by L ABU-LUGHOD · 2002 · Cited by 2900 — many of these arguments about the limits of “cultural relativism” through a consideration of the burqa and the many meanings of veil- ing in the

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LILA ABU-LUGHODEthics Forum: September 11 and Ethnographic ResponsibilityDo Muslim Women Really Need Saving?Anthropological Reflections on CulturalRelativism and Its OthersABSTRACT This article explores the ethics of the current “War on Terrorism, asking whether anthropology, the discipline devotedto understanding and dealing with cultural difference, can provide us with critical purchase on the justifications made for Americanintervention in Afghanistan in terms of liberating, or saving, Afghan women. I look first at the dangers of reifying culture, apparent inthe tendencies to plaster neat cultural icons like the Muslim woman over messy historical and political dynamics. Then, calling attentionto the resonances of contemporary discourses on equality, freedom, and rights with earlier colonial and missionary rhetoric on Muslimwomen, I argue that we need to develop, instead, a serious appreciation of differences among women in the worldŠas products ofdifferent histories, expressions of different circumstances, and manifestations of differently structured desires. Further, I argue thatrather 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 largerresponsibilities to address the forms of global injustice that are powerful shapers of the worlds in which they find themselves. I developmany of these arguments about the limits of “cultural relativism” through a consideration of the burqa and the many meanings of veil-ing in the Muslim world. [Keywords: cultural relativism, Muslim women, Afghanistan war, freedom, global injustice, colonialism]WHAT ARE THE ETHICS of the current “Wai onTerrorism, a war that justifies itself by purport-ing to liberate, or save, Afghan women? Does anthropol-ogy have anything to offer in our search for a viable posi-tion to take regarding this rationale for war?I was led to pose the question of my title in part becauseof the way I personally experienced the response to the U,S,war in Afghanistan. Like many colleagues whose work hasfocused on women and gender in the Middle East, I was del-uged with invitations to speakŠnot just on news programsbut also to various departments at colleges and universities,especially women’s studies programs. Why did this not pleaseme, a scholar who has devoted more than 20 years of her lifeto this subject and who has some complicated personal con-nection to this identity? Here was an opportunity to spreadthe word, disseminate my knowledge, and correct misunder-standings. The urgent search for knowledge about our sister”women of cover” (as President George Bush so marvelouslycalled them) is laudable and when it comes from women’sstudies programs where “transnational feminism” is nowbeing taken seriously, it has a certain integrity (see Safire 2001),My discomfort led me to reflect on why, as feminists inor from the West, or simply as people who have concernsabout women’s lives, we need to be wary of this response tothe events and aftermath of September 11, 2001, 1 want topoint out the minefieldsŠa metaphor that is sadly too aptfor a country like Afghanistan, with the world’s highestnumber of mines per capitaŠof this obsession with theplight of Muslim women, 1 hope to show some way throughthem using insights from anthropology, the discipline whosecharge has been to understand and manage cultural differ-ence, At the same time, I want to remain critical of anthro-pology’s complicity in the reification of cultural difference,CULTURAL EXPLANATIONS AND THE MOBILIZATIONOF WOMENIt is easier to see why one should be skeptical about the fo-cus on the “Muslim woman” if one begins with the U.S.AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST 104(3):783-790. COPYRIGHT © 2002. AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGICAL ASSOCIATION

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784 American Anthropologist Vol. 104, No. 3 Ł September 2002public response. I will analyze two manifestations of thisresponse: some conversations I had with a reporter fromthe PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and First Lady Laura Bush’sradio address to the nation on November 17, 2001, Thepresenter from the NewsHour show first contacted me inOctober to see if I was willing to give some background fora segment on Women and Islam, I mischievously askedwhether she had done segments on the women of Guate-mala, Ireland, Palestine, or Bosnia when the show coveredwars in those regions; but I finally agreed to look at thequestions she was going to pose to panelists, The ques-tions were hopelessly general. Do Muslim women believe”x”? Are Muslim women “y”? Does Islam allow “z” forwomen? 