Friday, November 1, 2013

Do Muslim Women Need Saving?

Time Magazine    A moral crusade to rescue oppressed Muslim women from their cultures and their religion has swept the public sphere, dissolving distinctions between conservatives and liberals, sexists and feminists. The crusade has justified all manner of intervention from the legal to the military, the humanitarian to the sartorial. But it has also reduced Muslim women to a stereotyped singularity, plastering a handy cultural icon over much more complicated historical and political dynamics.

As an anthropologist who has spent decades doing research on and with women in different communities in the Middle East, I have found myself increasingly troubled by our obsession with Muslim women. Ever since 2001, when defending the rights of Muslim women was offered as a rationale for military intervention in Afghanistan, I have been trying to reconcile what I know from experience about individual women’s lives, and what I know as a student of the history of women and of feminism in different parts of the Muslim world, with the stock images of Muslim women that bombard us here in the West. Over the past decade, from the girls and women like Nujood Ali, whose best-selling memoir I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced was co-written, like so many of the others, by a Western journalist, to Malala Yousafzai, they have been portrayed as victims of the veil, forced marriage, honor crimes or violent abuse. They are presented as having a deficit of rights because of Islam. But they don’t always behave the way we expect them to, nor should they.

Take the veil, for example. We were surprised when many women in Afghanistan didn’t take them off after being “liberated,” seeing as they had become such symbols of oppression in the West. But we were confusing veiling with a lack of agency. What most of us didn’t know is that 30 years ago the anthropologist Hanna Papanek described the burqa as “portable seclusion” and noted that many women saw it as a liberating invention because it enabled them to move out of segregated living spaces while still observing the requirements of separating and protecting women from unrelated men. People all over the globe, including Americans, wear the appropriate form of dress for their socially shared standards, religious beliefs and moral ideals. If we think that U.S. women live in a world of choice regarding clothing, we need to look no further than our own codes of dress and the often constricting tyrannies of fashion.

As for Malala, she was subjected to horrible violence by the Taliban, but education for girls and Islam are not at odds, as was suggested when atheist Sam Harris praised Malala for standing up to the “misogyny of traditional Islam.” Across the Muslim world girls have even been going to state schools for generations. In Pakistan, poverty and political instability undermine girls’ schooling, but also that of boys. Yet in urban areas, girls finish high school at rates close to those of young men, and they are only fractionally less likely to pursue higher education. In many Arab countries, and in Iran, more women are in university than men. In Egypt, women make up a bigger percentage of engineering and medical faculties than women do in the U.S. [...]


  1. Aderaba, feminists spokeswomen have been mostly silent about Musim treatment of women, as Phyllis Chesler points out. I think is because they are more angry at America than at patriarchy.

    ben dov

  2. That's funny, 10 years ago a bill was struck down in the province of Ontario that would have incorporated the usage of Sharia for matters of marriage, divorce and custody disputes through the Ontario Private Arbitration Act. This article of provincial law is the mechanism in which batei dinim are able to function (provided both parties sign an agreement to use them). The bill was scrapped after it came under heavy opposition (mainly by Muslim women).

    I mean geeezzzz!!! Wonder what got those broads so worked up?! They should probably Time Magazine more often for a more balanced perspective on life. Especially if the article is written by a professor from that bastion social academic sanity called Columbia University . The professor was kind enough to point out that while western society is polarized, Islamic society is nuanced. Someone pass me a joint so I can contemplate that profound insight.

  3. As an American Muslim woman who converted 25 yrs ago all I can say is thanks but no thanks. I do not need to be liberated.
    I fail to understand why covering my hair and yes the rest of my body ( we call it modesty), although I do not wear niqab, cause such concern from people. I am not forced to cover, I am a widow so nope my husband does not force me and would not have done so when alive.
    Yes things done in the name of religion-any religion- can be and have been horrifying but the realization that the majority of people do not act in such a manner should be a clear indication that for most Muslims we just lead a very normal and average life.


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