The Women that Need Saving: A Reflection on Lila Abu-Lughod’s “Do Muslim Women Need Saving?”

My mother belongs to the Zapotec region of Tehuantepec in Oaxaca, Mexico. She is one of the few among my relatives who identifies as “indigenous.” Colonialism in Mexico, and perhaps in many countries in Latin America, was different in that one of the successes of the colonial era was the creation of the caste system and its everlasting effects on indigenous populations. Despite the fact that 200 years have passed since Mexican independence from Spain, I grew up with nationalist discourses that deemed colonization a historic event that had been for the betterment of the indigenous populations. Not only had colonialism allegedly brought cattle, science, civilization and knowledge, but it had also left a trace of whiteness in the population.

Having a non-indigenous father meant that I had trouble identifying as indigenous. I did not know the language and I did not even “look” like one. But eventually my mother became an important advocate of indigenous feminism, which made me reconnect with that part of my identity in unexpected ways. Now, in my graduate studies, I am quite interested in issues of violence against indigenous women and discourses of rights. My interest in this topic lies not only in my desire to pay homage to my heritage, but also in exploring ways to mitigate the violence that indigenous women around the world face.

“Reencountering” my indigenous identity is part of a complex identity cocktail, alongside a self-acquired Muslim identity. As a Muslim, though, I have chosen not to wear the hijab and not to “arabize” by speaking Arabic words that are not mine (and which cannot be translated) or wearing abaayas and other pieces of clothing that are foreign to me. In addition, since the beginning I became quickly acquainted with Islamic feminism and its proponents, and I found a “virtual” community (of which Muslimah Media Watch is a part) where I could explore issues of identity, rights and politics.

With this background and mindset I started reading Do Muslim Women Need Saving? by Lila Abu-Lughod. I must say that the book resonated a lot with me, not only as a self-identified Muslim woman, but as a Third World woman with indigenous background. Abu-Lughod goes to great lengths to discuss Western politics and the discourses around saving Muslim women from patriarchal families, abusive husbands, “brutal” cultures and an “uncivilized” religion.

Much of the information provided by Abu-Lughod is about Muslim women in Egypt, Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries with Muslim majorities. Thus, I feel that this book will be relevant not only to Muslim women who have an experience of the Third World, but also to non-Muslim women who continue to experience the effects of colonialism and other international interactions like occupations and invasions.

Tasnim recently reviewed Abu-Lughod’s book, going through all the sections of the text, and providing an academic overview of the topics discussed. For me, two topics that were very interesting due to my particular background are the issue of Islam and feminism, and the rights approach. The first topic is dealt with in the first chapter titled, “Do Muslim Women (Still) Need Saving.” The author describes how the term “saving” is used and redefined in particular contexts. Not only is the term used by politicians (such as Bush) to justify wars, but it also travels through a variety of individuals and groups that include right-wing-flirters like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Western feminist groups that call for action because Muslim women everywhere are being abused (but not when they are killed by wars, drones and military interventions). The author then argues that these arguments have led many Muslim women to have a troubled relationship with “feminists,” and she says, “I hoped that the narratives [in the book] would persuade them [Western feminists] that it is not so easy to talk about ‘patriarchy’ or to put one’s finger on how power works” (6). As a Muslim, a Third World woman and an indigenous woman, I understand the frustration with Western and radical feminists, and I wonder if their approaches to addressing Muslim women will ever change. The “let’s save them” attitude comes along with power, cash and back up from international organizations, as the author explores throughout the book.  So will this change any time soon?

Chapter 6, “An Anthropologist in the Territory of Rights,” brings issues of discourse, power and politics into the light of rights approaches. This chapter was particularly interesting to me for two reasons. First, through the story of Khadija, a woman in rural Egypt whose husband is an alcoholic and abusive, Abu-Lughod asks, to what degree can rights discourses address domestic violence? Coming from a family where we have seen cases of substance abuse, domestic violence, and other forms of abuse, I was able to connect with what the author addresses. Violence against women is not black and white, and it does not have only one cause or solution. In the case of Khadija, the author observes that poverty played a big role in her not leaving her husband. While rights approaches present us with a black-and-white view of what is right and what is wrong, the author shows that despite the UN having a Declaration of Human Rights and a Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, Khadija’s situation was not any better. She was still poor, her family could not assist her, she had children, and the women in village had varied opinions about Khadija’s situation and role in the marriage. As far as we know Khadija is still married… unhappily married.

