Editor’s note: Many of us at MMW have previously cited Lila Abu-Lughod’s 2002 article “Do Muslim Women Need Saving?” in some of our blog posts, and we were excited to see the recent release of her book of the same title. This is the first of a series of responses to the book by a few different MMW writers.
In the introduction to her recent book Do Muslim Women Need Saving?, Lila Abu-Lughod writes: “I am often bewildered by what I read or hear about ‘the Muslim woman’” (4). For those of us who share this sentiment, Abu-Lughod’s book is essential reading. Framed as “a long answer to the question of whether Muslim women have rights or need saving,” (201) the book builds on an essay that was first published in 2002. The fact that, more than a decade later, the need exists to continue to provide answers to such questions stems out of what Abu-Lughod describes as a “new common sense” which takes up the issue of “Muslim women’s rights” as though “there is something that unites all Muslim women or makes their lives and access to rights unique” (147). As she points out:
Posing such questions does not mean defaulting to cultural relativism. Rather, as the chapter “An Anthropologist in the Territory of Rights” shows, the book develops an argument against framing women’s rights issues around a homogenized category, seeing the selective representation of Muslim women’s lives through the framework of rights as reinforcing stereotypes. As an anthropologist, Abu-Lughod does not simply analyze the media representations and popular rhetoric that underwrite the “new common sense” but interweaves her argument with the lives of individual women she has known as a way to break through the homogenized category that miriam cooke calls “the Muslimwoman.” As Abu-Lughod points out, “intimate familiarity with individuals anywhere makes it hard to be satisfied with sweeping generalizations about cultures, religions or regions” (17).
“when you save someone you imply that you are saving her from something. You are also saving her to something…. what presumptions are being made about the superiority of that to which you are saving her?” (47).
Early on in the book, Abu-Lughod mentions Muslimah Media Watch, describing Fatemeh’s post about a German human rights campaign poster that renders women as mute garbage bags. In asking “why so many, including human rights campaigners, presume that…Muslim women are not agentic individuals” (9) and why, to use a Bushism, “women of cover” are seen as unable to speak for themselves, the first few chapters of the book describe the “new common sense” and investigate how the current moral crusade to save Muslim women is authorized. Here Abu-Lughod provides her own perspectives on the well-covered ground of gendered orientalism and connections between feminist liberal discourses, and the colonial feminism of earlier eras. [Read more...]