notoriety, and almost overnight came a flood of books about “the patriarchy” authored by Betty Friedan, Kate Millett, and Germaine Greer, to name a few. In the art world, Judy Chicago (née Gerowitz) became the most celebrated luminary. The Feminist Art program at California Institute of the Arts, run by Judy and Miriam Schapiro, laid down the new law: women were defined by their vaginas, men by their phalluses: hence, women artists who painted circular forms were right on; glorification of the male organ was taboo, unless as an object of derision, or terror to the “white male supremacist.”
I myself, fascinated by these developments, put together a poetical montage/slide show of sex and violence in the work of female artists and photographers, historically important and/or new to the scene, presenting the slides accompanied by recitations from Simone de Beauvoir and other European writers. My provocation was widely shown around the country and generally appreciated, with one exception: When I gave the show at Judy Chicago’s class at the Women’s Building in downtown Los Angeles, the audience of student feminists under the tutelage of Judy were cold and unresponsive. When I invited comments, Sheila de Bretteville (then associated with Cal Arts, then the Women’s Building, and later Dean of the Design School at Yale), asked me if I was disappointed at the stone wall of disapproval that we both sensed. She lamented on my behalf that I had usually gotten “love” back from the audience for my efforts.
I quote my former buddy Sheila because it is hard to imagine that Ayaan Hirsi Ali wrote her three books expecting love and appreciation from the world that had attempted to socialize her into the nightmarish world of radical Islam, and for some time had succeeded in that effort, until she gradually and painfully extricated herself through an epic journey. Nor do I expect the 60s-70s feminists to appreciate her current affiliation with the American Enterprise Institute; indeed she is the classical liberal enemy to the feminist army of leftists and social democratic super-statists, despite her firm adherence to the right of all women to protect and control their reproductive organs, not to speak of embracing their sexuality.
No, the 1960s feminists and their male allies now populate the humanities departments of the elite universities and their academic presses, having graduated from antiwar demonstrations and art shows to “postcolonial” literary theory, postmodernism, and the multiculturalism that Hirsi Ali so persuasively discredits in her work. (See http://clarespark.com/2009/10/31/the-offing-of-martin-luther-king-jr-and-ralph-bunche/, for an account of the transformation of an integrationist movement to a separatist authoritarian one that mirrored Leninist ideology.) But she does adhere to one practice of post60s feminism: the giving of personal testimony that awakens the conscience and informs the intellect of the reader. To accompany her on this autobiographical journey is to be transformed, partly through the revelations of graphic and shocking details that political scientists and other academics cannot know about, or will not discuss. It is simply life-changing to encounter this woman of fortitude and compelling insight into a Muslim “civilization” that is unremittingly backward, barbaric, and deeply threatening to the West, especially now with the deliberately Obama-inflicted weakness of the American superpower that has given her shelter (although with the need for bodyguards, so thoroughly have we been infiltrated).
But Hirsi Ali’s book is, from top to bottom, a love letter to all the world: love for the Enlightenment, for Reason, for the capacity of even the most backward of peoples, with our assistance, to throw off their hellish imaginations, and to join those of us lucky enough not to have consumed a brain-deadening culture of terror from infancy on. And she understands what probably every woman of accomplishment has experienced: the importance of a father’s example (no matter how idealized) to the aspirations of the daughters, struggling against the odds to declare and embody their independence and unique value. In Ayaan Hirsi Ali, we have in our midst a woman for the ages.