Brandeis U. Buckles: Cancels Honor for Human Rights Activist

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After initially deciding to confer an honorary doctorate degree on human rights activist Ayan Hirsi Ali in recognition for her significant contribution towards advancing women's rights worldwide,  Brandeis University announced that it will not bestow the honor on Ms. Ali after being pressured by the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and others.

Brandeis had originally decided to award Ms. Ali, founder of the Ayan Hirsi Ali Foundation (AHA), in recognition of her being one of the central activists championing women's rights by educating the public about gender-based violence against women such as female genital mutilation (FGM), child marriage and honor killings as well as lobbying Congress to pass legislation to put an end to such practices.

Ms. Ali is an executive producer of the film Honor Diaries which the Clarion Project produced together with Karma Nirvana, the AHA Foundation and the Council for Muslims Facing Tomorrow.

Ms. Ali was chosen to participate in the film because of her unique, long-term record of promoting women's rights and dialogue on these issues. She also appeared in the film as a topic expert. She is indeed a true expert on the abuses that women suffer in Muslim-majority societies. She grew up in Somalia and, as a young girl, was mutilated through the ritual of female genital mutilation. She fled her country after her family tried to force her into a marriage against her will.
Ms. Ali and her foundation are championing the cause of women's inalienable rights to freedom from abuse and oppression and they are making a significant difference for women in the U.S. and abroad.

The following is Ms. Ali's response to Brandeis University's decision in full below:


Yesterday Brandeis University decided to withdraw an honorary degree they were to confer upon me next month during their Commencement exercises. I wish to dissociate myself from the university’s statement, which implies that I was in any way consulted about this decision. On the contrary, I was completely shocked when President Frederick Lawrence called me—just a few hours before issuing a public statement—to say that such a decision had been made.

When Brandeis approached me with the offer of an honorary degree, I accepted partly because of the institution’s distinguished history; it was founded in 1948, in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust, as a co-educational, nonsectarian university at a time when many American universities still imposed rigid admission quotas on Jewish students. I assumed that Brandeis intended to honor me for my work as a defender of the rights of women against abuses that are often religious in origin. For over a decade, I have spoken out against such practices as female genital mutilation, so-called “honor killings,” and applications of Sharia Law that justify such forms of domestic abuse as wife beating or child beating. Part of my work has been to question the role of Islam in legitimizing such abhorrent practices. So I was not surprised when my usual critics, notably the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), protested against my being honored in this way.

What did surprise me was the behavior of Brandeis. Having spent many months planning for me to speak to its students at Commencement, the university yesterday announced that it could not “overlook certain of my past statements,” which it had not previously been aware of. Yet my critics have long specialized in selective quotation – lines from interviews taken out of context – designed to misrepresent me and my work. It is scarcely credible that Brandeis did not know this when they initially offered me the degree.

What was initially intended as an honor has now devolved into a moment of shaming. Yet the slur on my reputation is not the worst aspect of this episode. More deplorable is that an institution set up on the basis of religious freedom should today so deeply betray its own founding principles. The “spirit of free expression” referred to in the Brandeis statement has been stifled here, as my critics have achieved their objective of preventing me from addressing the graduating Class of 2014. Neither Brandeis nor my critics knew or even inquired as to what I might say. They simply wanted me to be silenced. I regret that very much.

Not content with a public disavowal, Brandeis has invited me “to join us on campus in the future to engage in a dialogue about these important issues.” Sadly, in words and deeds, the university has already spoken its piece. I have no wish to “engage” in such one-sided dialogue. I can only wish the Class of 2014 the best of luck—and hope that they will go forth to be better advocates for free expression and free thought than their alma mater.
I take this opportunity to thank all those who have supported me and my work on behalf of oppressed woman and girls everywhere.


The Clarion Project deplores Brandeis University’s decision to acquiesce to those wishing to silence a leading figure in the fight to end gender-inequality and honor violence against women. Universities are supposed to be bastons of freedom of speech and expression where open dialogues can take place on any issue without fear. Brandeis has proven that on its campus, this is sadly not the case.

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Meira Svirsky

Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org