In the Blog
Book Review: Lila Abu-Lughod’s Do Muslim Women Need Saving?
Gif: Erin McPhee
Lila Abu-Lughod starts off her latest book, Do Muslim Women Need Saving? with the story of Zaynab. While visiting her friend Zaynab in Southern Egypt, they discuss the topic of her new book over tea. She talks of how people in the West think that Muslim women are oppressed and Zaynab reacts with zealous agreement. “But many women are oppressed.” Abu-Lughod then talks of how Islam is pitted as the source of that oppression and here Zaynab reacts with a different zealousness “What? Of course not! It’s the government.”
Do Muslim Women Need Saving? is peppered with stories like those of Zaynab that reveal the complexities of women’s lives across the “Muslim world.” Through these stories Abu-Lughod is able to peel away at the assumptions and stereotypes that many of us in the West are offered up about Muslim women. She argues, “after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the images of oppressed Muslim women became connected to a mission to rescue them from their cultures.” She then details with prose and purpose how the need to save women from their culture is used to justify military action, feed media consumerism and raise serious money for causes that often do not serve Muslim women.
The succinct and well-researched chapters in her book ultimately unpack and challenge what we are taught about Muslim and South Asian cultures. Her chapter “Seductions of the Honour Crime” is particularly significant given the fevered debates on honour crime in Canada.
To me, Abu-Lughod should be mandatory reading for anyone interested in social justice work or study. Assumptions about culture significantly impact our policies, laws and overall approach to the people with whom we share our world.
A clear example of how assumptions of oppression filter through our policies is in the all too recent, too familiar, and too problematic laws that restrict women’s use of the niqab. When did it become okay to dictate what women should wear? Abu-Lughod argues that we justify these restrictive and racist laws by the “new common sense” that “authorizes moral crusades.” In the name of saving those who we see as oppressed, we ultimately silence and disempower them.
The questions she raises is not only pertinent to our engagement with Muslim communities but are transferrable to most social causes. She reminds us of the questions we may ask when deciding which social issue to support, where to volunteer or which campaign to fundraise for. Questions that can help us explore what the goals and implications of our social causes are and who is driving our awareness and education.
On a personal level, the book’s central themes and supporting stories truly resonated with me. As someone who grew up in South Asian culture, I often see my community, family and cultural upbringing as a source of strength. Stories of strong women who played critical roles in India’s freedom struggle, in religious stories and as political leaders inspired me as a child. There is no denying that much has to change in the aspiration for gender equality but women have been at the forefront of this struggle for decades. I’d much rather think about how to honour and support their fight than about how to save them.
If you’re looking for a new read as we head into summer, make it this one. Abu-Lughod makes refreshing and relevant arguments with seamless ease but more than that, she is a wonderful storyteller and the most memorable pieces of Do Muslim Women Need Saving? are the touching narratives of women she has encountered through her study. Like Zaynab, many women share in the telling of her book and its thematic exploration making Abu-Lughod’s work both gratifying and thought provoking.