Ismat Chughtai and Ayaan Hirsi Ali might have had drastically different approaches to critiquing the faith they were born in, but they would have understood, and benefited from, each other's perspective, says Koli Mitra.
How does a secular intellectual feminist perspective emerge when one is raised in a highly patriarchal religious community? What specific features is this perspective likely to have, depending on the extent of oppression one experienced at the hands of the religion and/or the patriarchy? How does a woman’s effort to develop an identity as a form of protest become complicated in a world where the dominant segment of this “community” trying to subjugate her is one that is struggling with its own issues of subjugation in the backdrop of colonialism or its aftermath? Could we perhaps try to reverse engineer the experience of someone who fits this description?
Thinking about Ismat Chughtai—irreverent, radical, fiercely independent, relentlessly curious and skeptical of traditional orthodoxies as well as purported “revolutionary” ones—I am reminded of another woman, one who is of this era and to whom all of those adjectives apply equally well: the Somali expatriate Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Most people would be surprised to see these women considered together. Many would be disinclined to do so; some would even find it offensive. But I suspect Chughtai herself would get a kick out of it—so, I’m going for it.
The two have a lot in common. They were both born and raised in Muslim households with a mixture of liberal and orthodox influences. In early childhood, both lived relatively affluent lives within economically distressed countries, steeped in or just emerging from colonial rule, though Hirsi Ali’s childhood was marked by harrowing experiences having to do with her gender and “religious” practices, against which her class privilege was often inadequate protection.
Chughtai and Hirsi Ali each had to overcome much resistance from family and community in order to get an education and live a deliberate and independent life from a patriarchal religious culture.
As women, Chughtai and Hirsi Ali each had to overcome much resistance from family and community in order to get an education and live a deliberate and independent life from a patriarchal religious culture. Both are best known for their insistent calls to end the oppression of women and their belief in the autonomy of the individual in controlling her own life and destiny.
Yet, in some important ways, their views and their ways of expressing those views are almost polar opposites. Chughtai’s writing is characterised by subtlety and humor, while Hirsi Ali’s is marked by strong, often incendiary rhetoric. Chughtai is uncompromising in her criticism of religious and “traditional” attitudes toward women and yet there is an unmistakable element of compassion and forgiveness in it, along with a recognition of the common humanity—and human frailties—of the “oppressor” and the “oppressed.”
Hirsi Ali, on the other hand, is not in the business of “forgiveness.” Although her prose is often more intellectually rigorous and her arguments more exacting, she is, at the same time, much more polemical than Chughtai. Unlike Chughtai, Hirsi Ali’s ultimate worldview doesn’t seem to accommodate too much nuance. Instead, she tends to take a hard line about whatever she believes in, and if she ever changes her mind, she becomes a hardliner in the new posture.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is given to extreme conclusions and has been known to endorse extreme measures. Unlike Chughtai, whose life was the embodiment of India’s secular and/or ecumenical ideals, Hirsi Ali has swung hard between the extremes of adopting a militant religiosity and then shunning, with equal fervor, religion of any kind. Not being content to reject religion herself, she has chosen to advocate its “defeat” in a war of civilisations.
It’s hard to believe that even after being subjected to genital mutilation as a child and after having to fight for the right to read and move around freely as an adolescent, she actually joined a militant movement for a time in her youth. She even supported the Iranian Ayatollah’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie after the publication of his novel Satanic Verses.
But she has come a long way: in March 2006, she joined Rushdie and ten other public intellectuals to co-sign a document known as “MANIFESTO: Together facing the new totalitarianism”, denouncing the threats against freedom of expression in the aftermath of the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy in Denmark. She is now an avid atheist and one of the world’s leading voices against religious extremism, particularly Islamic extremism. But she doesn’t stop there.
Unlike Chughtai, Hirsi Ali’s ultimate worldview doesn’t seem to accommodate too much nuance. Instead, she tends to take a hard line about whatever she believes in, and if she ever changes her mind, she becomes a hardliner in the new posture.Unlike Chughtai, whose life was the embodiment of India’s secular and/or ecumenical ideals, Hirsi Ali has swung hard between the extremes of adopting a militant religiosity and then shunning, with equal fervor, religion of any kind.
For someone who has undergone such a fundamental change of heart, Hirsi Ali is stunningly inflexible in her view of Islam and the people who still wish to practice it. In 2007, she urged nothing short of the “defeat” of Islam and has recommended to moderate Muslims that if they must continue to have religion in their lives, they should convert to Christianity, which she thinks is a far lesser evil.