Exploring similar circumstances among indigenous women in my research, I converge with Abu-Lughod in that the rights discourse may have certain tints of privilege to it. It assumes that empowerment is possible and achieved through institutional support, but it neglects other forces at play. Yes, we can come up with numerous suggestions for rights. Nonetheless, there are two issues at hand. First, a matter of recognition and adoption. Unless women, in their particular circumstances, can see themselves reflected in rights approaches, it is quite challenging to address their concerns. Next, there is the issue of implementation.  When we think of rights and the policies that come along, we “imagine” subjects…  but are they really interested in what we are offering? Should they be? Why? Therefore, rights approaches have fallen short in identifying the elements that lead to violence, poverty, lack of education and particular gender relations in which women around the world may be immersed. Nevertheless, rights approaches remain strong and almost uncriticised in the academia, media outlets and political settings. So, I wonder if rights approaches could be harming more than helping those in particularly vulnerable positions like Khadija?

Finally, I must say that I really enjoyed the book. It made me think and ask questions. I would have liked to see more examples from outside the Middle East (Abu-Lughod focuses primarily on Egypt), because I think it would have provided more points of contention with the issue of “saving” and different perspectives on the issue of how Muslim women (of different geographic locations) see themselves in the light of rights. Other than that, I feel that this is a valuable book not only for Muslim readers, but for anyone interested in human development, human rights and Third World women.

  • http://hudasnomadicadventure.blogspot.com/ Huda Ahmed

    Fascinating perspective, I’ve never considered Islam from a cultural/ethnic or racial lens, hence why I do not look at the Quran written in Arabic as an alien entity to my own culture. I’m curious about your comment that you do not speak Arabic words that’s not yours, when the simple declaration of accepting Islam is the ‘Shahadah’ and the daily prayers, which are in Arabic (aka Aramaic/Hebrew origin). As someone of East African background, my understanding of colonialism, let along the struggle my fathers, grandfathers made to fight western and eastern colonialism has not impacted my capacity to accept my faith above racialist or nationalist mindset. After all the simple act of ‘taqwa’ and acceptance of Allah and Prophet Mohamed (pbuh) is about the humanity of our soul that is hopefully above the socially constructed and manufactured tools of division and oppression: race and gender.

    I do however understand as a Canadian the importance of reclaiming ones indigenous identity in the face of historical brutality and systematic eradication of many indigenous children cultural identity (Allah has stated that our differences is about communal connection and familial identity and not for division and bigotry) through residential schooling. I agree with you on the assessment of Lila Abu-Lughod, I’m using her book for one of my MA courses on Race and Gender. The concept of having your own agency instead of being inflicted by the often misguided, if not calculated international interference that has little to do with human rights and more about foreign/national interest had a negative impact on women’s group and movement within the Middle East and Africa.

    In this quote from your article: “When we think of rights and the policies that come along, we “imagine” subjects… but are they really interested in what we are offering? Should they be? Why?”

    I would like for you to elaborate on it, do you mean rights and progress aught to be organic and local, instead of internationally imposed, or do you mean Muslim women in these countries do not acknowledge their own agency and entitlement for human rights and legal protection? If its the former, I agree, if its the latter I would have to disagree because it assumes it was not until Western interference that the Muslim world began to address gender and racial inequity. Anyone who knows the history of these countries knows women’s movement is not unique, in fact the first women’s political and social movement began in Iran and Turkey and preceded the first wave of feminism. War, Revolution and political movement in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, in particular those countries that consider themselves Muslims is not new or as a result of Western false International humanitarian aid.

    In the words of Paulo Freire,“True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity. False charity constrains the fearful and subdued, the “rejects of life,” to extend their trembling hands. True generosity lies in striving so that these hands–whether of individuals or entire peoples–need be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work and, working, transform the world.”

    • http://muslimahwalkingaround.wordpress.com/ Eren Cervantes-Altamirano

      Thank you for such a thoughtful comment Huda. First, I will address the issue of “Arabic.” I guess that part of the issue is the notion of Arabic as “sacred.” In my view, the issue of language is not as relevant as we make it seem. Allah does not “speak” Arabic. Allah revealed something “in Arabic” to an Arabic speaker. It should not make a difference if I say “inshaAllah” or “good willing.” When I converted, it was in a mosque;thus, I said my Shahada in Arabic. I have studied Arabic, because I feel it has a powerful link to the revelation, but I do not believe in its sacredness. Now, after some years of being a Muslim, I feel that my community’s pressure in making me say things in Arabic because it is “the right way” or the “Muslim” way are pointless. My mother tongue is Spanish, and that’s how I communicate with God.

