Becoming  a  Muslim  and  moving  deeper  in  its  religion  is  here  given  by  Ayaan  Hirsi  Ali  from  her  book:


Chapter 8  - Doubt  and  Defiance

(All  black  letting  is  mine  for  emphasis  -  Keith Hunt)

…….Then Haweya met Sahra, an Isaq woman. Actually, it was my grandmother who met her first, while she was out grazing her sheep, and brought her home for tea—a kinswoman. Sahra dressed in trousers and blouses and wore huge sunglasses, and her hair was dyed red. Sahra was older than we were, about twenty-three or twenty-four. She'd been married at fourteen and had three children. She invited Haweya and me over to her house to watch TV. I had no time for Sahra, but Haweya liked it at her place and took to going there almost every afternoon. The two of them could talk and watch videos for hours. Sometimes Sahra would go out by herself, while Haweya looked after her children; she would buy Haweya books and lipsticks in return.

Gradually, Haweya and Sahra began going out together, to afternoon discos. Sahra used to tell me I, too, should go out and have fun; fun was something you couldn't do when you were older and married. These places were noisy and creepy and didn't appeal to me at all, but Haweya loved to dress up in Sahra's clothes and go dancing.

Sahra told Haweya how awful it was to be married. She said her husband, Abdallah, was repulsive. 

She told Haweya what it was like when Abdallah had first tried to penetrate her after they were married: pushing his way into her, trying to tear open the scar between her legs, how much it had hurt. She said Abdallah had wanted to cut her open with a knife, because she was sewn so tight that he couldn't push his penis inside. She described him holding the knife in his hand while she screamed and begged him not to-—and I suppose he felt pity for that poor fourteen-year-old child, because he agreed to take her to the hospital to be cut.


Sahra's wedding didn't end with a celebration: there was no bloody sheet to show off to the applause and ululations of the wedding guests. There was only a murmur of disappointment and doubt, a suspicion about Sahra's virginity and a snickering about her husband's manhood, before she was taken to the hospital to be made ready for Abdallah the next night.

The story frightened me: a huge group of people, a bloodied sheet— a kind of rape, organized with the benediction of Sahra's family. It didn't in the least seem like something that could happen to Haweya, or to me. But this was marriage, to Sahra: physiqal assault, public humiliation.

Sahra told Haweya, "I never had a childhood. They took my life away from me." 

Abdallah was ten or fifteen years older than she; he was some kind of cousin. He didn't seem to beat her, but her hatred of him was implacable. Her revenge was that she did nothing for her kids. She called them his kids. She treated her nine-year-old daughter, Hasna, like a slave. Hasna did the groceries, cooked, and cleaned; Sahra constantly beat her, and spent all her husband's money on clothes and makeup. I thoroughly disapproved of Sahra……

Inwardly, I resisted the teachings, and secretly I transgressed them. Like many of the other girls in my class, I continued to read sensual romance novels and trashy thrillers, even though I knew that doing so was resisting Islam in the most basic way. Reading novels that aroused me was indulging in the one thing a Muslim woman must never feel: sexual desire outside of marriage.

A Muslim woman must not feel wild, or free, or any of the other emotions and longings I felt when I read those books. A Muslim girl does not make her own decisions or seek control. She is trained to be docile. If you are a Muslim girl, you disappear, until there is almost no you inside you. In Islam, becoming an individual is not a necessary development; many people, especially women, never develop a clear individual will. You submit: that is the literal meaning of the word islam: submission. The goal is to become quiet inside, so that you never raise your eyes, not even inside your mind.

But the spark of will inside me grew even as I studied and practiced to submit. It was fanned by the free-spirited novels, the absence of my father, and the frustration of watching my mother's helplessness living in a non-Muslim country. Most of all, I think it was the novels that saved me from submission. I was young, but the first tiny, meek beginnings of my rebellion had already clicked into place……

I was seventeen, and I was miserable with Haweya away. My friend Fardawsa Abdillahi Ahmed had left Nairobi, too, to live with her younger brothers and sisters in the countryside until she was married off. In school the only subject that interested me was Islamic education. The prospect of taking my O-level exams didn't interest me one bit. I needed to get to the core of what I believed in. All the other girls were content to accept the rules of our religion at face value, but I felt compelled to try to understand them. I needed my belief system to be logical and consistent. Essentially, I needed to be convinced that Islam was true. And it was beginning to dawn on me that although many wonderful people were sure it was true, there seemed to be breakdowns in its consistency.

