Guest column by Alina Liu | Let's talk about social justice: Brandeis’ decision on Ayaan Hirsi Ali




B ra ndeis University h as certainly made quite a few headlines over the past months regarding the outrage among students and alumni over the unfair salary made to the former president. As an alumnus, I cannot be more proud to see my fellow Brandeisians taking a stand for social justice within their own institution, advocating for human rights as members of the Brandeis community. From what I remembered, Brandeis has always been an inclusive institution that emphasizes embracing diversity and respecting human dignity. Therefore, for an institution that strives for social justice with the motto, “Truth even unto its innermost parts,” I was simply shocked to learn Brandeis has denied a Ms. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a humanitarian activist’s outstanding achievement at defending the rights of women merely because of some statements made during an interview.

First of all, I would like to say that I consider myself an atheist. I feel the urge to address my personal belief here to avoid any misinterpretation that my opinions are associated with a particular religion.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born into a Muslim family in Somalia, and at the age of five, she went through the horrifying ritual of female genital mutilation, a procedure that involves “partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” As a survivor of female circumcision and arranged marriage, Ayaan Hirsi Ali fled to the Netherlands in 1992, where she was granted asylum. As Ayaan Hirsi Ali came into frequent contact with local Somali refugee women in the Netherlands, she began to advocate for Muslim women and girls who are experiencing abuse, oppression and social isolation. In 2007, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and her supporters founded the AHA Foundation with the mission to “protect and defend the rights of women in the West from oppression justified by religion and culture.”

Through her years of advocacy work, various death threats have been made toward Ayaan Hirsi by religious extremists because of her outspoken style against Islam. Everyone has a different relationship with his or her religion, and everyone experiences religion in a different way. For Ayaan Hirsi Ali, her religious experience has been marked with physical suffering and psychological torment. I believe that no religion should allow violence and suffering. I also hold the belief that action speaks louder than words, and a person’s value and virtue should be manifested through his or her work instead of comments taken out of context from a former interview. It is action that can create an impact on our world, an impact on our mind.

As a private institution, Brandeis is certainly concerned about its own reputation as a nonsectarian institution. The decision to withdraw the honorary awarding was the result of pressure from several sources, including a petition started by a Muslim student at Brandeis protesting the degree awarding to Ayaan Hirsi Ali and the openly-expressed disapproval made by the Council on American-Islamic Relations regarding the same issue. However, by withdrawing a planned awarding, the reputation of the institution has already suffered. Isn’t the fundamental purpose of a higher education institution to serve as a site for social change, a site that allows individuals to speak their minds, a site where different ideas collide into each other and spark the magnificent flame of creativity?

In essence, Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a public figure that represents modern-day free-spirited women, a group of women who have the freedom to preserve their religious beliefs without compromising their fundamental rights as humans or identity as individuals. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is the voice of Muslim women hoping to break free of religious and cultural oppression by informing the world of the cruel reality they face.

I hope Brandeis can stay true to its motto, “Truth even unto its innermost parts, ” encouraging students to explore the depth of humanity by actively engaging a conversation around the pressing issue instead of passively avoiding sensitive topics. As disappointed as I am, I do wish in the near future Ms. Ayaan Hirsi Ali could come to Brandeis, open up a conversation with students and faculties to engage a more in-depth discussion regarding the issue of human rights.

Alina Liu is a master’s student in the School of Social Policy & Practice. Her email address is alinayliu@gmail.com.

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