September 11 and Ethnographic Responsibility

Ethics Forum: September 11 and Ethnographic Responsibility
Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?
Anthropological Reflections on Cultural
Relativism and Its Others
ABSTRACT This article explores the ethics of the current “War on Terrorism, asking whether anthropology, the discipline devoted
to understanding and dealing with cultural difference, can provide us with critical purchase on the justifications made for American
intervention in Afghanistan in terms of liberating, or saving, Afghan women. I look first at the dangers of reifying culture, apparent in
the tendencies to plaster neat cultural icons like the Muslim woman over messy historical and political dynamics. Then, calling attention
to the resonances of contemporary discourses on equality, freedom, and rights with earlier colonial and missionary rhetoric on Muslim
women, I argue that we need to develop, instead, a serious appreciation of differences among women in the worldas products of
different histories, expressions of different circumstances, and manifestations of differently structured desires. Further, I argue that
rather than seeking to “save” others (with the superiority it implies and the violences it would entail) we might better think in terms of
(1) working with them in situations that we recognize as always subject to historical transformation and (2) considering our own larger
responsibilities to address the forms of global injustice that are powerful shapers of the worlds in which they find themselves. I develop
many of these arguments about the limits of “cultural relativism” through a consideration of the burqa and the many meanings of veiling in the Muslim world. [Keywords: cultural relativism, Muslim women, Afghanistan war, freedom, global injustice, colonialism]
WHAT ARE THE ETHICS of the current “Wai on
Terrorism, a war that justifies itself by purporting to liberate, or save, Afghan women? Does anthropology have anything to offer in our search for a viable position to take regarding this rationale for war?
I was led to pose the question of my title in part because
of the way I personally experienced the response to the U,S,
war in Afghanistan. Like many colleagues whose work has
focused on women and gender in the Middle East, I was deluged with invitations to speaknot just on news programs
but also to various departments at colleges and universities,
especially women’s studies programs. Why did this not please
me, a scholar who has devoted more than 20 years of her life
to this subject and who has some complicated personal connection to this identity? Here was an opportunity to spread
the word, disseminate my knowledge, and correct misunderstandings. The urgent search for knowledge about our sister
“women of cover” (as President George Bush so marvelously
called them) is laudable and when it comes from women’s
studies programs where “transnational feminism” is now
being taken seriously, it has a certain integrity (see Safire 2001),
My discomfort led me to reflect on why, as feminists in
or from the West, or simply as people who have concerns
about women’s lives, we need to be wary of this response to
the events and aftermath of September 11, 2001, 1 want to
point out the minefieldsa metaphor that is sadly too apt
for a country like Afghanistan, with the world’s highest
number of mines per capitaof this obsession with the
plight of Muslim women, 1 hope to show some way through
them using insights from anthropology, the discipline whose
charge has been to understand and manage cultural difference, At the same time, I want to remain critical of anthropology’s complicity in the reification of cultural difference,
It is easier to see why one should be skeptical about the focus on the “Muslim woman” if one begins with the U.S.
784 American Anthropologist Vol. 104, No. 3 September 2002
public response. I will analyze two manifestations of this
response: some conversations I had with a reporter from
the PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and First Lady Laura Bush’s
radio address to the nation on November 17, 2001, The
presenter from the NewsHour show first contacted me in
October to see if I was willing to give some background for
a segment on Women and Islam, I mischievously asked
whether she had done segments on the women of Guatemala, Ireland, Palestine, or Bosnia when the show covered
wars in those regions; but I finally agreed to look at the
questions she was going to pose to panelists, The questions were hopelessly general. Do Muslim women believe
“x”? Are Muslim women “y”? Does Islam allow “z” for
women? 1 asked her: If you were to substitute Christian or
Jewish wherever you have Muslim, would these questions
make sense? I did not imagine she would call me back, But
she did, twice, once with an idea for a segment on the
meaning of Ramadan and another time on Muslim
women in politics. One was in response to the bombing
and the other to the speeches by Laura Bush and Cherie
Blair, wife of the British Prime Minister.
