Do Muslim Women Need Saving?


In the era of post-9/11 politics, the contentious questions of identity, religion, and human rights center increasingly on the topics of the contested universal human rights framework, cultural relativism, and the role of Islam. The readings this week put the spotlight on women & their status during such a time, where their marginalization is either largely ignored or aligned with misconceptions about the root causes. Are women’s rights, humans rights? What issues do we run into when we attempt to understand such issues by our own rubric based on flawed definitions and constraining groupings?
It is often argued that religious extremism is the single biggest threat to global development. On the other hand, one might argue that corruption in politics, which roll into economics and education is the biggest threat to global development. A similar contrast is seen in “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving”, which questions whether the oppression of Muslim women is due to the role of Islam, rather than factors such as government structure, politics, and economics being more closely linked to the subjugation of women. Furthermore, what can be used as a catalyst to unite women across the globe to push the gender equality movement forward, without generalizing middle eastern women as the other? How are we the same? What process can we embark on to discover sameness across cultures, that appear to be worlds apart?

There were similarities throughout all three readings – written by strong, visible and committed women. Yes, women empowerment! While each author tackles similar issues, they each arrive at different conclusions for how to best tend to women’s rights issues in the middle eastern context given the political, economic & structural barriers that we face. The late Prime Minister, Bhutto, urges muslims to turn the mirror inward & address problems on their own home soil in order to get back to the true meaning of Islam, embrace religious tolerance, build a strong democracy & fight religious extremism. Former first lady, Laura Bush, in her famous address, focuses on women’s rights within the terrorism context. She holds that U.S. military efforts in the Middle East are necessary to liberate women because one of the main goals of religious extremist is to oppress women. It is on this note, that author Abu-Lughod [Do Muslim
Women Need Saving?] disagrees, largely due to framing and methods of delivery, employed to achieve liberation. She criticizes western discourse and certain uses of the images of Muslim women to gain support for the war in Iraq – holding that presenting Muslim women as needing to be saved is counter productive and cements stereotypes & prejudices.

The late Pakistanian prime minister, Bhutto, once said that “one billion Muslims around the world seemed united in their outrage at the war in Iraq … but that there is deadly silence when they are confronted with Muslim-on-Muslim violence.” Furthermore, she states that in many Muslim countries it is assumed that the Koran requires that women be wrapped head to foot in chadors. Actually, the key passage in the holy book merely states: “Say to the believing men that they cast down their looks and guard their private parts; that is purer for them. & to say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty.” “The passage does call for modest dress,” Bhutto concludes, “but for both sexes.” This is a very clever and progressive reading that achieves an equality between the sexes without denying the divinity of the text – which would be counterproductive & offend many.

Bhutto asks that Muslim societies learn to tolerate differences in faith & she does so by combining theological and practical writing techniques. One quote that stood out to me spoke to ways in which original interpretation can pave the way for religious tolerance. Bhutto says “It is my firm belief that until Muslims revert to the traditional interpretation of Islam — in which ‘you shall have your religion, and I shall have mine’ is respected and adhered to — the factional strife within Muslim countries will continue. Those who teach the killing of adherents of other sects or religions are damaging Muslim societies as well as threatening non-Muslim societies.”

Interestingly, similar to the argument in “The Claims of Culture”, Bhutto, rejects Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations argument. Most of her sentiments dissuade Muslims from seeing the world as one in which a clash of civilizations is necessary or inevitable.

She also attributes terrorism in Pakistan as a consequence of the country’s military dictatorship. This is a good point to reference Laura Bush’s speech on middle eastern women, terrorism & the U.S. approach. The first lady said the “brutal oppression of women” was one of the terrorists’ central goals. Her address was the first world-wide effort to focus on the brutality against women and children by the al-Qaida terrorist network. She states that “the poverty, poor health, and illiteracy that the terrorists and the Taliban have imposed on women in Afghanistan do not conform with the treatment of women in most of the Islamic world, where women make important contributions in their societies. Only the terrorists and the Taliban forbid education to women.” Furthermore, she believed that the fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women. However, opponents have asked the following question: Do critical efforts to help women secure the status of full citizens really need to be tied to U.S. militarism? I believe Bhutto would be in favor of U.S. efforts to ensure peaceful regime chance & the development of a sound democratic political structure. Clearly, her assassination shows that such efforts will be met with radical opposing forces.

In “Do Muslim women need saving”, Abu-Lughod offers critiques on the ways in which western women are categorized and portrayed as victims. Her focus is on the process and whether the means justify the ends. How do we achieve gender equality and maximize the probability of intended outcomes. Her overarching theme is that although there is no doubt that some women may need help, the manner in which the West looks upon these women and aims to ‘save’ them reduces the agency of the women to whom they claim to offer help. She starts by looking at America’s recent use of images of Afghan women in burqas in the campaign to build up support for the War in Afghanistan. She illustrates that the simple image of a woman, or rather a Muslim woman in a veil, coveys the Orientalist assumption of oppression and a need to be saved. This is remincent of Said’s “Orientalism” which speaks to the narrow framing western lens which limits effective analysis & understanding of the “other”. However, Abu-Lughod, postulates that in truth they only replicate unnecessary and damaging stereotypes.

