From  the  book  “A  CAGED  VIRGIN”  by  Ayaan  Hirsi  Ali


Four Women's Lives

In 1992, I escaped to the Netherlands, fleeing the marriage my father arranged for me to a fellow clan member in Canada. Despite my fierce protestations, my father refused to change his mind. On my way to Canada, in Germany, I seized the opportunity to run away from my family and escaped to Holland, where I was taken to the Center for Asylum Seekers. I was the only one there who could tell my fellow seekers' story in English. Two Somali girls, who were living in the same bungalow as I was, asked if I would come with them to the refugee worker and help explain their situation. Soon I was asked to go everywhere with them. They had lice, so we had to go to the medical services. I went with them to the registration office for foreigners; to the office for legal help; to various institutions responsible for social welfare. Other asylum seekers from Somalia found out about me. After a while, refugee workers advised me to take up interpreting professionally. I was doing it as a favor, and professional interpreters are paid a decent fee. At first my Dutch was not good enough, I translated from Somali into English, but they said they were not allowed to pay me for that. The refugee workers helped me out: "Just start in Dutch and if you get stuck, we'll carry on in English."

In 1993 I left the shelter for asylum seekers and applied to the Netherlands Center for Interpreters. Although I scored well in the tests, they said I would have to wait until I had been resident in the Netherlands for at least three years. When I realized that more and more Somali people were moving to the Netherlands, I knocked on the door of the immigration and naturalization services. They added me to their list of on-call interpreters, and from then on I got plenty of work. I worked as an interpreter from 1995 to 2001. I saw dozens of men and women who had contracted sexually transmitted diseases (AIDS, syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, et cetera), and many women who had gotten pregnant by accident. There is a much higher incidence of unwanted pregnancies among newcomers from third-world countries, where anything remotely sexual is still heavily taboo, than among native Westerners, who have a more liberal attitude to sex.

Here are four experiences from the time I worked as an interpreter.


A nineteen-year-old Somali girl goes to the Medical Services at the Refugee Center in 's-Gravendeel and complains of not feeling well. One of the doctors examines her urine and concludes she is pregnant. The doctor wants to tell her this and asks me to be an interpreter over the telephone.

Shocked, the girl breaks down in tears. I can hear her crying over the phone but cannot make out what she says. She seems utterly desperate. It gives me the shivers even to remember it.

Then she says, "But that is impossible, I am a virgin, I can't be pregnant." She continues to deny it. She says she can prove that she is a virgin; "I was stitched." She can't have done it with a boy, because the stitches are all intact.

The doctor tries to calm her down and promises he will test her urine a second time. Not long after this I receive another phone call from the same girl and listen to the same story. The doctor tells the Somali girl that he has tested her urine again and that she really is pregnant.

He asks whether she has had any sexual education. She answers: "Why should I? I didn't need any: I was going to remain a virgin until marriage."

She tells the doctor she has been in the Netherlands only a month. A Somali boy, who has been in the Netherlands much longer and speaks Dutch, has helped her with everything. Each time she had to see her solicitor he came with her. One day he invited her and two other Somali girls to his home in Dordrecht. There he made a pass at her. He took her up to his bedroom while the two other girls remained in the sitting room. He wanted to go to bed with her and took off her clothes. He promised he would not make her lose her virginity. He kept saying that he had helped her, and that now it was her turn to do something for him.

The doctor has to drag the story out of her. She tells him that the boy did not insert his penis inside her, but merely rubbed it against her. He did ejaculate while he was on top of her, but the stitches had remained intact. They had both been convinced she was still a virgin.

The doctor explains that in order to become pregnant you need a man and a woman; that some women are more fertile than others; and that there are certain times when you are more fertile than others, depending on where you are in your menstrual cycle. She seems to have had the misfortune of being particularly fertile at that moment, which has allowed her to become pregnant, possibly through a single drop of semen.

Her reaction shows that she hasn't a clue about sexual intercourse or reproduction.

The doctor explains that she can choose from a number of options: she can keep the baby, she can have an abortion, or she can give it up for adoption.

