Monday,23 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1274, (10 - 16 December 2015)
Monday,23 July, 2018
Issue 1274, (10 - 16 December 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Do Muslim women need saving?

Religion, gender — and AUC: Nourhan Tewfik interviews Lila Abu-Lughod

Al-Ahram Weekly

The American University in Cairo recently hosted Lila Abu-Lughod, a professor of Anthropology and Women’s and Gender Studies at Columbia University. She delivered two lectures, the first titled ‘Saving Muslim Women’ on 28 October, and the Edward Said Memorial Lecture titled ‘A Settler-colonialism of her own: Imagining Palestine’s alternatives’ on 30 October.

Abu-Lughod is a prominent and politically committed anthropologist with long-term ethnographic research in Egypt. She is the author of four major books and many edited volumes. Her books based on research in Egypt include Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society (University of California Press 1986/2000); Writing Women’s Worlds: Bedouin Stories (University of California Press 1993) which received Victor Turner Prize for Ethnographic Writing; Dramas of Nationhood: The Politics of Television in Egypt (University of Chicago Press 2005) which received the AES Senior Book Prize; and her latest, Do Muslim Women Need Saving? (Harvard University Press 2013). Her best known edited books are Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East (Princeton University Press 1998) and Nakba: Palestine, 1948, and the Claims of Memory co-edited with Ahmad H. Sa’di, (Columbia University Press 2007).

During the first lecture, Dr. Abu-Lughod discussed her most recent book Do Muslim Women Need Saving? (Harvard University Press 2013) examining how the book has been received amongst readers, and reviewing what she described as their polarised responses.  

The book, as Abu-Lughod explains, was a response to a certain assault she felt keenly just before the 2001 US and Allied invasion of Afghanistan, when as an “anthropologist with deep commitments to ethnography in local communities,” Abu-Lughod found her subjects, or ones like them, “caricatured and catapulted to the center of popular media attention in the service of liberal and imperial interventions”. At this juncture, Abu-Lughod witnessed the deployment of a story about “saving” Afghan women as a justification for military intervention. She noticed that “the Afghan woman became linked to every Muslim woman.”

Whereas Abu-Lughod’s previous books had targeted an academic public, she wanted her new book to be “an intervention into broader public debates on women’s rights, human rights, and the politics of Islam and Islamism in the context of the ‘War on Terror’’.

As such, Abu-Lughod, who has done decades of ethnographic field work in communities in rural Egypt, including the Awlad ‘Ali on the northwest coast and a village in the Sa’id, tried to use in her book what she had learned from such experiences to “present alternatives to media production of the homogenised ‘Muslim woman’”.

She says she hoped to challenge the western common sense by making two key points: First, “that political events and injustices may be more serious sources of women’s suffering than ‘religion’ or ‘culture,’ or ‘patriarchy’.” And secondly, that women’s faith as Muslims “might actually be a comfort”.

Abu-Lughod proceeded to reflect on the polarised responses her book has received so far, beginning with what she said was “near-silence from what I saw as my target public of the U.S. liberal mainstream.” She then talked about “the outrage expressed by one distinct counter-public of which I had been barely aware, balanced by touching personal affirmation from another marginalised counter-public.”

The near silence from “the liberal public sphere in the U.S.” manifested itself through disappointingly few book reviews or discussions within mainstream publications. It was a silence that Abu-Lughod suggested might have resulted from her critique of the discourse of “saving women” as well as from her clear account of “the devastating effects of American foreign policy in the Middle East, the Muslim world, and Palestine.”

But besides this ‘silence’ in the liberal public sphere, there were, as Abu-Lughod asserted, two counter publics who reacted immediately to the book in the blog sphere: one public applauded the book “for confronting stereotypes” and another condemned the book for propagating lies. These responses were very personal and emotional in their tone. For Abu-Lughod, this simply exposed the political stakes of her undertaking of what she called public ethnography.

If the embrace of her arguments by North American Muslim feminists showed just how misunderstood they often feel, the audience at AUC was more shocked to hear about the second counter public, comprised of U.S. based right-wing Islamophobic magazines and blogs. These reviewers accused Abu-Lughod of lying, “drawing a veil over the truth” and practicing “stealth jihad” because she argued that Muslim women do not need saving from their “poisonous” religion. These charges, as Abu-Lughod explained, are the standard stuff of an extremist Islamophobic worldview.

She went on to show a connection between an allegedly feminist “Islam-slandering” and Zionism by reading from a blog-post about the 2014 National Women’s Studies Association Meetings, which were to include a panel in which the question of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) would be discussed. [The NWSA did eventually vote for BDS just last week at its 2015 annual meeting]. The blog post claimed that this discussion of BDS was only one example of how Women’s Studies had in recent years been “Stalinised and Palestinianised…hijacked by activists to attack Israel.”

