As I pen this review, the social media campaign on behalf of the 221 Nigerian girls kidnapped from their school by the Islamist group, Boko Haram, is trending on the website Twitter under the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls and has been joined by the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama. While the kidnapped girls are mostly Christian, Lila Abu-Lughod’s most recent book, Do Muslim Women Need Saving?, seems all the more pertinent, as she raises questions about the selectivity of the types of gender violence condemned and the ignorance about the implications of acts of aggression on the women and children in the name of saving them. Abu-Lughod’s aim is not to render feminists helpless in responding to acts of violence against women but to bring about a more feminist response to the table — that is, to initiate a more critical engagement with the essentialized “culture” (Muslim, Brown) that the agentless “she” is being “saved from” and with ready-made assumptions made about the forces and practices to blame and “the superiority of that to which you are saving her” (p. 47).
Ultimately, Abu-Lughod is less interested in answering the question — Do Muslim Women Need Saving? — than she is in challenging the “new common sense” that authorizes “going to war for women” in the name of global women’s rights (pp. 54–55). In doing so, she engages in an approach she has long adopted as a means of challenging transnational representations of Muslim women: “writing against culture” — that is, using individual stories to make a larger argument while critically engaging typifications associated with “culture.” In addition to rendering poignant accounts of Muslim women “talking back” to too easy Western assumptions about freedom, choice, and rights, Abu-Lughod demonstrates the way in which sensationalized and commercialized “pulp-nonfiction” about “honor” crimes, forced marriages, and sex slavery, on the one hand, and the authority of international human rights language, on the other, authorize the project of saving Muslim women. The former is subjected to a fairly devastating critique as Abu-Lughod uncovers outright falsifications, a pattern of substituting exceptions for norms, and points to a consistent articulation of a narrative based on “simple oppositions between choice and bondage, force and consent” (p. 110) that shift focus from causes such as geopolitics and the global economy, and obscure the costs for the very same women whose “rescue” are used authorize military and other aggressive forms of intervention.
The issue of rights forms a somewhat thornier issue, though Abu-Lughod’s critique convincingly draws the links between the common sense perpetuated by these cultural representations and the various purposes for which human rights discourses are deployed. Trying to avoid simply and completely denouncing rights as “collusion with imperialism,” Abu-Lughod seeks instead to the ways in which “both practices and talk of rights organize social and political fields, producing organizations, projects and forms of governing as much as being produced by them” (pp. 170–71). Because choice, freedom, and rights are socially mediated in all contexts, Abu-Lughod argues that it is necessary, always, “to balance the universalizing discourse of rights” with a “more human perspective” (p. 222).
Similarly, while Abu-Lughod’s insistence that the struggles faced by Muslim women have little to do with culture, she stops just short of declaring culture void of any culpability: “the suffering of some of these women is not totally unconnected to expectations about gender enshrined in the Qur’an or cultures in the Muslim world, or sometimes justified in terms of interpretations of Islamic law” (p. 74). Certainly, some will [End Page 484] find in Abu-Lughod’s analysis, and even in some of the stories and the words she relates from Muslim women a too ready dismissal or downplaying of the power of cultural expectations and religious modes of argumentation in contributing to the hardships faced by of Muslim women. However, her complex...