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

Ten Tips for Muslim Women Who Want to Leave

Since the early 1990s, there has been a gradual but noticeable increase in the number of Muslim girls in women's shelters and special refuge centers for abused women. The shelters have been there for decades. Some of these women have successfully completed their schooling and hope to continue their education at college but have been refused permission to leave home. Their parents have hot prepared them for a life of independence, and the whole family is shocked when the daughter announces she has ambitions of her own, which they regard as an alarming aberration.

A married Muslim woman who wants to leave her husband and lead an independent existence is also considered aberrant and is warned that she is making a huge mistake, not only by her husband and his family, but by her own family. If the families do manage to persuade the woman to change her mind and stay with her husband, the marital tension can sometimes be resolved peacefully. But it is not unusual for a family to respond violently to the woman's perceived betrayal of her husband. The degree and seriousness of the violence varies from case to case.

Occasionally Muslim girls run away from home in a panic. This can have unfortunate consequences. Often these girls end up in a shelter and remain dependent on public assistance for a long time. In some cases a social worker may try to mediate between the "runaway"—a peculiar term for an adult woman who wants to set up house independently—and her family, which frequently results in the woman's return home to whatever abuse caused her to panic and flee. Her family will forever treat her as an underage girl, even when she is well over forty. To them she remains a "runaway" woman.

Some Muslim girls and women who have fled their homes go off the rails. Having been brought up under strict conditions, they celebrate their freedom by going out night after night and become addicted to drugs and nightlife. These girls are targeted by the "lover boys," who entrap them in this low life. Often their lives end tragically: they feel desperately trapped and commit suicide. Some are "caught out" at the moment they decide to leave home, or shortly after, and then the nightmare of abuse begins all over again. Some girls are even lured back to their parents' place of birth with a holiday invitation, but once they get there, they are stripped of their passports and cannot escape. In the worst scenario they may be killed, as happened to the Turkish girl Zarife from the Dutch town of Almelo.

The many sad stories of women who ran away inspired me to write the following open letter, which contains ten tips for Muslim women who want to leave.

Dear Muslim Woman,

The tips that follow are not intended for all Muslim women. They are intended just for you—you who would like to have an independent life and are being stopped by your family, your husband, or your congregation. You want to leave your family or your husband because you want to take charge of your life. You want to earn your own money in order to support and maintain yourself. You wish to choose your (life) partner yourself. You are convinced that you—and not your parents, congregation, or anyone else—must decide if, and when, you get married and to whom. Whether you want children, and how many, is your affair.

At what age you have them and how you are going to bring them up is something you want to determine yourself. You want to choose your own friends and not feel restricted to the circle you happen to belong to as a result of your birth; you are open to making contacts outside this small circle. You want to travel and discover the world. You don't want to spend the rest of your life bearing the children of a husband you don t even love; cleaning, doing the shopping, and cooking three times a day; serving tea and baking cookies each weekend for people who have no interest in you; doing the washing and ironing, talking about curtain patterns, and hemming sheets. You no longer want to spend your free time with women who do nothing but gossip. You are fed up with your sisters and cousins who refuse to use their mental capacities for anything but the creation of yet another perfect recipe for cookies. You have been to enough weddings at which the girls boast not about their artistic and cultural achievements, but about the henna tattoos they applied to the palms of brides who have since disappeared into their arranged marriages. You have seen the trap into which the bride and bridegroom fall after the three days of wedding festivities.

You know you are worth more than this! You think and dream about your freedom. You would like to go outside, feel the sun on your skin and the wind in your hair. You no longer tolerate the oppression you feel in your parents' or husband's house, and you have come to the conclusion that you want to leave. The following tips, insofar as they have not occurred to you yet, may be of use.


