Do Muslim Women Need to be Saved?

From the readings and the videos provided in this module, regardless of whether any prior knowledge and/or bias was present prior to the start of this term, it’s clear that the question of the “salvation” of Muslim women is a complex, nuanced and difficult subject that cannot be easily answered.  To be honest, I’ve wrestled with this question myself long before the term started, and although I’ve thought at times that I’ve had the answer, I’ve changed my mind a lot.  I’m still wrestling with it today throughout the readings and activities of this module.

In the readings this week, both Abu-Lughod and Abu Odeh argue that the veil, contrary to Western stereotypes is seen by many Muslim women in the Arab world as empowering, rather than oppressing Muslim women.[1][2]  Surprisingly, their argument is not difficult for me to understand.  For women constantly on edge regarding unwanted attention from the opposite sex when venturing out in public, covering oneself – especially in light of religious teachings – can demonstrate taking power over oneself in relation to society as a whole, even more so when considering that observers are more likely to stand up in your defense while covered.[3]  That being said, however, I also see the other side.  While it’s true that women are adopting the veil, as argued, of their own free will – is it really free will if the consequences of NOT covering can be death at the hands of a male family member for even the appearance of sexual impropriety and thereby impugning the family’s sexual honor?[4]  Or would that be seen more as coercion rather than a free-will choice?

I think what Abu-Lughod is trying to point out in her compelling article is that in the West, our cultures and societal norms are so different from those often portrayed from Muslim-majority cultures and countries that it’s easy to be dismissive of those cultural differences as barbaric or ancient, assert Western ideals and values as superior or “more evolved” and desire to pull Muslim women out of what is seen as “dark age ideologies” into the modern 21st century, without taking their desires, beliefs or wishes into account.  Doing so, I think, is not only arrogant to the extreme, but dangerous.  Both Abu-Lughod and Abu Odeh mention that distaste that many Muslim women in the Arab world have for Western culture and ideals.[5][6]  Removing them by force from the Islamic culture that they embrace and throwing them into a culture that they despise would do little more than submit them to a different kind of oppression than we are misguidedly attempting to “save” them from.

It’s all too easy to attempt to claim the moral, cultural high ground, asserting that anything you disagree with is objectively wrong, but to do so removes a lot of the nuance and history surrounding different cultures around the world.  As Abu-Lughod states implicitly in her article, it is impossible now to separate Muslim culture from its history of colonialism, interference and judgement of the western world at large, and to judge Muslim cultural practices as somehow outdated or wrong is to dismiss and fail to take responsibility for the West’s hand in their development and implementation.[7]

[1] Lila Abu-Lughod, “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?  Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others,” American Anthropologist 104, no. 3 (2002): 783-790.

[2] Lama Abu Odeh, “Post-Colonial Feminism and the Veil: Thinking the Difference,” Feminist Review 43 (1993): 26-37.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Abu-Lughod.

[7] Ibid.


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