If God were merciful, then why did Muslims have to shun non-Muslims—even attack them, to establish a state based on Allah's laws? 

If He was just, then why were women so downtrodden? 

I began collecting together all the verses in the Quran that said God was wise, God was omnipotent, God was just—and there were many. I pondered them. Clearly, in real life, Muslim women were not "different but equal," as Sister Aziza maintained. The Quran said "Men rule over women." In the eyes of the law and in every detail of daily life, we were clearly worth less than men.

I was also still attending Quran classes, alongside Muslim Girls' Secondary. My ma'alim was a young man whom people called Boqol Sawm, He Who Fasts for a Hundred Days. Grandma used to say his belly touched his spine, he was so thin. Boqol Sawm was a fanatic, even by a zealot's standard. He wore a Saudi robe, cut short so we could see his scrawny ankles. He used to walk around Eastleigh knocking on doors and lecturing people. He told Farah Goure, "All your daughters are uncovered! All of you will writhe in Hell!" Farah Goure threw him out of the house.

But in time Boqol Sawm acquired a large following. Most of them were women, and among them was my mother. When he came to the door, women accepted the audiocassettes of sermons that he handed out, and they exchanged them with each other. They turned their living rooms over to Quran study, filling them with women listening eagerly to his sermons on tape or even to Boqol Sawn in person, with an opaque curtain separating him from the women, just as the Prophet had ordained.

Boqol Sawm became the most sought-after lecturer in the community, and as time passed, the effect of his sermons became visible in the streets of the Somali neighborhoods. Women who used to wear colorful dirhas with seductive petticoats underneath and Italian sandals that showed off pedicured toes painted in nail varnish or henna began to cloak in the burka. They shrouded themselves in dark brown, black, and dark blue cloth of the roughest cotton fabric possible, with only a little bit of their faces visible. Some even began to cover their faces. There are so many variations in exactly how you must cover yourself; the form of veil that now spread among the Somali fundamentalists was called jilbab, a thick cloth covering everything from the head to below the knees and another thick skirt underneath. All of a sudden, my black cloak seemed too thin and revealing.

My mother was drawn to Boqol Sawm's certitude. She encouraged me to listen to his sermons on tape and attend his lectures when he preached at homes in our neighborhood.

With Sister Aziza, there was an atmosphere of trust and intimacy: she let us draw our own conclusions. But to Boqol Sawm, teaching the Quran meant shouting it, loud, in a mishmash of Arabic and Somali, and then yelling out the rules: what was forbidden, what was permitted. He didn't translate the text properly, or explain its underlying intention.

One day when I was seventeen, Boqol Sawm turned to the verses on how women were supposed to behave with their husbands. We owed our husbands absolute obedience, he told the mothers and teenage girls who had gathered to listen to him. If we disobeyed them, they could beat us. We must be sexually available at any time outside our periods, "even on the saddle of a camel," as the hadith says. This wasn't any kind of loving partnership, or mutual giving; it didn't even sound possible. But Boqol Sawm yelled, "TOTAL OBEDIENCE: this is the rule in Islam." It enraged me, and I stood up behind the curtain. In a shaky voice I asked, "Must our husbands obey us, too?"

There is nothing wrong with that question, but Boqol Sawm's voice rose, hard and dry. 

"Certainly not!"

I dug my nails into my hand to stop myself from shaking and went on, "Men and women are then not equal."

Boqol Sawm said, "They are equal."

"But they're not," I told him. "I'm supposed to totally obey my husband, but he is not totally obedient to me, and therefore we are not equal. The Quran says on almost every page that Allah is just, but this is not just."

Boqol Sawm's voice rose to a shout. 

"You may not question Allah's word! His mind is hidden. Satan is speaking to you, girl! Sit down instantly!"

I sat down, but as I did I hissed "Stupid" under my breath. 

It alarmed the other women in the room; they thought I truly must have lost my mind to a demon. But I knew I had genuinely sought the truth, and Boqol Sawm had shut me up because he didn't know it. The flaw could not be in the Quran, because that was God's word. It must lie with the stupid ma'alim, with the whole inept cohort of ma'alims that it had been my unhappy lot to encounter.

