Infidel and agency

I recently read the book “Infidel” by Ayaan Hirschi Ali – and it definitely puts my trip in a different perspective.

I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again…I recognize that I’m insanely lucky to undergo a trip like the one I am taking. And, I’m not just lucky in that I currently have the financial resources to do so – I’m lucky in that I have the agency to do so. Because, let’s face it – my position as an educated, American female (from a supportive family, no less), puts me probably somewhere in the top echelon of the realm of “females with agency.”

Working for the last 10 or so years on issues of human rights and womens’ rights, I can tell you right now – Most women would never be able to endeavor on such a trip. A couple reasons why:

1. Financial restraints – Money alone is a major inhibiting factor. This seems obvious, I’m sure, but it’s more complicated than simply ‘having money’ or not – its where money gets distributed, who controls the money, how money is used, and who is in the line to receive it. For many (I’ll hazard most) women across the world, they don’t have the power to control a families (or their own) resources. Many women work, but aren’t able to keep the fruits of their labor – earnings would go straight to a husband or an extended family. The idea that a woman could work in order to shore up her own assets is more than unusual – its downright rare, and I was lucky enough to be born in a place where both the individual, and women, are valued enough to be able to control their own assets.

2. Cultural restraints – Not to beat a dead horse, but I’m insanely lucky. I have two parents that, while not thrilled by this decision, are ultimately supportive of me wandering alone across the world – mainly, because I feel like it. This concept would be laughable in many places – but more than that, it would be absolutely unacceptable. Think of all the places in the world where women can’t leave the house without a man in their family to escort them. Or, places where women are destined for marriage from birth, to be transferred from one man’s family to the next. In most places, where the ‘individual’ is valued far less than it is in the U.S., women tend to fall into large and set family structures – to buck such a structure could make you no less than an Infidel.

Obviously, these issues are far more complex than I am giving them space – but the general gist is there. Which is why I find Ayaan Ali’s Infidel so fascinating – here is a woman who was born into a society where women are largely controlled by the men in their families. While Ali was lucky in that she received an education, and wasn’t married young, she still had a fundamental lack of agency with which to choose the direction of her life — for a long time, she wasn’t aware that such agency even existed.

Ali has bucked pretty much every societal norm that she faced — and is an amazingly strong woman. The only thing I’m really facing is light disapproval from a society that believes in work, work, and more work — but also deeply values independence and individual agency. The sheer weight of the barriers facing Ali is staggering to me — and, it makes what I’m doing seem relatively laughable.

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