What is striking about these three ideas for news programs is that there was a consistent resort to the cultural,
as if knowing something about women and Islam or the
meaning of a religious ritual would help one understand
the tragic attack on New York’s World Trade Center and
the U.S. Pentagon, or how Afghanistan had come to be
ruled by the Taliban, or what interests might have fueled
US, and other interventions in the region over the past 25
years, or what the history of American support for conservative groups funded to undermine the Soviets might
have been, or why the caves and bunkers out of which Bin
Laden was to be smoked “dead or alive, as President Bush
announced on television, were paid for and built by the
In other words, the question is why knowing about
the “culture” of the region, and particularly its religious
beliefs and treatment of women, was more urgent than exploring the history of the development of repressive regimes in the region and the U.S. role in this history, Such
cultural framing, it seemed to me, prevented the serious
exploration of the roots and nature of human suffering in
this part of the world, Instead of political and historical
explanations, experts were being asked to give religiocultural ones, Instead of questions that might lead to the
exploration of global interconnections, we were offered
ones that worked to artificially divide the world into separate spheresrecreating an imaginative geography of West
versus East, us versus Muslims, cultures in which First Ladies
give speeches versus others where women shuffle around
silently in burqas,
Most pressing for me was why the Muslim woman in
general, and the Afghan woman in particular, were so crucial to this cultural mode of explanation, which ignored
the complex entanglements in which we are all implicated,
in sometimes surprising alignments, Why were these female symbols being mobilized in this “War against Terrorism” in a way they were not in other conflicts? Laura Bush’s
radio address on November 17 reveals the political work
such mobilization accomplishes, On the one hand, her address collapsed important distinctions that should have
been maintained, There was a constant slippage between
the Taliban and the terrorists, so that they became almost
one worda kind of hyphenated monster identity: the
Taliban-and-the-terrorists. Then there was the blurring of
the very separate causes in Afghanistan of women’s continuing malnutrition, poverty, and ill health, and their
more recent exclusion under the Taliban from employment, schooling, and the joys of wearing nail polish, On
the other hand, her speech reinforced chasmic divides,
primarily between the “civilized people throughout the
world” whose hearts break for the women and children of
Afghanistan and the Taliban-and-the-terrorists, the cultural monsters who want to, as she put it, “impose their
world on the rest of us,”
Most revealingly, the speech enlisted women to justify American bombing and intervention in Afghanistan
and to make a case for the “War on Terrorism” of which it
was allegedly a part, As Laura Bush said, “Because of our
recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are
no longer imprisoned in their homes, They can listen to
music and teach their daughters without fear of punishment, The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the
rights and dignity of women” (U.S. Government 2002),
These words have haunting resonances for anyone
who has studied colonial history, Many who have worked
on British colonialism in South Asia have noted the use of
the woman question in colonial policies where intervention into sati (the practice of widows immolating themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres), child marriage,
and other practices was used to justify rule, As Gayatri
Chakravorty Spivak (1988) has cynically put it: white men
saving brown women from brown men, The historical record is full of similar cases, including in the Middle East,
In Turn of the Century Egypt, what Leila Ahmed (1992)
has called “colonial feminism” was hard at work, This was
a selective concern about the plight of Egyptian women
that focused on the veil as a sign of oppression but gave
no support to women’s education and was professed loudly
by the same Englishman, Lord Cromer, who opposed women’s suffrage back home.
Sociologist Marnia Lazreg (1994) has offered some
vivid examples of how French colonialism enlisted women to its cause in Algeria, She writes:
Perhaps the most spectacular example of the colonial appropriation of women’s voices, and the silencing of those
among them who had begun to take women revolutionaries .. . as role models by not donning the veil, was the
event of May 16, 1958 [just four years before Algeria finally gained its independence from France after a long
bloody struggle and 130 years of French controlL,A.],
On that day a demonstration was organized by rebellious
French generals in Algiers to show their determination to
keep Algeria French, To give the government of France
evidence that Algerians were in agreement with them, the
Abu-Lughod Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? 785
generals had a few thousand native men bused in from
nearby villages, along with a few women who were solemnly unveiled by French women. .. Rounding up Algerians and bringing them to demonstrations of loyalty to
France was not in itself an unusual act during the colonial
era, But to unveil women at a to the event a symbolic dimension that
dramatized the one constant feature of the Algerian occupation by France: its obsession with women. [Lazreg
Lazreg (1994) also gives memorable examples of the
way in which the French had earlier sought to transform
Arab women and girls, She describes skits at awards ceremonies at the Muslim Girls’ School in Algiers in 1851 and
1852, In the fust skit, wiitten by “a Fiench lady from Algieis,’ two Algerian Arab girls Teminisced about theiT trip
to France with woids including the following:
Oh! Protective France: Oh! Hospitable France!. ..
Noble land, where I felt free
Under Christian skies to pray to our God:.. ,
God bless you for the happiness you bring us!