1 asked her: If you were to substitute Christian orJewish wherever you have Muslim, would these questionsmake sense? I did not imagine she would call me back, Butshe did, twice, once with an idea for a segment on themeaning of Ramadan and another time on Muslimwomen in politics. One was in response to the bombingand the other to the speeches by Laura Bush and CherieBlair, wife of the British Prime Minister.What is striking about these three ideas for news pro-grams is that there was a consistent resort to the cultural,as if knowing something about women and Islam or themeaning of a religious ritual would help one understandthe tragic attack on New York’s World Trade Center andthe U.S. Pentagon, or how Afghanistan had come to beruled by the Taliban, or what interests might have fueledUS, and other interventions in the region over the past 25years, or what the history of American support for conser-vative groups funded to undermine the Soviets mighthave been, or why the caves and bunkers out of which BinLaden was to be smoked “dead or alive, as President Bushannounced on television, were paid for and built by theCIA,In other words, the question is why knowing aboutthe “culture” of the region, and particularly its religiousbeliefs and treatment of women, was more urgent than ex-ploring the history of the development of repressive re-gimes in the region and the U.S. role in this history, Suchcultural framing, it seemed to me, prevented the seriousexploration of the roots and nature of human suffering inthis part of the world, Instead of political and historicalexplanations, experts were being asked to give religio-cultural ones, Instead of questions that might lead to theexploration of global interconnections, we were offeredones that worked to artificially divide the world into sepa-rate spheresŠrecreating an imaginative geography of Westversus East, us versus Muslims, cultures in which First Ladiesgive speeches versus others where women shuffle aroundsilently in burqas,Most pressing for me was why the Muslim woman ingeneral, and the Afghan woman in particular, were so cru-cial to this cultural mode of explanation, which ignoredthe complex entanglements in which we are all implicated,in sometimes surprising alignments, Why were these fe-male symbols being mobilized in this “War against Terror-ism” in a way they were not in other conflicts? Laura Bush’sradio address on November 17 reveals the political worksuch mobilization accomplishes, On the one hand, her ad-dress collapsed important distinctions that should havebeen maintained, There was a constant slippage betweenthe Taliban and the terrorists, so that they became almostone wordŠa kind of hyphenated monster identity: theTaliban-and-the-terrorists. Then there was the blurring ofthe very separate causes in Afghanistan of women’s con-tinuing malnutrition, poverty, and ill health, and theirmore recent exclusion under the Taliban from employ-ment, schooling, and the joys of wearing nail polish, Onthe other hand, her speech reinforced chasmic divides,primarily between the “civilized people throughout theworld” whose hearts break for the women and children ofAfghanistan and the Taliban-and-the-terrorists, the cul-tural monsters who want to, as she put it, “impose theirworld on the rest of us,”Most revealingly, the speech enlisted women to jus-tify American bombing and intervention in Afghanistanand to make a case for the “War on Terrorism” of which itwas allegedly a part, As Laura Bush said, “Because of ourrecent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women areno longer imprisoned in their homes, They can listen tomusic and teach their daughters without fear of punish-ment, The fight against terrorism is also a fight for therights and dignity of women” (U.S. Government 2002),These words have haunting resonances for anyonewho has studied colonial history, Many who have workedon British colonialism in South Asia have noted the use ofthe woman question in colonial policies where interven-tion into sati (the practice of widows immolating them-selves on their husbands’ funeral pyres), child marriage,and other practices was used to justify rule, As GayatriChakravorty Spivak (1988) has cynically put it: white mensaving brown women from brown men, The historical re-cord 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 wasa selective concern about the plight of Egyptian womenthat focused on the veil as a sign of oppression but gaveno support to women’s education and was professed loudlyby the same Englishman, Lord Cromer, who opposed wo-men’s suffrage back home.Sociologist Marnia Lazreg (1994) has offered somevivid examples of how French colonialism enlisted wo-men to its cause in Algeria, She writes:Perhaps the most spectacular example of the colonial ap-propriation of women’s voices, and the silencing of thoseamong them who had begun to take women revolution-aries as role models by not donning the veil, was theevent of May 16, 1958 [just four years before Algeria fi-nally gained its independence from France after a longbloody struggle and 130 years of French controlŠL,A.],On that day a demonstration was organized by rebelliousFrench generals in Algiers to show their determination tokeep Algeria French, To give the government of Franceevidence that Algerians were in agreement with them, the