      Next, you asked about the notion of rights. I was referring to the broader context in which we discuss “rights.” In the West, we tend to think that no one else had a notion of “rights” before the Enlightenment (which is totally false). And although many of our cultures, communities and religious groups have very strong notions of “rights,” much of the world still works around the notion that the Declaration of Human Rights brings about. I am not saying that’s wrong, but I do not think it works for everyone.

      Right now I am researching sexual violence against indigenous women, and Canada’s refusal to address the issue despite being a UN member and signing the Declaration. My question in here is, are the Declaration rights and the policies it requires enough? Does that automatically grant indigenous women the right not to be sexually abused? My question is no… for a number of reasons… one of the most important is the fact that the Declaration (and for that matter any Canadian law) is foreign and imposed; thus, they do not really capture the experience of these women. An example that I can provide is the requirement (by UN) for everyone to have the right to be recognized before the law. But that does nothing to address the fact that Canadian law reserves the right to strip indigenous women from their status through numerous policies; it reserves the right to deny the effects of colonization; and it reserves the right to define what an “indigenous” woman is, and under what circumstances she can be recognized as such before the law.

      I think this is problematic because as much as many of us want to support the notion of “universal” rights, the reality is that the Western standard is not something that will bring “rights” to many of us. For starters, it does nothing to address the colonial experience…

      I hope that helps!

      • KA

        Islam does nothing to address the colonial experience, especially the experience of Indigenous peoples colonized by Muslims. Islam is foreign & imposed from outside. I sincerely don’t care to save Muslim women & I don’t need them to save me from my own culture either.

        Equating Indigenous issues with your imperialist religion is colonizing.

        • http://hudasnomadicadventure.blogspot.com/ Huda Ahmed

          Islam does not address the concept of colonialism because its a modern, Western invention that came about with the rise of the Naval military rise of Portuguese and Spanish empires and later with the industrial revolution that enabled England, France, Belgium and Netherlands to colonize and commit genocide across the globe. In term of Muslim empire, which ended with the Ottoman empire before WWI, colonizing or ruling over indigenous land did not mean the eradication of their language, culture and way of life (case and point the Greek, Ethiopian, present day Serbian, Romania, etc). where you might be a Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or paganist, but you did not require to convert or speak Arabic. Even in South-Central Asia where largest Muslim populace comes from, Muslim footprint did not attempt to replace indigenous cultures, languages and history. Hence, your comments make little sense from a historical perspective.

      • http://hudasnomadicadventure.blogspot.com/ Huda Ahmed

        I’m late replying back to you Erin, thanks for your thoughtful reply as well. I agree with everything you said, I’m doing a bit on indigenous Canadian women’s role in self determination and even feminism. I will definitely keep your comments in mind when doing so.

        • http://muslimahwalkingaround.wordpress.com/ Eren Cervantes-Altamirano

          I am glad to help. I am currently working with rights discourses, social policy and self-determination related to issues of sexual violence against indigenous women in Canada. I would love you hear about your research!

  • KA

    & Indigenous women being colonized by Muslims who say we’re savages & prostitutes & our traditions are demonic? Not all colonizers are white. Some Muslims say the same thing about other people as some other people say about them & Indigenous people in Muslim countries do need saving from Muslim majorities killing them & stealing their land to save them from their “uncivilized” “brutal” cultures.

    • http://hudasnomadicadventure.blogspot.com/ Huda Ahmed

      What are you talking about? A bit more evidence and historical coherence would help instead of simple Islamaphobic ranting.

  • Tec15

    So MMW, KA’s laughable Islamophobic posts doesn’t violate your comments moderation policy? Any online Islamophobe masquearading as an “Indigenous rights activist” has carte blanche to post their thrash here?

    • Footybedsheets

      *violin plays in the distance*

      • Tec15

        I can’t decide whether you’re agreeing with or….

      • Tec15

        BTW, a far right thug was the only one to “like” your comment, so congrats.


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