‘Do Muslim Women Need Saving?’: The Dilemma of Muslim Women Identity. By: Sonia Gulzeb AbbasiRead Now
Few days ago, I read an interesting account by Afghan woman artist and photographer Fatimah Hossaini, who was rescued to Paris after Taliban took control over Afghanistan, her ordeal of leaving Afghanistan was quite painful yet thought provoking and raised a lot of questions about women’s rights under a Taliban regime. She writes, how women rights, democracy and over-all growth of Afghanistan went to square one after fall of Kabul in August’2021- Afghanistan was enjoying relative freedom of speech, respect for women rights and appreciation of art in the past two decades, furthermore, she was critical of Taliban’s policy of using religion as a tool to control women- she sees no hope for progressive Afghanistan under recent circumstances.
Debates on Afghan women’s rights is making headlines in the social and print media, especially Western media, a lot of women from West are concerned about the rights of women under Taliban’s regime. One instance is the statement from an infamous Hollywood celebrity Angelina Jolie- who became active on her Instagram handle all of a sudden and showed deep concerns about women’s rights under Taliban regime, she posted a letter from an Afghan teen age girl, and a picture depicting all Burqa clad women, some people criticize Ms Jolie’s stance and argue, where she was when indigenous Afghan women were suffering under US military occupation in Afghanistan?
On similar account, Pakistani Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai, who is part of Malala Fund- educational fund for girl’s education, called on leaders around the world to defend Afghan girls’ rights to learn and plan a decisive action to get every Afghan girl back in school. All of them are building a case for Western intervention to save and free Muslim women from brown bearded Muslim men and their culture? There is another bigger elephant in the room to be addressed which on one questioned; none of these celebrities talked about the root cause of this mess created by Western imperialistic policies and their war crimes, and the complicity of the US, neither they talked about militarism nor prevailing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.
This made me think to re-explore the work of Abu Lughod ‘Do Muslim women need saving?’ (2013). This essay is an attempt to make sense how Muslim woman identity is interpreted on internal level and how Western world sees it, it will try to address these overarching questions; What does this notion ‘Do Muslim women need saving?’ mean for native Muslim women? when we say Muslim women, do we assume piousness and submission for all? or there is more going on within the identity of Muslim women? something interesting is going on here which need further slicing through different frameworks.
Abu-Lughod’s work, ‘Do Muslim women need saving’ provided academic language and framework to explore this phenomenon of Western hypocrisy and their deep desire to liberate Muslim women and how it is used to authorize various forms of interventions including military interventions. As Miriam Cooke (2007) has called the Muslim women portrayal by West- ‘a homogenized creature oppressed by her religion, her culture , and her men’. They are often framed through debates such as honour, veil, freedom , violence , Islam etc,. Hostile view of Islam with the Muslim woman as linchpin - have a special hold on the US public, also, only certain feminist voices, those that blame Islam for misogyny in Muslim world get authorized in the mainstream public spheres in Europe and US.
Recently, after US military’s complete withdrawal from Afghanistan, one report by CIA surfaced- which suggest using feminism to reduce Western opposition of military occupation of Afghanistan in 2010. A series of contrasting discussions and narratives exist in Muslim world – one school of thought argue that West promote those women who blame Islam for patriarchal injustices in Muslim world and adhere to their idea of feminist politics. To counter this proposition, the native women argue, at-least West is ahead of Muslim world when it comes to women’s rights, contrary to what women have to face in their native country (male dominated public spaces and institutions), also, they believe Muslim world struggles to even create safe public spaces for women let alone giving them rights.
After Taliban took control in Afghanistan, many Afghan women who have been saved by the West and rescued to the safe places do believe in the idea of ‘Muslim women need saving’. I closely follow those social media handles who don’t see white saviour industrial complex as problematic, because they have benefitted from this complex, these native women won awards and recognition for their work in Western world and as they argue -how their native country did nothing to protect them and give them due acknowledgement. There are several Pakistani women activists who are awarded by US embassy or UK consulate for their outstanding work, their work is often neglected by the state itself.
