Saving Muslim Women

The 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris—along with the brutal activities of ISIS—have spurred a resurgence of concern about Islam in Western media. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof fretted ...

The 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris—along with the brutal activities of ISIS—have spurred a resurgence of concern about Islam in Western media. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof fretted over a concern he kept hearing: “Is there something about Islam that leads inexorably to violence, terrorism and subjugation of women?”1 Bill Maher put it this way: “When there are that many bad apples, there’s something wrong with the orchard.” Elaborating, he continued: “Obviously the vast majority of Muslims would never do anything like this, but they share bad ideas … revenging the Prophet? A bad idea. Martyrdom? A bad idea. Women as second-class citizens? Bad idea.”2

While varied in their willingness to condemn Islam tout court, we might note that Kristof and Maher stand unified in identifying the subjugation of Muslim women as a primary example of “what’s wrong with Islam.”

They are hardly alone in this view. In fact, the idea that Muslim women are particularly oppressed appears as a kind of common sense, visible in this plea to an advice columnist:

Q. Prudie, please give me your thoughts on this. I am married to a man who is originally from the Middle East … In the last few months he has been asking me to go back to his country of origin to visit his family and introduce me and our daughter to them. Although we are happily married and I completely trust him, I don’t want to go. It sounds ridiculous and paranoid, I know, but I fear going into a country where I have no rights as a woman, where my husband can legally (and without any social stigma) beat me, detain me, take other wives, or even take my daughter away.

Appearing in a live chat with Slate advice columnist Emily Yoffe, this woman’s fear—that, if she visits her husband’s family in the “Middle East,” she will be beaten, imprisoned, subjected to polygamy, and forced to give up her child—echoes this common sense.

But is this perception correct? And how did it emerge? Lila Abu-Lughod wrote Do Muslim Women Need Saving? to answer these two related questions. Rebuking the likes of Kristof and Maher, Abu-Lughod’s answer to the first question, the one she also poses in the title of her book, is “No.” As evidence, she draws from years of anthropological fieldwork in rural Egypt, repeatedly making insightful contrasts between her first-hand observations about women she has studied and known and abstract claims made about Muslim women supposedly in need of rescue. This is a book which works hard not to alienate the skeptical reader, through the frequent use of terms like “might” or “may,” the persistent phrasing of ideas as questions (in both title and text), and the persuasive use of many different modes of argumentation, from ethnographic anecdote to critical inquiry.

Key to her argument is that we in the West look through lenses that prioritize very particular, situated values: choice, consent, and freedom. Some of the most rewarding material in Do Muslim Women Need Saving? examines the obsession with constraint that counterposes perceptions of Muslim women to Enlightenment ideals of freedom and autonomy, connected to theoretical work by Wendy Brown, Judith Butler, and Saba Mahmood. As Abu-Lughod notes, “we need to reflect on the limits we all experience in being agents of our own lives.” Yet many non-Muslim women perceive themselves as free, while believing Muslim women to be utterly constrained. Muslim women live in a mythical place, which Abu-Lughod calls “IslamLand”: a fantastic place where women are “undifferentiated by nation, locality, or personal circumstances,” and live lives that are imagined to be “totally separate and different from our own.” These are lives where women are caged by culture and oppressed by religion—their only possibility of rescue appearing in the form of intervention by the international community—and where their only hope is escape.

<i>Prayer</i>. Photograph by Glenn Halog / Flickr.

Prayer. Photograph by Glenn Halog / Flickr.

This notion that women could be liberated from their (univocally oppressive) culture into a space of freedom is reminiscent of Susan Moller Okin’s controversial claim in her well-known essay, “Is Multiculturalism Bad For Women?” that some women (those subject to what Okin called “patriarchal minority cultures,”) might be much better off if their cultures were to become extinct, so they could become integrated into a more enlightened majority culture.3 The evangelizing Christian missionary of the historical rescue mission has been replaced by Okin—or by Nicholas Kristof. The Christian community of the saved has been supplanted, in Abu-Lughod’s terms, by human rights, liberal democracy, and modern beauty regimes. While many readers of this book may take all three to be universally desirable values, Abu-Lughod repeatedly suggests that different women might choose different futures from ones that we might, futures that are manifestations of “differently structured desires.”

