Revoking Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Honorary Degree Doesn’t Make Brandeis Anti-Feminist


Over the past few days, I’ve seen folks all over the Internet declare that my alma mater is complicit in the war on women. Apparently it also supports “pedophilic marriage” and female genital mutilation (FGM). According to Fox News, “Brandeis University committed an honor killing this week.”

This hyperbole focuses on a recent controversy over honorary degrees at Brandeis. Not even two weeks ago, the university announced this year’s commencement speaker and honorary degree recipients. The inclusion of Ayaan Hirsi Ali sparked immediate backlash on campus. Hirsi Ali was selected for “her work to protect and defend the rights of women and girls throughout the world,” but apparently the administration was unaware of her history of Islamaphobic statements.

Make no mistake: Hirsi Ali’s work on women’s issues is to be praised. Her personal story, as a Somali woman raised in a Muslim family who survived FGM as a child and escaped a forced marriage, is compelling. And her work with NGOs to help Somali women is absolutely impressive; I can only hope to build such a record in my own feminist activism in New York City.

However, Ayaan Hirsi Ali has also said that Islam is “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death,” and that “violence is inherent in Islam.”

What Fox News and Brandeis’s other critics fail to realize is that this story has nothing to do with Hirsi Ali’s record on women’s issues, and everything to do with a university that is willing to listen to its students and faculty when it makes a mistake. I spoke to Neda Eid (’11), who told me that “this isn’t the right forum” for Hirsi Ali to appear on campus. “I’m not offended by hearing her speak, but she preaches hate,” Eid told me, explaining that if Hirsi Ali were to speak on campus, it would not be without controversy, but there wouldn’t be the same calls to cancel her appearance.

Eid and I had drawn the same conclusions before we spoke: the Muslim community on campus was hurt by its school honoring someone who has made such hateful statements toward them. Commencement ought to center around the students, who have worked for years for their degrees, rather than the people offered honorary degrees; an honorary degree does not make a person part of a university’s community. And that made the administration’s decision the right one, despite the bad PR.

As a member of the Brandeis community, I particularly struggled with hearing people call this decision anti-feminist. I was a women’s and gender studies major at Brandeis, where I grew into my feminism with the help of some fantastic faculty, many of whom joined the call against Hirsi Ali’s honorary degree. As I told Eid, one cannot graduate from that program at Brandeis without learning about some of the most horrific anti-women practices around the world, including FGM, because it’s worked into the department’s core curriculum.

My alma mater, anti-feminist? Because it rescinded an honorary degree from a woman who, in a Wall Street Journal article that she says is the remarks she would have delivered at commencement, said “The connection between violence, particularly violence against women, and Islam is too clear to be ignored. We do no favors to students, faculty, nonbelievers and people of faith when we shut our eyes to this link, when we excuse rather than reflect.” This is anti-feminist, for deciding that a woman who implies that the Brandeis Muslim community, and the Brandeis community at large, ignores and excuses violence against women? I can’t think of a Brandeis student who is ignorant of the disproportionate effects of violence on women around the world. Hirsi Ali’s comments are an insult to the community I hold dear.

I’ve heard time and again that feminism must involve listening, particularly to marginalized communities. I’ve also been fortunate enough to work in feminist and progressive spaces that emphasize intergenerationalism, because we can all learn from one another. President Lawrence has acted on some very feminist values in this decision.

As the Brandeis community has shown, change comes from within. Without the public outcry of Muslim and non-Muslim students alike, Brandeis would have risked alienating a part of the broad community of faiths that I was so proud to be a part of as a student. And without listening to the Muslims who share her cause, Ayaan Hirsi Ali risks failure, because she won’t change the Muslim world without listening to those who are a part of it.


Rachel Goldfarb HeadshotAbout the author: Rachel Goldfarb has been a feminist since birth, but her mother might regret that after hearing stories about her work as a clinic escort. When she’s not doing feminist activism, Rachel works in communications at a progressive policy organization. Follow her on Twitter at @RachelG8489.

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12 replies

  1. Hirsi Ali is a fraudster

  2. Dear white lady,
    Stick to the discussion of white feminist issues and educate yourself before jumping in discussion of Islam. As an ex-muslim I can tell you that Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s description of Islam is very accurate and nobody should bloody care if it hurts the gentle feeling of Muslims. Of course criticism of Islam is going to hurt Muslims feeling the same way calling the Catholic church, I don’t know, “a corrupt child-raping pile of old dudes” would but I have a huntch you don’t mind anyone offending Catholics because you know that criticising any religion naturally offends its adherants. Why take this double standard on Islam? Why? Specially since at the moment Islam is the most immoral, abhorant mainstream religion on the face of the Earth.

    Ayaan Hirsi Ali has made a lot of mistakes, it is true, but her remarks on Islam are not among them.

