Lila abu-Lughod is one of my favourite anthropologists and scholars of Islam. She wrote an amazing article called “The Muslim Woman.” Here are some excerpts:
An administration – George W. Bush’s – then used the oppression of these Muslim women as part of the moral justification for the military invasion of Afghanistan. These images of veiled and oppressed women have been used to drum up support for intervention. Besides the untold horrors, dislocations, and violence these US interventions have brought to the lives of Muslim women in Afghanistan and Iraq, I would argue that the use of these images has also been bad for us, in the countries of the West where they circulate, because of the deadening effect they have on our capacity to appreciate the complexity and diversity of Muslim women’s lives – as human beings.
Another interesting point she makes is that these women often represent their countries:
in many of the images from the media, the veiled women stand in for the countries the articles are about. None of these articles in the New York Times Magazine, for example, was about Muslim women, or even Jordanian or Egyptian women. It would be as if magazines and newspapers in Syria or Malaysia were to put bikini clad women or Madonna on every cover of a magazine that featured an article about the United States or a European country.
It is common knowledge that the ultimate sign of the oppression of Afghani women under the Taliban-and-the- terrorists is that they were forced to wear the burqa. Liberals sometimes confess their surprise that even though Afghanistan has been liberated from the Taliban, women do not seem to be throwing off their burqas. Someone like me, who has worked in Muslim regions, asks why this is so surprising. Did we expect that once “free” from the Taliban they would go “back” to belly shirts and blue jeans, or dust off their Chanel suits?
This is similar to the surprise of European liberals when they realized that there are some Muslim women who want to wear the burqa. This surprise was not enough though: they assumed that it was husbands/fathers/Arab/Muslim communities socializing these “wants” into Muslim women. After all, who would ever choose to wear a burqa?
If we think that American women, even the non-religious, live in a world of choice regarding clothing, all we need to do is remind ourselves of the expression, “the tyranny of fashion”.
This is a controversial point, since many in the west believe they live in some kind of “free” society in which no one is pressured to do anything. Unfortunately, we all live under global capitalism, and it is screwing us all. Very few women in the world are not pressured to be a certain way, whether it is to wear a burqa or to get surgery for the “perfect” vagina.
An Islamist to America: “You are a nation that exploits women like consumer products or advertising tools, calling upon customers to purchase them. You use women to serve passengers, visitors, and strangers to increase your profit margins. You then rant that you support the liberation of women […] You are a nation that practices the trade of sex in all its forms, directly and indirectly. Giant corporations and establishments are established on this, under the name of art, entertainment, tourism, and freedom, and other deceptive names that you attribute to it.”
The danger of pity, and the western need to save Muslim women:
If one constructs some women as being in need of pity or saving, one implies that one not only wants to save them from something but wants to save them for something – a different kind of world and set of arrangements. What violences might be entailed in this transformation? And what presumptions are being made about the superiority of what you are saving them for? Projects to save other women, of whatever kind, depend on and reinforce Westerners’ sense of superiority. They also smack of a form of patronizing arrogance that, as an anthropologist who is sensitive to other ways of living, makes me feel uncomfortable.
Maybe we should consider being respectful of other routes towards social change. Is it impossible to ask whether there can be a liberation that is Islamic? This idea is being explored by many women, like those in Iran, who call themselves Islamic feminists. And beyond this, is liberation or freedom even a goal for which all women or people strive? Are emancipation, equality, and rights part of a universal language? Might other desires be more meaningful for different groups of people? Such as living in close families? Such as living in a godly way? Such as living without war or violence?
Choices for all of us are fashioned by discourses, social locations, geopolitical configurations, and unequal power into historically and locally specific ranges. Those for whom religious values are important certainly don’t see them as constraining – they see them as ideals for which to strive.
We may want justice for women but can we accept that there might be different ideas about justice and that different women might want, or choose, different futures from what we envision as best? And that the choices they see before them are in fact a product of some situations we have helped foist on them? My conclusion is that if we do care about the situations of women different from white middle class Western women, we would do well to leave behind veils and vocations of saving others and instead train our sights on ways to make the world a more just place.
She proposes what western women (and men) can do:
It seems to me that if we are concerned about women, including Muslim women, maybe we can work at home to make US and European policies more humane.