More specifically, Abu-Lughod observes: “I cannot think of a single woman I know who has expressed envy of women in the United States, women they variously perceive as bereft of community, cut off from family, vulnerable to sexual violence and social anomie, driven by selfishness or individual success, subject to capitalist pressures, participants in imperial ventures that don’t respect the sovereignty or intelligence of others, or strangely disrespectful of others and God.” (“This is not to say,” she notes, that these women “do not value certain privileges and opportunities that many American women enjoy.”) As Abu-Lughod reminds us, when you are saving someone from something, you are also “saving her to something.” The presumption of those who would save Muslim women from their unfreedom is that identification with Islam can only be a negative experience and that they are being saved to a more ideal alternative. But, Abu-Lughod argues, different women might be “called to personhood, so to speak, in different languages.” Over and over, Abu-Lughod insists that her readers contemplate the possibility that not all women seek an identical life.

Abu-Lughod’s answer to the second question—how this common sense emerged —is a fascinating one, and requires tracing the strange career of “Muslim women’s rights” across diverse terrain. While she is hardly alone in critiquing the flattened stereotype of the abject Muslim woman, Abu-Lughod brings refreshing new observations to this well-trodden ground. The threads she identifies as woven into this stereotype include political imperatives, the generation of a fantasy “IslamLand,” and a peculiar convergence of the utopian (the human rights movement) and mass-market scandal narratives about Muslim women’s subjection.

Over and over, Abu-Lughod insists that her readers contemplate the possibility that not all women seek an identical life.

In terms of political motivations, the figure of the subjugated Muslim woman has proven to be useful to states. Rescuing Muslim women served as one rationale for the “war on terror” in Iraq and Afghanistan by positioning the United States and liberal European states as their savior. This sentiment was epitomized by First Lady Laura Bush, who, in a 2001 address to the nation, justified American military intervention as a “fight for the rights and dignity of women” in Afghanistan, stating: “Only the terrorists and the Taliban threaten to pull out women’s fingernails for wearing nail polish.”4

Concerns about subjugated Muslim women have also emerged as politically instrumental to social movements in the global North. Abu-Lughod provocatively suggests that American feminism shares with older imperial agendas the political imperative to see Muslim women as particularly oppressed. Why might this be the case? One argument would be that the preoccupation with Muslim women’s liberation enables feminist (and other) activists to feel a transcendent moral purity, unburdened by any sense of their own complicity in global inequalities, armed interventions, or military occupations. We can link this to a strong desire for innocence in many strands of feminist politics. I mean here innocence both in the sense of desiring the category “woman” to be pure and unsullied by difference, and in the sense of desiring moral transcendence—wanting to be the savior of others, not culpable for their disenfranchisement. Those who presume the font of Muslim women’s oppression to be Islam can lament or criticize their degraded condition without being implicated in their suffering.

Another argument would be that global concerns have revitalized the feminist movement and perhaps have served as a “strategic diversion” from intractable conflicts on domestic issues within the United States.5 In their research on the history of the “women’s rights as human rights” movement, Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink suggest that fundamental economic inequities between women in the global North and South precluded a successful global women’s movement. That is, until the rubric of “violence against women” emerged as a unifying concern.6

If both these arguments are correct, and they seem so to me, this leads to a question. If women are linked through a common experience of patriarchy, but with Muslim women only more so, how truly universal is the idea that “women’s rights are human rights?” Inderpal Grewal’s recent observations about what she names the “outsourcing of patriarchy” are useful here. As Grewal notes, patriarchy has now been disavowed as essentializing in describing gender relations in liberal Western cultures (we talk instead of masculinity and gender critique). At the same time, it is naturalized as a feature of, and thus “outsourced” to, the global South.7 Particularly post-9/11, Muslim women occupy the field of subjugation due to a culturally driven patriarchy. The maltreatment of Muslim women thus functions as a synecdoche, standing in for gender subordination in general. As Abu-Lughod points out, this kind of thinking makes impossible the more difficult and nuanced analysis she calls for in her book.