And you, adoptive mother, who taught us
That we have a share of this world,
We will cherish you forever! [Lazreg 1994:68-69]
These girls are made to invoke the gift of a share of
this world, a world where freedom reigns under Christian
skies. This is not the woild the Taliban-and-the-tenorists
would “like to impose on the Test of us,’
Just as I aigued above that we need to be suspicious
when neat cultural icons aie plastered over messier historical and political nanatives, so we need to be wary when
Loid Ciomei in Biitish-iuled Egypt, Fiench ladies in Algeria, and LauTa Bush, all with military tioops behind them,
claim to be saving or liberating Muslim women,
I want now to look rnoie closely at those Afghan women
Lama Bush claimed were ‘rejoicing” at theiT liberation by
the Americans, This necessitates a discussion of the veil, OT
the bUTqa, because it is so central to contemporary concerns about Muslim women, This will set the stage for a
discussion of how anthropologists, feminist anthropologists in particular, contend with the problem of difference
in a global world. In the conclusion, I will return to the
rhetoric of saving Muslim women and offer an alternative,
It is common popular knowledge that the ultimate
sign of the oppression of Afghan women under the Taliban-and-the-terrorists is that they were forced to wear the
burqa. Liberals sometimes confess their surprise that even
though Afghanistan has been liberated from the Taliban,
women do not seem to be throwing off their burqas.
Someone who has worked in Muslim regions must ask
why this is so surprising, Did we expect that once “free”
from the Taliban they would go “back” to belly shirts and
blue jeans, or dust off their Chanel suits? We need to be
more sensible about the clothing of “women of cover,
and so there is perhaps a need to make some basic points
about veiling,
First, it should be recalled that the Taliban did not invent the burqa, It was the local form of covering that
Pashtun women in one region wore when they went out,
The Pashtun are one of several ethnic groups in Afghanistan and the burqa was one of many forms of covering in
the subcontinent and Southwest Asia that has developed
as a convention for symbolizing women’s modesty or respectability. The burqa, like some other forms of “cover”
has, in many settings, marked the symbolic separation of
men’s and women’s spheres, as part of the general association of women with family and home, not with public
space where strangers mingled.
Twenty years ago the anthropologist Hanna Papanek
(1982), who worked in Pakistan, described the burqa as
“portable seclusion.’ She noted that many saw it as a liberating invention because it enabled women to move out
of segregated living spaces while still observing the basic
moral requirements of separating and protecting women
from unrelated men. Ever since I came across her phrase
portable seclusion, I have thought of these enveloping
robes as “mobile homes,” Everywhere, such veiling signifies belonging to a particular community and participating in a moral way of life in which families are paramount
in the organization of communities and the home is associated with the sanctity of women.
The obvious question that follows is this: If this were
the case, why would women suddenly become immodest?
Why would they suddenly throw off the markers of their
respectability, markers, whether burqas or other forms of
cover, which were supposed to assure their protection in
the public sphere from the harassment of strange men by
symbolically signaling to all that they were still in the inviolable space of their homes, even though moving in the
public realm? Especially when these are forms of dress that
had become so conventional that most women gave little
thought to their meaning,
To draw some analogies, none of them perfect, why
are we surprised that Afghan women do not throw off
their burqas when we know perfectly well that it would
not be appropriate to wear shorts to the opera? At the time
these discussions of Afghan women’s burqas were raging,
a friend of mine was chided by her husband for suggesting
she wanted to wear a pantsuit to a fancy wedding; “You
know you don’t wear pants to a WASP wedding,’ he reminded her. New Yorkers know that the beautifully coiffed Hasidic women, who look so fashionable next to their
dour husbands in black coats and hats, are wearing wigs,
This is because religious belief and community standards
of propriety require the covering of the hair, They also alter boutique fashions to include high necks and long
sleeves, As anthropologists know perfectly well, people
wear the appropriate form of dress for their social communities and are guided by socially shared standards, religious beliefs, and moral ideals, unless they deliberately
transgress to make a point or are unable to afford proper
cover. If we think that U.S. women live in a world of
786 American Anthropologist Vol. 104, No, 3 September 2002
choice regarding clothing, all we need to do is remind ourselves of the expression, “the tyranny of fashion,’
What had happened in Afghanistan under the Taliban
is that one regional style of covering OT veiling, associated
with a certain Tespectable but not elite class, was imposed
on everyone as “religiously” appropriate, even though previously there had been many different styles, popular or
traditional with different groups and classesdifferent
ways to mark women’s propriety, or, in more recent times,
religious piety. Although I am not an expert on Afghanistan, I imagine that the majority of women left in Afghanistan by the time the Taliban took control were the
rural or less educated, from nonelite families, since they
were the only ones who could not emigrate to escape the
hardship and violence that has marked Afghanistan’s recent history, If liberated from the enforced wearing of burqas, most of these women would choose some other form
of modest headcovering, like all those living nearby who
were not under the Talibantheir rural Hindu counterparts in the North of India (who cover their heads and veil
their faces from affines) or their Muslim sisters in Pakistan,
Even The New York Times carried an article about Afghan women refugees in Pakistan that attempted to educate readers about this local variety (Fremson 2001), The
article describes and pictures everything from the nowiconic burqa with the embroidered eyeholes, which a
Pashtun woman explains is the proper dress for her community, to large scarves they call chadors, to the new Islamic modest dress that wearers refer to as hijab, Those in
the new Islamic dress are characteristically students heading for professional careers, especially in medicine, just
like their counterparts from Egypt to Malaysia, One wearing the large scarf was a school principal; the other was a
poor street vendor, The telling quote from the young
street vendor is, “If I did [wear the burqa] the refugees
would tease me because the burqa is for ‘good women’
who stay inside the home” (Fremson 2001:14), Here you
can see the local status associated with the burqait is for
good respectable women from strong families who are not
forced to make a living selling on the street.
