Saving Islam from Its Victims

Lila Abu-Lughod doesn't want you to care about the oppression of Muslim women.

shariaLila Abu-Lughod received her Ph.D. from Harvard, has taught at Williams, Princeton, and NYU, and now boasts the title of Joseph L. Buttenwieser Professor of Social Science at Columbia University, where she teaches anthropology and Women's Studies and is considered an expert on the Arab world. Born and raised in the United States, she's the daughter of Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, whose buddy Edward Said once described him as “Palestine's foremost academic and intellectual.” She's also the author of a book, Do Muslim Women Need Saving?, which was published last year by Harvard University Press, and which I first became aware of via an excerpt in the Daily Beast and a piece by Abu-Lughod, also entitled “Do Muslim Women Need Saving?”, that appeared in Time Magazine.

The thrust of both these articles is that we in the West who think Muslim women are oppressed have been misinformed. Yes, Abu-Lughod acknowledges, Islamic culture has its demerits – but hey, so does every culture. Also, she argues, women in the Islamic world are a varied crew, ranging from prime ministers to peasants, so there are plenty who don't fit the West's stereotypes. What to say about these rhetorical ploys except that they could be used to challenge any criticism of just about anything or anyone? (You could defend Nazi Germany against charges of anti-Semitism in precisely the same way that Abu-Lughod defends Islam against charges of oppressing women: “Admittedly, Hitler was horrible, but which national leader has ever been beyond criticism? True, some Jews suffered under Hitler, but anti-Semitism has been a very serious problem in many societies.”)

Then there's this, from Abu-Lughod's Time piece:

A language of rights cannot really capture the complications of lives actually lived. If we were to consider the quandaries of a young woman in rural Egypt as she tries to make choices about who to marry or how she will make a good life for her children in trying circumstances, perhaps we would realize that we all work within constraints. It does not do justice to anyone to view her life only in terms of rights or that loaded term, freedom. These are not the terms in which we understand our own lives, born into families we did not choose, finding our way into what might fulfill us in life, constrained by failing economies, subject to the consumer capitalism, and making moral mistakes we must live with.

To rescue Islam, in short, Abu-Lughod is prepared to jettison the very concepts of “rights” and “freedom.” (Yet while she's uncomfortable with these supposedly overgeneralizing and “loaded” terms, she has no trouble invoking “consumer capitalism.”) Then there's this: “Representing Muslim women as abused makes us forget the violence and oppression in our own midst.” Um, no, it doesn't. (Note that this argument is kind of a twist on Matthew 7:3: “Why art thou paying any attention whatsoever to the beam in the Muslim world's eye, when thou shouldst instead be entirely preoccupied with the mote in the eye of the West?”) And this: “Ultimately, saving Muslim women allows us to ignore the complex entanglements in which we are all implicated and creates a polarization that places feminism only on the side of the West.” In other words, she's more interested in rescuing multiculturalism than in rescuing women.

In both her Daily Beast and Time articles, Abu-Lughod foregrounds her credentials: she's an anthropologist who's been intimately acquainted with the Arab world, and especially the lives of Arab women, for twenty years. This being the case, she surely knows very well about the systematic inequality of women under Islam, about Muslim patriarchy, and about forced marriage. She knows how common domestic violence is in Muslim homes. She knows, in short, that every day millions of Muslim women endure suffering rooted in the Koran and in Muslim tradition. But instead of using her knowledge to try to help improve those women's lives, she uses her rhetorical skills to dance around the truth – dodging, deflecting, doing whatever it takes to uphold the stunningly callous and patently dishonest proposition that Muslim women don't need saving.

I was curious to see how Abu-Lughod managed to keep this dance going at book length, and so I secured a copy of Do Muslim Women Need Saving? It proved to be a masterpiece of sheer disingenuousness. Are innumerable girls in the Muslim world denied education altogether, while countless others attend windowless, prison-like madrasses where they learn about nothing but the Koran? Never mind: Abu-Lughod is here to tell us that “education for girls and Islam are not at odds.” Do men across the Muslim world exercise unconditional power over the women in their lives, forcing their daughters to marry and ordering the execution of their wives? Never mind: Abu-Lughod is here to assure us that “it is not so easy to talk about 'patriarchy' or to put one's finger on how power works.”