1. Freedom Is a Choice

Ask yourself these questions: Do I really want to leave? Why do I want to leave? Are there no other options? Check whether mediation is a possibility. You want the choice to leave your parents' home or your husband's to be based on more than just dissatisfaction with the present situation at home. For there will be serious repercussions if you leave, although the consequences are possibly more serious if you stay. You must, therefore, take the time to answer these questions honestly for yourself. Undoubtedly, you love your family. Yet you must be ready to accept that your actions will make your parents sad. You will be blamed for disgracing them and upsetting the whole family. Your family will do absolutely everything in their power to get you back they will try to talk you into changing your mind, threaten to ostracize you, tell you that you have incurred a curse, and possibly use violence. Do not underestimate the power of this kind of emotional and moral blackmail. You will have to put up with comments of this kind. "Since you left, Mummy has become so ill that she can't sleep anymore." Or, "Your father is so depressed and ashamed he has trouble going to work or seeing the rest of the family." Or, "You are ruining your sister's chance to marry into a good family." Or, "Your little brother was beaten up yesterday when he tried to defend your character." Prepare yourself.

Explore your options. Take a good look at your position at home. Make a list of all the risks. You are particularly at risk if you come from a large family with a relatively high number of men who are deeply attached to their sense of honor and insist on strict religious principles. If your father happens to be an important man in the family, you are at an even bigger risk If, on the other hand, you come from a family with a strong sense of honor but relatively few men, you are in a better position. But be careful not to underestimate the power of women's gossip to influence both sexes: they will pass on everything and turn the men against you.

If you know how the grapevine works—who will talk to whom about what, what is frowned upon, et cetera—then you can protect yourself by making sure that you do not become the subject of the gossip. This is important if you want to succeed.

Confront your own weaknesses: How good is your health? What is your temperament like: are you hot-tempered, or do you have good self-control, and do you adjust well to new situations? If you have good self-control, you are more likely to leave well prepared (and to persevere). Remember, self-control and self-sufficiency are things you can learn.

Think about how you can keep your plans hidden for as long as possible: How much time do you get to yourself each day? Does your family notice if you are gone for a few hours? Are you good at thinking up convincing excuses, at telling your parents what they want to hear? Should you perhaps wear a headscarf in order to "keep the peace" until you leave?

Realize that once you have left, you will not be able to go back (at least not for a while). And you should not go back, no matter what they say and promise. You will be in more danger from them after you return—possibly fatal danger. So the most important question you need to ask yourself is, Do I really want to leave?

2. Faith

You have-decided that you want to live on your own. You will need to have faith. To begin with, you need to have faith in yourself. You will have moments of doubt, fear, and even regret. This is normal. After all, you are about to leave behind everything that is familiar to you (no matter how horrible your home is at times). You may never see your family again. Expect to feel besieged by doubts, but remember also that what you are doing is for your own good. The way in which you want to live cannot be combined with how your family wants you to live. Have faith in yourself.

You also need to have faith in others. Be sure to know whom you can trust. Choose someone from outside the congregation, a mature person who looks after his or her own affairs well. This should be someone who helps you to become independent, who can let you know when you are on the right road; someone who genuinely supports you and lays no claims on you; someone who won't mind if you make a mistake. The world outside is not a big, bad world. Do not mistrust everyone, but do be critical and cautious.

3. Friends

It is vital that you make friends before you abandon your family. You will not survive without friends. Establish new friendships well in advance of your departure—close friendships with people you can trust. You are starting out on a new life, and meeting new people is an important part of the experience. Of course, there will be relatives, or other fellow Muslims, who will understand your situation and pretend to be supportive, but the chances are that they will not really try to help you. These people are part of the community and tell each other everything. If one of them shows you understanding and support, it is still possible that that person will give away something in an unguarded moment. And it is not fair to burden someone with conflicting loyalties. Before you know it, your plans to leave will become common knowledge. So be vigilant. I am not saying that you cannot have any Muslim friends, but do not confide your plan to any of them. You simply cannot afford to take the risk. The consequences could be too damaging for you.