I thought that perhaps Boqol Sawm was translating the Quran poorly: Surely Allah could not have said that men should beat their wives when they were disobedient? Surely a woman's statement in court should be worth the same as a man's? I told myself, "None of these people understands that the real Quran is about true equality. The Quran is higher and better than these men."

I bought my own English edition of the Quran and read it so I could understand it better. 

But I found that everything Boqol Sawm had said was in there. Women should obey their husbands. Women were worth half a man. Infidels should be killed.

I talked to Sister Aziza, and she confirmed it. 

Women are emotionally stronger than men, she said. They can endure more, so they are tested more. Husbands may punish their wives—not for small infractions, like being late, but for major infractions, like being provocative to other men. This is just, because of the overwhelming sexual power of women. I asked, "What if the man provokes other women?" Sister Aziza said, "In an Islamic society, that's impossible."

Furthermore, she told me, I was not permitted for one second to imagine that perhaps the Quran's words could be adapted to a modern era. The Quran had been written by God, not by men. "The Quran is the word of Allah and it is forbidden to refute it," Sister Aziza told me.

You obey, and you serve Allah—that is the test. If you submit to God's will on earth, you will attain bliss in the Hereafter. The rule is strict and pure. My doubts severely diminished my chances for eternal bliss, but I found that I couldn't ignore them. I had to resolve this.

As Boqol Sawm's following grew, his sermons caused a lot of quarrels between spouses. At first, the Somali fathers and husbands were amused and teased their wives, predicting that after a week the silly, bored women would find some other pastime. After a while, however, irritations arose. The living room, usually well furnished, is the domain of the man. Somali men bring their male friends home and sit with them in the living room having men-talk (honor, money, politics, and whether to take a second or third wife) as they drink scented sweet tea and chew qat. The evenings and Friday afternoons are their preferred times, and Boqol Sawm chose to give his lectures especially at those times.

When Boqol Sawm was visiting a house, the men were relegated to the women's quarters: the kitchen, backyard, and, in some of the bigger houses, the smaller and uglier living rooms usually occupied by the women. And after their wives converted to the True Islam of the Muslim Brotherhood believers, they began saying that chewing qat, smoking, and skipping prayers were forbidden. They actually sent their husbands off, calling them unbelievers. When the men shouted about disobedience, the women replied that in the hierarchy of submission, we must follow Allah even before husband and father: Allah and the Prophet decreed that wives should obey only husbands who themselves obey Allah.

The Muslim Brotherhood believed that there was a pure, original Islam to which we all should return. Traditional ways of practicing Islam had become corrupted, diluted with ancient beliefs that should no longer have currency. The movement was founded in the 1920s in Egypt as an Islamic revivalist movement, then caught on and spread—slowly at first, but much faster in the 1970s, as waves of funding flooded in from the suddenly massively rich Saudis.

By 1987 the Muslim Brotherhood's ideas had reached the Somali housewives of Eastleigh in the gaunt and angry shape of Boqol Sawm.

Within months the first divorces were occurring, and secular Somali men were threatening Boqol Sawm for breaking up their families. Boqol Sawm was chased away by angry husbands from the living room sessions and from the Somali mosques, but copies of his tapes continued to spread even as he was in hiding.

In the tapes, when he wasn't warning about hellfire and the enemies of Islam, Boqol Sawm was issuing detailed prescriptions on the rituals permitted in Islam and the ceremonies of birth, lovemaking, marriage, divorce, and so on. 

Celebrating the birthday of the Prophet was forbidden because it resembled Christmas, when Christians celebrate the birthday of Jesus, and Muslims should never imitate unbelievers in any way. 

Wearing amulets as my grandmother did and asking favors of dead forefathers was blasphemous, as it associated Allah with lesser gods, and for that you could burn forever. 

Refusing to sleep with your husband if he didn't observe the obligations of prayer and fasting was permitted.

When entering a bathroom to use the toilet, start with the left foot, and when coming out, put the right leg out first. 

The only greeting permitted among Muslims is Assalarnu-Allaikum Warahmatullahi Wabarakaatuhu, "Peace be to you and the mercy of Allah and His blessings." If you are greeted in any other way you must not answer.

Boqol Sawm wasn't the only preacher who had come to our neighborhood to guide the lost back to Allah's Straight Path after a stint in Medina or Cairo. More and more young men of the Muslim Brotherhood, dressed in ankle-length white robes and red-and-white checked shawls, were striding through the streets. People who converted to their cause started to collect money from family; some women gave their dowries, and all kinds of donations came in. 

