Lila Abu-Lughod: It's time to give up the Western obsession with veiled Muslim women

(via Alexandre Enkerli at Disparate) "Excellent", a reader comments Lila Abu-Lughod's article: The Muslim woman. The power of images and the danger of pity and adds:

Why do Anthropologists so seldom speak up when it's more important than ever to understand and to respect each other instead of waging cultural wars without even knowing at whom the bombs are aiming. Anthropologists should have much more interesting things to tell than our politicians.

In this article, Lila Abu-Lughod critizes the images of muslim women that are constructed in the "West" especially after 9/11. "We have to resist the reductive interpretation of veiling as the quintessential sign of women's unfreedom", she writes:

Isn't it a gross violation of women's own understandings of what they are doing to simply denounce the burqa as a medieval or patriarchal imposition? Second, we shouldn't reduce the diverse situations and attitudes of millions of Muslim women to a single item of clothing. Perhaps it is time to give up the black and white Western obsession with the veil and focus on some serious issues that feminists and others concerned with women's lives should indeed be concerned with.

The West seems to be obsessed with this image of the "oppressed muslim women". Why don't we find images in Western media of Jordan's national women's basketball team in shorts or the Queen dining with a group of other cosmopolitan women, European and Jordanian, and you can't tell the difference. Why are these not on the cover of the New York Times Magazine, representing Jordan, instead of the shrouded woman, the anthropologist wonders.

There are several problems with these images of veiled women, she explains:

First, they make it hard to think about the Muslim world without thinking about women, creating a seemingly huge divide between "us" and "them" based on the treatment or positions of women. This prevents us from thinking about the connections between our various parts of the world, helping setting up a civilizational divide.

Second, they make it hard to appreciate the variety of women's lives across the Muslim or Middle Eastern worlds – differences of time and place and differences of class and region.

Third, they even make it hard for us to appreciate that veiling itself is a complex practice.

We should see these issues as complex as we see women issues in the "West":

Even if we are critical of the treatment of women in our own societies in Europe or the United States, whether we talk about the glass ceiling that keeps women professionals from rising to the top, the system that keeps so many women-headed households below the poverty line, the high incidence of rape and sexual harassment, or even the exploitation of women in advertising, we do not see this as reflective of the oppressiveness of our culture or a reason to condemn Christianity – the dominant religious tradition. We know such things have complicated causes and we know that some of us, at least, are working to change things.

One of the most dangerous functions of these images of Muslim women is that they enable us to imagine that these women need rescuing by us or by our governments:

Like the missionaries, liberal feminists feel the need to speak for and on behalf of Afghan or other Muslim women in a language of women's rights or human rights. They see themselves as an enlightened group with the vision and freedom to help suffering women elsewhere to receive their rights, to rescue them from their men or from their oppressive religious traditions.
Projects to save other women, of whatever kind, depend on and reinforce Westerners' sense of superiority. They also smack of a form of patronizing arrogance that, as an anthropologist who is sensitive to other ways of living, makes me feel uncomfortable. I've spent lots of time with different groups of Muslim women and know something about how they see themselves, how they respect themselves, and how I admire and love them as complex and resourceful women.

Therefore, veiling should not be confused with a lack of agency or even traditionalism:

As I have argued in Veiled Sentiments, my ethnography of a Bedouin community in Egypt in the late 1970s and 1980s, pulling the black headcloth over the face in front of older respected men is considered a voluntary act by women who are deeply committed to being moral and have a sense of honour tied to family.
The modern Islamic modest dress that many educated women across the Muslim world have started to wear since the late 1970s now both publicly marks piety and can be read as a sign of educated urban sophistication, a sort of modernity. What many people in the West don't realize is that the women in Egypt who took up this new form of headcovering, and sometimes even covering their faces, were university students – especially women studying to become medical doctors and engineers.

People are different. We should consider being respectful of other routes towards social change, she writes:

Is it impossible to ask whether there can be a liberation that is Islamic? This idea is being explored by many women, like those in Iran, who call themselves Islamic feminists. And beyond this, is liberation or freedom even a goal for which all women or people strive? Are emancipation, equality, and rights part of a universal language? Might other desires be more meaningful for different groups of people? Such as living in close families? Such as living in a godly way? Such as living without war or violence?

>> read the whole article in Eurozine

By the way, here in Norway, at the University in Oslo, the board of the union of Pakistani students now consists exclusively of girls women.

Mariam Javed, contact person at the student union, says:

- We generally see more involvement from the Norwegian-Pakistani girls women than from the guys men. The media often portray us as oppressed and dependent, but we are both talented and committed. That many of us wear hijabs signals that it is fully possible to be a Muslim girl women and still be involved in student activities.