The critique leveled against one of the plenary speakers, Islah Jad, professor of women’s studies at Birzeit University, was that her feminist scholarship included no mention of the “honor killings, honor related violence, forced marriage, forced face veiling, polygamy, arranged marriage, feminist development under an Islamist totalitarian and apartheid regime—all burning issues on the West Bank and in Gaza.”

Abu-Lughod proposed that these “clichéd obsessions” reveal how this supposed concern for Muslim women’s rights by these right-wing Europeans and Americans tries to “divert attention from the truly ‘burning’ political realities for Palestinian women—the way their lives, loves, and livelihoods are threatened by Israeli state violence.”  

Abu-Lughod’s book tries to problematise reductionist arguments. She explained that she had tried to show through the intimate stories of particular women in Egypt how impossible it is “to disentangle individual women’s problems, even personal and familial, from the global economic policies that impoverish them, the national policies that render their families vulnerable, the class politics that deprive them of dignity, and the military interventions that undermine their security”.

What was particularly interesting about Abu-Lughod’s lecture, though, was her discussion of some Arab and Muslim feminists’ stance on her book. She insists that Islam or patriarchy aren’t sufficient explanations of women’s suffering in our region. They worry instead that she may be undermining internal feminist critics, not just the outside crusaders who claim to want to “save” women. She confessed that she does take their concerns seriously but that because she is based in the U.S. she cannot help seeing most clearly, and worrying most about, the dangers of political intervention carried out in the name of women’s rights.   

Al-Ahram Weekly met with Abu-Lughod during her recent visit to Cairo and conducted the following interview with her.


I was trying to find contemporary examples that we could apply your recent AUC talk to, and I could not think of a more perfect example than Malala Yousafzai, and the west’s obsession with translating her into something readable. In what way does the case of saving Malala relate to your talk?

I think it relates very closely. I had finished my book before Malala came along but I watched as things quickly crystallised around her as the poor Muslim girl who is subject to fundamentalist Muslim misogyny. She became the radiant symbol of education and empowerment once she’d escaped from her Muslim society. But what is so interesting about Malala is that she often says very different things than those who celebrate her want to hear. When Malala was made a heroine, it was made to seem for those who knew little about Pakistan, as if the whole of Pakistan, aside from herself and her father, consists of Taliban. It was made to seem that the whole society is against girls’ education. Malala makes everyone in the West feel good because they see in her a lone beacon standing for what they believe in: the secular education of girls. They somehow fail to notice that she, like the majority of girls in Pakistan, have schools to go to. Access by girls and boys may be uneven, hampered by poverty and recently by insecurity in rural areas, and it may be of differing qualities—like everywhere. In urban areas, certainly your social class makes a big difference to access and quality. But most girls expect to go to school and the large numbers of professional women who are lawyers, doctors, professors, and politicians are evidence that this is not a country that has not supported education for women—until Malala came along. State mass education has long existed.

 But I also find it telling that Malala says things in her speeches that rarely get picked up in the coverage. How often do the headlines refer to what she says about drones? When she met president Obama, that is what she talked about. She begged him not to send drones to Pakistan because they were so devastating. She also talks about the violence that the security state is inflicting on the population. You can see that she has much broader concerns than girls’ education, as do most people from Pakistan. She knows the complicated terrain in her country, in which the Taliban cell is considered extreme. She knows the wider impact of the “war on terror”. But what makes her such a good example of what I wrote about in my book regarding saving Afghan women is that what gets amplified is only one part of Malala’s message: the part that makes Westerners feel innocent of the violence occurring in that part of the world, and makes them feel good about championing Muslim girls against bad Muslim men.  

I’m not the only one to point out the ironies of the ways governments and NGOs are trying to save women and girls (while destroying them and their families through military or economic violence). I have brilliant graduate students at Columbia who have taught me much, both about the “Malala Effect” and about the wider corporate-funded “Girl Effect” campaigns that have become ubiquitous. Rania K. Sweis, an anthropologist who worked in Egypt and wrote her dissertation at Stanford University brings these issues closer to home here. In a wonderful article titled ‘Saving Egypt’s Village Girls’, she has analysed the dynamics of one NGO whose work is sponsored by the Nike Foundation. The mission is to empower village girls in rural Egypt by bringing them physical education and getting them out of the house. Sweis asks whether ‘saving’ these village girls from their communities and what they seem to want—marriage—through sports and feeling good about their bodies isn’t, among other things, patronising? Doesn’t it devalue the kinds of relationships and aspirations they have?  

If we were to look comparatively at the war on Iraq and Afghanistan which you’ve written about in the context of saving the Muslim woman, and turn now to present day Syria and Yemen, how similar or different would this whole discourse of ‘saving’ be?