Thus, one discourse which enables the traffic in the suffering Muslim woman is the women’s rights as human rights movement. While the language of human rights appears uniform and neutral, it functions within an “imagined and idealized liberal democracy” which differs greatly from the long history of “geopolitical entanglements” that Abu-Lughod believes actually shapes women’s desires and ideals of human life. We could add to Abu-Lughod’s criticisms of human rights those of other scholars, who question whether human rights are a force for good or a reinforcement of US imperialism (Randall Williams), whether human rights speak a truth or monopolize justice claims (David Kennedy), whether human rights relies, like the Bildungsroman, on the unfettered self-fashioned human subject (Joseph Slaughter), and whether human rights promise a utopia, in the process usurping political solutions (Samuel Moyn).8

Despite the observations of such critics, the human rights movement is put forth as morally unblemished. Abu-Lughod suggests that in promoting the circulation of the suffering Muslim woman, the “high ground” of human rights is actually surreptitiously paired with a far less savory partner, a literary genre that Abu-Lughod calls “pulp nonfiction.” This is a species of writing which gives the idea that Muslim women need saving an affective urgency through the commercial publishing of books with sensationalist titles like Desert Royal, Shame, In the Name of Honor, Without Mercy, and Married by Force. As Abu-Lughod points out, both human rights and “pulp nonfiction” rely on a similar vocabulary (consent, choice, and freedom) and both tell a similar tale as to how women must be liberated from repressive tradition into the universal value of freedom.

Reading multiple iterations of these narratives, Abu-Lughod notes that the works feature persistent keywords—violent, Muslim, honor, nightmare, forced, raped, sex slave, escape, survival—as well as a predictable narrative arc. The freedom each narrator seeks is not just escape from Muslim men, but also escape from her community and culture. Sold by the millions to a primarily female Western audience, these books traffic in horror, passion, and pleasure. These tales go beyond the colonial trope Gayatri Spivak has described as “white men saving brown women from brown men.”9 These memoirs instead offer up brown women who, says Abu-Lughod, “seem to want to be rescued by their white sisters and friends.” She argues that their most potent effect lies in their ability to invoke Western women’s superior condition, allowing them “to be role models and to feel needed.” We see again the innocent woman, who can be blameless but also powerful by lending a hand of sisterhood to her suffering Muslim counterpart. Readers of this “pulp nonfiction” are allowed to escape the contentious and intractable debates about choice they may face in their own lives about issues such as childcare or reproductive freedom or gun control in the pursuit of fantastic escape, in tales of women who truly suffer.

Sexual titillation and moral horror are also key to the working of what is perhaps the iconic symbol of the particular subjugation of Muslim women, the “honor crime.” (The other contender for this distinction is the veil, about which Abu-Lughod also persuasively writes.) Abu-Lughod carefully outlines what is wrong with the way the category of the honor crime operates. The category suggests that honor crimes take place in societies where women have no moral agency and are simply objects, property controlled by men. The killings, a “comforting phantasm,” in Abu-Lughod’s term, spin the illusion that certain cultures have a monopoly on violence against women, since “modern” societies are thought to be sites where honor crimes only occur when they are perpetrated by immigrant communities. In the words of Inderpal Grewal, the term “sticks to a crime by certain bodies against other bodies.”10 We could also call this “blaming culture for bad behavior.”11 Gendered violence thus turns into a cultural diagnosis of Muslim societies. Incidents of gendered violence in honor societies are attributed to the category of honor crime, buttressing the presumption that there is something unusually misogynistic about those societies. At the same time, when there are incidents of gendered violence in a country like the United States, these cases are perceived as the actions of individual deviants. That is, unless the perpetrators happen to be from a minority community, in which case the violence is again attributed to a cultural tradition.12 Beyond the way that the honor crime works to mask violence outside of honor societies, the category also erases state institutions and forms of governance that are integral to how these cases are defined and managed.13 Lastly, the category functions as an “antipolitics machine” that, like other phenomena explained solely through culture, ignores both politics and history.14

Abu-Lughod turns from Muslim woman as object of horror and pity to her as agent making rights claims on behalf of her own community.

