Muslim women are now truly the “other” against which the West defines its difference and superiority. They have inflamed the imagination not only of ordinary observers and feminists but also of Western activists and politicians, with a few claiming to want to save them from the alleged oppression of their culture and religion. Saving Muslim women is now a global undertaking in which the participants are both Muslim and non-Muslim. Lila Abu-Lughod’s book is a critical reflection on this mushrooming industry, and its representatives, representations and bureaucracy.
The book’s focus is not only Muslim women but also those who want to save them, and thus its boundaries are both local and global, with women standing firmly on a demarcation line that many in both the West and the Muslim world would prefer to remain firmly drawn. Abu-Lughod succeeds in blurring this line and exposing several stubbornly persistent myths. She critically assesses the vast number of sensational representations of women, written by Muslims and others, about the general repression in a so-called IslamLand. She follows the trail of global feminism in the extensive bureaucracy, institutions and non-governmental organisations that have emerged since the 1990s, all claiming to save Muslim women.
Abu-Lughod’s aim is to disentangle our concern with saving Muslim women from the multiple realities of women’s lives. The urge to save Muslim women is rightly placed in the context of an evolving US feminism that in her opinion has reached stagnation at home and turned to global feminism as a “strategic diversion from a fragmented domestic politics”. Her focus on analysing how individual Muslim women experience freedom, rights and constraints brings a much-needed perspective.
Known for a method she calls “writing against culture”, which allows her to avoid generalisations and highlight the individuality of women’s experiences, Abu-Lughod compellingly applies this approach in order to show the futility of blaming culture for the oppression of Muslim women. She offers a panoramic view of women’s multiple experiences in their own contexts, thereby dismissing sweeping generalisations about these women being a homogeneous oppressed mass. She urges us to look at contexts shaped by global politics, international capital and modern state institutions that all contribute to changing landscapes of family and community. Abu-Lughod reminds us that rights may be universal but above all they are projects bounded by political contexts, institutions and language.
Although she offers no magical remedies, she humbly proposes four sobering conclusions. First, there are multiple causes of discrimination against women, and religion is but one. Second, gender relations structure women’s options in all societies. Third, it is futile to focus on misery elsewhere as an escape from the realities of our own lives. And fourth, the issue of power remains crucial for understanding gender inequality in any society.
With these conclusions, this book is destined to unsettle the convictions of those concerned with saving Muslim women. Many will find it shocking for its uncompromising critique of recent moral crusades, while careful readers will doubtless find in it enough ammunition to deconstruct projects that may seem worth pursuing, but ultimately are not as focused on improving women’s lives in faraway places as they first appear. Abu-Lughod dissolves geographical boundaries, exposes the limits of global morality, and deconstructs the international power context that allows Muslim women to remain that distant voiceless other, awaiting intervention. It invites us to think not only about dominant representations of Muslim women in images and words, but also about our own engagement with the other, which has always taken place in an unequal context.
Do Muslim Women Need Saving?
By Lila Abu-Lughod
Harvard University Press, 336pp, £25.95
Published 28 November 2013