I’m not an expert on Iraq but Professors Nadja Al-Ali and Nicola Pratt, both scholars based in the UK who have written about Egypt, have written a sobering book about Iraq with a title that says it all: What Kind of Liberation? They wrote about the way the U.S. justified occupation by arguing for women’s rights. The irony is that women in Iraq had the highest level of labor force participation and education in the Arab world before the invasion. They point out the gap between rhetoric that puts women at the center and the present realities. Women have diminishing roles in the “new Iraq”. The impact of the violence and insecurity on their everyday lives is substantial, including forcing them into seclusion. They argue that it is sectarianism and war, not Islam or patriarchal cultures that are to blame for the challenges Iraqi women are facing now. I would point out that the U.S., Britain and others are not innocent here either; they bear a huge responsibility for producing this dire situation for women.   

Similarly, we are now hearing a lot about ISIS now and the dangers they pose to women. There is publicity about enslaved Christian or non-Sunni women and there’s even talk about a “rape theology.” We must never ignore hideous violence or stand silent about abuses of women. But I think we have to be careful not to let the sensational reportage about this group cloud our analysis of the regional situation in which they are acting. As I showed in my lecture, there has been a lot of cynical use of gender politics in international conflicts. Our job as thoughtful people who want to understand these conflicts in our region—in the hopes of resolving them--is instead to study the tangled histories that have led to these situations. And to recognize the complex dynamics of the ways women are used in conflicts.  

The most unhelpful approach is to blame religion. That’s what so much talk about ISIS does, in part because of their own rhetoric. Most Muslims do not recognise what ISIL does or says as moral or religious, whether its treatment of women or its means of political power grabs. To my mind, what links what is happening in Yemen or Syria to the kinds of things I wrote about in my book is that I don’t think enough attention is being paid to the severe danger women face in any situation of war when groups of armed men are given free reign do terrible things.  Bombing, we must remember too, hurts mostly the innocent. So how can that be a solution?

One thing I learned from Janet Halley, a colleague at Harvard Law School, is that in our zeal to criminalise sexual violence against women, as happened in the international community after what happened in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, we might be forgetting something about the bigger picture. Are the lives of those killed in war of lesser value? For me the human consequences of war are just unbearable.  

You’ve done over 30 years of ethnographic research in rural Egypt, and I was wondering if throughout the past four years and the unfolding of the ‘Arab Spring’, you could see any changes in the region’s gender politics?

To say anything meaningful about the past 30 years or even the past four is impossible. I did write an article, though, about the way the revolution in Egypt was experienced in one village that I’ve worked in for the last twenty years. The months after January 25 were, without doubt, a wonderful moment for youth in rural Egypt. There was an opening. As one young man described it to me: “There was a Tahrir in every village.” They had grown up thinking there was no hope, no decent futures to look forward to, no employment, no equality. There was nothing but government corruption. These youth suddenly felt there was an opening. I was amazed at the way they seized it. They worked locally. They organised themselves into Shabab Al-Kheir of this village, as they called themselves. At the beginning they guarded the village and they also protected Coptic village next to them when the prisons collapsed and the criminals escaped. Then, they looked around to see how they could help. They saw there were a butagas shortage and a crisis because there was no regular bread distribution and no garbage collection. They proceeded to work on providing these vital services. They also knew that because of the disastrous defunding of education in Egypt over the neoliberal era, kids weren’t learning to read at school. So they started to tutor the kids by organising free classes. They felt that this was a moment when they could actually do something. There were girls among the Shabab Al-Kheir in this village. Their participation in this local community work was a reflection that girls are just as involved as boys are in politics these days. Girls too were thinking about their dead-end worlds and the struggles of their families.

I also wrote about how the revolution was lived in this one village. I was struck by the pious language these youths used to talk about their work. They used a moral and religious language that called on God to help them find the right path to do good for their community to make a better future. So it was different from some of the languages one heard in Tahrir or in the media. This is a perfect illustration of what the character of the “Arab spring” was. There were lots of different groups with different reasons to want change. They may have had different sets of understandings of the world but they participated together in that moment—sadly too brief—to try to change their worlds.  

What happened across the Arab world was heartening, whatever the consequences, which are still unfolding. That people joined in and tried to change their worlds, that they took hold of their own situations and worked with whatever resources they had, shows how much needs to be done. What I saw in that rural village in Egypt suggests how much was happening all over the country. There is no single solution to the dire problems people face. Their struggles to create better lives and livelihoods will be ongoing for decades.  

