Sunday, January 26, 2014

Lila Abu-Lughod's "Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?"

Because I loved this article - and because I think the link between "Muslim women" and the 911 tragedy is absolutely ridiculous and stupid.

The below are some random thoughts on the article as I was reading it. I recommend reading the whole article; it's short anyway. Now there's a book with the same title by the same author, too.

"Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?" (the article) by Lila Abu-Lughod 

Ethics Forum: Septemeber 11 and the Ethnographic Responsibility

Abu-Lughod did not feel comfortable having to address the question of women and responses to the purported reasons for the war on terror. While she wants to appeal to anthropology to suggest how anthropology might help in understanding the Other, she is at the same time being critical of the fact that anthropology has been rather complicit in the reification of cultural difference. Where one might have expected that she would have been pleased to partake in the dialogue on Muslim women and the problem of women as a rationale for the war on terror, she did not, and she reflects on this discomfort at the start of her article to situate her perspective. The three programs that the NewsHour show hosted in response to the 9-11 attacks (the first on women in Islam, a panel that addressed "hopelessly general" questions on women and Islam that would not make any sense in a discussion on women in any other religion; the second program a response to the bombing; and the third to the speeches by Laura Bush and Cherie Blair) resorted to the cultural, as if the topic of Islam and women and the attack on the WTC were in any way related or that one would help people understand the other. Abu-Lughod wonders why the debate was (and continues to be) about Muslim women in general and Afghan women in particular when everyone is implicated in this cultural mode of explanation. She references the paradoxes of the question of women in colonialism, such as not giving any support to women's education but focusing on the veil as a symbol of oppression for women in Egypt--all the while opposing women's suffrage back home in their English, "more civilized" worlds. While Laura Bush claimed that the Afghan women had been freed from the Talibn after U.S. involvement in the country, liberals were surprised that Afghan women did not immediately start taking off the blue burqas that the Taliban had imposed on them. Abu-Lughod goes on to explore the possible reasons for this, focusing on understandings of modesty and the sanctity of women, such that even if the Taliban had not made such impositions on them, most of them would probably have still worn some kind of modest clothing or head-covering. She proposes that 1) seeing veiling as the quintessential sign of women's unfreedom is a reductive interpretation of the practice; 2) we need to give up our western obsession with the veil and focus on some more serious issues with which feminism is concerned. Other issues that Abu-Lughod identities are that we need to accept the possibility that even after "we have freed Afghan," they might not want the same things we wanted or would want for them; and second, our rhetoric of saving people is utterly misplaced and misguided. She asserts that she is not against the idea of cultural relativism and that she does not believe "it's their culture" is a justification for whatever goes on around the world, but we need to acknowledge that there might be different ideas of justice and that different women might want or choose different futures for themselves from what we envision as best.

In response to her own title, Abu-Lughod writes that "it is deeply problematic to construct the Afghan woman as someone in need of saving.... Projects focused on saving other women depend on and reinforce a sense of superiority by the Westerners, a form of arrogance that deserves to be challenged" (789). She instead offers that a more productive approach might be to ask how we can contribute to making the world a more just place, thereby focusing on justice in the world rather than on Muslim women and the obsession with their veil; a more egalitarian language of alliances, coalitions, and solidarity--rather than salvation--might also be more productive.

The full article can be read online here (retrieved January 25, 2013). 

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