By 1987 the first Muslim Brotherhood mosque was built in Eastleigh, and Boqol Sawm came out of hiding to preach there every Friday, screaming at the top of his lungs through the loudspeakers behind the white minaret topped with a green crescent and a single star.

Boqol Sawm shouted that the men who rejected their wives' call to Islam would burn. The rich who spent their money on earthly things would burn. The Muslims who abandoned their fellow Muslims—-the Palestinians—were not true Muslims, and they would burn, too. Islam was under threat and its enemies—the Jews and the Americans—would burn forever. Those Muslim families who sent their children to universities in the United States, Britain, and other lands of the infidels would burn. Life on earth is temporary, Boqol Sawm yelled; it was meant by Allah to test people. The hypocrites who were too weak to resist the worldly temptations would burn. If you did not break off your friendships with non-Muslims, you would burn.

I had questions about Boqol Sawm, but at age seventeen, I mostly believed in the Brotherhood's values. And, as the movement swelled, there were two clear benefits. Fewer young men were getting addicted to qat and other drugs. At the time, AIDS was just starting to kill people; many Muslim families thought the best answer was abstinence, and abstinence was exactly what the religious zealots of every stripe were preaching.

Another benefit was a curbing of corruption. In Muslim Brotherhood enterprises there was virtually no corruption. Medical centers and charities managed by the Brotherhood were reliable and trustworthy. If non-Muslim Kenyans converted, they, too, could benefit from these facilities, and in the slums many Kenyans began converting to Islam.

A brand-new mosque was built in Majengo with money contributed by a rich Saudi man. One Friday evening I went there to pray with classmates because Sister Aziza said it was important to visit poor neighborhoods. It was after the evening prayer, and the street near the mosque was crowded with Kenyan women clumsy in their new jilbabs. At the entrance of the mosque a Kenyan woman carrying a baby had just sat down on the stone steps. She lifted her jilbab and opened the buttons of the dress she was wearing underneath, then directed a completely naked and voluptuous breast into her baby's mouth as if it was the most common act in the world. In front of her was a mountain of men's shoes, and behind her men—strange men—were engaged in prayer, but this young woman seemed shockingly oblivious to these surroundings.

All the girls from Sister Aziza's class shrieked in unison, and we transported this young woman to a hall in the women's section. An older woman of Swahili origin, covered from head to toe in black, started to instruct her in the Islamic way of breast-feeding. First you say Bismillah before you put the nipple into the mouth. As the baby is feeding, beg Allah to protect your child from illness, earthly temptations, and the evil ways of the Jews. Of course, no strange man must ever be present: better that the baby go hungry.

I was never one of Boqol Sawm's great admirers. I thought his sermons were crude; they didn't seem to answer my questions. But I was drawn to a discussion group of young Muslims that took place in the community center near my school. These were young people who were dissatisfied with the intellectual level of the teaching at the madrassahs and who, like me, sought deeper religious learning, true understanding of the example of the Prophet Muhammad, the better to walk in his footsteps. They felt Islam should not be something you nodded at a few times a week. They wanted to immerse themselves in it as a minutely detailed way of life, a passion, a constant internal pursuit.

A group of Somali and Pakistani young men had begun organizing weekly Islamic debates in English to discuss these matters. Going there was not like attending the mosque, where sermons were often just a recitation of old texts in Arabic. The speakers at our youth debates talked about relationships between men and women, Muslims and non-Muslims, Islam and Christianity. The talks were lively, and often clever, as well as much more relevant to our lives than the mosque.

The audience was mostly very bright, deeply committed older students, and they were there voluntarily—unlike Quran school, which parents obliged their kids to attend. A speaker stood on a dais. The boys, in front, wore mainly Western clothes, and the girls behind them wore large headscarves. The segregation was voluntary, and the atmosphere was harmonious: we were all good Muslims, striving for perfection.

We were not like the passive old school, for whom Islam meant a few rules and more or less devoutly observed rituals, and who interlaced their Quran with tribal customs and magical beliefs in amulets and spirits. We were God's shock troops. The Islam that we were imbibing stemmed from the hard, essentialist beliefs of thinkers seeking to revive the original Islam of the Prophet Muhammad and His disciples in the seventh century. The intention was to live according to the ancient ways in every detail of our lives. We weren't just learning a text by heart: we were discussing its meaning and how it applied to us every day.

