The Muslim woman
The power of images and the danger of pity
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These images have a long history in the West but they have become especially visible and persistent since 9/11. Many women in the US mobilized around the cause of the Afghani women oppressed by the fundamentalist Taliban – women who were represented in the media as covered from head to toe in their burqas, unable to go to school or wear nail polish. An administration – George W. Bush's – then used the oppression of these Muslim women as part of the moral justification for the military invasion of Afghanistan. These images of veiled and oppressed women have been used to drum up support for intervention. Besides the untold horrors, dislocations, and violence these US interventions have brought to the lives of Muslim women in Afghanistan and Iraq, I would argue that the use of these images has also been bad for us, in the countries of the West where they circulate, because of the deadening effect they have on our capacity to appreciate the complexity and diversity of Muslim women's lives – as human beings.
As the late Edward Said pointed out in his famous book, Orientalism, a transformative and critical study of the relationship between the Western study of the Middle East and the Muslim world and the larger projects of dominating or colonizing these regions, one of the most distinctive qualities of representations – literary and scholarly – of the Muslim "East" has been their citationary nature. What he meant by this is that later works gain authority by citing earlier ones, referring to each other in an endless chain that has no need for the actualities of the Muslim East. We can see this even today in visual representations of the Muslim woman. I have been collecting such images for years, ones that reveal clearly the citationary quality of images of "the Muslim woman". The most iconic are those I think of as studies in black and white. One finds, for example, impenetrable Algerian women shrouded in ghostly white in the French colonial postcards from the 1930s that Malek Alloula analyzes in his book, The Colonial Harem. This kind of photography, Alloula argues, was dedicated to making Algerian women accessible, if only symbolically, to French soldiers, tourists, and the people back home. And then one finds in the late 1990s covers of American media, even highbrow, such as the New York Times Magazine or the Chronicle of Higher Education, that similarly depict women whose faces are hidden and bodies covered in white or pale Islamic modest dress. These are women from Jordan or Egypt whose lives and situations are radically unlike those of women in colonial Algeria, and unlike many other women in their own countries. One also finds in Alloula's book of postcards images of women dressed dramatically in black, with only eyes showing. Again, almost identical images appear on the covers of the New York Times Magazine and even KLM Magazine from 1990 to the present, despite the fact that the articles they are linked to are on different countries: Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Yemen. There is an amazing uniformity.
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Moreover, it is odd that in many of the images from the media, the veiled women stand in for the countries the articles are about. None of these articles in the New York Times Magazine, for example, was about Muslim women, or even Jordanian or Egyptian women. It would be as if magazines and newspapers in Syria or Malaysia were to put bikini clad women or Madonna on every cover of a magazine that featured an article about the United States or a European country.
Burqa or Chanel suits?There are several problems with these uniform and ubiquitous images of veiled women. First, they make it hard to think about the Muslim world without thinking about women, creating a seemingly huge divide between "us" and "them" based on the treatment or positions of women. This prevents us from thinking about the connections between our various parts of the world, helping setting up a civilizational divide. Second, they make it hard to appreciate the variety of women's lives across the Muslim or Middle Eastern worlds – differences of time and place and differences of class and region. Third, they even make it hard for us to appreciate that veiling itself is a complex practice.
Let me take a little time over this third point. It is common knowledge that the ultimate sign of the oppression of Afghani 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 like me, who has worked in Muslim regions, asks 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 recall some basics of veiling. First, the Taliban did not invent the burqa in Afghanistan. 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.
Portable seclusionTwenty-some years ago, the anthropologist Hanna Papanek, who worked in Pakistan, described the burqa as "portable seclusion". She noted that many saw it as a liberating invention since 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: if this is 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, that were supposed to assure their protection in the public sphere from the harassment of strange men by symbolically signalling 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 perfect: why are we surprised when Afghan women don't throw off their burqas when we know perfectly well that it wouldn't be appropriate to wear shorts to the opera? Religious belief and community standards of propriety require the covering of the hair in some traditions – Muslim, Jewish, and Catholic until recently. 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 American women, even the non-religious, live in a world of 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 or veiling, associated with a certain respectable 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 classes – different 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 non-elite families, since they were the only ones who couldn't 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 head covering, like all those living nearby who were not under the Taliban – their rural Hindu counterparts in the North of India (who cover their heads and veil their faces from relatives by marriage) or their Muslim sisters in Pakistan. Some there wear gauzy scarves, some the newer forms of Islamic modest dress.