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Abu-Lughod Ł Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? 785generals had a few thousand native men bused in fromnearby villages, along with a few women who were sol-emnly unveiled by French women. .. Rounding up Alge-rians and bringing them to demonstrations of loyalty toFrance was not in itself an unusual act during the colonialera, But to unveil women at a well-choreographed cere-mony added to the event a symbolic dimension thatdramatized the one constant feature of the Algerian occu-pation by France: its obsession with women. [Lazreg1994:135]Lazreg (1994) also gives memorable examples of theway in which the French had earlier sought to transformArab women and girls, She describes skits at awards cere-monies at the Muslim Girls’ School in Algiers in 1851 and1852, In the fust skit, wiitten by “a Fiench lady from Al-gieis,’ two Algerian Arab girls Teminisced about theiT tripto France with woids including the following:Oh! Protective France: Oh! Hospitable France!. ..Noble land, where I felt freeUnder Christian skies to pray to our God:.. ,God bless you for the happiness you bring us!And you, adoptive mother, who taught usThat 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 ofthis world, a world where freedom reigns under Christianskies. This is not the woild the Taliban-and-the-tenoristswould “like to impose on the Test of us,’Just as I aigued above that we need to be suspiciouswhen neat cultural icons aie plastered over messier histori-cal and political nanatives, so we need to be wary whenLoid Ciomei in Biitish-iuled Egypt, Fiench ladies in Alge-ria, and LauTa Bush, all with military tioops behind them,claim to be saving or liberating Muslim women,POLITICS OF THE VEILI want now to look rnoie closely at those Afghan womenLama Bush claimed were ‘rejoicing” at theiT liberation bythe Americans, This necessitates a discussion of the veil, OTthe bUTqa, because it is so central to contemporary con-cerns about Muslim women, This will set the stage for adiscussion of how anthropologists, feminist anthropolo-gists in particular, contend with the problem of differencein a global world. In the conclusion, I will return to therhetoric of saving Muslim women and offer an alternative,It is common popular knowledge that the ultimatesign of the oppression of Afghan women under the Tali-ban-and-the-terrorists is that they were forced to wear theburqa. Liberals sometimes confess their surprise that eventhough 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 askwhy this is so surprising, Did we expect that once “free”from the Taliban they would go “back” to belly shirts andblue jeans, or dust off their Chanel suits? We need to bemore sensible about the clothing of “women of cover,and so there is perhaps a need to make some basic pointsabout veiling,First, it should be recalled that the Taliban did not in-vent the burqa, It was the local form of covering thatPashtun women in one region wore when they went out,The Pashtun are one of several ethnic groups in Afghani-stan and the burqa was one of many forms of covering inthe subcontinent and Southwest Asia that has developedas a convention for symbolizing women’s modesty or re-spectability. The burqa, like some other forms of “cover”has, in many settings, marked the symbolic separation ofmen’s and women’s spheres, as part of the general associa-tion of women with family and home, not with publicspace 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 lib-erating invention because it enabled women to move outof segregated living spaces while still observing the basicmoral requirements of separating and protecting womenfrom unrelated men. Ever since I came across her phraseportable seclusion, I have thought of these envelopingrobes as “mobile homes,” Everywhere, such veiling signi-fies belonging to a particular community and participat-ing in a moral way of life in which families are paramountin the organization of communities and the home is asso-ciated with the sanctity of women.The obvious question that follows is this: If this werethe case, why would women suddenly become immodest?Why would they suddenly throw off the markers of theirrespectability, markers, whether burqas or other forms ofcover, which were supposed to assure their protection inthe public sphere from the harassment of strange men bysymbolically signaling to all that they were still in the in-violable space of their homes, even though