Navaratnam, 21 February 2014
“I am surprised by how easily people presume that Muslim women do not have rights,” writes Lila Abu-Lughod at the start of her book, Do Muslim Women Need Saving? This book comes at the right time to trouble contemporary liberal feminism’s obsession with saving brown, and particularly Muslim women, from the various ills of their respective “cultures”; these are societies that are often presented as other to the apparently more superior, egalitarian, liberal democracies of Western Europe and the United States.
In this book, Abu-Lughod attempts to demolish the trope of the brown Muslim woman in need of saving, and as she details, mostly everyone wants to save a Muslim woman or two if they can in these post 9-11 days, particularly if that Muslim woman is living in the vast area designated as the Middle East. And if it takes some bombs to liberate them, then that’s the price someone has to pay, while someone else can opt to get either a free tote bag or lipstick for their charitable act.
Abu-Lughod, who teaches anthropology and women’s studies at Columbia University, has written extensively on this subject in the past, but she’s known particularly for her complex ethnographic work in Veiled Sentiments and Dramas of Nationhood; the first looked at the workings of culture through gender roles in particular in a Bedouin community in Egypt, while the second analysed the complexity of citizenship and national subjectivity in Egypt through its popular media, particularly television serials and soap operas.
Abu-Lughod is committed to the “particularity of difference” but not the “superiority of difference”, to borrow a term from Saba Mahmood. There is an ethical dimension to her attention to the particularities and complexities of difference between women of different countries, social backgrounds and cultures, and even within cultures she’s always attuned to the differences brought about by class and economic background.
Post 9/11, an event which looms large but seems to be largely understood ahistorically, without concrete understanding among Americans themselves of the devastation wrought by American imperialism long before those planes crashed into the World Trade Center, Abu-Lughod writes that “Muslims are presented as a special and threatening culture—the most homogenized and the most troubling of the Rest”. Drawing upon her own work in the past and the invaluable work of people like Saba Mahmood, Hamid Dabashi, Deniz Kandiyoti, and others, Abu-Lughod charts out the ways in which contemporary bourgeois or liberal Western feminism has not only colluded with American (and to a lesser extent in the 20th century, European) imperialism, but could be perhaps be considered one of the products of it. This is seen in the ways in which secular democracy is championed by liberals and conservatives alike, and violently inflicted upon the “backward” countries by seemingly “progressive” people who, on the one hand, preach about the ills of war, and on the other hand make allowances for bombs to drop on children and women because Islamic fundamentalists need to be taught a lesson about freedom and democracy the American and European way.
In the chapter “The New Common Sense”, Abu-Lughod takes to task thinkers and “dangerous do-gooders” like Kwame Anthony Appiah and Nicholas Kristof for being selective about the forms of gender violence they choose to condemn. Their myopia allows them to characterise foreign cultures as particularly harmful to women while largely glossing over the brutal realities faced by women in what they consider to be the more exemplary secular democracies of North American and Western European countries. Abu-Lughod is generous enough to take their work seriously, and because of this, she zeroes in on their thinly-disguised Islamophobia that takes on the guise of commitment to “gender equality”. She is also critical of people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Irshad Manji and Azar Nafisi, women who are generally lauded in the West for speaking truth to power about Islam and misogyny at the very moment their words and narratives coincide with a particular Islamophobic discourse that furthers American imperial ambitions.
As such, Abu-Lughod notes the irresponsible damage inflicted by books like Half the Sky, The Caged Virgin, and The Honor Code, because truly virulent messages about Islam, in particular, and the people who inhabit the Global South, in general, are disseminated to a wide readership through sweetened doctrines of liberal humanitarianism and pro-democracry. “Half the Sky, like Hirsi Ali’s The Caged Virgin and Nomad, and even Appiah’s The Honor Code,” Abu-Lughod writes, “is an invitation to Westerners to do something elsewhere. These books do not ask us to examine the role Westerners already play—whether in their everyday practices, their governments’ actions, or their economic strength—in perpetuating global inequities that exacerbate (and sometimes cause) the sufferings of women elsewhere”.
Through her in-depth demolition of the new moral crusades brought on by the genre of “gendered Orientalism” in the pulp nonfiction of books by “insiders”, i.e., Muslim women who threw off their shackles or who tore off their veils and ran away from their oppressive Muslim homes in order to live the precise kind of life lived by a certain class of Western woman in urban areas, Abu-Lughod zeroes in on the treacherous hypocrisy of the seemingly well-read and well-educated class of progressive Westerners. As long as these narratives champion a certain kind of resilience and triumph, these books are widely read and enthusiastically received, but as Abu-Lughod notes, there is plenty of sex involved, and whether unpleasant or pleasant, what matters are the details.