The British newspaper The Guardian published an interview in January 2002 with Dr, Suheila Siddiqi, a respected surgeon in Afghanistan who holds the rank of
lieutenant general in the Afghan medical corps (Goldenberg 2002), A woman in her sixties, she comes from an
elite family and, like her sisters, was educated. Unlike
most women of her class, she chose not to go into exile,
She is presented in the article as “the woman who stood
up to the Taliban” because she refused to wear the burqa.
She had made it a condition of returning to her post as
head of a major hospital when the Taliban came begging
in 1996, just eight months after firing her along with
other women, Siddiqi is described as thin, glamorous, and
confident, But further into the article it is noted that her
graying bouffant hair is covered in a gauzy veil, This is a
reminder that though she refused the burqa, she had no
question about wearing the chador or scarf.
Finally, I need to make a crucial point about veiling,
Not only are there many forms of covering, which themselves have different meanings in the communities in
which they are used, but also veiling itself must not be
confused with, or made to stand for, lack of agency. As I
have argued in my ethnography of a Bedouin community
in Egypt in the late 1970s and 1980s (1986), pulling the
black head cloth over the face in front of older respected
men is considered a voluntary act by women who are
deeply committed to being moral and have a sense of
honor tied to family. One of the ways they show their
standing is by covering their faces in certain contexts,
They decide for whom they feel it is appropriate to veil,
To take a very different case, the modern Islamic modest dress that many educated women across the Muslim
world have taken on since the mid-1970s now both publicly marks piety and can be read as a sign of educated urban sophistication, a sort of modernity (e.g., Abu-Lughod
1995, 1998; Brenner 1996; El Guindi 1999; MacLeod 1991;
Ong 1990), As Saba Mahmood (2001) has so brilliantly
shown in her ethnography of women in the mosque
movement in Egypt, this new form of dress is also perceived by many of the women who adopt it as part of a
bodily means to cultivate virtue, the outcome of their professed desire to be close to God,
Two points emerge from this fairly basic discussion of
the meanings of veiling in the contemporary Muslim
world, First, we need to work against the reductive interpretation of veiling as the quintessential sign of women’s
unfreedom, even if we object to state imposition of this
form, as in Iran or with the Taliban, (It must be recalled
that the modernizing states of Turkey and Iran had earlier
in the century banned veiling and required men, except
religious clerics, to adopt Western dress.) What does freedom mean if we accept the fundamental premise that humans are social beings, always raised in certain social and
historical contexts and belonging to particular communities that shape their desires and understandings of the
world? Is it not a gross violation of women’s own understandings of what they are doing to simply denounce the
burqa as a medieval imposition? Second, we must take
care not to reduce the diverse situations and attitudes of
millions of Muslim women to a single item of clothing,
Perhaps it is time to give up the Western obsession with
the veil and focus on some serious issues with which feminists and others should indeed be concerned,
Ultimately, the significant political-ethical problem
the burqa raises is how to deal with cultural “others,” How
are we to deal with difference without accepting the passivity implied by the cultural relativism for which anthropologists are justly famousa relativism that says it’s their
culture and it’s not my business to judge or interfere, only
to try to understand, Cultural relativism is certainly an improvement on ethnocentrism and the racism, cultural imperialism, and imperiousness that underlie it; the problem
is that it is too late not to interfere, The forms of lives we
Abu-Lughod Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? 787
find around the world are already products of long histories of interactions,
I want to explore the issues of women, cultural relativism, and the problems of “difference” from three angles,
First, I want to consider what feminist anthropologists
(those stuck in that awkward relationship, as Strathern
[1987] has claimed) are to do with strange political bedfellows, I used to feel torn when I received the for the last few years in defense of Afghan
women under the Taliban, I was not sympathetic to the
dogmatism of the Taliban; I do not support the oppression
of women, But the provenance of the campaign worried
me, I do not usually find myself in political company with
the likes of Hollywood celebrities (see Hirschkind and
Mahmood 2002), I had never received a petition from
such women defending the right of Palestinian women to
safety from Israeli bombing or daily harassment at checkpoints, asking the United States to reconsider its support
for a government that had dispossessed them, closed them
out from work and citizenship rights, refused them the
most basic freedoms. Maybe some of these same people
might be signing petitions to save African women from
genital cutting, or Indian women from dowry deaths,
However, I do not think that it would be as easy to mobilize so many of these American and Ewopean women if it
were not a case of Muslim men oppressing Muslim women
women of cover for whom they can feel sorry and in relation to whom they can feel smugly superior, Would television diva Oprah Winfrey host the Women in Black, the
women’s peace group from Israel, as she did RAWA, the
Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan, who
were also granted the Glamour Magazine Women of the
Year Award? What are we to make of post-Taliban “Reality
Tours” such as the one advertised on the internet by
Global Exchange for March 2002 under the title “Courage
and Tenacity: A Women’s Delegation to Afghanistan”?