I want to make a crucial point about veiling here. Not only are there many forms of covering which themselves have different meanings in the communities in which they are used, but veiling itself must not be confused with, or made to stand for, lack of agency. As I have argued in Veiled Sentiments, my ethnography of a Bedouin community in Egypt in the late 1970s and 1980s, pulling the black headcloth 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 honour tied to family. One of the ways they show their self-respect and social standing is by covering their faces in certain contexts. And they decide for whom they feel it is appropriate to veil. They don't veil for younger men; they don't veil for foreign men. They don't even veil for Egyptian non-Bedouin men because they don't respect them and don't, in the latter two cases, consider these men as part of their moral community.
To take a very different case, the modern Islamic modest dress that many educated women across the Muslim world have started to wear since the late 1970s now both publicly marks piety and can be read as a sign of educated urban sophistication, a sort of modernity. What many people in the West don't realize is that the women in Egypt who took up this new form of headcovering, and sometimes even covering their faces, were university students – especially women studying to become medical doctors and engineers. I remember very well that the only girl in the elite but rural Bedouin family I lived with in the 1980s to have achieved a high school education was also the one who wanted desperately to take on this new form of veiling. She also wanted to marry an educated man so that she could express her newfound knowledge and modern values. She was delighted that her father arranged a marriage with an engineer and she moved to the provincial city of Marsa Matruh. When I next saw her, she was indeed wearing this new form of hijab or headcovering, not the traditional headcovering of married women among the Bedouin, her community.
In an important study of women in the mosque movement in Egypt – where since the 1970s women have been going to learn about their religion, attending lessons at the mosque, often by women preachers, and insisting that they have a place there – the anthropologist Saba Mahmood has shown that this new form of dress is perceived by many of the women who adopt it as part of a bodily means to cultivate virtue. They talk about it as a choice resulting from their desire, their struggle in fact, to be close to God. I will discuss Mahmood's book, Politics of Piety, below to explore more fully how we might think differently about freedom and constraint. But here I just want to point out that Saba Mahmood refuses to give functionalist reasons why in the 1980s women all over the Muslim world began taking on this form of modern Islamic modest dress – covering their hair and wearing long robes, whereas since the 1930s women had been joining feminist organizations and wearing Western clothing. Some of these functionalist explanations have been that they are protesting against the West and finding authentic culture, or going backward in time to protect themselves against the onslaught of modernity, or devising comfortable ways to move into public and work with men in offices, or to ride the buses without being harassed. Instead, Saba Mahmood says that we should consider the terms of the women themselves: and they say that they want to be close to God, that they want to be good Muslims. They now do so through veiling and through teaching themselves about their religion, whether how to pray properly or how to be a good person.
Two points emerge from this very basic look at some of the many meanings of veiling in the contemporary Muslim world. First, we have to resist the reductive interpretation of veiling as the quintessential sign of women's unfreedom. What does freedom mean if we know 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? Isn't it a gross violation of women's own understandings of what they are doing to simply denounce the burqa as a medieval or patriarchal imposition? Second, we shouldn't 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 black and white Western obsession with the veil and focus on some serious issues that feminists and others concerned with women's lives should indeed be concerned with.
Beware pityI have argued that the power of these images of veiled women is that they dull our understanding and restrict our appreciation of complexity. The second half of the subtitle of this essay is "the danger of pity". What does pity have to do with Muslim or Middle Eastern women? It seems obvious to me that one of the most dangerous functions of these images of Middle Eastern or Muslim women is to enable many of us to imagine that these women need rescuing by us or by our governments.
I first began to think about pity when I ran across a book many years ago at the Princeton Theological Seminary; it was the proceedings of a Presbyterian women's missionary conference held in Cairo, Egypt, in 1906. It was a collection of many chapters on the sad plight of the Mohammedan woman (as she was known then) in countries from Egypt to Indonesia, detailing the lack of love in her marriage, her ignorance, her subjection to polygamy, her seclusion, and the symbolic evidence of her low status in her veiling. In the introduction to this book, graphically called Our Moslem Sisters: A Cry of Need from Lands of Darkness Interpreted by Those Who Heard It, Annie Van Sommer, speaking on behalf of her fellow women missionaries (and of course appealing for financial support for the good works of these women missionaries), explains: "This book 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." She goes on to say: "It seems to some of us that it needs the widespread love and pity of the women of our day in Christian lands to seek and save the suffering sinful needy women of Islam. You cannot know how great the need unless you are told; you will never go and find them until you hear their cry." Western Christian women at the turn of the century thus saw themselves as voicing what Muslim women cannot, or amplifying the stifled voices of these "others" in the service of Christian salvation. This, of course, is in Victorian times when women didn't have the vote, were rarely in the public sphere, were supposed to have been angels in the house. The missionary women were unusually independent and adventurous, though often they went as wives.