moving in thepublic realm? Especially when these are forms of dress thathad become so conventional that most women gave littlethought to their meaning,To draw some analogies, none of them perfect, whyare we surprised that Afghan women do not throw offtheir burqas when we know perfectly well that it wouldnot be appropriate to wear shorts to the opera? At the timethese discussions of Afghan women’s burqas were raging,a friend of mine was chided by her husband for suggestingshe wanted to wear a pantsuit to a fancy wedding; “Youknow you don’t wear pants to a WASP wedding,’ he re-minded her. New Yorkers know that the beautifully coif-fed Hasidic women, who look so fashionable next to theirdour husbands in black coats and hats, are wearing wigs,This is because religious belief and community standardsof propriety require the covering of the hair, They also al-ter boutique fashions to include high necks and longsleeves, As anthropologists know perfectly well, peoplewear the appropriate form of dress for their social commu-nities and are guided by socially shared standards, relig-ious beliefs, and moral ideals, unless they deliberatelytransgress to make a point or are unable to afford propercover. If we think that U.S. women live in a world of

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786 American Anthropologist Ł Vol. 104, No, 3 Ł September 2002choice regarding clothing, all we need to do is remind our-selves of the expression, “the tyranny of fashion,’What had happened in Afghanistan under the Talibanis that one regional style of covering OT veiling, associatedwith a certain Tespectable but not elite class, was imposedon everyone as “religiously” appropriate, even though pre-viously there had been many different styles, popular ortraditional with different groups and classesŠdifferentways to mark women’s propriety, or, in more recent times,religious piety. Although I am not an expert on Afghani-stan, I imagine that the majority of women left in Af-ghanistan by the time the Taliban took control were therural or less educated, from nonelite families, since theywere the only ones who could not emigrate to escape thehardship and violence that has marked Afghanistan’s re-cent history, If liberated from the enforced wearing of bur-qas, most of these women would choose some other formof modest headcovering, like all those living nearby whowere not under the TalibanŠtheir rural Hindu counter-parts in the North of India (who cover their heads and veiltheir faces from affines) or their Muslim sisters in Pakistan,Even The New York Times carried an article about Af-ghan women refugees in Pakistan that attempted to edu-cate readers about this local variety (Fremson 2001), Thearticle describes and pictures everything from the now-iconic burqa with the embroidered eyeholes, which aPashtun woman explains is the proper dress for her com-munity, to large scarves they call chadors, to the new Is-lamic modest dress that wearers refer to as hijab, Those inthe new Islamic dress are characteristically students head-ing for professional careers, especially in medicine, justlike their counterparts from Egypt to Malaysia, One wear-ing the large scarf was a school principal; the other was apoor street vendor, The telling quote from the youngstreet vendor is, “If I did [wear the burqa] the refugeeswould tease me because the burqa is for ‘good women’who stay inside the home” (Fremson 2001:14), Here youcan see the local status associated with the burqaŠit is forgood respectable women from strong families who are notforced to make a living selling on the street.The British newspaper The Guardian published an in-terview in January 2002 with Dr, Suheila Siddiqi, a re-spected surgeon in Afghanistan who holds the rank oflieutenant general in the Afghan medical corps (Golden-berg 2002), A woman in her sixties, she comes from anelite family and, like her sisters, was educated. Unlikemost women of her class, she chose not to go into exile,She is presented in the article as “the woman who stoodup to the Taliban” because she refused to wear the burqa.She had made it a condition of returning to her post ashead of a major hospital when the Taliban came beggingin 1996, just eight months after firing her along withother women, Siddiqi is described as thin, glamorous, andconfident, But further into the article it is noted that hergraying bouffant hair is covered in a gauzy veil, This is areminder that though she refused the burqa, she had noquestion 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 them-selves have different meanings in the communities inwhich they are used, but also veiling itself must not beconfused with, or made to stand for, lack of agency. As Ihave argued in my ethnography of a Bedouin communityin Egypt in the late 1970s and 1980s (1986), pulling theblack head cloth over the face in front of older respectedmen is considered