We read Hasan al-Banna, who set up the Society of Muslim Brothers to oppose the rise of Western ideas in the lands of Islam and promote a return to the Islam of the Prophet. We read Sayyid Qutb, another Egyptian, who said preaching was not enough, that we must stage a catastrophic revolution to establish the kingdom of God on Earth. We thrilled to new movements called Akhwan (Brotherhood) and Tawheed (the Straight Path); they were small groups of true believers, as we felt ourselves to be. This was the True Islam, this harking back to the purity of the Prophet.

Everyone was convinced that there was an evil worldwide crusade aimed at eradicating Islam, directed by the Jews and by the whole God-less West. 

We needed to defend Islam. We wanted to be involved in the jihad, a word that may have multiple meanings. It may mean that the faith needs financial support, or that an effort should be made to convert new believers. Or it may mean violence; violent jihad is a historical constant in Islam.

As much as I wanted to be a devout Muslim, I always found it uncomfortable to be opposed to the West. For me, Britain and America were the countries in my books where there was decency and individual choice. The West to me meant all those ideas, in addition to pop music and cinema and the completely silly pen-pal relationships we'd had at Muslim Girls' Secondary School with girls from Finland and Canada who thought we lived in trees in the jungle. In my own personal experience of the West—which was, admittedly, minimal-—it really didn't seem to be terribly evil. But I stared long and hard at the photos of dead Muslims that were passed around: we had to give meaning to these deaths, and we were told that the West had caused them. We were taught that, as Muslims, we should oppose the West.

Our goal was a global Islamic government, for everyone

How would we fight? Some said the most important goal was preaching: to spread Islam among non-Muslims and to awaken passive Muslims to the call of the true, pure belief. Several young men left the group to go to Egypt, to become members of the original Muslim Brotherhood there. Others received scholarships from various Saudi-funded groups to go to Quran schools in Medina, in Saudi Arabia.

Sister Aziza became a Shia when she married a Shia man. She was enthralled by the Islamic Revolution in Iran, which by 1987 was eight years old. She talked to us about the saintliness of the Ayatollah Khomeini; finally, a voice was standing up to the perversions and guiles of the Western Crusaders. She showed us photos of dead Iranian boys, their lifeless heads still wearing the green cloth bands of martyrdom, who had given their lives to uphold the Iranian Revolution. She took us to the Iranian Embassy in Nairobi. We talked about going to Iran, to do what we could for the Ayatollah, but when my mother found out we had been to the embassy, she was angry. Ma would never let me go to Iran, among the Shia.

At the debating center we had long discussions about how to behave in daily life. 

There were so many rules, with minutely detailed prescriptions, and so many authorities had pronounced on them all. Truly Muslim women should cover their bodies even in front of a blind man, even in their own houses. They had no right to walk down the middle of the street. They should not move out of their father's house without permission.

I found it remarkable how many esteemed Muslim thinkers had philosophized at such length about precisely how much female skin could be bared without causing chaos to break out across the landscape. 

Of course, almost all these thinkers agreed that once a girl reaches puberty, every part of her body except her face and her hands must be covered when in the company of any men who are not immediate family, and at all times outside the home. This was because her bare skin would involuntarily cause men to feel an uncontrollable frenzy of sexual arousal. But not all thinkers agreed on exactly which parts of a woman's face and hands were so beguiling that they must be covered.

Some scholars held that the eyes of women were the strongest source of sexual provocation: when the Quran said women should lower their gaze, it actually meant they should hide their eyes. 

Another school of thought held that the very sight of a woman's lips, especially full ones that were firm and young, could bring a man into a sexual state that could cause his downfall. 

And other thinkers spent pages and pages on the sensual curve of the chin, a pretty nose, or long, slender fingers and the tendency of some women to move their hands in a way that attracted attention to their temptations. For every limitation the Prophet was quoted.

Even when all women had been covered completely from head to toe, another line of thought was opened. For this was not enough. 

High heels tapped and could trigger in men the image of a woman's legs; to avoid sin, women must wear flat shoes that make no noise. 

Next came perfume: using any kind of pleasant fragrance, even perfumed soap and shampoo, would distract the minds of men from Allah's worship and cause them to fantasize about sinning. 

The safest way to cause no harm to anyone seemed to be to avoid contact with any man at all times and just stay in the house. A man's sinful erotic thoughts were always the fault of the woman who incited them.