One can worry about the echoes of this rhetoric in contemporary liberal feminist concerns about women around the world. One need only think of the American organization the Feminist Majority, with their campaign for the women in Afghanistan, or the wider discourse about women's human rights. Like the missionaries, these liberal feminists feel the need to speak for and on behalf of Afghan or other Muslim women in a language of women's rights or human rights. They see themselves as an enlightened group with the vision and freedom to help suffering women elsewhere to receive their rights, to rescue them from their men or from their oppressive religious traditions.
If one constructs some women as being in need of pity or saving, one implies that one not only wants to save them from something but wants to save them for something – a different kind of world and set of arrangements. What violences might be entailed in this transformation? And what presumptions are being made about the superiority of what you are saving them for? Projects to save other women, of whatever kind, depend on and reinforce Westerners' sense of superiority. They also smack of a form of patronizing arrogance that, as an anthropologist who is sensitive to other ways of living, makes me feel uncomfortable. I've spent lots of time with different groups of Muslim women and know something about how they see themselves, how they respect themselves, and how I admire and love them as complex and resourceful women.
My point is that perhaps we ought to be more aware of different paths in this world. Maybe we should consider being respectful of other routes towards social change. Is it impossible to ask whether there can be a liberation that is Islamic? This idea is being explored by many women, like those in Iran, who call themselves Islamic feminists. And beyond this, is liberation or freedom even a goal for which all women or people strive? Are emancipation, equality, and rights part of a universal language? Might other desires be more meaningful for different groups of people? Such as living in close families? Such as living in a godly way? Such as living without war or violence?
There are other perspectives, some of which question Western superiority. For example, addressing himself to the United States, one notorious Islamist accuses: "You are a nation that exploits women like consumer products or advertising tools, calling upon customers to purchase them. You use women to serve passengers, visitors, and strangers to increase your profit margins. You then rant that you support the liberation of women [...] You are a nation that practices the trade of sex in all its forms, directly and indirectly. Giant corporations and establishments are established on this, under the name of art, entertainment, tourism, and freedom, and other deceptive names that you attribute to it."
More moderate Muslim apologists also defend Islam against accusations by Westerners of sexism. In a new global studies textbook on Islam, the section called "Islam is sexist" contains a twenty-eight-point rebuttal of this charge. This rebuttal gives explanations of Quranic verses, describes the Prophet Muhammad's position on various aspects of women's status, provides observations about how late women were given the vote in some European countries (Switzerland in 1971, for example), and notes how many Muslim women have governed countries (five prime ministers or presidents in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Turkey, and Indonesia) compared to none, for example, in the United States.
Is what these apologists describe by way of sexual exploitation or lack of public power a reason to pity American or European women? We would find this either absurd or annoying. We have a million answers to their charges. Even if we are critical of the treatment of women in our own societies in Europe or the United States, whether we talk about the glass ceiling that keeps women professionals from rising to the top, the system that keeps so many women-headed households below the poverty line, the high incidence of rape and sexual harassment, or even the exploitation of women in advertising, we do not see this as reflective of the oppressiveness of our culture or a reason to condemn Christianity – the dominant religious tradition. We know such things have complicated causes and we know that some of us, at least, are working to change things.
Similarly, we need to appreciate that all kinds of women in the Muslim world might also see the charges of the oppression of Muslim women as absurd, or annoying. This would include ordinary women like those I've lived with in rural areas and the feminists and other reformers who have, since the late nineteenth century, seen problems in their own societies regarding the position of women. We have to be careful not to fall into polarizations that place feminism only on the side of the West. There are plenty of Third World feminists, including in many parts of the Muslim world. Some call themselves Islamic feminists, some do not. But such feminists face dilemmas when Western feminists initiate campaigns that make them vulnerable to local denunciations by conservatives, whether Islamist or nationalist, as traitors. Middle East scholars like Afsaneh Najmabadi, originally from Iran, now argue that not only is it wrong to see history simplistically in terms of a putative opposition between Islam and the West, but it is strategically dangerous to accept the cultural opposition between Muslim fundamentalism and Western feminism. The 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 don't accept that being feminist means being Western, will be under pressure to choose – are you with us or against us? Just as we are all being cowed into this.