    • Well put!

      What has ever been wrong in attacking an idea or an ideology? America’s open attack on Socialism and Communism has always been internally applauded and they may have been right on some fields and wrong in others.

      Attacking the Muslim ideology is not attacking Muslims themselves, however they may feel about it. We must be able to detach humans and their beliefs in order to be able to talk about what really matters.

  3. This seems like more “It’s Islamophobic to criticize Islam” BS. It should be as subject to criticism as any other religion, or any secular idea. Also, coming from an ex-Muslim, it seems more informed than coming from someone who was never a Muslim.

  4. My thoughts exactly, Anip. It sounds like she’s (Ali) is allowed to condemn women’s issues in Islamic countries- yeah, Go Women! Women Power! And other meaningless statements- but not the basis of the treatment that Islam can be seen to condone (whether it’s in the Qur’an or not), which to me is exquisite butthurt by Brandeis University. ALL religions MUST be questioned, for they thrive on faith, and faith is NOT reasonable. ALL tyranny must be called what it is, no pussy footing about or trying to make it sound nice to the privileged so they can coo and sputter, discuss it in earnest tones over a coffee, then go home, put their feet up and forget how utterly sh*tty it is for an Islamic woman in a kyriarchic culture to have ANY autonomy EVER about ANY aspect of her life. If that’s not privileged and not even the behaviour of an erratic ally let alone a feminist I don’t know what is!

  5. “The connection between violence, particularly violence against women, and Islam is too clear to be ignored. We do no favors to students, faculty, nonbelievers and people of faith when we shut our eyes to this link, when we excuse rather than reflect.”

    There is nothing at all “hateful” in this mild statement, no more than it is hateful to recognize that the Republican movement in the US is hostile toward gays and lesbians, or that armies kill. Ayaan Hirsi Ali WAS part of the Muslim world for half of her life. For her statements to be Islamaphobic, they would have to be patently untrue or exaggerated. They are neither. What you’re doing is tone-policing her and ordering her to alter her experience to make it more comfortable for the people who oppressed her to hear.

    You do no favors to women by pretending that their pain, suffering, and oppression is not endemic to the society they must live in just because it’s politically incorrect to notice that fact. Are you even aware that she receives death threats simply for *criticism*? No one, no religion, no person, no society, is above criticism. Not Islam, not Christianity, nothing. It is not hate to call attention, to criticize, to be logical and point out critical flaws in human compassion.

    Shame on you.

    • Well said, Anip.

    • Did you not read the part where it says “However, Ayaan Hirsi Ali has also said that Islam is “a destructive, nihilistic cult of death,” and that “violence is inherent in Islam?””

      She is attacking Islam as a whole, which is not okay. It’s one thing to say that she does not like the area where she grew up and their practices, but it’s something totally different to preach hate against all of Islam. We have enough Islamophobia in this nation. Not all Christians are the same with the same practices and not all Muslims are the same with the same practices. By attacking the whole she is alienating an entire group. The CULTURE of that area might be to blame, but attacking the RELIGION as a whole is very very wrong. (Islam has been skewed in terrible ways to fit the culture of the people and the words of the religious text are constantly misconstrued. As is the same with many other religious texts like the Bible.)

      Religion should be questioned, but it should not be attacked. It’s as if saying that because someone was mugged by a white person, all white people are inherently evil. FGM occurs in places in Africa as well, does that mean that all Africans are inherently evil? The last case of FGM in America was in the mid-1900s where people truly believed that women with clitorises where WITCHES. The “witch” was a 7 year old girl. Obviously all Americans are inherently evil.

      • Very well said Anip. And actually sfchowdhury it is not only okay, it is morally imperative that religion be attacked when religion is being used to harm others. People who are trying to protect religions from attack are in fact prolonging the oppression of its victims. The Catholic Church can get away with raping children in a way that no other institution could because there are so many fucking people like you who feel that religion can not be condemned. This belief covers up atrocities, it allows them to continue. When you stand in the way of stopping the use of religion to hurt others you become complicit in the crimes. Shame on you.

      • @sfchowdhury:
        “Religion should be questioned, but it should not be attacked. It’s as if saying that because someone was mugged by a white person, all white people are inherently evil.”

        If I could have a dollar for every time I have read this typical sloppy analogy, I would be very rich by now. Let me keep this simple:

        Attacking Islam as a whole is fine and in fact required of all moral, free, and thinking humans.

        Attacking Muslims as a whole on the other hand is bigoted and often a hate crime.

        See the difference? One is attacking an outdated ideology and the other is targetting people. Your analogy fails because of that reason. I have no problem syaing that Islam should be destroyed because it is a terrible ideology with almost no redeeming qualities but I also support the rights of Muslims as a group and specially as a minority group in Western countries; I just don’t bend over backwards for them.


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