She draws our attention to a number of books with titles like A True Story of Life behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia; Sold: One Woman's True Account of Modern Slavery; My Forbidden Face; Without Mercy; Buried Alive; and Married by Force.  They tell true stories about veiling, forced marriage, and so on. Abu-Lughod is out to bury them. Think that their authors are acting out of compassion for oppressed Muslim women? Think again: Abu-Lughod is here to explain that these authors are “self-righteous,” “smugly superior” do-gooders who, by representing Muslim women as powerless, are being condescending, treating them “as mute garbage bags,” representing them as human pawns without “agency.” Far from having noble motives, these authors are just out to make a buck, to “accrue moral capital,” and to make a name for themselves as “beacon[s] of humanitarianism.” Forget the horrific stories these books tell about women's lives under Islam: Abu-Lughod mocks them all for following the same “script.” (Even Hirsi Ali's own life story, as told in her memoir Infidel, she charges, is “made to follow the script.”) The stories, Abu-Lughod charges, are “sordid,” “pornographic,” “sensational.” Well, yes, because the reality they describe is sordid, pornographic, and sensational; yet what appalls Abu-Lughod isn't the reality but these authors' determination to expose it.

In contrast to those “sensational” authors, Abu-Lughod wants us to see her – with her appreciation for the complexities of Muslim society, and her ability to recognize the ways in which Muslim women, while perhaps looking oppressed when viewed through Western eyes, are in fact highly empowered – as the one who's truly concerned about, and respectful for, Muslim women. She is, she assures us, too well informed “to be satisfied with sweeping generalizations about cultures, religions, or regions.” She is “more drawn to the detail and empathy of the novelist than to the bold strokes of the polemicist.”

Well, I can't argue with that: no question about it, this woman is in the business of fiction. Make the most straightforward statement of fact about Islam's oppression of women and she'll point out that Islam isn't the only religion that's “built on the premise that people do not fully control what happens to them.” As for secularism, what's so great about it? After all, it “has not brought women's freedom or equality in the West.” Besides, what do words like “freedom” and “oppression” really mean, anyway? Everyday life “is rarely a case of being free or oppressed, choosing or being forced.” And while we're at it, forget the idea of universal rights: “Can there be a liberation that is Islamic? Does the idea of liberation...capture the goals for which all women strive? Are emancipation, equality, and rights part of a universal language or just a particular dialect?” To drive the point home, Abu-Lughod tells us about her Palestinian aunt who's oppressed not by Islam but by – guess who? – Israel, and whose love for the Koran is the only thing that keeps her going. So there! In the lives of women like her aunt, “terms like oppression, choice, and freedom” are “blunt instruments for capturing the dynamics and quality of their lives.

What about honor killing? Abu-Lughod's criticism isn't directed at the practice itself but at “the unsavory politics of [the Western] conception of honor crimes,” which fails to appreciate the profound “moral code” of communities that pride themselves on their “commitment to honor.” Even to use the term “honor killing,” she says, is to stigmatize such communities while embracing “a comforting phantasm that empowers the West and those who identify with it.” She's drawn up a whole list of reasons why talking about honor crimes is a bad thing:

First, it simplifies morality and distorts the kinds of relations between men and women that exist in societies where honor is a central value. Second, defining honor crimes as a unique cultural form too neatly divides civilized from uncivilized societies, the West and the rest. Third, the obsession with honor crimes erases completely the modern state institutions and techniques of governance that are integral to both the incidence of violence and the category by which they are understood. Finally, thinking about honor crimes seems to be a sort of “antipolitics machine” that blinds us to the existence of social transformations and political conflict.

As consistently as she defends Islam, Abu-Lughod slams the West. Might learning about Islam help us to understand 9/11? Nonsense! Real understanding lies in a study of the history of Western colonialism and American imperialism. Also, why don't we Westerners grasp that women throwing off their burkas in Afghanistan would be like “wear[ing] shorts to the Metropolitan Opera”? Quoth Abu-Lughod: “If we think that U.S. women live in a world of choice regarding clothing, we might also remind ourselves of the expression, 'the tyranny of fashion.'” (Let's not forget that tragic story about the U.S. fashion police who wouldn't let girls flee a burning school because they weren't wearing Vera Wang.)

One way in which Abu-Lughod trivializes the oppression of Muslim women is by accusing Westerners of “trivializ[ing] gender issues in the United States and Europe.” It was Christians, not Muslims, she reminds us, who burned women as witches in colonial Salem. She even claims that frat-house gang-rapes are considered “acceptable” in the U.S. (Huh?) Why, she asks, haven't any of the would-be saviors of Muslim women “taken up the cause of oppressed Jewish women, or questioned proud proof of the continuity of Judaism that is pinned on genetic markers passed down from father to son among the priestly group known as Cohens?” (No, I have no idea what she's talking about either.)

This was a tough book to get through. I had to keep putting it down. The world-class dishonesty, the willingness to deny the real suffering of women and girls in order to prop up the poisonous religion that's responsible for that suffering – and to impugn the motives of noble people who do care – made me livid. Columbia University should be ashamed to employ this brazen propagandist; Harvard University Press should be disgusted with itself for publishing her repulsive book.

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