Book review – Burkas & bikinis

2012-09-22 10:15

In the supermarket of ideas, ­religion flies off the shelf. Why wouldn’t it? It’s cheap, compact, ubiquitous and tailor-made for any civilisation – from West to East.

But don’t fool yourself that it doesn’t come at a price.

A tool for finding any sky god almost inevitably becomes a political one. How else would you explain how a Pakistani neuroscientist and a Somali bestselling author became “the most wanted women in the world”?

Wanted Women: Faith, Lies & the War on Terror by Deborah Scroggins is a spellbinding dual ­biography of two of the most ­famous (some would say infamous) women in the Islamic world: activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali and religious extremist Aafia Siddiqui.

Award-winning American journalist Scroggins chronicles and juxtaposes the private and public lives of two women on polar sides of the war on terror, and makes a concerted effort to do so in a balanced way.

For the most part, she succeeds.

But Wanted Women is in essence two books about two non-Western women written by one American woman.

It should be read as such.

Scroggins, in alternating chapters, skilfully weaves the true-life stories of two radically different women.

Sure, there are the obvious similarities.

Ayaan and Aafia are both supersmart non-Western women of the same generation who grew up in conservative Islamic households and immigrated to the West during the same historical period (the end of the Cold War).

Both sets of parents picked out their husbands, both women are ­mothers and both have legions of ­admirers.

Pakistan’s former prime ­minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani, once called Aafia Siddiqui “the daughter of the nation”, while the late Christopher Hitchens summed up the sentiments of the liberal intellectual world when he referred to Ayaan Hirsi Ali as “the three most beautiful words in the English language”.

But this is where the subtle ­similarities end and the stark ­differences emerge.

The statuesque Ayaan Hirsi Ali would go on to denounce Islam (and religion in general).

She soon became a Dutch parliamentarian, a bestselling author, a women’s rights activist and a celebrated public intellectual.

She is also the woman behind slain film maker Theo van Gogh’s controversial short film, Submission.

Theo’s great-grandfather was the brother of Dutch post-Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh.

A death threat for Ayaan was pinned to Theo van Gogh’s chest.

The diminutive Aafia Siddiqui, on the other hand, would go on to embrace Islam (and only Islam) to the extreme. She soon became “the only senior female member” of al-Qaeda and went on to marry the nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.

She is currently serving an 86-year sentence in a Texas prison after allegedly shooting at US soldiers and FBI agents in Ghazni, Afghanistan, in 2008.

Yet it’s easy to imagine these two women taking opposite paths.

Ayaan was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood as a teenager, while ­Aafia studied feminism at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

So what turned one woman into an activist and another into a religious extremist? I guess we’ll never know. The author failed to speak to either woman.

After devouring Scroggins’ biographical dynamite, one thing is clear.

Ayaan and Aafia may be two women caught in a clash of civilisations, but ­only one woman is a victim.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a critic of Islam, is about using words; Aafia Siddiqui, a critic of the West, is about using war.

Ayaan is on a quest for the truth; Aafia is on a quest to conquer the West for Islam.

Ayaan uses the freedom of expression in the West to champion reason and women’s rights; Aafia uses that freedom of expression to champion religious dogma and jihadist zeal.

But one would be a fool to think that these women’s stories are this black and white. There are many grey areas in politics and war.

So no matter which extreme ­opposite pole you may be in the post-9/11 tent, it’s prudent to ­remember that if you don’t understand the shadow, you don’t understand the light.

As the author ­herself notes: “Like the bikini and the burka, or the virgin and the whore, you couldn’t understand one without the other.”

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