The rationale for the $1,400 tour is that “with the removal
of the Taliban government, Afghan women, for the first
time in the past decade, have the opportunity to reclaim
their basic human rights and establish their role as equal
citizens by participating in the rebuilding of their nation,”
The tour’s objective, to celebrate International Women’s
Week, is “to develop awareness of the concerns and issues
the Afghan women are facing as well as to witness the
changing political, economic, and social conditions which
have created new opportunities for the women of Afghanistan” (Global Exchange 2002),
To be critical of this celebration of women’s rights in
Afghanistan is not to pass judgment on any local women’s
organizations, such as RAWA, whose members have courageously worked since 1977 for a democratic secular Afghanistan in which women’s human rights are respected,
against Soviet-backed regimes or U,S,-, Saudi-, and Pakistanisupported conservatives, Their documentation of abuse
and their work through clinics and schools have been
enormously important,
It is also not to fault the campaigns that exposed the
dreadful conditions under which the Taliban placed
women, The Feminist Majority campaign helped put a
stop to a secret oil pipeline deal between the Taliban and
the U,S, multinational Unocal that was going forward
with U,S, administration support, Western feminist campaigns must not be confused with the hypocrisies of the
new colonial feminism of a Republican president who was
not elected for his progressive stance on feminist issues or
of administrations that played down the terrible record of
violations of women by the United State’s allies in the
Northern Alliance, as documented by Human Rights
Watch and Amnesty International, among others, Rapes
and assaults were widespread in the period of infighting
that devastated Afghanistan before the Taliban came in to
restore order,
It is, however, to suggest that we need to look closely
at what we are supporting (and what we are not) and to
think carefully about why, How should we manage the
complicated politics and ethics of finding ourselves in
agreement with those with whom we normally disagree? I
do not know how many feminists who felt good about
saving Afghan women fTom the Taliban are also asking for
a global redistribution of wealth or contemplating sacrificing their own consumption radically so that African or Afghan women could have some chance of having what I do
believe should be a universal human rightthe right to
freedom from the structural violence of global inequality
and from the ravages of war, the everyday rights of having
enough to eat, having homes for their families in which to
live and thrive, having ways to make decent livings so
their children can grow, and having the strength and security to work out, within their communities and with whatever alliances they want, how to live a good life, which
might very well include changing the ways those communities are organized,
Suspicion about bedfellows is only a first step; it will
not give us a way to think more positively about what to
do or where to stand, For that, we need to confront two
more big issues. First is the acceptance of the possibility of
difference, Can we only free Afghan women to be like us
or might we have to recognize that even after “liberation”
from the Taliban, they might want different things than
we would want for them? What do we do about that? Second, we need to be vigilant about the rhetoric of saving
people because of what it implies about our attitudes.
Again, when I talk about accepting difference, I am
not implying that we should resign ourselves to being cultural relativists who respect whatever goes on elsewhere as
“just their culture,” I have already discussed the dangers of
“cultural” explanations; “their” cultures are just as much
part of history and an interconnected world as ours are.
What I am advocating is the hard work involved in recognizing and respecting differencesprecisely as products of
different histories, as expressions of different circumstances, and as manifestations of differently structured desires, We may want justice for women, but can we accept
788 American Anthropologist Vol. 104, No, 3 September 2002
that there might be different ideas about justice and that
different women might want, or choose, different futures
from what we envision as best (see Ong 1988)? We must
consider that they might be called to personhood, so to
speak, in a different language.
