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Controversial Women's Advocate Sparks Discussion of Islam at Fairfield University

Controversial feminist activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali has sparked protests at college campuses like Yale for her belief that Islam is an oppressive and violent religion. Hirsi Ali gave a lecture that drew more than 500 people to Fairfield University on International Women’s Day this week. The event prompted students to host counter-events about Islam.

The wooded Catholic university campus was quiet before the Hirsi Ali talk.  

Nargis Alizada is Muslim Chaplain on campus. She says just because the Muslim Students Association decided not to picket, it doesn’t mean they weren’t protesting.

“You can silently protest by providing other programs, right?”

Before Hirsi Ali’s lecture, Alizada welcomed a dozen Muslim and non-Muslim students to chapel for Hijab Day. That’s when some women who don’t normally wear the religious headscarf tried it on for the day, then met to discuss what it’s like.

“Putting yourself in the shoes of someone else, right, and here specifically a Muslim woman who covers, who wears hijab, who observes hijab.”

Amira Ebirhim is a freshman who tells the group that she chose to wear the hijab when she was in middle school. She says she doesn’t agree with Hirsi Ali’s view that Islam is anti- feminist. Or that the hijab is a symbol of oppression.

“Feminism is all about gender equality, and nothing in Islam says anything against gender equality. Gender equality is very prominent in Islam, it says one man and one woman has no difference between them. God, they are all humans. ”   

Ebrahim says she decided not to go to Hirsi Ali’s talk. She wants to help her classmates understand what it’s like to be a Muslim woman on International Women’s Day.

Speaking before her lecture across campus, Ayaan Hirsi Ali says she wants Muslim students to join her discussions.

“Students should hear ideas that maybe are new to them. Or maybe that they disagree with and engage with those ideas. The issues that I discuss, Islam and women, Islam and Europe, Islam and immigration, radical Islam, all of these issues are very current issues and very complex issues. And I think it’s very important for students and the community to hear this and to engage with it.”

Hirsi Ali was raised as a Muslim in Somalia and says she is a survivor of female genital mutilation. She’s now atheist. She says International Women’s Day offers a chance to draw attention to how she believes Muslim women are oppressed.  

“I was born in Somalia. I lived in Saudi Arabia. I have worked with women from places like Pakistan and Egypt and all over the Muslim world. And I think it’s the one day that we have a chance to talk about those women who have no recourse in law, who are subjected to the most humiliating and the most depressing set of laws.”

Hirsi Ali believes Sharia law, or Islamic law, promotes honor killings, child marriage, and other violence against women. Southern Poverty Law Center considers Hirsi Ali an anti-Muslim extremist.

“The people who challenge the issues I’ve spoken about either promote Sharia because they’re men and they love oppressing women, why would they change it if they have slaves and they can get away with domestic violence? Or they are women who have been co-opted to, in fact, oppress their sisters and who for whatever reason are promoting Sharia law.”

After the talk, two Muslim audience members challenged Hirsi Ali’s interpretation of Islamic texts during the question and answer period. They said Hirsi Ali fails to differentiate between extremism and religion.

Cassandra Basler, a former senior editor at WSHU, came to the station by way of Columbia Journalism School in New York City. When she's not reporting on wealth and poverty, she's writing about food and family.