To prepare for an upcoming exam I read and analyzed an in-depth interview discussing the perceptions about Muslim women from a Western, primarily American, perspective. During the interview, which took place only six months after 9/11, Nermeen Shaikh of The Asia Society asks Lila Abu-Lughod, Professor of Anthropology and Women's and Gender Studies at Columbia University in New York to expound her take on the image of Muslim women, specifically Muslim Afghan women, in the wake of the American war in Afghanistan. Both the questions and the answers are thought provoking and leave readers with food for thought on the relationship between modern Western feminism and the condition of Muslim women.
Abu-Lughod claims that comprehension of any modern society begins with its history. To understand its issues, customs, and other cultural aspects one must be aware of the major historical influences in that region. She argues that this is true for people in any region, not just places where Islam is a popular or primary religion; just as it is for the United States and Western Europe, where Christianity leaves an unmistakable imprint on history and present day functioning. Instead of looking at the customs of "Muslim societies" and attempting to uncover its differences against European and American societies, we should search for the details that connect them, because, despite what many people (both Western and Muslim) may believe, we are more alike than we are different.
She also brings up the point that we are not so quick to jump to conclusions (especially such negative ones) about "Guatemalan women, Vietnamese women (or Buddhist women), Palestinian women, or Bosnian women when trying to understand [the conflicts in their countries]." The popularity of certain stereotypes and preconceptions against Muslims are likely due to America's lack of cultural inter connectivity with the Eastern world and the tragedies that America has endured because of certain terrorist groups who claim their actions are in the name of Islam or Islamic values. The West's experiences have given Islam and it's followers, for some people, a bad rap.
Many aspects of societies around the world cannot be understood without reference to the history and influences of the major religions in terms of which people live their lives. This is just as true for people living in the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia and other Muslim regions as it is for those living in Europe and the United States, where Christianity has historically dominated. The point to stress is that despite this, it is just as unhelpful to reduce the complex politics, social dynamics, and diversity of lives in the U.S. to Christianity as it is to reduce these things to Islam in other regions."
Shaikh asks Abu-Lughod about her feelings about the "neo-colonial context" that affects the way women in the west view "native women".
The British in India and the French in Algeria both enlisted the support of women for their colonial projects (i.e., part of the colonial enterprise was ostensibly to "save" native women). Do you think the current rhetoric about women in Afghanistan suffers from the same problem? Is there something about the colonial/neo-colonial context that lends itself to this kind of representation (which would explain why such rhetoric cannot be employed for, say, African American women in this country)?"
I took her phrase "neo-colonial context" to be the historical American impression that we know what is best for other nations. A very blunt example that came to mind was a The White Man's Burden, Rudyard Kipling's "hymn to U.S. Imperialism." The poem was written in 1899, at the beginning of the Philippine-American War. Kipling encourages the United States to take up their natural responsibility--The White Man's burden--and govern the black people indigenous to its colonies. His work is demeaning to the identities of people of color and implies that they are incapable of governing themselves.
Go send your sons to exile
I understand that this example may seem a bit extreme considering the oppressive nature of imperialism and how degrading it was for those that were under "the white man's" rule. Here's a more modern, humanized example: American efforts to impose democracy on Middle Eastern countries after 9/11. This pattern of thinking our ways are best is an unmistakable phenomenon throughout our history. It has led our country to give aid and help struggling countries get back on their feet (this aid sometimes appearing genuine and other times appearing as a power move); it has also led to offer unsolicited interference at times.
According to Lila Abu-Lughod, this imperialist sentiment serves as a justification for American intervention: "The problem, of course, with ideas of "saving" other women is that they depend on and reinforce a sense of superiority by westerners." This, she says, is the arrogant attitude that the modern feminist movement needs to keep in check. "When you save someone, you are saving them from something. You are also saving them to something. What presumptions are being made about the superiority of what you are saving them to?" she asks.
Abu-Lughod claims that it would be more obvious if these stereotypes were extended toward Black women in America. It would receive more attention and because "we've become more politicized about problems of race and class."
The reason I brought up African American women, or working class women in the U.S., was that the smug and patronizing assumptions of this missionary rhetoric would be obvious if used at home, because we've become more politicized about problems of race and class. What would happen if white middle class women today said they needed to save those poor African-American women from the oppression of their men?"
I think I understand what she is getting at. If these comments were so widespread within America and were extended toward Americans, people would not stand for it. There would be unrest and protests against this rhetoric. This "they need us" mindset is basically allowed to continue because Americans haven't been called out on it.
The final point that I will discuss is Professor Abu-Lughod's opinion on the burqa and what it means for Muslim women. She agrees with anthropologist Hanna Papanek's take on the garment as "portable seclusion." Abu-Lughod applies her own term: mobile homes. The burqa, she argues, opens the door to more freedom in the life of a woman living in an Islamic society. It allows her to leave her home and "to move about in public and among strange men in societies where women's respectability, and protection, depend on their association with families and the homes which are the center of family lives."
The decision to veil or wear a burqa is due to differing convictions across the Muslim world and, like the politics of Islamic states, should not be put into a single box. Not all Muslim women will choose to wear burqas, and most of those who do are not oppressed and do so because of devotion. Those women who do wear burqas should not be invalidated because of how America defines freedom.
In my opinion, it's a matter of what you value. Some people do not support religion because they see it as think too restricting and stifling for individuality. But the goal in any religion or faith is to live most closely to the guidelines of that religion or faith. And your experiences with those guidelines (or even religion itself) affect the way you view them.
I am a Christian and can only speak from that perspective. A friend of mine recently expressed her concerns and reservations about religion with me. She sees it as too restricting and prefers to live by her own terms. As a Christian there are certain things that I do and do not do because of what my faith says. I choose whether or not to participate in these actions based on my belief that the rules and principles of my faith are meant to make my life easier and more stress/drama free. They help me avoid heartache and headache as often as I can. However, those who do not see value in the goals of a certain religion will not find value in the actions that must be taken and the sacrifices that must be made to achieve those goals.