a voluntary act by women who aredeeply committed to being moral and have a sense ofhonor tied to family. One of the ways they show theirstanding 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 mod-est dress that many educated women across the Muslimworld have taken on since the mid-1970s now both pub-licly marks piety and can be read as a sign of educated ur-ban sophistication, a sort of modernity (e.g., Abu-Lughod1995, 1998; Brenner 1996; El Guindi 1999; MacLeod 1991;Ong 1990), As Saba Mahmood (2001) has so brilliantlyshown in her ethnography of women in the mosquemovement in Egypt, this new form of dress is also per-ceived by many of the women who adopt it as part of abodily means to cultivate virtue, the outcome of their pro-fessed desire to be close to God,Two points emerge from this fairly basic discussion ofthe meanings of veiling in the contemporary Muslimworld, First, we need to work against the reductive inter-pretation of veiling as the quintessential sign of women’sunfreedom, even if we object to state imposition of thisform, as in Iran or with the Taliban, (It must be recalledthat the modernizing states of Turkey and Iran had earlierin the century banned veiling and required men, exceptreligious clerics, to adopt Western dress.) What does free-dom mean if we accept the fundamental premise that hu-mans are social beings, always raised in certain social andhistorical contexts and belonging to particular communi-ties that shape their desires and understandings of theworld? Is it not a gross violation of women’s own under-standings of what they are doing to simply denounce theburqa as a medieval imposition? Second, we must takecare not to reduce the diverse situations and attitudes ofmillions of Muslim women to a single item of clothing,Perhaps it is time to give up the Western obsession withthe veil and focus on some serious issues with which femi-nists and others should indeed be concerned,Ultimately, the significant political-ethical problemthe burqa raises is how to deal with cultural “others,” Howare we to deal with difference without accepting the pas-sivity implied by the cultural relativism for which anthro-pologists are justly famousŠa relativism that says it’s theirculture and it’s not my business to judge or interfere, onlyto try to understand, Cultural relativism is certainly an im-provement on ethnocentrism and the racism, cultural im-perialism, and imperiousness that underlie it; the problemis that it is too late not to interfere, The forms of lives we

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Abu-Lughod Ł Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? 787find around the world are already products of long histo-ries of interactions,I want to explore the issues of women, cultural relativ-ism, 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 bedfel-lows, I used to feel torn when I received the e-mail peti-tions circulating for the last few years in defense of Afghanwomen under the Taliban, I was not sympathetic to thedogmatism of the Taliban; I do not support the oppressionof women, But the provenance of the campaign worriedme, I do not usually find myself in political company withthe likes of Hollywood celebrities (see Hirschkind andMahmood 2002), I had never received a petition fromsuch women defending the right of Palestinian women tosafety from Israeli bombing or daily harassment at check-points, asking the United States to reconsider its supportfor a government that had dispossessed them, closed themout from work and citizenship rights, refused them themost basic freedoms. Maybe some of these same peoplemight be signing petitions to save African women fromgenital cutting, or Indian women from dowry deaths,However, I do not think that it would be as easy to mobi-lize so many of these American and Ewopean women if itwere not a case of Muslim men oppressing Muslim womenŠwomen of cover for whom they can feel sorry and in rela-tion to whom they can feel smugly superior, Would televi-sion diva Oprah Winfrey host the Women in Black, thewomen’s peace group from Israel, as she did RAWA, theRevolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan, whowere also granted the Glamour Magazine Women of theYear Award? What are we to make of post-Taliban “RealityTours” such as the one advertised on the internet byGlobal Exchange for March 2002 under the title “Courageand Tenacity: A Women’s Delegation to Afghanistan”?The rationale for the $1,400 tour is that “with the removalof the Taliban government, Afghan women, for the firsttime in the past decade, have the opportunity to reclaimtheir basic human rights and establish their role as equalcitizens by participating in the rebuilding of their nation,”The tour’s objective, to celebrate International Women’sWeek, is “to develop awareness of the concerns and issuesthe Afghan women are facing as well as to witness