The girl is in a complete muddle. "I've only been here a month," she cries hysterically. "I can't do this. My family set aside so much money to allow me to travel to the Netherlands, and this is how I thank them. I have disgraced them beyond belief. I can't let this happen. I must hide."

When the doctor asks if she wants an abortion—after all, the fetus is still very early in its development—she says, "No, no, no, I have disgraced myself with my family, I'm not going to disgrace myself with Allah as well, by murdering my baby" She categorically refuses to have an abortion. It is beyond discussion. "I would end up in hell."

According to Islam, an extramarital pregnancy brings great shame on the family, but you can still redeem yourself in the eyes of Allah. 

Abortion, though, the killing of an innocent baby, is a deadly sin, for which there is no forgiveness.


The doctor suggests that, alternatively, she can give up her baby for adoption. She briefly considers this option but dismisses it, "I made a mistake," she says, "I must carry the responsibility for it."

The doctor tells her that in that case she will have to come for regular checkups, and that she can get support from a psychotherapist if she wants. When he proposes to involve the father, she agrees, which shows that she did like the boy, after all.

This girl was completely clueless. She had never had any sexual education because in her culture that was deemed unnecessary. Sex before marriage is forbidden; when a woman marries she must be a virgin. Sexual education would only give people the wrong idea.


This taboo also leads to ignorance among Muslims about AIDS and how you can get it. They think it is a disease that only homosexuals, Christians, and nonbelievers can contract, not Muslims or Somalis. I interpreted for men who led active sex lives and who visited prostitutes. When they turned out to be HIV-positive, they said, "I can't be, I am a Muslim." As if the HIV virus would know the difference.


Somali girls are brought up with the motto, "Just keep your stitches intact." The moment of truth comes during the wedding night. If it turns out that your vaginal walls are no longer stitched together, you are a whore. The sewing together of the vaginal walls is not, strictly speaking, an Islamic custom. The Prophet Muhammad says in the Koran that boys should be circumcised, but no mention is made of female circumcision. 


The tradition of stitching is pre-Islamic but was adopted by Islam; you could compare it to what happened with the pre-Christian tradition of the Christmas tree in Christianity. Muslim scholars have never condemned the ritual of female circumcision because in Islam the importance of virginity at marriage counts so heavily. When they came into contact with this tribal ritual they must have thought, “Hey, wouldn't that be a good way to guarantee a girl's virginity? Excellent!” Stitching is especially popular in African Islamic countries, such as Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan, and Egypt, and also in Indonesia.


Anab and Shukri are two underage asylum seekers. Upon arrival in the Netherlands, they are asked whether they have any family in the country. They are sent to Sa-ied, an older half brother who has been living in the Netherlands with his wife for five years. The organization in charge of underage asylum seekers, a trust called De Op-bouw places the girls "under his care" instead of appointing an official guardian. At that time the trust was responsible for finding suitable guardians for underage asylum seekers who had come without their parents and for monitoring their general welfare.

Sa-ied subjects both girls to severe sexual abuse for an extended period of time; Anab, the eldest of the two, suffers the worst and longest. The story comes to the surface when the younger sister, Shukri, goes to the social worker at the trust and tells her everything. The trust reports the case and also contacts the child protection agency. Sa-ied is arrested and ends up in prison.

At the police headquarters of the vice squad in The Hague, I meet Anab's and Shukri's sister. I have been asked to be an interpreter for this heavily pregnant Somali woman, who is wearing a headscarf. She greets me and immediately asks, "Who do you belong to?" Which means: "From which clan are you?" I say that in my capacity of interpreter I am not allowed to answer such questions. But as I am a Somali woman, she wants to know because of the things that are going to be discussed. I refuse again, explaining that I am sworn to secrecy.

She tells the police that she, her two sisters, and her half brother are all related on their father's side. In those circumstances a half brother is seen as a full brother. The police ask her in detail about the perpetrator. Did she know that he was sexually abusing her sisters? Does he have a history of abusing women and girls? Does he always follow the same pattern? And so on. 

She takes half an hour or more to tell the police how perfectly virtuous her family is: that it is just this boy; that sexual abuse never occurs among Somali people; that this is a curse. Finally she demands a full investigation of the case to check whether it really happened. The woman is thoroughly confused. She wonders how she can put it right.

