Will the Liberal Feminists Please Stand Up?

Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Photo Credit: The Guardian
Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Photo Credit: The Guardian

Why the Controversy at Brandeis Involving Ayaan Hirsi Ali and the “deafening silence” of Western Feminists should upset you into action. 

Brandeis University has found itself in the media spotlight following a decision last week to withdraw its planned awarding of an honorary degree to internationally renowned champion of women’s rights, Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

For those unfamiliar with Ms. Ali, she escaped from a terrifying upbringing as a Muslim girl in Somalia, where she experienced genital cutting and fled from a forced marriage arrangement to the Netherlands, where she worked as a translator for immigrant women and victims of sexual violence and was eventually elected to parliament. In 2004 she wrote a film script critical of the world in which she grew up; the director of the film was violently murdered, and a threat to kill Ms. Hirsi Ali was pinned to his body with a knife. She lives under constant threat of attack, and was forced from her home by the Dutch government after her neighbors complained that living in close proximity to Ms. Hirsi Ali was an endangerment to their lives.

Instead of retreating from the public sphere, Ali channeled her powerful experiences into helping others. In 2007, Ali helped found the AHA Foundation, which works tirelessly to advocate for the rights of oppressed women in the West. The organization actively works on legislation such as the Violence Against Women Act, which has helped significantly decrease rates of domestic violence, and helped write the language and provided special consultation on the Federal Extraterritoriality Amendment, which made it illegal to transport a girl outside of the country in order to undergo a genital mutilation procedure. The organization also provides support and resources to victims of sexual and domestic assault, as well as assistance to victims of honor violence, genital mutilation, and women attempting to escape forced marriages. AHA also provides training and resources for police departments about female genital mutilation and honor violence. Ms. Ali is a powerful voice for justice and often speaks publicly about her experiences, as well as the work that must still be done on behalf of women and girls everywhere.

Brandeis’s announcement of its decision to revoke the planned degree came on the same day as a letter to Brandeis President Frederick Lawrence from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) which accused Ayaan Hirsi Ali of being a “notorious Islamophobe” and “promoter of religious prejudice.” A spokesperson for CAIR called Ms. Hirsi Ali “one of the worst of the worst of the Islam haters in America, not only in America but worldwide,” in a statement to The New York Times. “I don’t assign any ill will to Brandeis. I think they just kind of got fooled a little bit.”

Brandeis most certainly did get fooled, but only when they granted CAIR any say in their internal policies. CAIR is hardly a moderate advocate for American-Islamic relations; CAIR is a known sponsor of the international terrorist group Hamas and is widely accepted as “the US arm of the Muslim Brotherhood.” (Even a cursory look at The United States vs. Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development turns up uncomfortable details concerning the organization.)

Brandeis’s decision to revoke Ms. Ali’s honorary degree is a flagrant violation of Brandeis’s core values of “citizenship, integrity, respect, civility, lifelong learning, and embracing diversity.” Some of Ali’s stronger views on Islam may be uncomfortable, but that should come as no surprise considering her past experience living under its thumb. Any academic’s uncomfortable or unpopular views on a particular subject should not cancel out the sum of one’s work.

In 2000, Brandeis awarded an honorary degree to South African social rights activist Desmond Tutu. Should this degree be retroactively annulled because he has publicly and offensively minimized the suffering Holocaust victims? In 2006, playwright Tony Kushner also received an honorary degree from Brandeis. Should his degree be revoked because he demonizes the state of Israel and is involved with a radical anti-war group founded and run by those with close ties to the Revolutionary Communist Party?

It is troubling to me that freedom of expression at Brandeis seems to be available only for those whose opinions cater to the current academic vogue. When Tony Kushner received his honorary degree from Brandeis, the president at the time Jehuda Reinhartz argued, “Mr. Kushner …is not being honored for his political opinions. Brandeis is honoring him for his extraordinary achievements as one of this generation’s foremost playwrights, whose work is recognized in the arts and also addresses Brandeis’s commitment to social justice.” Why won’t Brandeis grant Ms. Ali the same treatment?