- This may contribute to get rid of a lot of people’s idea of the Norwegian-Pakistani as a mental fanatic who subjugates his woman, says Ambreen Pervez, leader of Pakistansk Studentersamfunn (PSS), the union of Pakistani students in Oslo.

>> read the whole story in the student paper Universitas

UPDATE: Anthrpologist Daniel Martin Varisco was interviewed by the BBC about the history of veiling. Among other things he said that among the Islamized Berber Tuareg of Saharan Africa it was the men rather than women who veiled their faces to maintain social distance.

>> more on Tabsir: Speaking of Veiling (BBC Style)


Interview with Lila Abu-Lughod on women and Islam in the wake of the American war in Afghanistan (Asiasource)

New book by Lila Abu-Lughod: The Politics of Television in Egypt

Wikipedia on Islamic feminism


Comment from: Sexy Sadie [Visitor]
Sexy Sadie

Det her temaet har jeg faktisk begynt å bli dritlei.

2006-10-30 @ 12:18
Comment from: Alexandre [Visitor]

Glad you noticed this piece. It came from Djemaa Maazouzi in a seminar mailing-list.

Quick question: is it common in Norway to refer to university students as “girls and guys” or is this added through translation into U.S. English? One issue we could eventually talk about is how age is perceived in all this…

I referred to Abu-Lughod’s piece recently in a lecture on ethnography and I think it’s a good way to get people to think about some preconceptions we may have.
In Quebec as in France, hijab-wearing becomes a charged issues because of both perceived “submissiveness” and our difficult relationship with religion. The second one is the basis for the whole “kirpan in school” issue…

I happen to think that Abu-Lughod’s piece connects to one of the most important things we need to do as ethnographers and anthropologists: help people see things in a broad frame.
We have a few well-known public anthropologists, here in Quebec. They often serve as “experts” on tv shows having to do with cultural diversity (often an important issue in an anti-nationalist but sovereignist society). With all the talk about social engagement, I think this is where we (anthropologists and ethnographers) can “make a difference.”
One thing that always got me about the “crisis of representation” back in the 90s is that we self-flagellated so much that we all but stopped getting involved in public debates. Now that we’ve gone through the whole issuse of legitimacy, authority, authorship, and “putting culture on paper,” we can realise that we have a job to do.
Blogging certainly helps, in this respect.

2006-11-05 @ 15:56
Comment from: [Member]

Yes, that’s a good example. Blogging might help, but writing for newspapers might be even more effective (few people read blogs) as in Abu-Lughods case?

Girls and boys… yes, that was a bad translation. Thanks for asking. That’s typical Norwegian. Here, even 50years olds can be called “boys” or “girls"…

2006-11-06 @ 00:10
Comment from: Monica [Visitor]

Berit Thorbjørnsrud har skrevet en veldig god tekst rundt samme tema: “Weeping for the Muslim Cinderellas. A lament of Tears Shed though not Shared” (Norsk tidsskrift for migrasjonsforskning 2003(2)).
Hun skriver blant annet om den norske majoritetens “behov” for å ha noen å synes synd på. “…Norwegians seems to find a grand consoltation in comparing themselves to other peoples who hare conceived ‘to lag far behind’”

2006-12-18 @ 23:02
Comment from: [Member]

“…Norwegians seems to find a grand consoltation in comparing themselves to other peoples who hare conceived ‘to lag far behind’”

I suppose that applies to other societies as well? Typical for identity politics?

2006-12-19 @ 01:24
Comment from: Monica [Visitor]

It’s identity politics, yes. But Thorbjørnsrud links it to the norwegian self-image as “the country with the best living conditions for women” and the strong missonary-tradtion in Norway. Through feeling pity for “others” norwegian woman learn that they “should praise themselves lucky to have been born in Norway".

2006-12-20 @ 18:14
Comment from: me [Visitor]

I don’t have anything against people from the middle east. (Actually, there’s much to like and learn from.)I do have a problem with a religion which forces women to be second class citizens. Christianity and Islam both qualify.

When women stop getting stoned to death and honor killings cease, let me know.

2007-03-05 @ 00:34
Comment from: anthropan [Visitor]

Dr. Abu-Lughod is missing the point, while there are doubtless a fair number of women that live under the islamic system that do not mind or even prefer covering themselves, there are still surely others who do nopt wish to yet feel compelled by social dogma and an intimidation that reaches well beyond the middle east and into the western places.

2007-10-30 @ 04:56
Comment from: lfao [Visitor]

All women in all cultures are subjects of dogmas. In west they are not? When will we stop viewing at the western woman as the one and only example of how the modern woman should be?? Objectified, abused, fooled into competing with males in every area just to prove she is equal and deserves the same respect. Yet, she still has not the same salary and is worth nothing if she is not beautifully styled. Please let me know when women will have the same status as men without needing to prove them selves and without needing to look beautiful to be heard!

2014-10-30 @ 23:05

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