AMSTERDAM – As she begins to pray, the woman looks heavily veiled, showing her eyes only, but her long black chador turns out to be transparent. Beneath it, painted on her chest and stomach, there are verses from the Koran.
More women appear. A bride is dressed in white lace, but her back is naked. The Koranic verse that says a man may take his woman in any manner, time or place ordained by God is written on her skin.
The images roll on, now showing a woman lying on the ground, her back and legs marked by red traces of a whip. The Koranic verses on her wounded flesh say that those guilty of adultery or sex outside marriage shall be punished with 100 lashes. There are chilling sounds of a cracking whip; there is the haunting beauty of the Arabic calligraphy and soft music.
These are scenes from “Submission,” a 10-minute film shown on Dutch prime-time television and written by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born refugee, now a member of the Dutch Parliament. Since the English-language film was shown in late August, it has been at the center of a national uproar, which is exactly what its creator wanted.
Hirsi Ali, 34, who grew up as a Muslim but has abandoned her faith, said her purpose was not to give offense but to draw attention to what she contends is widespread but hidden violence against Muslim women, even those living in Europe.
She turned to the power of images, she said, to focus attention on abuse, incest, forced marriages and the suicides of young immigrant women. Despite her writing and speaking on the subject for several years, she felt the subject has remained a public taboo. “Muslims deny it,” she said, “and many Dutch are afraid of taking it on, of causing religious tension, of being called racists.”
The stories of the four women in the film are composites, she says. Critics have called them simplistic, even caricatures. But the images fired up a new debate in the Netherlands on how to modernize or to adapt Islam as it expands across Europe.
In this nation of 16 million people, a million of them Muslim immigrants or their descendants, Hirsi Ali is part of a small but growing group of women who say they want to spread the message that the Muslim faith can be practiced without what she calls “savage medieval customs” like genital cutting, beatings or confining women to their homes. Some of those advocates contend that the modernization of Islam must come from women, particularly European Muslim women.
The film and photographs taken from it have appeared in Dutch newspapers, magazines and television shows, drawing an outpouring of both praise and outrage.
“Of course it’s a political pamphlet; that’s undeniable,” said Theo van Gogh, who directed the film and insisted that he does not see why many Muslims are so shocked. He said he was deliberately cautious, adding that if he had really wanted to shock, the film would have been different.
It opens with a prayer, and then the narrator tells stories of four women who ask for God’s help to lighten their suffering. According to the narrative, one was forced to marry a man she hates, one was raped and made pregnant by her uncle, one was whipped after she had sexual relations with her boyfriend and one is repeatedly beaten by her husband. The women feel abandoned by God, despite their devotion to him.
As a close-up shot of a battered and bruised face appears, the narrator says: “Oh, Allah, most high. You say that men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because you have given one more strength than the other. Yet I feel at least once a week the strength of my husband’s fist on my face.”
The woman who was raped says she has always turned to “you, Allah, covering myself as you wish it. And now that I pray for salvation, you remain silent as the grave I long for.”
Critics argue that it is not the spoken text, but the writing of Koranic verses on the women’s flesh that makes the film blasphemous. “There’s nothing wrong with what is said, this is reality,” said Loubna Berrada, whose family is Moroccan and who is an advocate for women’s rights. “But the nudity is wrong. It’s too confrontational.”
But then, she went on to say, talking has not changed anything. It’s the whole system, in which women participate, that must change. “The women pass on the oppression to their daughters; they educate their sons,” Berrada said.
The avalanche of published letters and articles reacting to the film includes one from Fadoua Bouali, a nurse in an Amsterdam hospital, who said she had been shocked by the number of fearful young Muslim women who have surgery to conceal the fact that they are not virgins.
“Already men on their wedding days are getting a virgin, stitched up by Jewish, Christian or atheist hands,” she told the magazine De Tijd. “Is that what they want?”
Carla Rus, a Dutch psychiatrist, said she had worked for 20 years with abused women in shelters, where more than half were Muslims. “Suicide attempts among foreign young women are five times higher than among local women,” she said, citing studies.
While the debate goes on, so do attacks on Hirsi Ali. A rap song, played on some local radio stations, calls for her death. Chat rooms and e-mail messages announce death threats. The police in Rotterdam have arrested a young Moroccan man and charged him with sending a death threat to Hirsi Ali.
She already has two round-the-clock government bodyguards, and she says she intends to continue her campaign. She recently spoke before Parliament and demanded that the interior minister order the police to review their definition of murder in cases involving young women. She contends that every year at least a dozen young Muslim girls in the Netherlands are the victims of revenge killings by brothers, fathers or relatives. The police record them as family conflicts, she said.
“Police say they want to avoid stigmatizing a group,” Hirsi Ali said. “I say, we have to know the truth.”
In addition to the film, Hirsi Ali has already published two books of essays on the plight of Muslim women, “The Son Factory” and “The Cage of Virgins.” Her next project is another short film: “Submission – Part Two.” She said it will feature the men’s point of view.