Friendship means reciprocity. Invest in your friends. Let them know that they can trust you too, that you will be there for them if they need you. Your new friends will often have different opinions about women than your family's and community's, and they may not understand you at first. Explain to them what guilt and shame mean in your family and community. Learn to be honest: you are allowed to admit mistakes; you don't have to lie about friends, dates, et cetera.

4. Address

When you leave home you will need somewhere to live. As a student or housewife, you have little disposable income. You may never have had an income in your own name. In addition, you will need to avoid any areas where people might recognize you, people who could pass on information to your parents or other relatives. Because you have little money and need to take extra safety precautions, your choice of places to live is limited. Do not hesitate to ask friends and the people you trust to help you.

University cities and towns are an attractive option because you can find cheap, safe housing there. Student accommodation tends to be accepted and common and the rent is relatively low. The only disadvantage is that you have to be registered as a student before you can move into such accommodation. In some student houses potential candidates competing for a vacant room are required to come for a "preliminary visit" in order to be approved by the rest of the occupants. Obviously, you can be unlucky and not get their approval.

If you are not a student, or have picked a university town with a shortage of student accommodations, you have other possibilities. There are couples or people who live alone, who are keen to let a room cheaply to single people with little money, preferably women. Often they are looking for someone on a short-term basis because their own children have left home or they have lost a partner. In these houses you will have to obey the landlord's rules, but you can discuss in advance the kind of privacy you will need and make your boundaries clear. Some cities, like Amsterdam, have cheap housing to rent in areas that are safe for you. These houses or apartments are reserved, on a charitable basis, for specific groups with low incomes, such as artists and musicians.

Once you have managed to find a room or apartment, make sure you move in promptly. Figure out in advance your schedule for leaving your family and finding your new home. Make sure your room is not left vacant for months on end. That would be a waste of money.

Once you have left, be careful not to give your address or telephone number to people you do not really know. Nowadays e-mail is a good way of staying in touch without giving away your address.

5. Safety

If you have been threatened by your family—before or after you've left them—you need to think carefully about the city where you want to live. If you can, choose a place where you will stand out as little as possible. If you are going to attend a college, you will be living in a city or town; if you want to find a job, then you'll want to find a smaller place, far away from your parents, that will offer you better protection and opportunities. Most cities have women's shelters and mental health services that can help you.

When you register yourself in your new place of residence, ask to speak to a special civil servant (in the United States, someone from the local department of social services) who js familiar with the predicament of a girl like you, who has known of or helped other girls who want to set up on their own and are terrified of being hunted down by their brothers, husbands, or fathers. It is vital that your address remain secret. Go to the police and report your situation. In Holland, you can use your registration form to encode your tax number, insurance, and other administrative details, as well as personal details required by the local council. Find out how to get legal help in case you need it.

Make sure that your flatmates, colleagues, and friends are informed of the potential danger you are in. You are on the run, and they must be vigilant on your behalf. It is important that no one give away your address.

6. Income

Make arrangements for how you will have income before leaving. If you want to go to college, apply for a student scholarship on time. Give a temporary address—a friend's, for example—if you have not found a place of your own yet. If you do not intend to go to college, apply for social security benefits in the place you are moving to. Doing this will oblige you to find a job, or to follow a citizenship course and explore the job market. You must not delay with any of this. While you are still at home, acquaint yourself with the (part-time) job market in your future hometown. Put your name down for (part-time) jobs and avoid taking loans and accumulating debts as much as you can.

The most important thing is to be sensible with money; there are courses that can teach you how to draw up a budget and stick to it. The local social service department will be able to point you in the right direction.

7. Opportunities for Education

It is good to have a part-time job, but make sure that you pass your school exams. You can come up with all kinds of excuses to miss lectures, but try not to let this happen all the time. A diploma in your pocket opens the door to long-term independence. Try to broaden your opportunities for learning new things as much as you can. Your course may require you to do a practical training. Make the best possible use of this: organize your placement in advance; negotiate how your expenses are going to be paid, how many hours you will be working per day, and how many credit points you will receive at the end of your training.