Abu- Lughod has a lot of experience which she uses as examples to support her argument. She presents her experience with the ‘real’ women of Islam, and her knowledge that one woman’s problem is not the same as her neighbour’s, her country’s, or all Muslim women. Abu-Lughod introduces Islamic groups that explore women’s rights and is careful to remind the reader that she does not mean to discount the useful and positive work of activists, but rather highlight the considerations that must be made by anthropologists exploring rights and issues within the discourse. She is walking a very fine line here but presents her critiques in an eloquent and respectful manner while still driving home the point.

The author wants to get the point across that – it is not that these women are not oppressed, or do not see themselves as not being oppressed, but rather that they do not see it as being the fault of Islam as the West tends to assume. It is therefore not the question of ‘do women need saving’ but rather ‘do Muslim women need saving’ and the accompanying attitudes that Abu-Lughod draws attention to. Instead, she wants readers to look at these women as real people, and ask them what they think, want and hope for, rather than making assumptions on their behalf. This is an important theme that we’ve seen throughout course readings – giving marginalized voices a seat at table, doing research about historical accounts and breaking down preconceived misconceptions.

“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,” That Western alternative is usually identified with “human rights, liberal democracy, and modern beauty regimes” even though not all women seek this identical life” -Vlopp Why do western women assume that middle eastern women want to show more skin or are not content with the beauty standards within their respective countries? As an American women hoping to get into the music industry, I have reservations because I know I will be expected to wear minimal amounts of clothes to sell records – an American standard that an American is none too pleased with.

“Abu-Lughod asserts that the subjugated Muslim woman motif can be politically useful to Western states. She also feels that defining women’s rights as human rights assumes the presence of a liberal democracy and in fact acts as a “strategic diversion” for troubled social movements in the global North. Both of these applications leave out the geopolitical and historical realities that forcefully shape Muslim women’s lives” -Vlopp This sentiment brings to mind, even though unintentional, how framing and defining can lead to the marginalization of other factors not included in our definitions. How can we control for these biases in our research & teachings?

The question that I have after reading all three texts are: How many people would agree that gender equality is the most shocking and wide-spread human rights violation of our time? Also, can western women, who still experience the constraints of the glass ceiling effectively liberate or save Muslim women – who, are oppressed by their religion [for those who see it this way]? There are different levels of oppression and not all oppression looks the same. [The 5 Faces of Oppression: violence, exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, and cultural imperialism] What frameworks can we create to use as the blueprint for intervention? How can we move to redefining the marginalization of Muslim women in order to increase productivity for creating policies that are conducive and inclusive? Where do we start? How can the rhetoric and discourse produced by academics across disciplines help us unlearn counterproductive approaches & create new ways to define and understand the “other” culture without over generalizing?

On a final note, a very important book that I thought about while writing this reflection is a book by author Chandra Mohanty called “Under Western Eyes”. Mohanty criticizes homogeneous perspectives and presuppositions in some of the Western feminist texts that focus on women in the third world. She pinpoints the flaws in many western texts to draw attention to the codification of scholarly writings that discursively colonize and ghettoize non-Western, “Third World” women as the collective Other. She argues that the universal categorization of a large group of women in non-Western countries is mostly done through constructed monolithic terms and classifications. This approach is keen, she argues, to label women in the Third World countries as “poor, uneducated, tradition-bound, and victimized,”ioverlooking the extant complexity, diversity, and multiplicity of women in the non-Western world. Mohanty challenges the notions that over-categorize non-Western women without considering the class, ethnic, and racial contexts to which they belong to. She uncovers ethnocentric notions that not only ignore diversity among women belonging to a large geographical spectrum, grouping them with one universal identity—i.e. victims—but also lead to a constructed discourse often described as “dichotomous oppositional differences that invariably implies relationships of superiority and inferiority.” The over-generalization of women, Mohanty argues, damages the solidarity and unity among women, and also stratifies them into two opposite groups: Western women, who are universally liberated, enjoy equality, have control over their own bodies and sexuality, who are also superior, intelligent, and educated, vis-à-vis the group categorized as the “Third World women,” who are universally uneducated, victimized, sexually battered, and hence in need of some kind of salvation. This implicit categorization implies asymmetries of power that sets Western feminism as gatekeeper of knowledge through texts and language vis-à-vis the Third World women who are oppressed victims. Under the Western Eyes informs us that the factor that unites women as sisters in struggle is the sociological understanding of the “sameness” in withstanding oppression, regardless of class, culture, or geographical borders we belong to. In her commitment to feminist solidarity, Mohanty suggests that it is imperative to be mindful of the hegemony of the Western scholarly establishment when producing and disseminating texts that emphasize monolithic terms such as “Third World women.” Otherwise we give way to yet another form of discursive colonization that not only overlooks pluralism but also impedes the cause of women. Stating that overgeneralizing and “othering” third world women is a another form of colonization is striking & would definitely resonate with many Americans who have experienced similar accounts of oppression dating back to the founding.

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