The problems of Muslim women stem from capitalism not religion, finds Jacqueline Mulhallen, reviewing Do Muslim Women Need Saving?

Lila Abu-Lughod, Do Muslim Women Need Saving? (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2013)

I think the answer to the question posed in the title is ‘No’. Or, at least not any more than any other women of faith or of none. As Zaynab says, quoted in the introduction to the book, ‘Many women are oppressed’ (p.1). But is it because of their faith? The research carried out by Lila Abu-Lughod indicates that there are other factors which oppress Muslim women, and these they have in common with women, and men too, all over the world. Poverty, illness, war, inequality, unemployment, corrupt governments and their agencies, just to name a few. Why is it that the perception in Europe, America and Australia and other developed capitalist countries known as ‘the West’ is that Muslim women are particularly oppressed, and so much so that a war in Afghanistan in 2001 can be partly justified as a mission to save Afghan women from the Taliban?

Lila Abu-Lughod is an anthropologist who, by 2001, had already spent twenty years writing about the lives of women in various communities in Egypt including two years in a Bedouin community. She had closely recorded women’s ‘dreams, desires, anger and disappointment’ (pp.4-5). She therefore has made close friendships with women of the kind, as she points out, that women’s rights groups are supposedly targeting, but who in fact are never touched by them. However, these women know all about women’s rights and eagerly told her so. They laugh at the idea that it may be Islam which oppresses them. They have other ideas.

In 2001 Abu-Lughod was asked by an American programme to provide background for a panel discussion following Laura Bush’s address on Women and Islam. She agreed to do so, while objecting that when wars occurred in Guatemala, Bosnia, Ireland or Palestine these kinds of discussions had never taken place. But she found that the questions to be asked were too hopelessly general to be of any use: “Do Muslim women believe X? Are Muslim women Y?” This was a major reason why she wished to research this book.

Afghanistan, the war and the veil

One of the symbols most frequently pointed to by ‘Western’ women is the burqa, the veil which covers a woman’s head and shoulders and allows no more of the face to be seen than the eyes. It is usually seen as confirmation that Islam oppresses women, although by no means all Muslim women wear it, and the belief is that it is worn to keep women subservient; they would not wear it if they had a choice. Yet many well-educated women working in hospitals and libraries, for example, wear it. The author explains the historical and cultural background of the garment: it was one of the local forms of covering that Pashtun women wore when they went out, which was seen as liberating as women could move out of segregated living spaces with modesty and protection from harassment by strangers (pp. 35-6). It is also now seen as a ‘part of a new Islamic modernity’ (p.39).

Other cultural dress, such as the sari, is not only acceptable but in the twentieth century was eagerly adopted by ‘Western’ women and it is usually accepted that Muslim women wearing the hijab are no more oppressed by their religion than Muslim men with a beard or a Sikh man with a turban. A Muslim woman wearing a burqa from religious conviction is being denied her human rights by any government which tries to prevent her from doing so.

The author is unsympathetic to the Taliban’s dogmatism and does not support the oppression of women, but nevertheless became worried when she received a petition signed by Hollywood celebrities demanding that women were defended from the Taliban. She had received none demanding, for example, that Palestinian women should be defended from the harassment of the Israeli government. She supports the ‘enormously important’ work of the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan, the most radical feminists working for a democratic Afghanistan (RAWA) who were welcomed to the United States. She points out, however, that many of their achievements were not heard, such as their putting a stop to a secret oil pipeline deal between the Taliban and a US multinational, their opposition to US bombings from the beginning, and their call for disarmament (pp.41-2, 50).

In Afghanistan, women need to free themselves from the structural violence of global inequality and the ravages of war, and the only way of doing this would be a ‘radical redistribution of wealth’ (p.42). If Afghan women were to free themselves from the Taliban they might still want different things from what Western women want. Most women activists in Afghanistan ‘who are aware of the realities’ agreed at a 2001 Bonn peace conference that ‘Islam had to be the starting point for reform’ (p.44). Women looked to Iran for inspiration, where they saw women making significant gains within an Islamic framework, through an Islamic feminist movement.