Reading Abu-Lughod’s book through the lens of this moment raises some questions. How does the image of the Muslim woman in need of saving frame responses to the recent terrorist attacks in France, or to ISIS? One answer might link to the observation of Jayne Huckerby, who argues that we fail to sufficiently focus upon women involved in terrorism. Women form 10 percent of European, North American, and Australian recruits to ISIS. While Huckerby does not make this specific argument, one could say that the vision of the woman in need of rescue—utterly devoid of agency—functions to obscure the awareness of women engaged in terrorism. She does suggest that, while stereotypes about women’s domesticity and passivity lead many to assume that women who have joined ISIS are victims of trickery or male authority, women are drawn to groups like ISIS by many of the same forces as men. European women involved with ISIS, in particular, have spoken of how social alienation and restrictions on religious observance, such as France’s ban on wearing a burqa or niqab in a public space, helped push them towards the group.15 We thus see an enormously complicated network of issues linked through questions about choice and Islam.

Two later chapters in the book shift focus from fantasy and moral crusade to examine how practices organized around Muslim women’s rights circulate and become transformed. Here Abu-Lughod turns from Muslim woman as object of horror and pity to her as agent making rights claims on behalf of her own community. The first of these chapters examines the social life of Muslim women’s rights as articulated by activists on the ground in Egypt and Palestine. These provide contrasting examples of how networks, institutions, and technologies differently mediate rights. The Egyptian context features governmentalization of women’s rights, the accommodation of religious institutions and ideology, and commercialization, while the Palestine women’s rights movement, not surprisingly, is utterly intertwined with what Abu-Lughod calls the “highly charged Palestinian national context.” The second of these chapters on what she calls the “territory of rights” presents an ethnography of two different networks, both Muslim feminist projects of internal reform. The first, Musawah, was launched in Kuala Lumpur in 2009; the second, the Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality (WISE), in New York in 2006. Within legal scholarship, many criticisms of the limitations of rights claims have been cast. Rights-based strategies tend to be individualistic; rights claims limit demands to what is legally cognizable and thereby direct attention away from more transformative or political claims; rights claims reinforce, rather than challenge, the state; rights claims reinforce the subordinate status of the injured. Abu-Lughod in particular is concerned with two issues: whether rights claims by Musawah or WISE are legible outside of the class-privileged and educated context in which they arose and whether “any legalistic framework or rights or gender equality can do justice to the complexity of women’s lives and suffering.”

To illustrate these limitations, Abu-Lughod tells the story of Khadija, an Egyptian village woman Abu-Lughod knows and a survivor of domestic violence. When domestic violence is (conventionally) represented as the product of tradition or patriarchal culture, the solution is to become more “modern” (abandon the traditional culture, criminalize domestic violence, create battered women’s shelters). The Muslim women’s networks Abu-Lughod studies would instead frame the issue as insufficient knowledge or incomplete adherence to Islam, since Islam enshrines justice, equality, human dignity, love, and compassion. But neither answer seems to address the complicated questions involved in Khadija’s life. Abu-Lughod untangles Khadija’s story to show the layers that confound any easy attempt to generalize. Khadija and her husband were distant cousins who seemed to be replicating an intergenerational pattern of both marital conflict and support. Khadija also suffered from mysterious illnesses—possibly mental in origin. Lastly, it turned out that Khadija’s husband, like many other men living in a region of Egypt close to Pharaonic tourist sites, also maintained a long-standing emotional and financial relationship with an older European divorcee. Thus, the violence against Khadija was produced in a “nexus of the global field of European tourism in the Third World and inequalities between rich foreigners and local villagers.” The simple story told about domestic violence leads us to a simple answer (rescue the woman from her repressive culture and religion, or make sure the couple adheres to the true teachings of Islam). Here, Abu-Lughod ably shows us that life stories are never simple, and that neither are solutions. It seems particularly clear that articulating Kadhija’s right to be free from domestic violence as a claim of women’s rights fails to engage with the geopolitical forces that, in Abu-Lughod’s words, “deform her life,” or with the bonds of attachment and dependency that shape it as well. Of course, it is inevitably true that any formal legal framework will not do justice to the complexity of lives. While legal frameworks have been invested with transformative power—think for example of the Civil Rights Act—we must be clear-eyed about what rights can accomplish and think about other strategies to solve problems as well. We could consider as examples the work of INCITE! Women, Gender Non-Conforming and Trans People of Color Against Violence, and organizations such as Creative Interventions, which are developing community-based strategies to combat violence outside the state, in this case as an alternative to a US professionalized battered women’s movement that collaborates with a racist criminal justice system.