One day, I finally stood up and asked, "What about the men? Shouldn't they cover? Don't women also have desire for male bodies? Couldn't they be tempted by the sight of men's skin?" It seemed logical to me, but the whole room fell about laughing. There was no way I could go on with my objections……


A whole group of us met for long, giggly girls' conversations in the afternoons, while the older people napped with the children. The talk centered on Jawahir's impending marriage and the various prospects for other people's marriages. And of course we talked about circumcision. All these girls knew they would be married soon; it was inevitable that we talk about our excisions. This was what we had been sewn up for.

The talk was mostly boasting. All the girls said how tightly closed they were; this made them even more pure, doubly virginal. Jawahir was particularly proud of her circumcision. She used to say, "See the palm of your hand? I am like that. Flat. Closed."

One afternoon, gossiping about another girl, Jawahir said, "If you're walking past the toilet when she's in there, you can hear that she isn't a virgin. She doesn't drip. She pees loudly, like a man."

We discussed our periods, too, the essence of what made us filthy and unworthy of prayer. When we were menstruating, we weren't allowed even to pray or to touch the Quran. All the girls felt guilty for bleeding every month. It was proof that we were less worthy than men.



We never actually talked about sex itself, the act that would take place on the marriage night, the reason why we had been sewn. Somalis almost never talk about sexuality directly. The subject is shameful and dirty. Sometimes, though, as Jawahir and I walked around the neighborhood, we would come across people—Kenyans—making out, in broad daylight. Dainty little Jawahir would recoil: this was a nasty country.

On other afternoons Jawahir used to ask me to read to her out loud from the books I carried everywhere. She had never gone to school, and books were strange to her. These books were mostly thrillers and mushy love stories, but all of them had sex scenes. I would read them to her, and she would sniff and say, "It's not like that for Muslims. We are pure."

Jawahir's wedding took place at Farah Goure's house. All the women had elaborate curlicues hennaed on their hands and were wearing gauze dirha gowns. We danced together to a woman drummer. I don't think the men danced or had music. We had a huge meal-—several sheep and goats were slaughtered—and in the evening little Jawahir appeared, in a white Western dress, with her hair piled up in a beehive. She was enjoying the attention: she loved to perform.

For a week after the wedding Ma wouldn't let me go to see Jawahir: she said it wouldn't be proper. 

So it wasn't until the next weekend that I visited her. Jawahir sat on the sofa, gingerly shifting her weight from one side of her bottom to the other. Finally I asked her what it had been like, having sex.

She evaded the question. I was holding one of Halwa's Harlequin paperbacks and she grabbed it and asked, "What is this filthy book you're reading?" I said, "Come on, you know all about it now, tell me what it's like." Jawahir said, "Not until you read this book to me."

It was a mild enough book, about a man, a woman, a doomed romance, one or two sexy bits. But when the man and woman kissed, he put his hand on the woman's breast, and he then put his mouth to her nipple. Jawahir was horrified. "These Christians are filthy!" she squeaked. "This is forbidden! For Muslims it's not like that at all!"

Now Jawahir really had to tell me what sex was like. She said it was awful. After the wedding ceremony, they went into the bedroom of the flat that Ali had rented for them. Ali turned off the lights. Jawahir lay down on the bed, fully dressed. He groped under her dress, opened her legs, took off her underpants, and tried to push his penis inside her. He didn't cut her with a knife, just with his penis. It took a long time, and hurt. This resembled the stories that Sahra had told me.

Every night it was almost as painful, and always the same: Ali would push inside, move up and down inside her, and then ejaculate. That was it. Then he would stand up and take a shower to purify himself; she would get up and shower, also to purify herself, and apply Dettol to the parts that were bleeding. That was Jawahir's sex life.

This was nothing at all like the scenes I used to linger on in books. I was about to turn eighteen. I had reared myself on Harlequins and kissed Kennedy. What Jawahir described fell far short of the thrilling sex I had imagined. I was crestfallen, and told her I would never get married.

Jawahir laughed, and said, "Wait until your father comes back one day— you'll see then." 

She seemed perfectly resigned to her life. Ali appeared to be a kind man, not violent or mean, and a decent provider. Jawahir seemed convinced that good women were forbidden by God to feel desire.