Reports from the Bonn peace conference held in late
November to discuss the rebuilding of Afghanistan revealed
significant differences among the few Afghan women
feminists and activists present. RAWA’s position was to reject any conciliatory approach to Islamic governance, According to one report I read, most women activists, especially those based in Afghanistan who are aware of the
realities on the ground, agreed that Islam had to be the
starting point for reform. Fatima Gailani, a U.S.-based advisor to one of the delegations, is quoted as saying, “If I go
to Afghanistan today and ask women for votes on the
promise to bring them secularism, they are going to tell
me to go to hell.’ Instead, according to one report, most
of these women looked for inspiration on how to fight for
equality to a place that might seem surprising. They looked
to Iran as a country in which they saw women making
significant gains within an Islamic frameworkin part
through an Islamically oriented feminist movement that
is challenging injustices and reinterpreting the religious
The situation in Iran is itself the subject of heated debate within feminist circles, especially among Iranian
feminists in the West (e.g., Mir-Hosseini 1999; Moghissi
1999; Najmabadi 1998, 2000), It is not clear whether and
in what ways women have made gains and whether the
great increases in literacy, decreases in birthrates, presence
of women in the professions and government, and a feminist flourishing in cultural fields like writing and filmmaking are because of or despite the establishment of a socalled Islamic Republic, The concept of an Islamic
feminism itself is also controversial, Is it an oxymoron or
does it refer to a viable movement forged by brave women
who want a third way?
One of the things we have to be most careful about in
thinking about Third World feminisms, and feminism in
different parts of the Muslim world, is how not to fall into
polarizations that place feminism on the side of the West,
I have written about the dilemmas faced by Arab feminists
when Western feminists initiate campaigns that make
them vulnerable to local denunciations by conservatives
of various sorts, whether Islamist or nationalist, of being
traitors (Abu-Lughod 2001), As some like Afsaneh Najmabadi are now arguing, not only is it wrong to see history simplistically in terms of a putative opposition between Islam and the West (as is happening in the United
States now and has happened in parallel in the Muslim
world), but it is also strategically dangerous to accept this
cultural opposition between Islam and the West, between
fundamentalism and feminism, because those many people within Muslim countries who are trying to find alternatives to present injustices, those who might want to refuse the divide and take from different histories and
cultures, who do not accept that being feminist means being Western, will be under pressure to choose, just as we
are: Are you with us or against us?
My point is to remind us to be aware of differences, respectful of other paths toward social change that might
give women better lives, Can there be a liberation that is
Islamic? And, beyond this, is liberation even a goal for
which all women or people strive? Are emancipation,
equality, and rights part of a universal language we must
use? To quote Saba Mahmood, writing about the women
in Egypt who are seeking to become pious Muslims, “The
desire for freedom and liberation is a historically situated
desire whose motivational force cannot be assumed a priori, but needs to be reconsidered in light of other desires,
aspirations, and capacities that inhere in a culturally and
historically located subject” (2001:223), In other words,
might other desires be more meaningful for different
groups of people? Living in close families? Living in a
godly way? Living without war? I have done fieldwork in
Egypt over more than 20 years and I cannot think of a single woman I know, from the poorest rural to the most educated cosmopolitan, who has ever expressed envy of U.S.
