Do Muslim Women Need Saving?
Harvard University Press, 2013, 336 pp., $30.25
How is it that even though we Americans know through repeated example that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, we cannot stop ourselves from interfering in the lives of others? Even when we know that the wise course is to do nothing, to just stand there, we Americans in particular (with our British and European cousins not far behind), frequently feel inadequate or immoral if we simply remain on the sidelines—especially so when it comes to dealing with people in distress who are in some manifest way unlike ourselves. When Charles Dickens described Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House as a “telescopic philanthropist”, he might as well have had the Peace Corps and USAID in mind, not to speak of their 19th-century Protestant missionary ancestors.
Perhaps it’s the background story we like to tell ourselves about ourselves that draws us, irresistibly, into action. If so, the story, were it ever to be articulated, might go something like this: Surely there must be some undeniable truths in the world, and our religions, our science, and our philosophy sustain the belief that such constants cannot escape rational notice. We may not agree on the exact content of universal human entitlements, but we know when certain limits have been crossed: when, for example, pornography becomes child abuse or birth control becomes infanticide and when women’s traditionally subordinate status becomes a license for mutilation, rape, and other forms of violence. We may disagree as to whether there is such a thing as natural law or only law naturalized, but we have a queasy feeling when one life is valued over another. We speak in terms of inherent human nature, time as directional, and the moral as “an arc of progress”, and we justify the particular by calling it universal. In the end, we hope to do the right thing even if, as Churchill said of us, we do so only after exhausting all the other possibilities.
All this might seem purely objective to those who presume the universal out of the particular, and indeed it usually does. But as one sets about filling in the specifics, things invariably fall into the murk of complexity—at which point our default mode is to seek solace and the restoration of simplicity in science. Monists and reductionists that we are, we are predisposed to accept science’s latest iteration of permanent truth—that DNA is destiny or that brain scans reveal our irrational zones. We do this now without embarrassment, just as we once thought that middle-class women who pilfered things suffered from “uterine insanity”, or that a woman who places her newborn on her tummy will securely bond with the child and experience no guilt in pursuing a career. Each new form of the scientifically credible can then be applied to political and economic issues, as in the appointments by David Cameron and Barack Obama of officials who rely on research in “neuro-economics” as the basis to “nudge” citizens to make the “right” choices on health care or organ donation.
Because our values appear self-evident, and our duty to weigh in on behalf of human rights so obvious, the assertion of such rights appears incontestable. It therefore surprises some thoroughly well-meaning people to learn that in 1947, notwithstanding the horrors of the recent war, the American Anthropological Association rejected the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, asking, “How can the proposed Declaration be applicable to all human beings and not be a statement of rights conceived only in terms of the values prevalent in the countries of Western Europe and America?” Perhaps they based themselves on Oscar Wilde’s remark, “Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.”
Intrusion in the name of compassion, as Gary Bass argues in Freedom’s Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention, has a long history of politically self-serving goals. But in more recent years, intrusion in the name of compassion has grown into a virtual industry, with foreign NGOs and indigenous groups alike promoting their agendas in the name of universal entitlements. And though one cannot deny the altruism that characterizes many of these efforts, it also cannot escape notice that, like the American religious missionaries of earlier times, if we can confirm our supposed universals through their acceptance by strangers, then our own niggling doubts may dissolve in the imagined acceptance of the proffered beliefs.
ll of these factors have come together in the post-9/11, post-7/7 era, when Westerners focused greater attention on the situation of women in the Muslim world. Indeed, these women became the test case for the proposition that some universal values not only do exist, but may rightly be the basis for our involvement in the affairs of others. When more than 90 percent of married women in Egypt, the Sudan, and the Gulf States have been circumcised as girls, and Afghanistan proposes to reinstitute stoning for adultery, isn’t some action by outsiders warranted? When unmarried mothers are denied government identity papers or travel documents, when child marriage is widespread in Yemen, and Pakistani girls are threatened with death for seeking an education or playing sports, are they not entitled to support from international organizations? Lila Abu-Lughod, an anthropologist with considerable fieldwork experience in the Arab world, takes up the matter in her new book Do Muslim Women Need Saving? Reading her accounts of women whose failure to wear an all-covering garment risks a public whipping, or whose sexual liaisons risk possible death, how, one may wonder, can she possibly think they do not need our help? Well, she does think that, and she’s right to do so.
Abu-Lughod may have been destined to be a contrarian, and a good one at that. Born in the United States and ever and only an American citizen, she is the daughter of the prominent and brilliant Palestinian academic Ibrahim Abu-Lughod and of Janet L. Abu-Lughod, née Lippman, a leading American urban sociologist. Her mother Jewish, her father Muslim, and her parents since divorced, one can only imagine the emotional temperature of the home she grew up in, and the likely encouragement she received to be a strong and independent person.
So it’s little surprise that the answer Abu-Lughod offers to the standard-issue Western meliorist is at once persuasive and frustrating. Factually, she suggests, the powers of Muslim women are considerably more complex than they may seem. She focuses on such examples as honor crimes and inheritance rights, but could as well have cited other instances. Thus in the years since Zia ul-Haq’s attempt to impose Islamic law in Pakistan the country has not experienced a single stoning or amputation, while “honor” killings are virtually unknown in the Muslim cultures of Southeast Asia and parts of North Africa. Similarly, a recent survey of the available literature shows that Muslim women win all or a significant part of their cases before Islamic family law courts 65–95 percent of the time. And as Abu-Lughod, among others, argues by use of many examples, women often actively pursue their interests rather than meekly surrender to male power.
