Book Review: The Caged Virgin


Title: The Caged Virgin — An Emancipation Proclamation for Women & Islam
Author: Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Type: Non-fiction

The first thing that strikes you when you read this book is the author’s admirable courage and deep conviction. Influenced almost entirely by her personal life experiences, she takes on the entire world of Islam, head on! The author was born and raised in Somalia and eventually became a politician in the Netherlands. Having seen and experienced first-hand the challenges of growing up as a Muslim woman in deeply traditional surroundings in Somalia, she describes with great passion and bitterness (that lingers throughout the book), the brutality and oppression that women are subjected to in Islamic cultures. Parts of the book are autobiographical, but for the most part, it is a collection of essays.
The author was responsible for the script of the film “Submission,” which was made by Dutch film-maker, Theo Van Gogh, who was murdered by Muslim extremists. One chapter in the book covers the first version of the complete transcript of the film, while another chapter (entitled, “The Need for Self-Reflection within Islam”) is a response to criticism about the film. This chapter along with another chapter (entitled, “The Call for Clear Thinking”) are by far the most important chapters in the book as they capture the essence of the author’s stand against Islam. There is one chapter (entitled, “Ten Tips for Muslim Women Who Want to Leave”) directed exclusively at Muslim women who want to break free and take charge of their lives.

It’s almost impossible to argue with someone who has had first hand experiences of such extreme kind. At the same time one can’t help but notice the author’s impatience and a desire for quick, seemingly impractical, rapid fixes to the problem. Firstly, what is true of Somalian Muslim society might not necessarily hold true in the rest of the Muslim world. Besides, the author goes to wild extremes –“Name a single Muslim who had made a discovery in science or technology, or changed the world through artistic achievement. There is none.” She also blames Western Governments for not doing enough under the pretext of Multiculturalism. In general, there is a George Bush-like “thrust freedom and democracy down peoples’ throats” feel to the author’s stand and ideology, except that its directed towards Islam. It’s easy to offend a billion+ followers of a religion because of personal, traumatic life experiences, but to expect to fix it by taking it head on is no different from the failed US policy in Iraq.

I found the book quite repetitive. The same issues were alluded to over and over in different parts of the book. There are sections of the book that are are hard to appreciate fully without a better understanding of Dutch politics. Overall, I felt that the book could have been organized better with the two chapters mentioned above getting greater prominence in overall flow of the book. Maybe this had to do with the fact that the book was translated from Dutch.

There is no question that this book is a daring, life-risking effort by a woman who has lived through some very difficult experiences and yet managed to work her way up to a visible position. This in itself is commendable, and a book derived from such experiences, should make a worthwhile read. However, a word of caution before you read this book. If you are a progressive Muslim (one who can stand Islam taking more than a few hard punches), this is a must-read. If you are a Muslim who is easily offended, this book might be one to avoid. If you are a “Islamophobe” (I came across this term for the first time in this book!) you are sure to lap this up to further shore up your prejudices. If you are a non-Muslim, you’ll get a detailed exposure to the state of women in many Islamic cultures and a call to action from someone who has been through it all first hand.

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