Not Oprah’s Book Club: Do Muslim Women Need Saving?

Harvard University Press. $35.00

Harvard University Press. $35.00

Do Muslim women need saving? Lila Abu-Lughod’s question challenges what has become, in her words, the “new common sense”: a “moral mainstreaming of global women’s rights” that urges Westerners to intervene on behalf of faraway women held hostage by “backwards” religious beliefs. As feminists, we might see reason to celebrate a global, energized focus on gender. But Abu-Lughod argues persuasively that we have to approach these appeals with caution. Her analysis upsets not only wrong-headed ideas about the “Muslim women” we seek to save, but also fantasies of freedom and consent that form the basis of Western feminism.

Abu-Lughod identifies two fields that, together, legitimize the project of saving Muslim women: the enormously authoritative language of international human rights and sensational, commercialized narratives of Muslim women’s suffering. “Key to the vocabularies of both are consent, choice, and freedom,” she writes. “The central drama is the difference between those who choose and those who do not, between those who are free and those who live in bondage.” The source of bondage is, inevitably, religion or “tradition.” In works of titillating “pulp-nonfiction,” like Burned Alive or The Caged Virgin, women in states of grotesque abjection are treated as representative of Islamic norms. Forced marriage, sex slavery, and “honor crimes” are presented as spectacular instances of a generalized cultural violence. The protagonists of these books must escape the trappings of traditional society in order to attain their “universal” human rights—located, always, in Western liberal democracy.

It’s an age-old fairy tale: an artificial division between the West and its mythical counterpart, what Abu-Lughod calls “IslamLand.” On one side: innocent moral agents—the beneficent saviors. On the other: nefarious brown men and “caged birds,” the Muslim women utterly disempowered to resist them. In reality, the spread of international capital and centuries of (ongoing!) colonial history make it impossible to separate “their” world from our own. A “consistent resort to the cultural” in public discourse conveniently ignores these critical forces. We are never asked to consider our own positions of privilege and power in a starkly inequitable, interconnected world. We are never asked to turn our gazes back on ourselves, to Renisha McBride, Islan Nettles, and the many other women subjected to abuse closer to home. And we are never asked to consider the existence of moral systems or structures of desire that are merely different from, not inferior to, our own.

An anthropologist, Abu-Lughod has been doing ethnographic research on women in rural Egyptian communities for decades. She places the above discourse surrounding “Muslim women” beside stories of the lives of Egyptian women she has come to intimately know. Abu-Lughod’s research explodes the narrow frames of patriarchy and “tradition” we use to read Muslim women. In the process, she demonstrates how ideas of “consent, choice and freedom” as remedy for “violations of women’s rights” oversimplify, beyond recognition, the complex forces and particularities at play in lived experience.

Take Khadija (name changed by Abu-Lughod). Her husband has a drinking problem, and is frequently violent. Yet she stays with him nevertheless. Who else will care for her two children and the third on the way? Khadija is constrained not by Islamic norms or patriarchy, but a debilitating poverty with political and economic roots on a macro scale. Wider dynamics condition her husband’s life as well. In a community where drinking is unusual, he acquired a taste as a young man while mixing with European tourists who visit nearby Pharoanic sites. Like many, Khadija’s husband began a relationship with an older European divorcee. She supports him financially, providing a rare livelihood in an impoverished town. “Domestic violence in this case is anything but ‘traditional,’” Abu-Lughod explains. “It is produced at the nexus of the global field of European tourism in the third World and the inequalities between rich foreigners and local villagers that fuel it.”

Kinship, too, binds Khadija to her husband. They are distant cousins, and Khadija’s mother-in-law had a hand in arranging the match. The marriage, Abu-Lughod writes, might be read as an offering of protection, a “gift” to poorer relations from kin precariously better off. In a community where kinship grounds the social order and forms a crucial network of support, the importance of this element cannot be underestimated. Khadija cannot be isolated from either the larger geo-political forces in which she entangled, or the intimate relationships that inflect her everyday life.

What might we as feminists hope to “save” Khadija from? An unequal global distribution of wealth, of which we are the beneficiaries? Structures of kinship and familial attachment, in favor of independence and freedom of choice? Khadija’s situation confounds our understanding of choice. The complexity of her socio-political context, affective interpersonal ties, and systems of support make it difficult, as Abu-Lughod writes, “to distinguish freedom and duty, consent and bondage, choice and compulsion.” And far from being the result of “tradition” or “backwards” culture, Khadija’s is a thoroughly modern predicament.

Western feminism has inherited from liberal culture the notion of an autonomous subject, the bearer of inviolable rights, consent and free choice (think pro-“choice” campaigns, the emphasis on “consent” in our campaigns against sexual violence, the very notion of women’s “liberation”). Women of color and Marxist feminists have critiqued this legacy before, noting how “choice feminism” ignores our differential social positionings and abilities to choose. Khadija’s story presents a model of personhood that cannot be abstracted from its imbrication in social relations. This suggests that “relatedness-to-each-other,” not independence, might be the fundamental condition of all human life—with all the insecurity and unknowability that entails.

“The fiction that any of us can ‘choose freely’ is maintained by conjuring up those in distant lands who live in bondage with no rights, agency, or ability to refuse or escape sex or violence,” Abu-Lughod writes. The idea that we lack control over our lives is, frankly, scary. It makes sense that we would want to displace that fear to a faraway place. But coming to terms with the fiction of “Muslim women” means confronting the myth of autonomy we construct for ourselves.

By locating oppression in alien communities, we excuse our own, deeply violent “liberal” structures. In her 2001 radio address to the nation, Laura Bush states, “The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.” A more recent 2010 cover to Time magazine displayed Bibi Aysha’s mutilated face alongside the headlines “What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan?” But it is not merely war abroad for which the idea of saving Muslim women “manufactures consent.” Domestic institutions like police surveillance, border control, hospitals, prisons, and juridico-legal structures all justify themselves by producing notions of “bad Muslim” behavior. France’s ban of the veil is a good example, using Islamophobia—rooted in a vision of evil Muslim men and abused women—to shore up state surveillance and anti-immigrant policy. It’s ironic how the myth of autonomy results in ever more complicated technologies of control.

But how might we map an alternative? I am inspired by the idea of a feminist politics that privileges interconnectivity, not independence. A politics that listens to others and looks back, critically, on itself. I hope we can commit to a feminism that recognizes how deeply enmeshed we are in each other’s lives, and refuses the artificial lines that divide the rest of the world from ourselves.

Emily Villano

Emily Villano writes about books as a guest contributor to Feministing. She is a recent college graduate and a feminist, living and writing in Central Oregon.

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