For instance, Malala Yousafzai’s case is often a hotspot for such debates in Pakistan, those who are sceptical about her life often argue- there is a reason Malala is so much promoted in the Western world, she does feed into West’s agenda consciously and willingly, she is actually reiterating West’s picture of dangerous Pakistan and Afghanistan, and that her case is multi-layered and need to be analysed in depth. Abu-Lughod’s work is often criticized – ‘that how much support her book offered to internal critique : by this she meant critiques by authentic feminist voices who challenge the patriarchal injustices in their own societies, working to reform law, chains canons, and criticize conservative social practices, cultural ideologies and interpretations of religion’. Some also criticize diaspora writers for being oblivious to the real issues faced by native women.
This discussion needs further unpacking and academic attention since this notion ‘Do Muslim women need saving’ is multifaceted and not black and white anymore. It is quite relevant to discuss Mahmood’s (2004) work while exploring feminist politics in Muslim world- her work challenged the agency of Western secular feminists' politics. She proposed a critique of white liberal neo-imperialist feminists and anthropologists -who went to Middle Eastern Nations and analysed/studied Muslim women from a diverse geography within their white-liberal conceptual frameworks and slot them into an oppression/liberation -narrative.
The situation in Afghanistan is multifaceted and can be analysed through multiple frameworks but White photographers and journalists have chosen to join the bandwagon of analysing this situation through oppression/liberation lens freeing Muslim women from bearded brown Muslim men , thus building a case of intervention by the West to save Afghan women. This blurs and distracts the audience from the real questions, who invaded Afghanistan? who created and funded Mujahideen (1979) and then Taliban? why Taliban came in power again? To put things into perspective and find real solution to Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis, one need to understand Western imperialistic policies in this region and their political agendas.
The identity of Muslim women on internal level and how it is perceived by outside world is often intertwined: when we say, 'Muslim Women’, and un-consciously attach piousness and submission to their identity, this to my humble understanding is a false binary. Even on internal level, Muslim women isn’t a monolithic identity; there are practicing Muslim women who are full of liberal desires and then there are non-practicing Muslim women who are devoid of any liberal/secular desires. Also, there is another category, those women who are from practicing Muslim families and yet they don’t practice the core principles of Islam.
For some women, the identity of a Muslim woman is a form of empowerment and freedom, others reject this label. As Mahmood (2004) explored how for ‘Women Mosque Movement’ in Cairo, idea of freedom is submitting to authority- submission was a form of empowerment. There are many avenues for feminist anthropology in Muslim world, which need further exploration; why Muslim women are only framed through ‘religio-centrism’ when there is more to Muslim women apart from their religious identity. Perhaps one should try to explore Muslim women in particular contexts and in their heterogeneities for more nuance research work. East/West binary is very misleading; one needs to be more specific about cultures/countries/regions. Lastly, constraining framework and the way we understand situations, provide the form of solutions ,thus it is important to analyse situations in their diversity rather than false generalisations.
Abu-Lughod , Lila . 2002 . “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others .” American Anthropologist 104 ( 3 ): 783–90.
Abu‐Lughod, Lila. 2016. "The cross‐publics of ethnography: The case of “the Muslimwoman”. ” American Ethnologist 43.4 (2016): 595-608.
Bangstad, Sandre. 2011. “Saba Mahmood and Anthropological Feminism After Virtue.” Theory, Culture & Society 28(3):28-54.
Bayat, Asef. 2007. Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist
Turn. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Mahmood , Saba . 2004 . The Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton, NJ : Princeton University Press .
Sonia Gulzeb Abbasi is originally from a superb village of KPK Province in Pakistan, she was also born in a mountainous city known as Murree -which was a former British Administrated summer resort (1876). From Bioinformatics to International Relations to Anthropological research - the curiosity to find puzzled pieces of our colonial past and maybe add a wee bit of contribution from a native’s perspective. Sonia finds time in her busy schedule to climb mountains, nowadays she is in London, dismantling the white privilege at school with grace (literally).
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