If you struggle with your workload, go to your study supervisor or mentor, who can show you study techniques, how to cram for exams and write papers. In order to get your degree, you need to have self-discipline: organize your time efficiently, go to bed on time, and plan the tasks ahead.

As a student, you will also learn how to socialize with people from outside your own religious circuit: you will need to learn what they might expect from you, as well as the unwritten rules of social etiquette. Join a student organization, go on drink dates, or to parties (you do not have to drink alcohol).

8. Your Possessions

You cannot take all your belongings with you when you leave: your imminent departure has to remain a secret, so you cannot take any large or bulky objects with you, such as your bed, a table, a chair, or the whole of your wardrobe. You will have to be selective and take only things you will really need. Remember to take a few precious photos and your wallet or savings, bankbook, checkbook, piggy bank, or moneybox. Do not forget your passport. You must smuggle these things out of your home piecemeal: if you are spotted leaving the house with heavy bags, or your closet is suddenly half empty, you will draw attention.

You will have to furnish your new dwelling yoursejf, so find out where the best secondhand shops are.

9. State of Mind

Leaving is a big challenge. You feel strong, you are looking forward to the moment, but at the same time you are very vulnerable. You will experience a dip in your emotional high and feel lonely; not everybody will be understanding, and that includes some of your new friends. The person in whom you have put your trust can help you strengthen your inner resilience. Remember that, even with all the help from others, you remain on your own, you are responsible for yourself. Expect there to be good and bad days, do not talk yourself down, and do not feel sorry for yourself. You will want to contact your family because you miss the warmth, the cousins, and the familiarity. Every family has its important moments: birthdays, funerals, Eid, and so on. You will feel extra lonely on these days. But bear in mind that getting in touch with your family can have serious consequences. Calls and letters can be traced.

There are consolations, though. Plenty of women like you have managed to reestablish good contact with their families. But this often takes years. You absolutely must wait until you are self-reliant financially and emotionally. You must have found a job to be able to keep yourself strong so that you can resist their complaints and urgings that you should come home. You need to be able to stop your ears against the emotional blackmail they may try on you.

10 The Moment of Departure

You have taken care of everything. You are still certain you are doing the right thing. You have good friends who are ready to help you. You believe in yourself, your friends, and the future. You have an address, an income, and you have enrolled yourself as a student. Perhaps you are still at school or halfway through college. You have secretly smuggled your most valued possessions out of the house. You are sure no one has noticed. Your behavior has been exemplary, and the day of your departure has finally come. The weather is fine, or perhaps it is raining. Tonight you will sleep at your new address—your room or whatever—for the very first time. But wait: how are you actually going to leave? Are you simply going to walk out and pull the door behind you without so much as a good-bye? Yes, you are, because you must avoid drawing attention to yourself.

And then you are gone!

What happens next?

Your parents do not know where you are and will be worried. They will need to be reassured that you left of your own accord, Before you go, write them a letter in which you explain that you love them, but that your plans for your life differ from theirs; that you respect the way they live but want to go your own way. You can mail it immediately when you leave so it can't be traced to your new location.

Call them, eventually. You will want to get in touch with them from time to time, but make sure your number cannot be traced: call from a public phone or somewhere without number recognition. It can be good to call from a public place with plenty of people around you. That way you can keep the conversation short and to the point.

You will now have to learn how to function in society. In spite of all the negative aspects of your upbringing, it has taught you some valuable skills: you are capable of adjusting to others; you are trained at doing domestic chores. You have also learned to survive under difficult circumstances and are used to the fact that things often do not go your way. Unlike many men, you are not spoiled. But there is still much that you can learn: do not resist making the effort. It will be worth it.








Keith Hunt