Empire & Saving Muslim Women?

Lila Abu-Lughod is professor of anthropology and women’s studies and director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University in New York. In 2002 she published an article in the academic journal American Anthropologist: Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others. In this article she explores the ethics of the ‘War on Terror’ and how anthropology can contribute to a critical interrogation on the justification for the American intervention in Afghanistan in terms of liberating, or saving, Afghan women. Her article is a plea for a serious critical appreciation of differences among women in the world as the products of different histories, expressions of different circumstances, and manifestations of differently structured desires and tries to answer the implications for working together in changing their lives.

In her recently published book, Do Muslim Women Need Saving?, she presents the result of her attempt to deconstruct the popular often stereotyped images about Muslim women coming about in reports on honor killings, abuse, and (as criticized by her) in the propaganda of FEMEN with the complexity of the lives of women she met during her research. In a recent article, responding the Femen controversy about Topless Jihad and the counter-responses by Muslim women, she wrote for the National she criticized the assumption that muslim are oppressed:

Topless protests raise the question: Who can speak for Muslim women? | The National

his assumption makes everything from banning forms of dress to hysteria about “Sharia” arbitration courts appear rational. It makes politicians and feminists more interested in a piece of clothing than the women who wear it.

The photographs posted by these visibly Muslim women in their counter-protest raise some awkward questions. Who speaks for Muslim women? How did “freedom” and “choice” come to be the key terms in the debates about Muslim women’s rights? And how did Islam come to be blamed when a simple look around would confirm that Muslim women’s lives, political views and social positions are so diverse?

The problems they face are clearly shaped by many factors besides Islam, which itself is a constantly changing and contested tradition.

There is a long history of negative western representations of women in the “Orient”. Popular media have been breathing new life into these images ever since liberating the women of Afghanistan was offered as a rationale for military intervention. In 2001, I was suspicious of this justification for war, a justification that former first lady Laura Bush along with former secretary of state Hillary Clinton resuscitated last week in the face of the dismal situation in Afghanistan.

As an anthropologist who had studied and written about women and gender politics in the Muslim world for 20 years, I could not make sense then of the gap between what I was seeing in the media and what I knew from experience. I wondered which Muslim women were imagined as the objects of such humanitarian concern. Could one lump together refugees begging on the streets of Beirut with prime ministers of populous Muslim countries?

In the next videos she discusses her book:

See also the New York Times Read Around Video: HERE.

In Time Magazine an excerpt of her book:

Lila Abu-Lughod: Do Muslim Women Need Saving? | TIME.com

A language of rights cannot really capture the complications of lives actually lived. If we were to consider the quandaries of a young woman in rural Egypt as she tries to make choices about who to marry or how she will make a good life for her children in trying circumstances, perhaps we would realize that we all work within constraints. It does not do justice to anyone to view her life only in terms of rights or that loaded term, freedom. These are not the terms in which we understand our own lives, born into families we did not choose, finding our way into what might fulfill us in life, constrained by failing economies, subject to the consumer capitalism, and making moral mistakes we must live with.

See also the Daily Beast

I think the book is timely and necessary addition to ongoing debates on gender, Muslim women, Islam, feminism and imperialism.

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