The gendered impact of the Arab Spring is very complicated, in part because of the crackdowns that have followed, and the turmoil. Fortunately, there are many feminist scholars who have written on different dimensions of this problem. I mentioned a Columbia graduate student who has analysed the symbolic work that Malala does in the western public sphere. Her article is coming out this month in the forum I edited on “The Politics of Feminist Politics” that also contains a great analysis by Professor Frances Hasso of Duke University of the gender politics of the Egyptian revolution as well as two really smart articles on feminism and women and the ‘Arab Spring’ in Morocco. The journal, in case anyone is interested, is Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

Many are speaking now of a third Intifada unfolding in Palestine. Your second lecture at AUC was on Palestine. I’m wondering what you think the prospects of reaching any kind of peace solution are given the continued colonisation of Palestine and the death of the two-state solution?

I don’t know what difference it makes to call this a third intifada or not. The point is that the situation is terrible right now for Palestinians. They always resist the humiliations, restrictions, harassment, and violence they are subjected to, whether in Jerusalem, Hebron, or other parts of the occupied territories, but this latest escalation is a sign of a growing desperation. They see no moves to redress the general situation. They see no signs that the Israelis are going to let up on the violence towards them, whether the so-called “extremist settlers” or the rest of the Israeli state.

I don’t think we should be distracted by the ups and downs of this incident or that, this “negotiation” or that. We have to look beyond and behind the bombing and sieges, the walls and checkpoints, the shootings and stabbings, and even Hamas, Fatah, and Likkud. The endless talk about one-state or two-state solutions seems misplaced. Let’s be honest. There’s never been any desire to reach a solution on the part of the Israelis. They want the Palestinians to disappear. And give up.

That is what we need to come to grips with. My lecture in honor of Edward Said at AUC was about what it means to be a settler-colonial state bent on the removal of a whole people. I tried to imagine, just to shake things up, what would happen if Israel ever came to reckon with its past, as Australia and Canada have begun to.

What I see happening right now is that Palestinians are again refusing and resisting the grim situation they are in. I don’t know if that is going to lead to any fundamental changes unless we can seize the opportunity of these latest incidents to get the world to try to understand what is behind the violence. No one seems to want to look at the historical roots. But how else can we explain what is going on?  

My lecture was about the basic fact that Palestinians are up against a formidable settler colonialism that is unique. They have to address rival claims to being “prior” on that land, based on biblical references and made by a people who were themselves victims of genocidal violence in Europe. This settler regime is underwritten by the might and wealth of the U.S. and treated with kid gloves by Europe, despite documented war crimes and constant violations of human rights.

 So the challenge we face is how to sow seeds of doubt about the way Israel spins the story of what’s happening and who is to blame. If Israel treats Palestinians as aliens and terrorists, the Jewish ingathering providing the alibi for their dispossession, then we need to keep finding ways to show why it is that the Palestinians whose homes and land this was before 1948 are perfectly justified in resisting.  

Despite the awful situation on the ground, I feel encouraged by a growing global awareness that settler-colonialism’s devastation of native peoples was not only unjust but immoral. The primary struggle for Palestinians is also a moral one. Our aim must be to get the world, including Israelis, to recognise that the foundation and structure of the Israeli state wronged a people. Enormous force and violence is needed to maintain this situation, creating misery for all involved. Unless we have a full acknowledgment of the founding settler violences of Zionism that have determined Palestinians’ destinies, we can’t even begin to work toward any kind of resolution. What might come with this acknowledgment —from apology to restitution to reparations to new forms of self-determination as yet unimagined—remain to be worked out by those involved.

Somebody asked me after my lecture about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS) and whether I thought it was effective. I think it is ethical. It is also a way for those of us outside to put pressure and publicise Israeli brutalisation. It is effective because it is one way we can get people to stop and ask themselves why are so many calling for it? The point, for me, is that it educates people.  

We had an amazing example of the effectiveness of a call for BDS in getting thoughtful people to study the situation and to come to understand the basic truths. At the American Anthropological Association, the academic association of my discipline, we started discussing the possibility of academic boycott a couple of years ago. The organisation responded to the call by anthropologists who had done research in Israel/Palestine and many others concerned with Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights by creating a task force to look into the situation and make recommendations. Many of us were surprised that the Israel/Palestine Task Force did not include any experts—any anthropologists who had worked in the Middle East or Israel/Palestine. It seemed the association wanted the task force to be neutral. They interviewed their colleagues. They read the literature. They took a fact-finding trip to Israel/Palestine. They listened, they heard and they saw.

When the Task Force report came out, I have to say that I cried. You could see that what our colleagues saw and heard is what any of us who know the hell Palestinians are living have also seen. The report was fair. The analysis was sharp. You could see how the comparative perspective anthropologists have, and their knowledge of colonialism shaped the report. The rest of the membership now has an opportunity to learn. We have voted overwhelmingly to put the call for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions to a full vote of the association. As a scholar, of course I believe that teaching people to understand the world is important. BDS does that. Then we can act ethically to change the world.

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