Ahh the age old question—do Muslim women need saving? Ok so it’s not really an age old question, more like it just popped on to most Americans’ radar in the last few decades. But either way, I thought I might weigh in on the question that was recently written about in Time magazine by Columbia professor Lila Abu-Lughod, seeing as this is a question I myself have been asked several times.
So here’s my answer:
Is this the right question to be asking?
Now you’re confused. You wanted a clear answer telling you exactly how you should or should not think on the matter and instead I just answered a question with another question. Let me explain:
First, what are we (the Western women) proposing to save them (the Muslim women) from? The veil? Oppressive regimes? Lack of education? Lack of equal rights? These are all things that have been used as justification for Western intervention in the Middle East. We Westerners see people living lives differently than our own and our first instinct is to think that those lives are worse than our own—that those misfortunate souls should want and be able to have our amazing lives. How do I know this? Because, as much as I hate to admit it, that thought has passed through my head before. But this is the first misconception—thinking that everyone in the world wants to live the way we do. Just because a Muslim woman can’t drink and go to bars doesn’t mean she wants that right (by the way, Muslim men are also forbidden from this according to the Quran). Just because a Muslim woman chooses to wear the veil doesn’t mean she’d choose to wear booty shorts and a tank top if given the option. As Professor Abu-Lughod puts it,
“People all over the globe, including Americans, wear the appropriate form of dress for their socially shared standards, religious beliefs and moral ideals. If we think that U.S. women live in a world of choice regarding clothing, we need to look no further than our own codes of dress and the often constricting tyrannies of fashion.”
In terms of the veil, it’s about time for Western women to learn the true reason that Muslim women choose to wear it, or not. I recently discussed this topic with my good friend Sarrah who put it perfectly:
“I think it’s hard for a Western woman to understand why any woman would choose to cover. Talking with many friends and family members, though, they say that covering their head is a choice they make not out of fear or obedience, but because it gives them freedom in their own way. It makes them less visually appealing and gives them freedom from men seeing them only as a sex object. Some say dressing modestly and covering makes people look at their eyes and listen to their words, rather than being distracted by their body. I’ve also talked with people who say that covering brings them closer to God because then they’re more concerned with improving the things that really matter, not allowing time to be vain. Some also choose the more traditional route to save their full beauty for their husband.”
Second question that needs clarification: why do we associate Muslim women with saving? Couldn’t we just as well associate American women with saving? Or Mormon women with saving? Or teenage African-Americans with saving? Again, Professor Abu-Lughod puts it perfectly:
“Blinded to the diversity of Muslim women’s lives, we tend to see our own situation too comfortably. Representing Muslim women as abused makes us forget the violence and oppression in our own midst. Our stereotyping of Muslim women also distracts us from the thornier problem that our own policies and actions in the world help create the (sometimes harsh) conditions in which distant others live. Ultimately, saving Muslim women allows us to ignore the complex entanglements in which we are all implicated and creates a polarization that places feminism only on the side of the West.”
What she’s basically saying is why do we have to look elsewhere for victims to save, when we know quite well that maybe in some sense, we need saving too? We all know that women in America make less money than men and hold fewer high-level positions. The percentage of women who are CEOs (4.2% of Fortune 500 companies), or are in Congress (less than 19%), or who are physicians (34% in 2012) all suggest that maybe the people proposing to save Muslim women should also be offering some help to American women. Professor Abu-Lughod is also asking why only Western women can be feminists. Why is it that when we picture a feminist in our heads, the woman we most likely picture is white? You see the problem with dividing people into the categories of “victims” and “saviors” implies that the only group that can save the “victims” is the “saviors,” when in fact, maybe the “victims” are entirely capable of saving themselves.
No doubt, there are some women that may need a little help in the world; women who are being oppressed by terrible practices and made to suffer in unbelievable and cruel ways. But again, we need to ask the right question here! Are those women suffering because of Muslim practices or are they suffering from cultural practices? A lot of the negative practices that we associate with Islam (like the Taliban forbidding girls from going to school or women from entering the mosque) are not actually at all related to Islam, but rather, are cultural practices. The Prophet actually encouraged his wives and daughters to learn because we know from the Quran that he taught them to read and write. When attempting to address what some see as the oppression of women in Islamic countries many people don’t properly make that distinction, between culture and religion. I know it’s something that has been hard for me here. When I get harassed on the street every day I often times think in my head “Muslim men are disgusting and they don’t respect women.” But then I catch myself and remind myself no that isn’t true, rather, that man who harassed me doesn’t respect women.
Additionally, a lot of people point to the fact that Islam is a male-dominated religion and that women suffer from this. Again, we need to remember that male domination is a human problem not just a Muslim one. Sorry boys. . .
So finally coming back to myself, what has been my experience living as a Westerner in Muslim Morocco? I’ve pretty much realized by now that I neither want to “save Muslim women,” nor should I. I think the best thing I can do for women and girls in my community at this point is to ask them “are you happy with your life?” and if they are, let them be. And if they aren’t, ask them “so what are you going to do about it?” Any change that is going to happen in Arab countries is going to happen because Muslim women want it to happen and make it happen—not because some Western woman “saves” them and tells them how they should live their life. My goal, as an educator and a role model in my community, is simply to ask all of my students, male and female, to look around them and make sure that they have all of the opportunities that they want. And if they don’t, encourage them to find solutions themselves. And my goal, as a Westerner living in a Muslim country, is to make sure that I’m asking myself the right questions—because often times when we foreigners assume that we know the problems in another culture, we aren’t asking the right questions.