I find out many details about the case: when it began, how it began, who reported it, and that the man did not only abuse the two girls but regularly raped and violated his wife as well.

Approximately one week later my niece Maryan comes to live with me. At the weekend she asks me if I can pick her up from an address in Utrecht. She wants to visit a friend whom she knows from her first days in the Netherlands. They were both assigned to the care of De Opbouw, the trust in charge of underage asylum seekers, and have become friends: young girls who have fun together and enjoy wearing high heels.

At the address in Utrecht I find an unbelievable mess. The whole house stinks of urine. Two toddlers—no older than one and two years—are puttering about in nappies that they have been wearing for far too long. Dirty nappies are lying around everywhere. My niece's friend, whose house we are visiting, is called Anab, She offers us tea and disappears into the kitchen. We are kept waiting for a long time.

While I am sitting there on the sofa with Maryan, and Anab is making us tea (I suspect she cannot find anything; we never get any tea), Maryan says, "You see those videotapes over there? That's all pornography. Hard porn. Anab's husband rents them. He forces Anab to watch them and to do all the crazy things shown in the video. He rapes her anally; she has to put up with horrible things."

I recognize the story: this is the same Anab as the one I came across in the file at the police station in The Hague. While the man who raped and traumatized Anab is behind bars, her family has managed to find a cousin prepared to marry her, despite the fact that she is no longer a virgin. The sexual abuse—which, according to the sister—has "never before happened in our family"—has been swept under the carpet, and the family name has been cleared.

On inquiry it emerges that Anab was married to her cousin as soon as she reached eighteen. From that age the young asylum seekers no longer fall under the care of the Opbouw Trust. Presumably her cousin, for whatever reason, had been unable to find a wife. The family said to him: "We have a wife for you, but you'll have to keep your mouth shut about what happened to her." After years of abuse by her half brother, Anab is now suffering the abuse of her cousin, whom she has been forced to marry.

Anab ran away from home more than once, and on several occasions she was removed from the house by social services, but she went back each time. Through a neighbor she was helped to settle in a shelter for abused women for a while, until her husband picked her up and took her home. Sa-ied is in prison because he sexually abused Anab, but her husband, who treats her just as badly, remains at large.

The family of these two girls paid people traffickers a hefty sum of money to let their children go to school in the Netherlands. This was done in a spirit of hopeful optimism; then—inadvertently—the whole thing ended like this.

Anab's story shows how a girl is sacrificed in the name of the sacred cult of virginhood to save the family honor. 

And it is not just Anab who becomes the victim of this myth; her children and husband are equally affected. Her husband behaves insanely with her and tells himself it is all right, since "she had lost her virginity, so she was already a whore.” And her two children literally grow up in a rubbish dump. What will become of them?

Anab's younger sister Shukri leaves for good. She escapes and never wishes to have anything to do with her family again.


She is in her mid-forties, has two children, and is pregnant with her third. The doctor tells her that he wants to discuss the result of a blood test that was done as part of a routine pregnancy examination. There is something important he needs to tell her: she is HIV-positive.

The woman is upset: "That's not true. I have led such a virtuous, chaste life. I have strictly adhered to the rules of Islam and of my family And when I was young I never so much as looked at a boy I have never been alone with a boy I can't possibly have a sexually transmitted disease."

The doctor repeats that she is HIV-positive all the same and asks: "What about your husbands's sexual activities?"

She replies that her husband is very good to her, that he takes good care of the children, behaves in a responsible manner, and comes from a good family. It is out of the question that her husband could have contracted HIV. And anyway, it is a disease Muslims cannot get. It is a disease that affects Christians, and above all homosexuals. Neither she nor her husband has had a blood transfusion, so that cannot be the cause either.

When her husband is examined, it turns out that he is also HIV-positive.

He moved to the Netherlands before her. She joined him later when the family was reunited. It seems likely that when he was on his own, he led an active sex life or regularly slept with prostitutes.


I am called by a doctor. "I have little Amma here, a Somali girl," he says, "who wants to discuss something serious but refuses to see an interpreter. We've finally got her to accept an interpreter over the phone. Can you help?"