women, women they tend to perceive as bereft of community, vulnerable to sexual violence and social anomie,
driven by individual success rather than morality, or
strangely disrespectful of God,
Mahmood (2001) has pointed out a disturbing thing
that happens when one argues for a respect for other traditions, She notes that there seems to be a difference in the
political demands made on those who work on or are trying to understand Muslims and Islamists and those who
work on secular-humanist projects, She, who studies the
piety movement in Egypt, is consistently pressed to denounce all the harm done by Islamic movements around
the worldotherwise she is accused of being an apologist,
But there never seems to be a parallel demand for those
who study secular humanism and its projects, despite the
terrible violences that have been associated with it over
the last couple of centuries, from world wars to colonialism, from genocides to slavery, We need to have as little
dogmatic faith in secular humanism as in lslamism, and as
open a mind to the complex possibilities of human projects undertaken in one tradition as the other,
Let us return, finally, to my title, “Do Muslim Women
Need Saving?” The discussion of culture, veiling, and how
one can navigate the shoals of cultural difference should
put Laura Bush’s self-congratulation about the rejoicing of
Afghan women liberated by American troops in a different
light, It is deeply problematic to construct the Afghan
woman as someone in need of saving, When you save
someone, you imply that you are saving her from something, You are also saving her to something, What violences are entailed in this transformation, and what presumptions are being made about the superiority of that to
Abu-Lughod Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? 789
which you are saving her? Projects of saving other women
depend on and TeinfoTce a sense of superiority by Westerners, a form of arrogance that deserves to be challenged,
All one needs to do to appreciate the patronizing quality
of the rhetoric of saving women is to imagine using it today in the United States about disadvantaged gioups such
as African American women or woiking-class women, We
now understand them as suffering from structural violence,
We have become politicized about race and class, but not
As anthropologists, feminists, OT concerned citizens,
we should be waiy of taking on the mantles of those 19thcentury Christian missionary women who devoted theiT
lives to saving theiT Muslim sisteis, One of my favorite
documents fiom that period is a collection called Our Moslem Sisters, the proceedings of a conference of women missionaries held in Cairo in 1906 (Van Sommer and Zwemmer 1907), The subtitle of the book is A Cry of Need from
the Lands of Darkness Interpreted by Those Who Heard It,
Speaking of the ignorance, seclusion, polygamy, and veiling that blighted women’s lives across the Muslim world,
the missionary women spoke of theiT responsibility to
make these women’s voices heard, As the introduction
states, “They will never cry for themselves, for they are
down under the yoke of centuries of oppression” (Van
Sommer and Zwemer 1907:15), “This book,’ it begins,
‘with its sad, reiterated story of wrong and oppression is
an indictment and an appeal, It is an appeal to Christian womanhood to right these wrongs and enlighten this
darkness by sacrifice and service” (Van Sommer and Zwemer 1907:5).
One can hear uncanny echoes of their virtuous goals
today, even though the language is secular, the appeals
not to Jesus but to human rights or the liberal West. The
continuing currency of such imagery and sentiments can
be seen in their deployment for perfectly good humanitarian causes. In February 2002, I received an invitation to a
reception honoring an international medical humanitarian network called Medecins du Monde/Doctors of the
World (MdM), Under the sponsorship of the French Ambassador to the United States, the Head of the delegation
of the European Commission to the United Nations, and a
member of the European Parliament, the cocktail reception was to feature an exhibition of photographs under
the cliched title “Afghan Women: Behind the Veil.”
The invitation was remarkable not just for the colorful
photograph of women in flowing burqas walking across
the barren mountains of Afghanistan but also for the text,
a portion of which I quote:
For 20 years MdM has been ceaselessly struggling to help
those who are most vulnerable. But increasingly, thick
veils cover the victims of the war. When the Taliban came
to power in 1996, Afghan Women became faceless. To unveil one’s face while receiving medical care was to achieve
a sort of intimacy, find a brief space for secret freedom
and recover a little of one’s dignity. In a country where
women had no access to basic medical care because they
did not have the right to appear in public, where women
had no right to practice medicine, MdM’s program stood
as a stubborn reminder of human rights.. . . Please join us
in helping to lift the veil.
Although I cannot take up here the fantasies of intimacy associated with unveiling, fantasies reminiscent of
the French colonial obsessions so brilliantly unmasked by
Alloula in The Colonial Harem (1986), 1 can ask why humanitarian projects and human rights discourse in the
21st century need rely on such constructions of Muslim
Could we not leave veils and vocations of saving others behind and instead train our sights on ways to make
the world a more just place? The reason respect for difference should not be confused with cultural relativism is
that it does not preclude asking how we, living in this
privileged and powerful part of the world, might examine
our own responsibilities for the situations in which others
in distant places have found themselves. We do not stand
outside the world, looking out over this sea of poor benighted people, living under the shadowor veilof oppressive cultures; we are part of that world, Islamic movements themselves have arisen in a world shaped by the
intense engagements of Western powers in Middle Eastern
A more productive approach, it seems to me, is to ask
how we might contribute to making the world a more just
place, A world not organized around strategic military and
economic demands; a place where certain kinds of forces
and values that we may still consider important could
have an appeal and where there is the peace necessary for
discussions, debates, and transformations to occur within
communities, We need to ask ourselves what kinds of
world conditions we could contribute to making such that
popular desires will not be overdetermined by an overwhelming sense of helplessness in the face of forms of
global injustice, Where we seek to be active in the affairs
of distant places, can we do so in the spirit of support for
those within those communities whose goals are to make
women’s (and men’s) lives better (as Walley has argued in
relation to practices of genital cutting in Africa, [1997])?
Can we use a more egalitarian language of alliances, coalitions, and solidarity, instead of salvation?
