Do Muslim Women Need Saving? was published in 2013, a year significant to Afghanistan, the country used by Lila Abu-Lughod to exemplify how Orientalism is used to justify imperialism in numerous Muslim countries. 2013 marked the year in which NATO-aligned troops began their withdrawal. This text came as a response to the author’s experiences of the justification of the war on Afghanistan by numerous (public) figures, citing their concerns for Afghan women who were being oppressed by their male counterparts as well as the clothes they wore. The text primarily deals with ideas of ‘faux concern,’ the appropriation of feminism to defend military action, reductionist ideas of immutable Eastern and Western cultures, and Orientalist manners of discussing Islam and the East. In order to examine these topics, this commentary will focus on the ideas of autonomy and a polarised Western versus Eastern culture.
Perhaps the most pertinent example of the fight for autonomy versus the continuation of control is the veil. As noted by Abu-Lughod, forced veiling under the Taliban was considered the “ultimate sign of oppression” by liberals and feminists alike. Western politicians specifically used the burqa as a way to justify intervention, as unveiling these women would apparently save them from the Taliban’s misogyny. This, rather than showing a desire to protect Afghan women, appears as an imperialist desire to continue exerting control over them, similarly to the Taliban, by forcing them to unveil. Keddie raises the important point that “all classes and groups” and their respective responsibilities must be taken into account when forming an accurate picture of the past or present. We can see that the Western view of the veil does not do this. In fact, it ignores the cultural context of the burqa, giving it a solely religious significance.
The burqa existed long before the Taliban, worn by Pashtun women to mark “the symbolic separation of men’s and women’s domains.” Although it could be argued that this reinforces patriarchal ideas of women belonging at home, we must remember that many saw the burqa as a “liberating invention,” as it allowed feelings of security whilst outside of the traditionally ‘female’ space. The messages of women like Laura Bush, rather than encouraging female liberation, appear as a desire for Western control because they do not speak of the independence of Eastern women nor value the notion of ‘choice’. Instead, they speak of the desire to ‘liberate’ Afghan women by using their feminist military power.
This paints an image reminiscent of that formed of Algerian women by the French colonisers — weak, exotic and unable to make their own decisions because of the inherently repressive practices of the Middle East. Promoting this as the primary image of these women would make it easier for the war to be supported, as it would allow Western women to feel “smugly superior” whilst fighting “for the … rights of women.” These feelings seem to come from a desire to force Western ideas of emancipation rather than support Afghan women in their visions of their own freedom.
The Western idea of emancipation plays into the idea of a conflict between East and West, with the East being characterised as opposite to the inherently feminist West. This is reflected in the words of a skit written by a Frenchwoman living in Algiers, where two Algerian girls tell of the “noble land” of France where they “felt free Under Christian skies to pray” to their God. This construction of the East as patriarchal, controlling, and repressive is also mentioned when referring to the veil — as noted by Rippin, the “seclusion of women” has become “the most firmly lodged image of Islamic society in the Western popular imagination.” Despite the West also being patriarchal, the manners in which Westerners perform femininity in order to be respected — like wearing makeup — are not scorned in the same way Afghan women perform piety through veiling. This clearly shows the artificial dichotomy between East and West — the actions of Eastern women are perceived to be permanently affected by patriarchy, whereas those of Western women are not.
To conclude, the fight for autonomy and the idea of a polarised Western/Eastern culture are evidently both used to push the idea that Muslim women still need saving from Muslim men and themselves, rather than the idea that Muslim women are fully able to liberate themselves and be independent of both Westerners and men.
- Keddie, Nikki R. ‘Problems in the Study of Middle Eastern Women,’ International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 10, №2 (May, 1979)
- Rippin, Andrew. ‘Women, intellectuals, and other challenges,’ Muslims, Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, 4th ed., 2012
Yasmine is a Moroccan Communist who writes essays on political issues