This book is a great service to those of us who have long wanted for a resource we can recommend to explain why Muslim women do not need saving. Persuasive, generous, and insightful, Abu-Lughod asks us to bring our careful analysis, critical self-reflection, and constant recognition of our common but also differently expressed humanity to the table. Dedicating the book to her mother, “who watched me struggle,” she reminds us that none of us is immune to suffering or to difficulties. Constraint is a human condition, not one unique to Muslim women. We are all constrained; we all struggle; we all live lives we did not fully choose. icon

  1. See Nicholas Kristof, “Is Islam to Blame for the Shooting at Charlie Hebdo in Paris?” New York Times, January 7, 2015.
  2. Joshua Rivera, “Bill Maher Slams Islam Again in Response to ‘Charlie Hebdo’ Attacks,” Entertainment Weekly, January 10, 2015.
  3. Susan Moller Okin, “Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?” Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?, (Princeton University Press, 1999): 22. For my previous critical response, see Leti Volpp, “Feminism versus Multiculturalism,” Columbia Law Review 101 (5) (2001): 1181–1218.
  4. See Laura Bush on Taliban Oppression of Women, Washington Post, November 17, 2001.
  5. Amy Farrell and Patrice McDermott, “Claiming Afghan Women: The Challenge of Human Rights Discourse for Transnational Feminism,” Just Advocacy? Women’s Human Rights, Transnational Feminisms, and the Politics of Representation (Rutgers University Press, 2005).
  6. Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink, Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics (Cornell University Press, 1998).
  7. Inderpal Grewal, “Outsourcing Patriarchy,” International Feminist Journal of Politics 15 (1) (2013): 1–19.
  8. Randall Williams, The Divided World: Human Rights and its Violence (University of Minnesota Press, 2010); David Kennedy, “The International Human Rights Movement: Part of the Problem?” Harvard Human Rights Journal 15 (2002): 101–125; Joseph Slaughter, Human Rights, Inc.: The World Novel, Narrative Form, and International Law (Fordham University Press, 2007); Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (Belknap, 2010).
  9. Gayatri Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, (University of Illinois Press, 1988).
  10. Inderpal Grewal, supra at 6.
  11. Leti Volpp, “Blaming Culture for Bad Behavior,” Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities 12 (1) (2000): 89-116.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Dicle Koğacioğlu, “The Tradition Effect: Framing Honor Crimes in Turkey,” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 15 (2) (2004) 118–51; Dicle Koğacioğlu, “Knowledge, Practice, and Political Community: The Making of ‘the Custom’ in Turkey,” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 22 (1) (2011): 173–229.
  14. See James Ferguson, The Anti-Politics Machine: “Development,” Depoliticization and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho (Cambridge University Press, 1990).
  15. Jayne Huckerby, “When Women Become Terrorists,” New York Times, January 21, 2015.
Featured image: In the Market. Photograph by Adrian Snood / Flickr.