Ex-Muslim turns her lens on
by Marlise Simons
As she begins to pray, the woman looks heavily veiled, showing her eyes only,
but her long black chador turns out to be transparent. Beneath it, painted on
her chest and stomach, there are verses from the Koran.
More women appear. A bride is dressed in white lace, but her back is naked. The
Koranic verse that says a man may take his woman in any manner, time or place
ordained by God is written on her skin.
The images roll on, now showing a woman lying on the ground, her back and legs
marked by red traces of a whip. The Koranic verses on her wounded flesh say
that those guilty of adultery or sex outside marriage shall be punished with
100 lashes. There are chilling sounds of a cracking whip; there is the haunting
beauty of the Arabic calligraphy and soft music.
These are scenes from "Submission," a 10-minute film shown on Dutch
prime-time television and written by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-bom refugee,now
a member of the Dutch Pariiament. Since the English-language film was shown in
late August, it has been at the centre of a national uproar, which is exactly
what its creator wanted.
Hirsi Ali, 34, who grew up as a Muslim but has abandoned her faith, said her
purpose was not to give offense but to draw attention to what she contends is
widespread but bidden violence against Muslim women, even those living in
She turned to the power of images, she said, to focus attention on
abuse, incest, forced marriages and the suicides of young immigrant women.
Despite her writing and speaking on the subject for several years, she felt the
subject has remained a public taboo "Muslims deny it," she said,
"and many Dutch are afraid of taking it on, of causing religious tension,
of being called racists,"
The stories of the tour women in the film are composites, she says. Critics
have called them simplistic, even caricatures. But die images fired up a new
debate in the Netherlands on how to modernize or to adapt Islam as it expands
In this nation of 16 million people, a million of them Muslim immigrants or
their descendants, Hirsi Ali is part of a small but growing group of women who
say they want to spread the message that the Muslim faith can be practised
without what she calls "savage medieval customs" like genital
cutting, beatings or confining women to their homes. Some of those advocates
contend that the modernization of Islam must come from women, particularly
European Muslim women.
The film and photographs taken from it have appeared in Dutch newspapers,
magazines and television shows, drawing an outpouring of both praise and
"Of course it's a political pamphlet; that's undeniable," said Theo
van Gogh, who directed the film and insisted that he does not see why many
Muslims are so shocked. He said he was deliberately cautious, adding that if he
had really wanted to shock, the film would have been different. It opens with a
prayer, and then the narrator tells stones of four women who ask for God's help
to lighten their suffering. According to the narrative, one was forced to marry
a man she hates, one was raped and made pregnant by her uncle, one was whipped
after she had sexual relations with her boyfriend and one is repeatedly beaten
by her husband. The women feel abandoned by God, despite their devotion to
As a close-up shot of a battered and bruised face appears, the narrator says:
"Oh, Allah, most high. You say that men are the protectors and maintainers
of women, because you have given one more strength than the other. Yet I feel
at least once a week the strength of my husband's fist on my face."
The woman who was raped says she has always turned to "you, Allah,
covering my self as you wish it. And now that I pray for salvation, you remain
silent as the grave I long for."
Critics argue that it is not the spoken text, but the writing of Koranic verses
on the women's flesh that makes the film blasphemous. "There's nothing
wrong with what is said. This is reality," said Loubna Berrada. whose
family is Moroccan and who is an advocate for women's rights. "But the
nudity is wrong. It's too confrontational."
But then, she went on to say, talking has not changed anything. It's the whole
system, in which women participate, that must change. "The women pass on
the oppression to their daughters; they educate their sons," Berrada
The avalanche of published letters and articles reacting to the film includes
one from Fadoua Bouali, a nurse in an Amsterdam hospital, who said she had been
shocked by the number of fearful young Muslim women who have surgery to conceal
the fact that they are not virgins.
"Already men on their wedding days are getting a virgin, stitched up by
Jewish, Christian or atheïst hands," she told the magazine De Tijd.
"Is that what they want?"
Caria Rus, a Dutch psychiatrist, said she had worked for 20 years with abused
women in shelters, where more than half were Muslims. "Suicide attempts
among foreign young women are five times higher than among local women,"
she said, citing studies.
While the debate goes on, so do attacks on Hirsi Ali. A rap song, played on
some local radio stations, calls for her death. Chat rooms and e-mail messages
announce death threats. The police in Rotterdam have arrested a young Moroccan
man and charged him with sending a death threat to Hirsi Ali.
She already has two round-the-clock government bodyguards, and she says she
intends to continue her campaign. She recently spoke before Parliament and
demanded that the interior minister order the police to review their definition
of murder in cases involving young women. She contends that every year at least
a dozen young Muslim girls in the Netherlands are the victims of revenge
killings by brothers, fathers or relatives. The police record them as family
conflicts, she said.
"Police say they want to avoid stigmatizing a group," Hirsi Ali said.
"I say, we have to know the truth."
In addition to the film, Hirsi Ali has already published two books of essays on
the plight of Muslim women, "The Son Factory" and "The Cage of
Her next project is another short film: "Submission Part Two."
She said it will feature the men's point of view.
The New York Times