Free choice and traditionBut I want to make another point: not only are Muslim women engaged in projects for women's rights in terms that we recognize, but many women in other parts of the world don't necessarily see their lives as deficient in terms of rights. I'm not talking about self-delusion and false consciousness – that the women don't see their own oppression. I'm arguing that we need to recognize and perhaps even be able to appreciate the different terms in which people live their lives. In my book Writing Women's Worlds, which I think of as an experimental "feminist" ethnography of the Awlad 'Ali Bedouin women in Egypt I lived with in the early 1980s, I tried to tell women's stories in the terms they used. I also tried to capture the criteria they used for judging others and putting forward claims.
Stories of marriage offer the best evidence both of the inaptness of the opposition between choice and constraint that dominates our understanding of the differences between Western and Muslim women and of the importance of recognizing different constructions of "rights". Girls I knew in this Bedouin community resisted particular marriages that were arranged for them but never the basic principle that families should arrange marriages. They might sing songs about the kind of young men they wanted to marry – those who were not cousins, those who were educated, those riding in certain kinds of cars and trucks – but they assumed that it was up to their families to choose such matches for them. They even made trouble when they didn't want a particular husband, often subverting or undermining a marriage arranged for them. But even the love poems that I wrote my first book about, Veiled Sentiments, poems that registered their longings and frustrations, were a mode of expression fully within a system, not a rebellion against a system that arranged marriage, that required women to preserve their honour by not showing any interest in men, or that expected men and women not to show affection in public, even when married. Many girls and mothers told me about the dangers of love matches; all valued the protections and support afforded by their families in arranged marriages. More interesting, women in marriages often asserted "rights"– based on some sense of Islamic and customary law but mostly derived from a keen sense of justice they had internalized through watching community practices but also from ingrained expectations about their self-worth and their responsibilities. This happened in cases when husbands treated them badly.
An even better example of the problem of assuming we know what rights women want is the case of polygyny in this community. A whole chapter of my book Writing Women's Worlds attends to the shifting relationships, solidarities, angers, and sorrows in one polygamous marriage that I knew intimately. It wasn't the fact of a husband marrying more than one wife that was ever the issue for these particular co-wives. This practice was supported in Islamic law and recognized as something that happened for various reasons, including a desire for children or providing for unsupported women. Instead, it was the particular personalities, histories, behaviours, and feelings for each other that mattered to the women. The reproach and claim of one co-wife, after telling me a long story about an infuriating situation that she found herself in just after her husband married his third wife, was different from what I would have imagined or expected. I had asked her, sympathetically, at the end of this story, if she'd been jealous. She answered right away: "No I wasn't jealous. I was just angry that we were being treated unfairly. Aren't we all the same?" This is hardly a liberal argument for women's human rights or an argument about the oppressiveness of polygyny. It is an argument that co-wives have the right, according to the Qur'an and Bedouin ideals, to be treated with absolute equality.
What is the point of these stories I am telling about particular women in the Middle East, or feminists in the Muslim world? The late Susan Moller Okin, a well-known American liberal feminist thinker who wrote a widely publicized essay entitled, "Is multiculturalism bad for women?" made a statement that provoked much criticism. She proposed boldly that women in "patriarchal" minority cultures (her essay was about cultural minorities in the United States but extended to the world's "patriarchal" cultures) "might be much better off if the culture into which they were born were either to become extinct (so that its members would become integrated into the less sexist surrounding culture) or, preferable, were encouraged to alter itself so as to reinforce the equality of women."
To suggest that someone's culture should become extinct is a strong statement. It reminds one of the Presbyterian missionaries I mentioned above, who were so sure that Christianity was the only answer for women. I think we have to be more respectful. We have to recognize that people don't necessarily want to give up their cultures and their social worlds – most people value their own ways of life. They don't like to be told to give up their religious convictions. Again, we can come back to the work of Saba Mahmood on the young women in the 1980s and 1990s in Egypt who are trying to figure out how to live good Muslim lives, taking on the veil in the process. Mahmood refuses the ideals of liberal philosophers who insist that individual choice is the prime value. She describes these Egyptian Muslim women's strong desires to follow socially-prescribed religious conventions "as the potentialities, the 'scaffolding' [...] through which the self is realized", not the signs of their subordination as individuals. She argues that their desire to take the ideals and tools of self-reference from outside the self (in Islamic religious practice, texts, and law) challenges the usual separation of individual and society upon which liberal political thinking rests. She tells us we need to question the (modern American) distinction that underlies most liberal theory between "the subject's real desires and obligatory social conventions". As I noted above, she describes the women who want to pray and be "close to God" by veiling and being modest as involved in a project of deliberate moral cultivation. Are we to say it is not?
