Women don’t want rights anyway

Lila Abu-Lughod has some questions.

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.

And now for a round of spot the irony – inadvertent irony on this occasion. Or you might call it spot the pratfall.

As the late Edward Said pointed out in his famous book, Orientalism, a transformative and critical study of the relationship between the Western study of the Middle East and the Muslim world and the larger projects of dominating or colonizing these regions, one of the most distinctive qualities of representations – literary and scholarly – of the Muslim “East” has been their citationary nature. What he meant by this is that later works gain authority by citing earlier ones…

Ohhh, later works gain authority by citing earlier ones do they? Perhaps by mentioning that the works being cited are famous? Well how very shocking and naughty; good of you to tell us about it, or rather of Said to tell us about it and you to tell us again.

There are several problems with these uniform and ubiquitous images of veiled women. 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.

Well…that’s a wretched thing to say. Is the treatment of women such a trivial minor frivolous matter that we shouldn’t think about it? The treatment of women is the treatment of half the people in ‘the Muslim world,’ after all.

It seems obvious to me that one of the most dangerous functions of these images of Middle Eastern or Muslim women is to enable many of us to imagine that these women need rescuing by us or by our governments.

So therefore let’s forget all about them, instead. Let’s throw Persepolis in the bin, let’s ignore Azam Kamguian and Maryam Namazie and Homa Arjomand and Ayaan Hirsi Ali and all the other women, let’s just hope it will all blow over.

One need only think of the American organization the Feminist Majority, with their campaign for the women in Afghanistan, or the wider discourse about women’s human rights. Like the missionaries, these 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…If one constructs some women as being in need of pity or saving, one implies that one not only wants to save them from something but wants to save them for something – a different kind of world and set of arrangements. What violences might be entailed in this transformation? And what presumptions are being made about the superiority of what you are saving them for? 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.

Oh. Well we wouldn’t want you to feel uncomfortable, especially as you’re sensitive. Naturally you not feeling uncomfortable is the decisive issue here. Of course, in a way, there’s something interesting about how comfortable you seem to feel in attributing patronizing arrogance and a sense of superiority and a need to speak on behalf of other people to – well, to other people – but that’s because you’re talking about liberal feminists, Western feminists, Westerners. No need for sensitivity to other ways of living when it comes to them, of course, or for feelings of being uncomfortable about all this sinister innuendo. ‘What violences might be entailed in this transformation?’ Oh, I don’t know – let’s see – how about we send fifty million soldiers to Afghanistan where they will kidnap all the women, strip them naked, stuff them into bikinis, and make them parade up and down Fifth Avenue at gunpoint. That’s probably the violences those bad liberal feminist have in mind, right? Must be.

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?

Guess where she lives and teaches. Go on, guess.

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