In the the Western fancy, the image of Muslim veiled women in Muslim societies stands for oppression and persecution. This imaginary idea ignores the heterogeneity and the dissimilarity of the Muslim world, and supposes that there is no variety in the ways in which Muslim women from different parts of the Muslim world practice their lives.
Lila Abu-Lughod criticizes those flawed assumptions about Muslim women because, according to her, These assumptions confuse the veil with lack of agency. She blames those Western feminists who take upon themselves the mission of saving oppressed Muslim women and speaking on behalf of them, because no one is better qualified than Muslim women themselves to identify their problems and speak about their misery.
In this short paper, I will try to give my reading to Lila Abu- Lughod’s revolutionary work “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?” I am going to provide an overview about the article, discuss the main issues Abu- Lughod tackles, and highlight the ways she developed her arguments.
Islam is Not Monolithic
In this article, Lila Abu- Lughod stresses the importance of developing an understanding of the nature of the heterogeneous Muslim societies. She argues that the Muslim world is not homogeneous, and advices western feminists to recognize that there is profound incommensurability between women in different parts of the Muslim world due to many various historical, political economic and cultural circumstances. She states that Muslim women are “products of different histories, expressions of different circumstances, and manifestations of differently structured desires”1.
Abu- Lughod suggests that the appreciation of differences among Muslim women is needed in order to realize the danger of ethnocentrism. She traces the historical context of the burqa in Afghanistan to refute the lie of the rescue mission America used to validate going to war in this country. According Abu- Lughod, women were a mean that the colonial empire used to conquer countries. She says that George W. Bush used the oppression of these Muslim women as part of the moral justification for the military invasion of Afghanistan.
Saving Muslim Women as a Tactic of Colonialism
Lila- Abu Lughod gave the example of the French colonialism that occurred in Algeria, and the colonial feminism that took place in the turn of the century in Egypt, in order to highlight the history of colonialism in exploiting the oppression of women to settle down countries and drum up support for intervention. She claims that in both cases the saving mission was the moral excuse given to justify invading countries. This, according to Abu- Lughod was the same exact tactic George Bush used to colonize and settle down Afghanistan.
Talking about her interview with PBS News Hour reporter Jim Lehrer about Laura Bush’s speech, Lila Abu- Lughod criticized the focus of Lehrer only on asking questions about what Muslim women are allowed to do. She considered that Jim Lehrer’s questions were not only very general but also interested only in the cultural “as if understanding the culture would help explain why 9/11 happened”2, she states.
Culture is not the only explanation
Lila Abu- Lughod argues that focusing on the cultural aspect prevents us from understanding what are the real reasons behind Muslim women’s suffering. For her, the most important thing is to take into consideration America’s role in the history of Muslim people’s suffering, and to focus more on the social, the political and the historical explanations.
Lila Abu-Lughod talks about anthropological studies and the tendency to consider culture as something concrete. “This is a tendency to plaster neat cultural icons like the Muslim woman over messy historical and political dynamics”3 she says. Abu- Lughod argues that “anthropologists know perfectly well, people wear the appropriate form of dress for their social communities and are guided by socially shared standards, religious beliefs, and moral ideals…”4. This problem is also noticed in studying the issue of the veil in Afghanistan, whereby female covering has become a politicized issue in which historical, social and political processes are not discussed. “studies of human suffering have developed into studies by experts giving religio-cultural reasons, rather than exploring political and historical explanations”5
Abu-Lughod believes that Muslim women’s problems have little to do with culture. She emphasizes on the fact that all forms of covering, including the veil, have a rich historical, social and political context6. According to her, the west must interrogate the fake claims by which politicians vindicate war. This sounds good and convenient, since Lila Abu-Lughod acknowledges that the suffering of some of these women “is not totally unconnected to expectations about gender enshrined in the Qur’an or cultures in the Muslim world, or sometimes justified in terms of interpretations of Islamic law.”7
However, Lila Abu- Lughod – in my point of view – should stop proposing concrete forms of engagement on the cultural level. because it is strange and baffling when we take into consideration that working with “grassroots” women in the Muslim world to bring about cultural change and corresponding legislation has a higher likelihood of success than preventing US wars or ending global economic inequity.
How, then, should we approach the fraught issue of unveiled women’s status in countries across the Muslim world? As Abu-Lughod suggests that first, we have to acknowledge that women in one Muslim country are not representative of their lot in another. Second, we do not have to restrict ourselves to middle-class and Westernized women who speak English or another European language. Third, we must not only listen to those veiled oppressed women, but also feel free to engage in a dialogue with them
Lila Abu-Lughod, “Do Muslim Women Need Saving? Reflections on Cultural Relativism and its Others”, American Anthropologist, 104.3 (2002), 783-790.
1 Lila Abu-Lughod, “Do Muslim Women Need Saving? Reflections on Cultural Relativism and its Others”, American Anthropologist, 2002, p. 783.
2 Ibid, p. 784
3 Ibid, p. 785
4 Ibid, p. 787
5 Ibid, p. 786
6 Ibid, p .786
7 Ibid, p. 4