Choices for all of us are fashioned by discourses, social locations, geopolitical configurations, and unequal power into historically and locally specific ranges. Those for whom religious values are important certainly don't see them as constraining – they see them as ideals for which to strive.
I want to add one more crucial detail to the ideas of Saba Mahmood regarding these women and how we should best think about them. These women are not somehow completely other, completely unconnected to us, living in this totally separate world, in their own reality. They may be living their realities, but all are, in one way or another, shaped by the interconnections between the parts of the world that the now popular civilizational discourse defines as West and non-West, Judeo-Christian and Muslim. Many of the differences that exist today are products of different but intertwined histories, histories of interaction and reaction. They are products of different circumstances that have been created through our interactions, whether in the era of the Crusades or colonialism, or now the global hegemony of the United States.
We may want justice for women but can we accept that there might be different ideas about justice and that different women might want, or choose, different futures from what we envision as best? And that the choices they see before them are in fact a product of some situations we have helped foist on them? My conclusion is that if we do care about the situations of women different from white middle class Western women, we would do well to leave behind veils and vocations of saving others and instead train our sights on ways to make the world a more just place. The reason my argument for respecting difference is not the same as an anthropologist's position of cultural relativism – that is, anything goes or it's just their culture so we have to let them be – is that the position I'm advocating doesn't stop us asking ourselves 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 and the choices now open to them. Islamic movements themselves have arisen in a world shaped by the intense engagements of Western powers in Middle Eastern lives. Some of the most conservative movements that focus on women in these parts of the world have resulted from interactions with the West, including 3 billion dollars funnelled by the CIA into the conservative groups in Afghanistan that undermined a Marxist government that was engaged in forced modernization, including mass education for women.
It seems to me that if we are concerned about women, including Muslim women, maybe we can work at home to make US and European policies more humane. If we want to be active in the affairs of distant places, maybe we should do so in the spirit of support for those within the communities whose goals are to make women's (and men's) lives better. Whatever we do, we should begin with respect and think in terms of alliances, coalitions, and solidarity, rather than salvation, or pity. Above all, we need to resist the power of the limited and limiting black and white images of Muslim women that circulate in our midst.
-  See: Lila Abu-Lughod, "Do Muslim Women Need Saving? Reflections on Cultural Relativism and its Others", American Anthropologist, 104.3 (2002), 783-790; Charles Hirschkind and Saba Mahmood, "Feminism, the Taliban, and Politics of Counter-Insurgency", Anthropological Quarterly, 75.2 (2002), 339-354.
-  Edward Said, Orientalism, New York: Pantheon 1978.
-  Malek Alloula, The Colonial Harem, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota 1986.
-  Hanna Papanek, "Purdah in Pakistan: Seclusion and Modern Occupations for Women", Separate Worlds, Hanna Papanek and Gail Minault (eds.), Columbus, OH: South Asia Books 1982, 190-216.
-  Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 2005.
-  Annie Van Sommer and Samuel W. Zwemer, Our Moslem Sisters: A Cry of Need from Lands of Darkness Interpreted by Those Who Heard It, New York: The Young People's Missionary Movement 1907.
-  Osama Bin Laden, Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden, Bruce Lawrence (ed.), James Howarth (trans.), London: Verso 2005, 166-68.
-  Mir-Zohair Husain, Global Studies: Islam and the Muslim World, Dubuque, IO: McGraw Hill/ Dushkin 2005, 61-62.
-  Lila Abu-Lughod, Writing Women's Worlds: Bedouin Stories, Berkley, CA: University of California 1993.
-  Lila Abu-Lughod, Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society, Berkeley, CA: University of California 1986.
-  Susan Moller Okin, Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? Joshua Cohen, Matthew Howard, and Martha Nussbaum (eds.), Princeton, NJ: Princeton University 1999.
-  Ibid. 22.
Original in English
First published in Lettre Internationale (Denmark) 12 (2006) (Danish version)
Contributed by Lettre Internationale (Denmark)
© Lila Abu-Lughod/Lettre Internationale (Denmark)