These women do not accept that being feminist means being Western and believe that Western women should be respectful of other paths to social change. Living in a close family, in a godly way, without war, might be more valued than any idea of ‘liberty’ or ‘freedom’. Women in Egypt interviewed by the author, from poor peasants to sophisticated university educated women, do not envy American women whom they see as ‘cut off from family, vulnerable to sexual violence and driven by selfishness’. For ‘Western’ feminists to talk about ‘saving’ Muslim women is to presume that the culture she is being ‘saved to’ is better, and this is no less patronising than the attitude of nineteenth-century Christian missionaries, even if the modern ‘mission’ is not so much saving women to Jesus as it is to the beauty industry; a ‘beauty parlour’ has recently been opened in Kabul (pp.44-8).

The author feels that rather than attempt to change what women are wearing, ‘we should train our sights on making the world a more just place’, one not organised around strategic military and economic demands. Rural households are in debt, communities stripped of autonomy, distant from the government and legal systems. This is what causes a situation in which women are given to military commanders and drug traffickers to settle debts: this is not the traditional culture but a result of the present circumstances. These are linked to the global economy and the War on Terror (pp.49, 52,53).

Global women’s rights

Many books purporting to discuss Muslim women and proposing a campaign such as the one against the slave trade and slavery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries appear to give the moral high ground to the ‘West’ and believe that women can be liberated by Western example or intervention. Yet, 150 years after slavery was abolished in the USA, African Americans still do not have equality, as the author says. I would add that, in any case, it was slaves in England who began the campaign for abolition by their bold escapes and appeals to the people of England. Abu-Lughod points out that the comparison is faulty since women and girls everywhere are entangled with men and boys through complex relationships such as kinship and love. Furthermore, these books, such as Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn and The Honor Code by Kwame Anthony Appiah, appear to believe there are no problems for women outside Africa, Asia and the Middle East or immigrant communities in the ‘West’.

Abu-Lughod mentions statistics showing the high US maternity mortality rates, the US Justice Department’s survey showing that one in every six American women is raped, and the scales of domestic violence and murder (p.63). Appiah believes that footbinding in China was ended by Western influence, but the research of Dorothy Ko shows that there were many other reasons and that in many places it did not end until the Communist Revolution, when other discriminatory practices towards women were also ended because of the influence of the ideas of Marx and Engels. Once again, in praising the ‘West’ the role of its governments and economies is ignored. In the author’s opinion, books such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel present a fascinating picture of a fantasy ‘IslamLand’ (p.69). There is no ‘Islamland’ just as there is no ‘Muslim woman’.

Islam is a religion which has spread to many countries and therefore it is not the same in every society. People are fighting women’s rights issues in many of these countries: in Bangladesh women mobilised over a rape case, in Malaysia they are challenging conservative interpretations of Sharia law. ‘Muslim women have been addressing gender issues for more than a century in e.g. Egypt, Syria, Bangladesh (p.16). Campaigns to get groups of American students to visit Africa or Asia appear to help the Americans more than the Africans and Asians (pp.67-8).

Abu-Lughod tells the stories of Egyptian women she knows. Her friend Amal brought up five children, looked after animals, cleaned, cooked, washed clothes. Her friend Zaynab has had a difficult life too and her family now runs a café which can be closed down at any moment if she does not give special privileges to the police. Their lives are hard because they are poor. But this is not because they are Muslim. Recently Amal had to have an operation but funding cuts meant that health care is not as good as it should be: once again this is not because of religion, but poverty. Her husband, too, has worked hard all his life. Both feel sustained by their religion and their community, where people will help if there is a wedding, an illness, a death.

Abu-Lughod is aware of memoirs telling stories about abuse, incest, rape or honour killings, but points out that some have been exposed as hoaxes or based on repressed memories, others are pornographic, or the details of geography or tradition are wrong, yet they are accepted as true. Even when the stories are true, they are not considered exceptions but the norm (p.105).

Only some of the suffering undergone by Muslim women can be attributed to religion and ‘these should be understood not caricatured’, as Abu-Lughod says (p.221). To ask Muslim women to renounce their religion in the name of women’s rights shows a lack of respect. There are different reasons for inequality and ‘Western’ women are far from equal, as writers like Alice Munro or Edna O’Brien have shown.

Abu-Lughod concludes that issues over the veil, or ‘honour killing’, ‘have been deployed in current political projects of destructive warfare, chilling xenophobia, and lucrative humanitarianism’ (p.226). This book puts such propaganda into its proper context and would be an asset in schools and colleges.