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.
About 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.