On Wednesday, September 10th 2014, the Yale Muslim Students Association (MSA) and thirty co-signing student organizations published an open letter entitled “Dear Friends: More Speech, Not Hate Speech.” The letter addressed a September 15th 2014 lecture sponsored by the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program with Ayaan Hirsi Ali on the subject “Clash of Civilizations: Islam and the West.” The Yale Women’s Center was one of the student organizations that signed this letter, and we remain committed to its content. We issue this statement today in an attempt to clarify our position and address some concerns that we have heard recently from those critical of our support. We hope to correct common misconceptions about the letter’s content, open a dialogue about how universities and organizations can think critically about speakers who espouse inflammatory, derogatory, or factually incorrect beliefs, and explain how our intersectional politics influence how we view all speakers.
The open letter “Dear Friends: More Speech, Not Hate Speech” did not ask the Buckley Program to disinvite Hirsi Ali. Instead, the letter called for the addition of another balanced and informed voice to complement hers. We do not believe that this amounts to an attempt to “silence” Hirsi Ali’s voice. We hoped for more dialogue, not less.
The Women’s Center stands for free speech, and of course this right extends to speech about one’s personal experiences and beliefs. However, universities and campus organizations have the right and responsibility to think critically about speakers who negatively target a certain identity group of students – whether that group is defined by gender, sexuality, religion, race, or other form of identity – especially when the speaker is the given the privileged platform of a formal lecture at Yale. Students should carefully reflect on how such a platform might legitimize the ideas of the speaker, and how this might negatively influence campus culture, the culture of a place we all call home. Verbal attacks like the ones cited in the open letter are rooted in an oppressive history of discrimination and “othering.” By promoting it on campus, Hirsi Ali perpetuates and legitimizes the cycle of prejudice into classrooms, social life, and long-lasting student opinions.
We believe that feminist activism calls for the end to all types of oppression. Activism that seeks to lift up one group at the expense of another, be it through racism, classism, or homophobia, is immoral and ineffective. While the Yale Women’s Center does not wish to discredit any part of Hirsi Ali’s experiences, we stand against her claims that suggest that Muslim women are inherently oppressed as a class. Muslim women have a diversity of lived experiences and interpret religious text and cultural practices in a variety of ways that defy blanket generalizations such as the ones Hirsi Ali has made. Claims like hers fracture the feminist community, and are in direct opposition to the intersectional feminist approaches to which the Women’s Center is committed. No community is devoid of sexism. We must turn the lens on ourselves as well as others.
We hope that Hirsi Ali continues to advocate for women’s rights in a way that is respectful to all other forms of overlapping identities that women have and recognize that sexism is not rooted in a particular race, religion, or creed. If we move forward with recognition that our battles are linked across many platforms we can each hope to make Yale a place where true solidarity can bloom.
The Yale Women’s Center Board