So if some Westerners think that women in Muslim cultures are all shrinking violets, deferential and frightened victims of institutionalized misogyny, hopelessly cowed objects of men’s passive-aggressive antics, then that’s their problem. Unfortunately, their ignorance can become politically contagious. When, therefore, the city fathers of Herouxville, Quebec (which had no Muslims) outlawed the stoning of women in 2007 and Oklahoma voters forbade any use of Islamic law in their courts, it was clear that women were becoming the vehicle through which some generalized fear of terrorism was being channeled. And when Cherie Blair (whose half-sister is a headscarf-wearing Muslim convert) weighed in on the plight of Muslim women, and Laura Bush gave a national address emphasizing that the Taliban’s treatment of women justified military involvement in Afghanistan, we knew we were knee-deep in what Gayatri Spivak has called “gendered orientalism.”
But what standard can we use to determine when our involvement in matters concerning women in the Muslim world is truly appropriate? One possibility is to equate freedom with choice and to offer assistance whenever people are denied the opportunity to revise the options their society has presented them. Abu-Lughod, however, rejects this standard, arguing that its use only continues the erroneous view that Muslim women are always powerless victims. She describes women with whom she has worked who are forthright in asserting their rights without outsiders to tell them what their values ought to be. Moreover, she says, reliance on a doctrine of choice leads us to ignore the real problems, which are not about gender, but economic injustice and human uncertainty: “Wherever we turn in the world we find people caught in . . . binds [that] have to be factored into any discussion of what it means to freely choose. . . . In the end, we can never know what we are consenting to when we say yes.”
Here, as throughout her analysis, however, Abu-Lughod tends to work with a series of questionable dichotomies: She contrasts justice with choice, history with culture, and outside involvement with diminished power for Muslim women. She argues that foreign involvement forces Muslim women either to reject their own religion or to side with outsiders who simply view them as the victims of their menfolk. In conformity with her mildly Marxist approach (Marxoid might be the proper term), Abu-Lughod chastises the West for seeing its own citizens in terms of gender rather than economic inequality. But pointing out our own failings makes it seem as if two wrongs do indeed make a right. And when she admonishes Westerners for attributing problems in the Muslim world to Islam at large, she diminishes the power of her own examples by casting out the concept of culture as a shared set of orientations and categories altogether. Whatever else it may be, religion is a core element of culture.
Abu-Lughod’s specifically ethnographic examples often appear to be rather selective. She does not address some of the practices that particularly touch a nerve in the West, such as female genital cutting, widespread domestic violence, or the forced marriage of girls as young as eight. Although she sees the Muslim women she describes as having considerable freedom of action, one can as easily interpret their statements as the rationalizations of the powerless. How do we know that when a woman claims that she does not want to drive a car, or is asserting the sanctity of the home when she dresses in a full face veil in public, that her actions and her reasoning might not be quite different if she were not risking social or legal sanctions? And when Abu-Lughod sides with a number of other commentators to suggest that foreign aid often does more harm than good, she offers no guidance as to how to measure such harm, and therefore none by which to distinguish on which occasions outsiders should stand up or stand back.
ndoubtedly, no single litmus test can possibly tell us when external involvement is appropriate (much less required), but perhaps some signals deserve greater consideration than others. Many Muslims living in authoritarian regimes welcome the attention of outside organizations because, if foreigners can offer certain forms of assistance within their country, how can the regime deny its own citizens the right to press for reforms? And if the light of world attention is shown on an issue like voting rights or the acquisition of an independent passport, does this always fail to aid the local women who are themselves pressing for such change?
The Arabs have a saying: “He bent to kiss his son and poked him in the eye.” No doubt do-gooders from the outside may make matters worse, and no doubt intention alone does not forestall injury. Perhaps the best approach is for outside assistance to be offered to responsible locals with as few strings attached as possible. Choice may not be perfect and eyes will still get poked, but the result need not be either immobility or neo-colonialism. Pope John Paul II, in a document drafted by his successor, chastised anthropology for promoting utter relativism, but he failed, as Abu-Lughod does not, to distinguish between moral and methodological relativism, between all cultural practices being equally valid and withholding judgment long enough to understand the workings of another society.
In the end, as the Welsh saying goes, one must judge, and Abu-Lughod’s call for understanding the full complexity of Muslim women’s lives is an admirable exercise in recognizing women’s powers without denying the difficulties they may face. The offer of assistance to those who in some way are denied it, when coupled with deference to their control, may be as much as can be expected in a world of diverse understandings of where justice and harm actually lie.
The point is that the meliorist impulse, to do any good, must really be about “them” and not about salving the ego of the meliorist himself. To be about them, however, requires detailed cultural knowledge born from direct experience, and that takes a great deal of time and effort. If the righteously indignant among us are unwilling to make that investment, then Lila Abu-Lughod’s warning is indeed well aimed.