In this blog, I will particularly look at some of the core arguments from Lila Abu-Lughod’s book, Do Muslim Women Need Saving?
I will offer a systematic overview of the book and point out its strengths and weaknesses. In my view, Abu-Lughod effectively discusses some of the problems with Western universality and our conception of human rights, namely our certainty.
Together with Abu-Lughod, I will argue that in order to come up with effective solutions to some of the problems Muslim women face, we must first portray them in an honest way that is based in reality. Only then can we start to see things clearly.
In the West, many view Islam through a distorted lense. We assume, for example, that our sense of justice, fairness, and equality are naturally superior due to our legal courts and justice system.
Abu-Lughod challenges this notion and confronts the argument that Muslim women are necessarily worse off than women in the West. She points out, for example, that the “modest Islamic dress” that many educated Muslim women wear today can also be a sign of “educated urban sophistication” and not simply of religious piety or oppression. In the West, it is naturally assumed that certain Islamic traditions are marked by “women’s unfreedom.”
The question that follows then is why are so many adamantly striving for “saving Muslim women”? I will analyze this question and Abu-Lughod’s answer to it below.
What Drives the Western Need to Save Muslim Women?
1. Moral Intuitions
Abu-Lughod argues that the Western need to save Muslim women can in large part be credited to our moral intuitions about these issues. Muslim women are often portrayed in a “graphic” and even “pornographic” way.
This presents a false narrative, however. It assumes that those in the West are somehow free or that women in the West do not suffer in a similar way.
Closely connected to the problem with the Western need to save Muslim women is the widely-accepted application of “universal human rights.” In fact, some theorists argue that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is patriarchal and overwhelmingly exclusive to women. They stress that the UDHR does not see women as fully “human.” One of the reasons why women are left out of any consideration by the UDHR is because many viewed women’s oppression as “natural” rather than “political.”
Another way that universal human rights are applied is by assuming a moral realist position in society.
2. Moral Realism
Moral realism argues that if we are to have universal human rights, we need to be able to answer moral questions with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer rather than the ambiguous ‘maybe’ or ‘depends.’
The task of society, then, is to reform laws so that “human flourishing” may become prevalent. The moral realist argues that the best way to do this is to create an “international regime of governance.”
This was done by establishing bureaucracies that enforced legal and moral universality and certainty. As Abu-Lughod argues, universality is by its very nature “neutral,” rather than particular, “geographic” rather than local, and binding rather than situated.
When thinking about universal human rights, we assume that those who would disagree are disagreeing because of their inability to reason properly about important moral and political issues. The reality is that the universality of these international documents is largely “imagined” and “idealized.” As I argued above, this universality has more to do with the historical portrayal of Muslim women rather than reality.
Are ex-Muslim Biographical Accounts Fanciful?
This imagined narrative is most poignantly explored by Dohra Ahmad who called the memoirs of ex-Muslims, or Muslims who have escaped from Islamic nations, “pulp nonfiction.”
Abu-Lughod similarly calls their accounts an escape from “IslamLand,” created for publicity rather than true solidarity. Other scholars call this representation of Muslim women “gendered Orientalism.” One notable example Abu-Lughod criticizes is Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s work. Abu-Lughod dismisses it as “sexualized” violence.
The reason for this is because Hirsi Ali’s accounts are supposedly based on fanciful events, putting into question whether they can be called non-fiction in the first place. An important question, however, is whether these portrayals of violence from these Oriental memoirs, are in any way conducive toward helping women in Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and elsewhere? In the words of Abu-Lughod, these portrayals may simply feed “liberal attachment” to Western moral sensibilities.
Many of the depictions of women from them are not depicting cases of Muslim violence specifically, but rather the violence of pedophiles, abusers, and perhaps even psychopaths. Needless to say, these men are all-too-prevalent in Western society as well. Therefore, writers like Hirsi Ali portray a picture of Muslim societies that is not entirely accurate.
Due to their portrayal of honor crimes, for example, many in the West deem Muslim communities as “violent” and dangerous in contrast to Western societies. This results in an ambivalence to the suffering of immigrants from the Middle East. There are other problems as well, however.
Abu-Lughod discusses four different ramifications of the West’s depiction of honor crimes:
- they simplify moral issues,
- they conveniently divide society as “uncivilized” and “civilized,”
- they oversimplify and misunderstand the place legal institutions have in the Middle East, and lastly
- they make us blind to the role political conflict has on society and its citizens.
Muslim communities are thus “regularly” depicted as “backward” and “prone to violence.” This is a misconception, however; in fact, “values of honor” are not restricted to Muslim communities, writes Abu-Lughod, nor are they “condoned in Islamic law or by religious authorities.”
To reiterate, the West depicts honor crimes as cultural differences and “tradition.” In reality, instances of honor crimes have more to do with specific circumstances and politics rather than religion or culture. This misconception may be the primary reason Western countries are ambivalent to Islamic values.
Muslim’s Women Rights
Next, Abu-Lughod discusses Muslim’s women rights. Notably, the term “Muslim’s women rights” is a vast term, encompassing women from across numerous continents and cultures.
For our purposes here, this generalization may suffice.
In many of these countries, there has been resistance against sexist laws in place. This includes the organization, The Global Campaign to Stop Killing and Stoning Women which focuses on women globally.
Organizations such as Women Living under Muslim Laws (WLUML) focus on promoting research, funding, and conferences that raise awareness for Muslim’s women rights.
Abu-Lughod argues that there are better ways to help Muslim women, however. She argues that we ought to first look and listen. Secondly, we have to analyze events from a much larger picture.
Oftentimes, issues are multifaceted and require an analysis of politics, history, religion, and sociological data. Lastly, Abu-Lughod argues that the middle-class, and possibly other groups, should take moral responsibility.
The Overlap Between Religion & Politics
I have been discussing religion throughout this blog post, yet I have not touched on the large overlap between religion and politics in Abu-Lughod’s work. There is one particular point I would like to pay attention to, namely Abu-Lughod’s criticism of the West’s theological and political understanding of Muslim women.
In particular, Abu-Lughod challenges some of the core problems with universality, namely its certainty and institutionalization in the form of ineffective bureaucracies, but also with its narratives of injustice internationally. Religion has historically relied on universality because certainty in epistemological questions about morality and the nature of the universe is appealing to the masses.
In a similar way, the West’s certainty with classifying Muslim women in need of saving, results in needless violence and polarization. This is the crux of Abu-Lughod’s message in her book and it is an important one.
This blog post is a part of my brief series on political philosophy! I cover thinkers from Locke and Rousseau to Marx, Hegel, and even Bernie Sanders. You can check out some previous posts here if you are interested:
Modernity: Universality and Rationality in Religion and Politics
Modernity is best described as the quest to control epistemic and existential uncertainty with more empirical modes of…
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