On Ayaan Hirsi Ali's "Caged Bird" and the Power of Metaphors

I’ll start by admitting that I haven’t read any of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s works. Knowing the basis of Submission and her simplistic, insistent blaming of Islam for the world’s evils didn’t make me very eager to read her.

Thanks to Amy’s strong recommendation and her lending me her copy of Wanted Women: Faith, Lies, and the War on Terror, I learned a lot more about Ali’s life and her rise to stardom in Western intellectual circles. There were not too many surprises in this biography. If anything, I was a little taken aback at how little she has done to implement policies and practices to curtail the violence and oppression of women.

What struck me more deeply, however, was her explanation of the Muslim women who immigrate to the West and are reluctant to let go of their faith or culturally-instilled modesty as easily as she did. In Infidel, she writes:

Islam [is] like a mental cage. . . When you open the door, the caged bird stays inside: it is frightened. It has internalized its imprisonment.

As a Muslim immigrant who strives to be reasonably self-aware about being shaped by Western culture, the metaphor of this caged bird is now what appears in mind’s eye any time I sense any kind of personal inhibition. When I seriously reconsider whether the hijab is for me and decide that it is. When I refrain from a lingering one-on-one sit-down with a man. When I am invited to a bar with a new group of acquaintances and say no (not because of being in an environment with alcohol, but because of being in such a loud environment around people I don’t know and am not comfortable with). Normally, I wouldn’t have given such choices a second thought. But now, there is a voice–call it my nafs, call it my baser self, call it my enlightened self, even–that tells me: “Shame on you for holding back. You’re that caged bird. The cage is finally open, and you just sit there.” Simply having that metaphor, that idea of a bird, is powerful in itself. It has latched onto my thinking, making my self-reflection spiral out of control into the place where there are no absolutes.

The book Deborah Scroggins refers to as “a thin patchwork of heavily edited opinion pieces.” Notice how the author name is in larger text than the title? That’s done when the book is riding the author’s coattails. Image source: openlibrary.org

What I have to do is remind myself that the bird and the placement of it in the cage is a construction, an illustration done with a very specific agenda and view of a Muslim woman. It presumes a cage. It presumes that ploughing ahead and being in every situation I am not comfortable in is the only way to escape that cage.

But it’s powerful. So powerful that as much as stunned as I was by the naiveté of some of Ali’s stances and her presumption in extending her experience of Islam to all Muslim women, this metaphor managed to lodge itself into my way of thinking. I may disregard and dismiss everything else she says, but the image, the metaphor, of this caged bird triumphs where all of her other tools failed.

Reflecting on whether one is being true to themselves is never a comfortable exercise. But this metaphor is not a means of complete self-doubt: it is a tool for that critical self examination, an acknowledgement of possibilities I may be too afraid to own up to. I cannot completely disregard it. But I would like to understand where this metaphor is effective for me and where it isn’t. Maybe I am a caged bird in a way that so many women–both Muslim and non-Muslims–are caged birds due to societal expectations. I may never know whether it holds water as far as my life and my self is concerned. But I would like to know. I’d like a metaphor, a model, that gives an alternate explanation of me. It’s only fair that this caged bird be countered with something else, something equally if not more powerful, and something that is a source of inspiration and encouragement rather than debilitating, guilt-ridden self-examination.

(7/6/12 update: Here is my complete review of Wanted Women)


10 thoughts on “On Ayaan Hirsi Ali's "Caged Bird" and the Power of Metaphors

  1. Leah

    I think Ayaan’s opinions have some ground. As she can’t speak for all Muslim women and extend her experiences of Islam on them, neither can anyone. I am sure there are some communities not only in Islam but in other religions too, where women are exactly that. Caged birds. Perhaps in Canada too. Pretending that it is perfect anywhere is not going to get us far in life. For me, an adverse opinion is an opinion. If somebody does not care, this is much worse. Probably, you could read her books, as much as you may disagree, there is some truth to them.


    1. The problem I think is that she does claim to speak for all Muslim women. But as with all things it’s always possible to take away the good while ignoring the parts one doesn’t agree with. The cage metaphor can be a good and applicable one in some ways, agreed.


  2. Ae

    Thank you for this thought-provoking review. I think you’re onto something about extending the caged bird metaphor into everyday life and societal norms.
    We all have our own mental cages, each one shaped by our past experiences, hang-ups, religious/political beliefs, expectations, mundane habits, etc. Maybe part of staying in the cage is a way to avoid uncertainty and possible embarrassment in having to learn (from the beginning) the norms of others’ cages/ways of being.


    1. Thanks so much for your comment. This was hardly a review, just a reflection on a paragraph from the book 🙂 I have written a more complete review for Altmuslimah.com which should be up in a couple of weeks time. I’ll link to it from here when it is up.
      Exactly, mental cages exist in respect to certain parts of our personalities and outlooks. I like what you said about uncertainty and embarrassment. There’s definitely a risk and a loss of stability (even if it’s temporary) that comes with coming out of a cage, and it’s up to each of us to decide whether breaking out is worth those things.


  3. First of all, I do apologize that the she gave you the metaphor that is making you question yourself so! And isn’t it crazy how little she’s actually done? That being said, I think you make a great point that we are all that bird in some ways, being stuck in boxes thanks to the messages that we are sent so often through culture (thinking especially of the book I recently reviewed, Two Whole Cakes, and the message that we need to look a certain way as an example).

    But too, I would argue that Ali and those like her are the ones truly holding the cage and trying to stuff us all in it. If we disagree, she says we are just blind. If you disagree, you are branwashed. And etc. We all make our own choices and allow others to do the same. She is doing the opposite, trying to stuff us into a cage where we think like her and reject anything that she does!


  4. This message is for the author pls. Assalam. Bumped into ur site on twitter. Its simply uplifting and something we all can relate too. Writing for the deen is my passion too. Just a note to say keep up the good work.


  5. I totally agree with your point regarding Ayaan’s “simplistic, insistent blaming of Islam for the world’s evils”. I’ve read Ayaan’s autobiography ‘Infidel’ and realised that when talking about Islam Ayaan gets confused between the normative teachings of Islam and the diverse cultural practices among Muslims, which may or may not be consistent with normative teachings of Islam. Ayaan often blames ‘Islam’ for violence and cultural practices that she experienced in her life because she was taught that Qur’an justifies those practices. She does not realise that some of those cultural practices and attitudes existed before Islam and are not even consistent with normative teachings of Islam.

    Unfortunately, religious doctrines often get misused and abused as a justification of violence, including justification of male violence against women. Check out “A chicken is not a bird, a woman is not a human” post at http://otrazhenie.wordpress.com/2012/10/14/a-chicken-is-not-a-bird-and-a-woman-is-not-a-person/ for an example of how Bible is sometimes misused as a justification of male violence against women in a country where every hour 1 woman is killed by her husband. 😦


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