Even RAWA, the now celebrated Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, which was so instrumental in bringing to U.S. women’s attention the excesses of the Taliban, has opposed the U.S. bombing from
the beginning. They do not see in it Afghan women’s salvation but increased hardship and loss. They have long
called for disarmament and for peacekeeping forces,
Spokespersons point out the dangers of confusing governments with people, the Taliban with innocent Afghans
who will be most harmed. They consistently remind audiences to take a close look at the ways policies are being organized around oil interests, the arms industry, and the
international drug trade. They are not obsessed with the
veil, even though they are the most radical feminists working for a secular democratic Afghanistan. Unfortunately,
790 American Anthropologist Vol. 104, No, 3 September 2002
only their messages about the excesses of the Taliban have
been heard, even though theiT criticisms of those in poweT
in Afghanistan have included pievious legimes. A first
step in hearing their wideT message is to break with the
language of alien cultures, whether to understand or
eliminate them. Missionary work and colonial feminism
belong in the past, Our task is to critically explore what we
might do to help create a world in which those poor Afghan
women, for whom “the hearts of those in the civilized
world break, can have safety and decent lives,
of Anthropology, Columbia
University, New York, NY 10027
Acknowledgments. 1 want to thank Page Jackson, Fran Mascia-Lees,
Tim Mitchell, Rosalind Morris, Anupama Rao, and members of the
audience at the symposium “Responding to War,” sponsored by
Columbia University’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender (where I presented an earlier version), for helpful comments,
references, clippings, and encouragement.
Abu-Lughod, Lila
1986 Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society.
Berkeley: University of California Press.
1995 Movie Stars and Islamic Moralism in Egypt. Social Text
1998 Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle
East. Princeton; Princeton University Press.
2001 Orientalism and Middle East Feminist Studies. Feminist Studies 27(l):101-ll3,
Ahmed, Leila
1992 Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press,
Alloula, Malek
1986 The Colonial Harem, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Brenner, Suzanne
1996 Reconstructing Self and Society: Javanese Muslim Women
and “the Veil.” American Ethnologist 23(4):673-697.
El Guindi, Fadwa
1999 Veil: Modesty, Privacy and Resistance. Oxford: Berg.
Fremson, Ruth
2001 Allure Must Be Covered. Individuality Peeks Through. New
York Times, November 4:14.
Global Exchange
2002 Courage and Tenacity: A Women’s Delegation to Afghanistan. Electronic document,
html. Accessed February 11.
Goldenberg, Suzanne
2002 The Woman Who Stood Up to the Taliban, The Guardian,
January 24, Electronic document,
afghanis tan/story/0,1284,63840,
Hirschkind, Charles, and Saba Mahmood
2002 Feminism, the Taliban, and the Politics of Counter-Insurgency. Anthropological Quarterly, Volume 75(2): 107-122.
Lazreg, Marnia
1994 The Eloquence of Silence: Algerian Women in Question,
New York: Routledge,
MacLeod, Arlene
1991 Accommodating Protest. New York; Columbia University
Mahmood, Saba
2001 Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some
Reflections on the Egyptian Islamic Revival, Cultural Anthropology 16(2):202-235.
Mir-Hosseini, Ziba
1999 Islam and Gender: The Religious Debate in Contemporary
Iran. Princeton: Princeton University Press,
Moghissi, Haideh
1999 Feminism and Islamic Fundamentalism, London: Zed Books.
Najmabadi, Afsaneh.
1998 Feminism in an Islamic Republic. In Islam, Gender and Social Change. Yvonne Haddad and John Esposito, eds. Pp. 59-84.
New York: Oxford University Press.
2000 (Un)Veiling Feminism. Social Text 64:29-15.
Ong, Aihwa
1988 Colonialism and Modernity: Feminist Re-Presentations of
Women in Non-Western Societies. Inscriptions 3-4:79-93.
1990 State Versus Islam; Malay Families, Women’s Bodies, and the
Body Politic in Malaysia. American Ethnologist 17(2):258-276.
Papanek, Hanna
1982 Purdah in Pakistan: Seclusion and Modern Occupations for
Women. In Separate Worlds. Hanna Papanek and Gail Minault,
eds. Pp. 190-216. Columbus, MO: South Asia Books,
Safire, William
2001 “On Language.” New York Times Magazine, October 28; 22,
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty
1988 Can the Subaltern Speak? In Marxism and the Interpretation
of Culture, Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, eds. Pp.
271-313. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Strathern, Marilyn
1987 An Awkward Relationship: The Case of Feminism and Anthropology. Signs 12:276-292.
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1907 Our Moslem Sisters: A Cry of Need from Lands of Darkness
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