Over the course of my life, I have made many transitions—most of them taking me further away from my Somali roots and steadily toward the enlightened mentality of Western democracy.
As part of this odyssey, I once got a job as interpreter for the Dutch immigration service, translating between Somali asylum seekers and Dutch civil servants.
For my first day on the job, I dressed in conservative working-girl attire—black knee-length skirt and plain accessories—and was asked to interpret for an official interviewing a Somali man. When I entered the room, the Somali man scrutinized me and sneered, “But you’re naked. I want a real translator.”
So I translated that, and the Dutch civil servant said to the man, “I decide who translates, you don’t.”
Talk about a clash of cultures. For me it was momentous. Afterward, the official handed me a timesheet to fill out. I walked out of the office thrilled.
I wish that this clash of cultures always ended so well. How much nicer the world would be if the sad, narrow-minded bigots were always reprimanded by honest civil servants and forced to be respectful of women doing their jobs.
How much happier other women would be if my own minor triumph were shared across those lands dominated by disdain for independent women.
Did I just write “those lands”? Did you think I meant the United States? Sadly, I did. The United States itself, so marvelously imbued with the spirit of freedom and personal independence, is becoming a battleground for this clash of cultures. And very sadly, one side, the side of respect for self-determination, is losing.
Picture an American girl, a typical California teenager in jeans who lives on Facebook and likes sports. She loves her family, but feels pressure from them to resist peer influence. A typical family dynamic? So far.
Out of respect for father and family, this girl agrees to visit her parents’ home country, the old world where her grandmother is aging and would love to see her granddaughter one more time.
On this visit, this gesture of affection and respect, this American girl is overpowered and confined, stripped of her passport, cut off from outside contact, watched every second, and prepared for marriage to a much older man whom she’s never met.
This story is true, and I assure you it is not an aberration. Robbing a girl of her freedom and identity is becoming more and more common in the United States. Such crimes are committed not for money or personal obsession, but in the name of traditional religion and culture.
Forced marriage is linked to other acts committed in the name of religion and culture, so-called honor killings (perversely named!), and linked to the barbaric act of female genital mutilation—all three crimes commonly committed in the name of protecting honor and sanctioned by religion.
What worries me is that, within the American value system, there are two clashing strains—individual rights clashing with tolerance of others. I fear that, in the new battleground I’ve identified, individual rights of women are losing out to tolerance of oppressive customs.
On one hand, Americans fiercely defend individual rights. They enjoy the secret ballot, a sound judicial system, and protection of free speech. Beyond that, Americans respect the right of all men and women to launch their own odysseys and be the human being that ability and fortune might allow.
But another wonderful quality of American culture is tolerance of others. Americans have always welcomed people of all backgrounds, religions, and races. It’s a spirit of tolerance, now energized and amplified by the cult of multiculturalism.
I see these two strains in conflict: individual rights and tolerance of religious abuse.
In Holland I have seen well-meaning, principled people blinded by multiculturalism, overwhelmed by the imperative to be sensitive and respectful of immigrant culture, while ignoring criminal abuse of women and girls.
When I said the position of Muslim women had to change now, people were always telling me to wait, or calling me “right-wing.” Was that what they told the mineworkers in the 19th century when they fought for workers’ rights?
In the United States I see a similar, very worrying reluctance to ignore judging immigrants who oppress their women and mutilate their girls in the name of their own religion and culture.
What response do I recommend? It is simple, really. It starts with this step: For the sake of beaten, threatened, and abused women in insulated immigrant communities, Americans need to start recognizing and labeling honor-based violence and abuse. Then they need to move to developing laws to acknowledge and punish these crimes.
It is for these reasons that I created the AHA Foundation, the first and only U.S. organization dedicated to understanding the scope and impact of honor violence, forced marriage, and female genital mutilation, and to organizing intervention, support, enforcement, legislation, public awareness, and diplomatic initiatives to protect the victims of these crimes.
In addition, I think the entire mystique of multiculturalism has to be re-examined and, let us say, intelligently tweaked. Let us recognize that we can no longer tolerate violent oppression of women in the name of religion and culture any more than we would tolerate violent oppression espoused by any other bully in the name of a twisted rationale.
Is multiculturalism a valid ideal? Of course. But what matters too is abuse, and how it is anchored in a religion that denies women their rights as humans. What matters is that atrocities against women and girls are carried out in Western democracies—increasingly in the U.S. What matters is that governments and societies must stop hiding behind the hollow pretense of tolerance so that they can recognize and deal with the oppression of American women and girls.