Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a Somali-born Muslim woman who at one point in her life was headed to an immigrant's life in Canada. In school in Somalia, she suffered a fractured skull when a religious teacher bashed her head against a wall. Her mother beat her throughout her childhood. At age 5, she was held down by relatives while her clitoris and inner labia were cut off with a pair of scissors, an act which sounded, she reportedly said, "like a butcher snipping the fat off a piece of meat."
In 1992, when Hirsi Ali was 22, her father, a Somali resistance leader, arranged a marriage for her to a distant cousin living in Canada. It was not what she wanted, but she set off anyway, bound by the dictates of family and clan honour. In her new biography, Infidel, she writes, "I was condemned to a predictable fate, that of being a subservient wife to a stranger."
If the 1,338 residents of Herouxville had in mind a woman such as Hirsi Ali when their town council drafted its code of conduct, banning within town limits practices such as female genital mutilation, stoning or burning women alive, the code could be seen as an awkward kind of reaching out, an offer of protection, even.
But the code is anything but that. It is intended as a repudiation of other people, specifically Muslims with whom the residents of Herouxville are unlikely ever to have come into contact. Muslims make up only 1.5 per cent of Quebec's population, and are concentrated in urban centres. (And the only stoning in recent memory, as a caller to a radio show reminded us, was during the 1990 Oka crisis when Quebecers stoned cars taking Mohawk elders, women and children across the Mercier Bridge.)
The fact Herouxville town councillor Andre Drouin insists on covering the code of conduct with a patina of religion shouldn't obscure the real point of the exercise. Herouxville's code is about residents' right to live undisturbed by other people's pain or upheavals or by whatever baggage any unfortunate foreigners might be dragging along with them in their quest for a new life.
In his Sunday appearance on a popular television show, Drouin said Quebec was facing nothing less than a crisis on the scale of the 1970 October crisis, when Front de liberation du Quebec terrorists killed Quebec cabinet minister Pierre Laporte and kidnapped British diplomat James Cross. This is pure hysteria. There is not a single Muslim in Herouxville. Fewer than one per cent of the town's residents are anything other than white, Catholic and francophone.
The kindest explanation to have been offered about the code is that the townspeople want to participate in a discussion of what kind of Quebec is being created with the influx of 700,000 new immigrants in the past 10 years.
The code is their way of announcing that people in rural Quebec want their values to prevail in the new Quebec and, unfortunately, for some reason they feel they have to resort to extreme rhetoric to be heard.
Would it have mattered to the residents of Herouxville that Hirsi Ali has also advocated Western nations issue a strongly worded defence of liberal values to all newcomers? In an interview this month with Britain's Guardian newspaper, she criticized Western liberals for not speaking out in favour of the values of secular humanism.
Hirsi Ali did not come to Canada to marry her father's cousin. She sought asylum in Holland, where she became a fierce, very public critic of the mistreatment of Muslim women in her adopted country.
After winning election to the Dutch parliament, Hirsi Ali in 2004 collaborated with Dutch director Theo van Gogh on a film about the abuse suffered by Muslim women. Later that year, Van Gogh was murdered by a Dutch-born Muslim fundamentalist. The killer left a letter to Hirsi Ali, calling her a soldier of evil. It was pinned to the dead Van Gogh's chest with a knife.
A horrified Holland turned on Hirsi Ali. The Dutch threatened to revoke her citizenship. She now lives in the United States, working for the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank funded in part by ExxonMobil.
Like the residents of Herouxville, Hirsi Ali believes in the equality of women. She, too, is unafraid to criticize misogyny within immigrant communities. The difference, and it's huge, is that she has experienced its effects. She is dealing with the real thing. If rural Quebec is really afraid of misogynistic practices, it could offer help to those who are battling them on the front line, a line that, whatever Andre Drouin's fevered imaginings, is a long way from Herouxville.
There's an easy way for Herouxville to defend women's rights
Town could be haven for persecuted women - but that's obviously not going to happen