I already knew what Sister Aziza would say about sex and marriage. She counseled many young married couples. Women often told her how horrible it was for them to have sex. Sister Aziza used to respond that they were complaining only because they had read licentious, un-Islamic descriptions of sexual experiences in Western books. We Muslim women were not to copy the behavior of unbelievers. We shouldn't dress like them, or make love like them, or behave like them in anyway. We should not read their books, for they would lead us off the straight, true path to Allah.

A woman couldn't break a marriage because it was awful or boring: that was utterly forbidden, and the way of Satan. "If your husband hurts you," Sister Aziza would tell these women, "you must tell him that, and ask him to do it differently. If you cooperate it will always be less painful. And if he's not hurting you, then count yourself among the lucky ones."

At Abdillahi Ahmed's house, relations between Ma and Hanan were deteriorating. They had had a couple of spats early on, but Ma restrained herself: she knew if there was a big quarrel we would have to leave the house. Then, in early 1988, we heard that once again open warfare had broken out in Somalia. In May, Siad Barre's forces began bombing Isaq territory. Hanan turned into a witch. She was Isaq, and she yelled that she didn't want a Darod woman in her house……..

I had begun to skip the Islamic debates on Thursday nights. As the months went on I found them more predictable and less inspiring. I kept seeing inconsistencies in the arguments, and my questions were getting no real answers. There was nothing new. The speakers were making us aware of the old fundamentals of Islam, and the need to adhere to and practice that faith much more actively, but there was no progress in the lessons, no change, and any interpretation seemed to be for the sake of convenience rather than logic.

It was as if my head had somehow divided in two. When in Sister Aziza's world, I was devout, meek, and respectful of the many, many barriers that restricted me to a very narrow role. The rest of the time I read novels and lived in the world of my imagination, filled with daring. As a reader, I could put on someone else's shoes and live through his adventures, borrow his individuality and make choices that I didn't have at home.

The moral dilemmas I found in books were so interesting they kept me awake. The answers to them were unexpected and difficult, but they had an internal logic you could understand. Reading Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I understood that the two characters were just one person, that both evil and good live in each of us at one time. This was more exciting than rereading the hadith.

I began sneaking out from time to time to go to the cinema with Haweya or some of the other Somali girls. It didn't feel like sinning; it felt like friendship. 

When I prayed these days, I skipped a lot of the prayers. It was rare, now, for me to pray five times every day.

In February 1989, the BBC ran the news that the Ayatollah Khomeini had issued an order to kill a man called Salman Rushdie, who had written a book about the wives of the Prophet Muhammad titled The Satanic Verses.

There had been riots across the Muslim world about this evil book. The Ayatollah said Rushdie, who was born Muslim, was guilty of blasphemy and the crime of apostasy—seeking to renounce the faith— which is punishable by execution. He sentenced him to death and set a price on Rushdie's head.

One evening a few wceks later, Sister Aziza and her husband stopped by our flat to ask me to take a walk with them over-to the Muslim community center beside the school where our debates took place. A small crowd had gathered in the parking lot. Some young men drove up in a car and made a show of burning small flags: the Israeli flag, the American flag. Then they tied Rushdie's book onto a stick and doused it with kerosene and held a cigarette lighter to it, cheering as it smoldered pitifully in the drizzle.

Sister Aziza was cheering and chanting beside me. I felt estranged, somehow very uncomfortable. I wondered if it wasn't a little silly to have bought even one copy of this book to burn it; after all, the money would still go to its author. It didn't even occur to me to question that Salman Rushdie should be killed: if Rushdie had insulted the Prophet, then he deserved to die. Evidently Rushdie had written something so horrible that I didn't even know what it was. But burning a book seemed like something that the apartheid government in South Africa would do. I couldn’t articulate why I was uneasy, but I left early. I think that may have been the last time I went to the debate centre……

I still missed my father. I was staggered by Lucy's irresponsibility about her baby, and I confess I lectured her. We ended up falling out. But whether it was Lucy's influence or not, I did begin to relax a bit about my huge black robe. It was dawning on me that I wouldn't be able to keep wearing it for long if I was planning to work in an office in Nairobi. I almost certainly wouldn't be allowed to wear my hidjab at work.

The robe had begun to seem cumbersome, too, and also rather stupid. What counted, surely, was my intention to behave modestly. I began wearing a long, tailored coat, like Halwa did. I also began avoiding Sister Aziza. I knew she wouldn’t approve……..