The style of this nonfiction is confessional, and many of these books are presumably read by Western women because they are seen as honest or candid portrayals of how One Muslim Woman Overcame Islam in order to be Just Like You and Me. This is what Saba Mahmood meant when she referred to the superiority of difference; the huge success among white women of narratives of “brown women [who] seem to want to be rescued by their white sisters and friends, to adapt Spivak’s famous formulation”, as Abu-Lughod describes it, should certainly arouse suspicion. “Western women would no longer be the role models, nor would they feel needed”, says Abu-Lughod, if they were presented with stories of their Very Oppressed Sisters choosing a life that is entirely different from their own.
Abu-Lughod makes note of this not to disparage the reading habits of Western women for kicks, but to note how “consumers of such books and websites come from the very communities that are involved in military exercises against Muslims around the world, egged on by hysterical hate and fear and accompanied by the criminal profiling of Muslim men even in their own countries. The new gendered Orientalism performs a certain kind of work, and it is work that allows the vast majority of the public in secular democratic countries to take pride in their national values, and to preach, promote, and fund the values of a certain kind of liberal feminism while fostering, intentionally or not, an active ignorance of the implications of US-led war and sanctions on the women and children they purportedly want to save or help.
Abu-Lughod’s anthropological training makes her attentive to the ways in which form, consent, and autonomy are exercised by women living within patriarchy, both cultural and national, but it’s her political inclinations that allow her to trouble these concepts and ask the hard questions. Visiting a woman she had known from her work in the Bedouin communities in the ‘70s and ‘80s, she finds Gateefa, expressing disapproval of her son’s inability to stand up to his wife: “She blamed her daughter-in-law for maneuvering the breakup of the family that she and her husband had built together. Each woman now gets her husband to go off and buy special things for his own children, she complained. Each woman wants her own household, not all the work of the joint household.”
I found that this section of the book threw the quandaries of contemporary feminism into stark relief. When women, who are usually expected to perform reproductive labour and care work without complaint, refuse this work, it can be a form of resistance to the ways in which patriarchy is deeply entwined with capitalism. But merely resisting the work or refusing to perform it doesn’t change the structure, or help to envision a new one. Contemporary bourgeois feminism’s focus on “independence” and “choice” neglects to ask how freedom comes about, and at whose expense.
As Abu-Lughod points out, when Gateefa’s young daughter-in-law wants to take care of herself and goes off to get her eyebrows done, she leaves her children with another elderly female relative. As Abu-Lughod points out, Gateefa dislikes this attitude because it’s not a communal concept of child-rearing, as modern women want the benefits of the household without the work of the household. This is the case both among rural and urban young women who have grown up on liberal feminism—there is always an another woman or a domestic helper, usually less-educated, less mobile, and/or older, doing the work for no or very little pay. Yet, it seems to be patriarchy’s intent that we go on blaming women for this condition without asking why women are being valued for the activity of their uterus while also being encouraged to have it all, which necessary entails not being present for this work in order to present a more efficient self elsewhere—in their career, for example, or to their male partners.
Taking a complex attitude towards how consent is necessarily exercised and yet curtailed in women’s decisions in marriage and childrearing, or education and work, Abu-Lughod depicts how one woman’s autonomy is another woman’s prison. This might be too simplistic a conclusion presented in this review, but the book takes pains to avoid being reductive. Do Muslim Women Need Saving? takes pains to honour women’s integrity in the midst of their most unpleasant decisions, often circumscribed by their obligations towards others.
Towards the end, Abu-Lughod asks, “What does it mean to freely choose, or to consent?” Without providing any universalising answers, her descriptions and stories of the women she met throughout the course of the work is a simple reminder that feminism needs to work even when the woman you want to “help” or be in solidarity with is making a decision that goes against your own beliefs. That it needs to be attentive to the woman who “chooses” to veil herself or not, agree to an arranged marriage or not, perform sex work to feed herself or not. It would be wrong to expect a book like this one provide an answer as to how this kind of feminism might be made possible. The answer to that question is the work that all of us who are committed to seeing gender-based injustices against women become extinct need to figure out.