thechanging political, economic, and social conditions whichhave created new opportunities for the women of Afghani-stan” (Global Exchange 2002),To be critical of this celebration of women’s rights inAfghanistan is not to pass judgment on any local women’sorganizations, such as RAWA, whose members have coura-geously worked since 1977 for a democratic secular Af-ghanistan in which women’s human rights are respected,against Soviet-backed regimes or U,S,-, Saudi-, and Pakistani-supported conservatives, Their documentation of abuseand their work through clinics and schools have beenenormously important,It is also not to fault the campaigns that exposed thedreadful conditions under which the Taliban placedwomen, The Feminist Majority campaign helped put astop to a secret oil pipeline deal between the Taliban andthe U,S, multinational Unocal that was going forwardwith U,S, administration support, Western feminist cam-paigns must not be confused with the hypocrisies of thenew colonial feminism of a Republican president who wasnot elected for his progressive stance on feminist issues orof administrations that played down the terrible record ofviolations of women by the United State’s allies in theNorthern Alliance, as documented by Human RightsWatch and Amnesty International, among others, Rapesand assaults were widespread in the period of infightingthat devastated Afghanistan before the Taliban came in torestore order,It is, however, to suggest that we need to look closelyat what we are supporting (and what we are not) and tothink carefully about why, How should we manage thecomplicated politics and ethics of finding ourselves inagreement with those with whom we normally disagree? Ido not know how many feminists who felt good aboutsaving Afghan women fTom the Taliban are also asking fora global redistribution of wealth or contemplating sacrific-ing their own consumption radically so that African or Af-ghan women could have some chance of having what I dobelieve should be a universal human rightŠthe right tofreedom from the structural violence of global inequalityand from the ravages of war, the everyday rights of havingenough to eat, having homes for their families in which tolive and thrive, having ways to make decent livings sotheir children can grow, and having the strength and secu-rity to work out, within their communities and with what-ever alliances they want, how to live a good life, whichmight very well include changing the ways those commu-nities are organized,Suspicion about bedfellows is only a first step; it willnot give us a way to think more positively about what todo or where to stand, For that, we need to confront twomore big issues. First is the acceptance of the possibility ofdifference, Can we only free Afghan women to be like usor might we have to recognize that even after “liberation”from the Taliban, they might want different things thanwe would want for them? What do we do about that? Sec-ond, we need to be vigilant about the rhetoric of savingpeople because of what it implies about our attitudes.Again, when I talk about accepting difference, I amnot implying that we should resign ourselves to being cul-tural 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 muchpart of history and an interconnected world as ours are.What I am advocating is the hard work involved in recog-nizing and respecting differencesŠprecisely as products ofdifferent histories, as expressions of different circum-stances, and as manifestations of differently structured de-sires, We may want justice for women, but can we accept

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788 American Anthropologist Ł Vol. 104, No, 3 Ł September 2002that there might be different ideas about justice and thatdifferent women might want, or choose, different futuresfrom what we envision as best (see Ong 1988)? We mustconsider that they might be called to personhood, so tospeak, in a different language.Reports from the Bonn peace conference held in lateNovember to discuss the rebuilding of Afghanistan revealedsignificant differences among the few Afghan womenfeminists and activists present. RAWA’s position was to re-ject any conciliatory approach to Islamic governance, Ac-cording to one report I read, most women activists, espe-cially those based in Afghanistan who are aware of therealities on the ground, agreed that Islam had to be thestarting point for reform. Fatima Gailani, a U.S.-based ad-visor to one of the delegations, is quoted as saying, “If I goto Afghanistan today and ask women for votes on thepromise to bring them secularism, they are going to tellme to go to hell.’ Instead, according to one report, mostof these women looked for inspiration on how to fight forequality to a place that might seem surprising. They lookedto Iran as a country in which they saw women makingsignificant gains within an Islamic frameworkŠin partthrough an Islamically oriented feminist movement thatis challenging injustices and reinterpreting the religioustradition,The situation in Iran is itself the subject of heated de-bate within feminist circles, especially among Iranianfeminists in the West (e.g., Mir-Hosseini 1999; Moghissi1999; Najmabadi 1998, 2000), It is not clear whether andin what ways women have made gains and whether thegreat increases in literacy, decreases in birthrates, presenceof women in the professions and government, and a femi-nist flourishing in cultural fields like writing and film-making are because of or despite the establishment of a so-called Islamic Republic, The concept of an Islamicfeminism itself is also controversial, Is it an oxymoron ordoes it refer to a viable movement forged by brave womenwho want a third way?One of the things we have to be most careful about inthinking about Third World feminisms, and feminism indifferent parts of the Muslim world, is how not to fall intopolarizations that place feminism on the side of the West,I have written about the dilemmas faced by Arab feministswhen Western feminists initiate campaigns that makethem vulnerable to local denunciations by conservativesof various sorts, whether Islamist or nationalist, of beingtraitors (Abu-Lughod 2001), As some like Afsaneh Naj-mabadi are now arguing, not only is it wrong to see his-tory simplistically in terms of a putative opposition be-tween Islam and the West (as is happening in the UnitedStates now and has happened in parallel in the Muslimworld), but it is also strategically dangerous to accept thiscultural opposition between Islam and the West, betweenfundamentalism and feminism, because those many peo-ple within Muslim countries who are trying to find alter-natives to present injustices, those who might want to re-fuse the divide and take from different histories andcultures, who do not accept that being feminist means be-ing Western, will be under pressure to choose, just as weare: Are you with us or against us?My point is to remind us to be aware of differences, re-spectful of other paths toward social change that mightgive women better lives, Can there be a liberation that isIslamic? And, beyond this, is liberation even a goal forwhich all women or people strive? Are emancipation,equality, and rights part of a universal language we mustuse? To quote Saba Mahmood, writing about the womenin Egypt who are seeking to become pious Muslims, “Thedesire for freedom and liberation is a historically situateddesire whose motivational force cannot be assumed a pri-ori, but needs to be reconsidered in light of other desires,aspirations, and capacities that inhere in a culturally andhistorically located subject” (2001:223), In other words,might other desires be more meaningful for differentgroups of people? Living in close families? Living in agodly way? Living without war? I have done fieldwork inEgypt over more than 20 years and I cannot think of a sin-gle woman I know, from the poorest rural to the most edu-cated cosmopolitan, who has ever expressed envy of U.S.women, women they tend to perceive as bereft of commu-nity, vulnerable to sexual violence and social anomie,driven by individual success rather than morality, orstrangely disrespectful of God,Mahmood (2001) has pointed out a disturbing thingthat happens when one argues for a respect for other tradi-tions, She notes that there seems to be a difference in thepolitical demands made on those who work on or are try-ing to understand Muslims and Islamists and those whowork on secular-humanist projects, She, who studies thepiety movement in Egypt, is consistently pressed to de-nounce all the harm done by Islamic movements aroundthe worldŠotherwise she is accused of being an apologist,But there never seems to be a parallel demand for thosewho study secular humanism and its projects, despite theterrible violences that have been associated with it overthe last couple of centuries, from world wars to colonial-ism, from genocides to slavery, We need to have as littledogmatic faith in secular humanism as in lslamism, and asopen a mind to the complex possibilities of human pro-jects undertaken in one tradition as the other,BEYOND THE RHETORIC OF SALVATIONLet us return, finally, to my title, “Do Muslim WomenNeed Saving?” The discussion of culture, veiling, and howone can navigate the shoals of cultural difference shouldput Laura Bush’s self-congratulation about the rejoicing ofAfghan women liberated by American troops in a differentlight, It is deeply problematic to construct the Afghanwoman as someone in need of saving, When you savesomeone, you imply that you are saving her from some-thing, You are also saving her to something, What vio-lences are entailed in this transformation, and what pre-sumptions are being made about the superiority of that to

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