When the United States and its allies invaded Afghanistan, one of the prominent justifications was liberating the people George W Bush called “women of cover” from the Taliban. Laura Bush told us in 2002 that “the fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women." Similarly, in March 2003, shortly after the United States and its allies invaded Iraq, women's rights and gender equity were mentioned as symbolic issues for Iraq's new national agenda.
Between invasions, anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod reflected on the implications and ethics of the idea that the “war on terrorism” is a way to “save” women of the middle east. In her essay “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?” Abu-Lughod notes that after September 11, 2001, she was deluged with speaking invitations. In October 2001, for instance, one news program contacted her on background for segments on Women and Islam, Muslim women in politics, and the meaning of Ramadan. Abu-Lughod notes,
“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 U.S. 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 CIA."
"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. …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 spheres-recreating 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.”
Abu-Lughod notes that the use of women to justify military interventions has “haunting resonances for anyone who has studied colonial history.” Gayatri Spivak has described the rationalization of British rule in South Asia as “white men saving brown women from brown men.” In turn of the century Egypt, what Leila Ahmed …has called "colonial feminism" [entailed] 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.”
Abu-Lughod notes that the misplaced focus on the veil has continued. But, she asks, drawing an admittedly flawed analogy,
"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? …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 choice regarding clothing, all we need to do is remind ourselves of the expression, "the tyranny of fashion.”"
Abu-Lughod notes that
"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 famous--a 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 find around the world are already products of long histories of interactions."
“It is deeply problematic to construct middle eastern or muslim women as 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 which you are saving her? Projects of saving other women depend on and reinforce a sense of superiority by Westerners, a form of arrogance that deserves to be challenged.”
Certainly, the recently released Women for Women International report on Iraq (PDF) suggests that most of the Iraqi women surveyed do not feel that they have been “saved” to anything better than they had before the invasion. For example,
65% of respondents said that, overall, the presence of U.S./U.K. security forces in Iraq is making security in the country worse.
68% of respondents stated that their ability to walk down the street as they please has gotten worse since the U.S. invasion.
64% of respondents stated that violence against women is increasing. When asked why, respondents attribute some of the problem to the worsening economy.
70% of respondents said that their families are unable to earn enough money to pay for daily necessities.
The Women for Women International report offers an Action Agenda for Women that includes the need to Prove that freedom is not inconsistent with safety; Restore the infrastructure; Provide electricity and clean water; Address women's economic needs; and Support women's organizations
In conclusion, Abu-Lughod asks, "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." "Islamic movements themselves have arisen in a world shaped by the intense engagements of Western powers in Middle Eastern lives." "We do not stand outside the world, looking out over this sea of poor benighted people, living under the shadow-or veil-of oppressive cultures; we are part of that world."
For the Old Mole Variety Hour March 10, 2008
Lila Abu-Lughod, "Do Muslim Women Need Saving?: Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others" American Anthropologist 104 (3): 783-790. 2002 (PDF) Available at the Portland State University Library and other academic libraries.
See also Joshua Holland on Alternet, "Is Islam Really Stuck in the 12th Century on Women's Rights?"