What has happened to Brandeis’s chutzpah? Are they really pro-truth, even when it is uncomfortable? As Ms. Hirsi Ali herself stated,the slur on my reputation is not the worst aspect of this episode. More deplorable is that an institution set up on the basis of religious freedom should today so deeply betray its own founding principles.” This double standard, whereby only those with popularly uncouth opinions are allowed to be heard, is truly antithetical to the foundations of America’s institutions of higher learning. As Ross Douthat so eloquently expressed in the New York Times this morning, the Brandeis debacle indicates “a serious moral defect at the heart of elite culture in America… the refusal to admit–to others, and to itself– that these biases fundamentally trump the commitment to ‘free expression’ or ‘diversity’ affirmed in mission statements and news releases. This refusal, this self-deception, means that we have far too many powerful communities (corporate, academic, journalistic) that are simultaneously dogmatic and dishonest about it — that promise diversity but only as the left defines it, that fill their ranks with ideologues and then claim to stand athwart bias and misinformation.”

Legal Insurrection’s Professor William Jacobson pointed out the “deafening silence” of Western feminists regarding this smear campaign against Ms. Ali. I have not read one single piece that highlights why this issue is important for those of us who claim to be liberal feminists; why silencing Ms. Hirsi Ali is incredibly damaging and seeks to taint the reputation of and discredit one of the most active advocates for women and girls of our generation.*  Where is Jezebel? Are our biggest feminist issues related only to pop culture? I understand why an organization such as CAIR would feel threatened by Ms. Hirsi Ali; I do not understand why women’s rights advocates would not come out of the woodwork to support her.

The Lame Excuses Department of Brandeis seems to be in full swing; a University statement claimed that “ [Ms. Hirsi Ali] is a compelling public figure and advocate for women’s rights, and we respect and appreciate her work to protect and defend the rights of women and girls throughout the world. That said, we cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values.”

An official also expressed concern that Hirsi Ali’s presence would detract from the overall experience of commencement, which is “not a hard-edged talk show or forum for confrontational endorsement of extreme views,” but rather “a celebration where all should feel welcome.” She also called into question Hirsi Ali’s political career, saying that it had been built on “complaining about refugees and immigrants” and calling for harsher measures to be directed at these groups.Complaining? I cannot think of anyone who complains less than Ali, unless somehow Brandeis has confused the meaning of “complaining” with “tireless humanitarian work.”

And what exactly were these extreme views Ms. Hirsi Ali planned to share with Brandeis’s graduating class? Her planned remarks are worth reading in full. But from just a few lines, we can see that Ms. Hirsi Ali’s message is not one of extremism, but of peace and hope:

“When I see millions of women in Afghanistan defying threats from the Taliban and lining up to vote; when I see women in Saudi Arabia defying an absurd ban on female driving; and when I see Tunisian women celebrating the conviction of a group of policemen for a heinous gang rape, I feel more optimistic than I did a few years ago. The misnamed Arab Spring has been a revolution full of disappointments. But I believe it has created an opportunity for traditional forms of authority—including patriarchal authority—to be challenged, and even for the religious justifications for the oppression of women to be questioned.”

And in the ultimate irony:

“One of the best places to do that is in our institutions of higher learning. We need to make our universities temples not of dogmatic orthodoxy, but of truly critical thinking, where all ideas are welcome and where civil debate is encouraged. I’m used to being shouted down on campuses, so I am grateful for the opportunity to address you today. I do not expect all of you to agree with me, but I very much appreciate your willingness to listen. I stand before you as someone who is fighting for women and girls’ basic rights globally. And I stand before you as someone who is not afraid to ask difficult questions about the role of religion in that fight.”

These are not the words of a radical; these are the words of someone standing up for Brandeis’s motto of “Truth, even unto its innermost parts.” I implore all of you to speak out with concrete actions: Call the university (the number listed for the office of the President is 781-736-3001), speak up for Ms. Hirsi Ali, but most importantly, speak up against the trend of intellectual dishonesty and lack of academic integrity slowly snaking its way into our institutions of higher learning. Only when the intellectual community speaks up with a loud voice against such double standards will we be able to achieve any lasting change and truly honor champions of our time such as Ms. Ali.

*It has come to my attention that two excellent articles (Here and here) by ardent feminist, Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies, and co-founder of the Association for Women in Psychology (1969)’s Phyllis Chesler have been published on the Brandeis debacle and the ongoing “open season against Israel.” Still, I maintain my charge that more feminists and liberals should actively stand up for truth and intellectual integrity. 


About the Author
Laura E. Adkins is JTA’s Opinion Editor. She was previously Deputy Opinion Editor at the Forward, where she wrote about data, Orthodoxy, kosher wine, and built interactive maps. Laura has also served as the editor of Jewish Insider and an assistant blogs editor at The Times of Israel. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, SELF, the New York Observer and elsewhere.