The girl refuses an interpreter because she is too ashamed to reveal her problems in the presence of another Somali woman. To win her trust I tell her that as an interpreter I am sworn to secrecy. She refuses to give her name. She is seventeen but smart for her age. When I promise her I will not pass on anything to anyone else, she says, "No, you had better not."

She says to the doctor, "I am pregnant and I want it removed."

"How do you know you're pregnant?" the doctor asks.

"I bought a predictor kit, and the test showed that I'm pregnant," she says. "I wasn't surprised because I had missed my period."

The doctor says that she is still officially underage and that he cannot just refer her to an abortion clinic. Her guardian at the trust in charge of underage asylum seekers will have to be involved in the decision.

"No," she answers. "I don't want her to know."

The doctor says that in that case he cannot help her.

"Okay," she says, "then I'll go to Rotterdam. There is a Cape Verdean woman there who can do it."

Afraid of what might happen to her in Rotterdam, the doctor gives in: “All right, I'll help you. But I insist on having an interpreter present. Because it is my duty as a doctor to explain everything to you."

She describes how her pregnancy would be regarded in the Somali community: "If they find out, I'll become an outcast." At the shelter for refugees, she shares a room with two other Somali women. To prevent them from realizing that she is pregnant, she wants the abortion to go ahead as soon as possible.

She accepts me as an interpreter, and together with the doctor I visit her to explain that in the Netherlands you need to follow certain procedures before you can have an abortion. We ask her to allow herself two days to think carefully about all the questions she will have to answer ("How long have you been pregnant?" "Do you wish the father to be involved?"). She needs to let everything sink in before making a final decision. She must be absolutely certain that she wants to have the abortion. But she has already made up her mind it seems. She is referred to the abortion clinic ip Leiden, and I accompany her.

The waiting room in the clinic is full of immigrant women. The so-called recovery rooms are also almost exclusively filled with immigrants, mainly from Turkey and Morocco and a few from China. 

The girl for whom I am interpreting is asked the same questions as before and she is encouraged to think carefully about her decision. Asked whether she would like the father to be present, she replies, "No, he gave me his word that he wouldn't penetrate me, but he did. I don't want him involved."

She demands that her stitches not be damaged by the abortion. They must absolutely remain intact. The doctor examines the stitches and says he will have to take them out. "In that case I want you to put new stitches in after the abortion," she demands, and proceeds to have the abortion.

After the abortion the girl is told that she will have to recover first and can come back at a later date for the stitches. Presumably this never happened, since Dutch doctors will now replace these kinds of stitches. But to have the stitches replaced; she might have traveled to Italy or the United Kingdom, where doctors are known to do this.

The Dutch Social Security system is not very well set up for the problems of Muslims. This inadvertently contributes to perpetuating the situation and keeps everyone locked in the virgins' cage. 

Dutch psychologists are, quite rightly, used to treating their patients as individuals. In my interpreting days I witnessed how they also used this approach with Muslim women. An important question was always: 'What would you like yourself?" Many women simply did not know. They would sit, quiet as a mouse, and shrug their shoulders. "What my husband wants," they might say timidly, or "As Allah wishes." And there were even women who would answer: "Whatever you think is right." They had never learned to want anything for themselves. "What would you like for your children? What decision would you like to take for them?" They had not learned this either, so did not know how to answer. The social workers did not understand them; they were puzzled and frustrated. As a last resort they referred these women to other agencies, but there is a limit to how often this can be done.

There is a new branch within the world of aid agencies known as "intercultural welfare" (or something similarly ugly). It offers separate help to, for example, Muslim women who have suffered abuse. One example is the Saadet Shelter in Rotterdam. The women who end up there do not learn how to become more resilient and independent. No, assertiveness training is only given to native Dutch victims of abuse. The preferred solution for immigrant women is "mediation" between the victim, her family, and her husband. This common attitude of the aid agencies is based on the advice of countless organizations set up for the benefit of the immigrant population, some ethnic in origin, others religious. The spokespeople for these organizations, which are subsidized by the government, tend to be men and occasionally women who for one reason or another wish to maintain the status quo.




Keith Hunt