Saturday, June 9, 2007

Muslim Women: Behind the Cartoon

Bridgethought of the Day: People so sure of their position that they can't consider another one are like little kings who think their 2-acre kingdoms comprise the heavens & the earth & everything in them. How can they expand that kingdom while they think everything is in it? They will lord over that little plot of land with the utmost conceit, the laughingstock of the rest of the universe...

OK, now it's time to "liberate" the Muslim Woman, that poor creature scarfed in black, reduced to household chattel, denied the joys of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. There she is, still wrapped to the teeth in robes and veils and God knows what cloth/net contraptions, subservient to her whim-driven, procreation-crazed, restriction-mongering, hyperventilating, super-Macho husband to whom eye contact with strangers is a death penalty offense. She is corralled into a den of Non-iniquity, where coerced knitting meets an Eternal Chain of child-rearing, and where she may be only one of four such corrallees, all vying for a share of Super-Macho's constrained affections and even more constrained funds. Is saving her from this horrid fate not a moral imperative of the highest order?

It's an almost insurmountable challenge. But someone's got to do it.

To see beyond the hype & stereotyping, that is.

Enter Lila Abu-Lughod, the noted anthropologist and scholar, of Columbia University. From

Bedouin Stories to The Politics of Television in Egypt, Ms. Abu-Lughod patiently and with great insight and intelligent analysis, examines Muslim women on their own turf and most importantly, on their own terms. Her basic premise is that we view women in Islamic cultures through projections based on our own quite different cultural terms, and hence we wildly misinterpret what we see, and worse, use this to further various political agendas, international political agendas, that begin and end with the premise of our superiority "saving" them from their "inferior" life-styles & culture. Thus, much of her work, and it is impressive in both scope and quality, offers scathing criticism of the West's penchant for trying to recreate foreign cultures in their own image, especially the latest post-9/11 round of "Let's Save Women from Islam", a movement focusing on Afghanistan in particular and the Islamic world in general.

As Ms. Abu-Lughod observes:

What images do we, in the United States or Europe, have of Muslim women, or
women from the region known as the Middle East? Our lives are saturated with
images, images that are strangely confined to a very limited set of tropes or
themes. The oppressed Muslim woman. The veiled Muslim woman. The Muslim woman who does not have the same freedoms we have. The woman ruled by her religion. The woman ruled by her men.

These images have a long history in the West but they have become
especially visible and persistent since 9/11. Many women in the US mobilized
around the cause of the Afghani women oppressed by the fundamentalist Taliban -
women who were represented in the media as covered from head to toe in their
burqas, unable to go to school or wear nail polish. 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.

She does not shy away from the notion that women's rights in such countries need to be addressed, nor does she deny that there are serious violations against such rights, but rather her point is that we cause more harm thangood, not to mention it being an act of great hubris, when we rush in headlong, panting & breathless, to "liberate" women without consideration from what their actual needs are and situation is from their point of view and within the context of their own culture.

Women in Muslim countries do not they fit the traditional cartoon trotted out by the West for Western, especially American, consumption. Ms. Abu-Lughod warns us not to be blind consumers of this cartoon ad campaign. After living for years with a Bedouin tribe, for example, she developed long-term relationships with the women there and understood their points of view deeply, in some ways identifying with them, even though the society was polygamous and women were veiled in public. She speaks of the "homosocial" bonds between women as having power and value, something often lost in what she refers to as the "companionate marriage" model preferred by the West, even though the latter also has its advantages.We need to be sure it is not a self-serving agenda for our own needs akin to the Infant formula manufacturers' ad blitz to new mothers to sway them from breast-feeding.

"Feminists, leftists, progressives, and other intellectuals still haven't questioned the idea of development, progress, modernity, as wholly a good thing," she explains. "No one has challenged this concept of progressive achievement of enlightenment--that we have to follow a certain path, and as people get educated, they will get more enlightened. Feminists in general didn't question the idea that the vote, political participation or becoming more modern would essentially pave the road towards some kind of emancipation."

Lila Abu-Lughod, The Muslim Woman: The Power of Images & the Danger of Pity

Abu Lughod feels a sense of responsibility on her part to "speak to intellectuals, nationalists, progressives and other people who want Egypt to be "modern" and tell them that what happens in the villages and in the western desert is different from what they imagine and that they are not speaking to the real needs of the people. "

The need to "educate the masses so that they can be just as good as we are" is troubling, Abu-Lughod says, because it sets up a hierarchy at the top of which are the educated, while the bottom ranks lack adequate schooling. Resources needed for equal opportunity for education either don't exist, or are paltry, especially since funds from organizations like USAID are not allowed to be used for social services.

Wryly, she makes the classic observation that when one encounters issues of abuse or violence against women in the United States or England, there is not the linked assumption of backwardness of these nations and no risk of damaging the national image. "This is specifically related to the placement of postcolonial nations in that they are not in positions of power and that they have this whole history of having the "woman question" linked with their own [national] inferiority." ... The problem, of course, with ideas of "saving" other women is that they depend on and reinforce a sense of superiority by Westerners.

Abu-Lughod has a solution. She thinks "we need to work hard to respect and recognize difference." And, she adds, "We might do better to think how to make the world a more just place rather than trying to ‘save' women in other cultures."

And that is the best advice I can think of for world affairs.

Next question: Who among the leadership of this country (or those running for office) would take such great advice and act on it?


Anonymous said...

muslim women don't care about burqa, the veil, chador, headscarf- the west cares about that stuff. we care about our rights given by God and Islam to be respected. Kind of doubt the godless west is going to go after that. they are going after their own agenda.

Omyma said...

actually, "muslim women" is a group having widely varying opinions on most subjects, including how to interpret the Qur'an and what are the rules of Islam. There are conservative, liberal, faithful and not-so-religious "Muslim women". Just as in any such broad category.