She has since backed away from these positions, and she now advocates a reformation of the Islamic faith in the way that Christianity and Judaism have undergone. But her proposals for this reformation is based solely on a pragmatic social calculus and not from any investment in the faith itself. Maybe this sounds reasonable to those of us with a secular bent. But the already-secular don’t care about “reforming” the faith. Her target audience—the people she is trying to placate with this rare show of “moderation”—are the faithful, and with them, her obviously utilitarian efforts are likely to fail.
I suppose my assessment of Ms. Hirsi Ali sounds rather harsh. But there are things about her I find quite compelling. I like that she is willing to be uncompromising with regard to women’s rights everywhere instead of accepting religion-sanctioned misogyny as “cultural” or matters of “faith”. Indeed, she is one of the few people with genuinely feminist interests (as distinct from neoconservative hawks cynically coopting feminist rhetoric to justify making war on Muslims) who have roundly rejected the silly notion that women’s rights and individual liberties are features of a “Western” value system.
Hirsi Ali recognises that women’s movements in the West have had a better track record of success but she dismisses the idea that the principles of liberty and dignity that animate feminism are somehow intrinsically “western.”
She recognises that women’s movements in the West have had a better track record of success but she dismisses the idea that the principles of liberty and dignity that animate feminism are somehow intrinsically “western.” She points out that western women did not historically have the rights and freedoms they now enjoy, that these were hard won against long historical traditions of gender inequality and misogyny that were no less daunting than those still facing women in many parts of the world.
Hirsi Ali has her own set of complaints about western feminists. But these are not about “imposing” their own values on other cultures. Rather, Hirsi Ali is frustrated that Euro-American feminists, who have achieved many of the most pressing goals of their movement over the last century, have kept themselves occupied with “trivial bullshit” instead of working to “elevate the status of women and girls globally.” She wants feminists everywhere to come to the aid of women who cannot speak for themselves because their “voices have been silenced” by the patriarchal, theocratic societies in which they are trapped.
I find this aspect of her perspective quite refreshing. Indeed, I admire her for having the courage to stand up for authentic liberalism against the tortured cultural relativism that currently seems to be in vogue. But I still think she could easily do this without condemning the religious beliefs of a billion people as inherently sympathetic to terrorism. Ismat Chughtai was able to do so, and quite effortlessly, three quarters of a century ago.
I admire her for having the courage to stand up for authentic liberalism against the tortured cultural relativism that currently seems to be in vogue. But I still think she could easily do this without condemning the religious beliefs of a billion people as inherently sympathetic to terrorism.
Hirsi Ali accuses western liberals of mollifying militant Islam by distinguishing it from moderate Islam and emphasising that Islam itself is not to blame for the rise of militancy. I find this a baffling position. As Carla Powers has written, “How could Islam be a rigid set of one-size-fits-all edicts, as the zealots claim, when it’s a faith with followers who range from dreadlocked Oakland grandmas to Hyderabadi mystics to French businessmen? How could it be rigid when interpretations range so widely, running the gamut from bans on women driving (see Saudi Arabia) to giving women the right to lead countries (see Pakistan and Bangladesh)?”
Rula Jebreal wrote in Slate that Hirsi Ali conflates her experience with a very puritanical and reactionary version of Islam—in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya—with all of Islam. And perhaps this explains the differences between an Ayaan Hirsi Ali and an Ismat Chughtai. Despite pressures to give up school and stay in purdah and lower her voice, Chughtai had more of a realistic context for attaining personal freedom. As an Indian, she had access to an ecumenical, tolerant, “liberal” set of traditions. Her stories are crowded with women who subvert the expectations of gender limits and not always through protest or defiance but through manipulation of the traditional “feminine” role.
There is a sense in Chughtai’s work that if you can brave a little ostracism and a few social inconveniences, you could, with a little ingenuity, choose to be free. Perhaps Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s experience with a harsh and militant religiosity left no room for such imaginings, though she has been quite insistent that her philosophical positions emanate from an intellectual process, not an emotional/experiential one.
There is a sense in Chughtai’s work that if you can brave a little ostracism and a few social inconveniences, you could, with a little ingenuity, choose to be free.
Whatever the case, I think Chughtai would have appreciated Hirsi Ali, though she would have rejected the extreme anti-religion rhetoric. And I suspect that if Hirsi Ali had grown up reading Ismat Chughtai instead of Danielle Steele and Barbara Cartland (which led her to yearn for a western life)—and also whatever extremist literature led her briefly to endorse the fatwa against Salman Rushdie—she would have grown up to be much more moderate, nuanced and perhaps more compassionate toward those whose experience of the religion, being different from hers, have led them to still love it.