RISK, FOR ME, IS A CHOICE between a known and an unknown. The greatest risk I’ve ever taken was when I ran away from the marriage that my father had arranged for me. Here’s what I knew: that my father would be angry,that I would bring shame and dishonor to my Somali family. I understood the consequences of being disowned. Not only would I be reprimanded, but I would be emotionally blackmailed by my immediate and extended families. I understood that I risked beatings and even death for asserting my independence. I also understood the enormous amount of pain I would cause my father, and the anguish of my mother, who would feel that she had failed in raising me.
Then there were the unknowns: How would I survive? How would I find money, shelter, food? And, most important, who would replace my family? On the 24th of July, 1992, I had no plans and no idea where I would be five years or 10 years in the future. I was terrified. Terrified of being recaptured and punished by my family, but also terrified of God’s punishment. I grew up believing that if you provoked your parents’ anger and brought them to the brink of despair, you would be dearly punished in the afterlife. You would be burned and broiled in eternal hellfire. According to my faith, life on earth was a temporary state; you had to endure the hardships that occur in this life in order to make it to paradise. The more you sacrificed, the better, because you earned a higher place in paradise. By escaping to Holland and applying for citizenship there, not only was I cutting ties with my family; I was cutting my ties with God.
But there was something else I knew: that I didn’t want to end up like my mother and every other woman I had seen in a state of complete powerlessness—abused, abandoned, with children they didn’t plan to have and didn’t know how to raise. What beckoned me was the opportunity to say no. No to a man I did not want to marry. No to a life I didn’t want. No to a concept of a marriage that permitted rape. I understood that I had to live with the consequences of my choice, but at least it was my choice. If I failed on my own, it would be my fault. If I succeeded, it would be my victory, and I would have earned it.
And I did earn it. I became a Dutch citizen, a political activist, a member of Parliament. I wrote the screenplay for Submission,a film about the lives of Muslim women. But in 2004 the director, Theo van Gogh, was brutally murdered by an Islamist militant, and the note pinned to his body said I would be next. A terrorism expert told me that before I could be safe, I would have to outlive a generation of those who wanted me dead.
The sense that I am in danger never leaves me. I have moments of deep fear, deep anger, but also deep relief when I compare myself with those who don’t have the protections I have. History has provided us with an immune system—people like Galileo and Giordano Bruno, who have fought entrenched ideas and their enforcers—and I know that once a thought is out of your mind, it’s out there. No organized religious force, no hate group can push it back in.
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