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  • Why Does the West Need to Save Muslim Women?
  • Mahua Sarkar (bio)
Do Muslim Women Need Saving? by Lila Abu-Lughod . Harvard University Press, 2013.

The discursive production of Muslim women as oppressed, backward, silenced, and invisible (secluded/veiled) has a long history in the popular imagination of and writings on Islamic societies in both the geographic West and elsewhere (Alloula; Khanna; Bullock; Hoodfar; Brenner). The dubious distinction of symbolizing the inferiority of entire cultures does not belong to Muslim women alone; the trope of "the subjugated native woman" has underwritten self-justifications of colonial discourses in much of the world. For instance, Dutch colonial accounts frequently portrayed Javanese women as "the silent suffering victims of barbaric cultures in need of European progress, enlightenment, and technology" (Gouda, 19), while in the eighteenth century, British attitudes toward women in the Indian subcontinent oozed "a curious mix of erotic fascination and a missionary zeal to rescue them" from their "societal prison" (Banerjee, 37–38). Such inferiorizing discourses about "other" peoples and cultures in turn allowed European colonizers to imagine themselves as saviors, civilizers, and agents of progress. Indeed, this historical connection between Europe's "conquest of non-European people and the appropriation and exploitation of their lands and resources," on the one hand, and "the justificationfor this violation … [as] enlightenment, civilization, progress, development and modernization" (emphasis in original), on the other, remains a fundamental insight of postcolonial scholarship (D. Scott, 4). Lila Abu-Lughod's provocatively titled Do Muslim Women Need Saving?considers a contemporary, neocolonial instantiation of this practice of demeaning "other"—in this case, Islamic—cultures through derogatory portrayals of women identified with or belonging in such cultures [End Page 244]to justify current "American and European international adventures in parts of the Middle East and South Asia" (6–7).

In the wake of the September 11, 2001, crisis, Abu-Lughod observes, two interlinked discourses seem to have captured Western—especially U.S.—public consciousness: "the plight of Muslim women" oppressed by their culture/religion, and an emergent "moral crusade" or a "mission" to rescue them from their specific benightment. The consensus, it would seem, is overwhelming, uniting people across the political spectrum around a set of calcified beliefs: "Muslim women" are culturally distant/different (read: inferior) from "us"; they lack the rights that women in the West enjoy; they are subjected to uncivilized practices such as veiling, forced marriages, sexual enslavement and, that most horrific of all ills, honor crime. And undergirding all these myriad forms of suffering that "women of cover" (term used by former president George W. Bush, ctd. on p. 29) must endure is "Muslim culture"/Islam—apparently homogenous and transparent constructs that enjoy remarkable purchase in contemporary public discourse in the West. Scholars working in/on other predominantly non-Islamic social contexts with significant Muslim populations have recorded similar tendencies of generalizations about Islam and "Muslim culture" outside the geographic West as well (Kamp; Sarkar). Abu-Lughod is clearly aware of such inclinations (12–13), but this book does not explicitly focus on them.

The solutions bandied around seem to be just as transparent as the putative problems: Muslim women must be saved from the inherent backwardness of the religion/culture of "Islamland" (68)—the imagined life world of Muslims—and Muslim men, similarly undifferentiated as a category by language, class, culture, ethnicity, national context, or, indeed, history; and it is somehow the moral obligation, if not entitlement, of the West to save Muslim women from their culture/religion/men. And to what end should this massive rescue operation be mounted? Ostensibly, so that Muslim women too can ascend to the haloed liberal, secular universe of individual rights, indexed by "freedom," "consent," and "choice" (17–19; 201–11) in a discourse that often takes "bared skin and flaunted sexuality" as a measure of "women's freedom and equality" (Brown, 1). Meanwhile, inconvenient reminders by feminists that veiling is by no means simply a "metonym for passivity and subjugation" (Metcalf, 155; Hoodfar) or that we can [End Page 245]hardly credit secularism with ensuring gender equality in the West (19) remain largely ignored.

The result, Abu-Lughod contends, is a widespread sense that the "fight...


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