Book review: ‘Do Muslim Women Need Saving?’ by Lila Abu Lughod

By Jacob Lindelöw Berntson

Over recent years, there has been much debate about the position of Muslim women in the West. In the context of organisations such as ISIS justifying its actions with Islam, the familiar debate of the role of women and Islam has continued to capture media attention. People have condemned certain practices, taking place both in Europe and the Middle East which, according to many, subjugates women. The veil is a constantly discussed issue, while honour crimes also captures media attention. Furthermore, sexual harassment (and the general view Islam has of women) has been discussed recently, due to the abominable acts of some individuals in Germany and Sweden.

So how is this related to conflict? Besides the apparent ideological conflicts within certain European countries in the wake of the Cologne and Stockholm incidents, the issue of Muslim women’s rights has been used as justification to go to war. Afghanistan is the most prominent recent example of this, when an American administration, not exactly associated with feminism, decided to tell the world that they were going to go save the women of Afghanistan, which is why an armed invasion was necessary. In other words, the good intentions of helping women in another country were used to promote a war.

This is at least the view of Lila Abu Lughod, who during the Afghanistan campaign published an article highlighting the hypocrisy of the sudden feminist-savior agenda of the Bush administration. Eleven years later, in 2013, she continued these lines of thought in her book Do Muslim Women Need Saving?

Abu Lughod is an anthropologist at Columbia University, and a big name in Middle Eastern anthropology and gender studies. Having spent several years living in rural and Bedouin communities, mainly in Egypt, Abu Lughod has often touched upon the role of women in these societies in her work. Her father, a prominent Palestinian diplomat, was an acquaintance of Edward Said, and many have in fact compared Do Muslim Women Need Saving? to Said’s masterpiece Orientalism. Having read her book, it is not difficult to understand why.

What Abu Lughod does in this book very much echoes what she did in her 2002 article, except that this time she has expanded the scope, and offers a comprehensive view of what we in the West have been told that Muslim women need to be ‘saved’ from. Almost all of them, according to the narrative that Abu Lughod identifies, stems from oppression from Muslim men. This narrative is fed to us, either through justification for war, or with the several books portraying women ‘escaping Islam’ and coming to the liberal and secure West (Abu Lughod goes a few rounds with Ayaan Hirsi Ali throughout the book).

Hearing about all the horrible things that happen to Muslim women, either here or in the Middle East, undoubtedly get people engaged and may indeed make people want to indeed ‘save’ them. However, assuming that Muslim women need saving does – and this is, in my opinion, Abu Lughod’s most important point – remove all kinds of agency (the ability to speak and act for oneself) from Muslim women themselves, to the extent that we perceive them as helpless victims.

That doesn’t mean that some Muslim women aren’t victims that may need help, but the narrative Abu Lughod highlights paints a picture of every Muslim woman as dependent on Western help. Abu Lughod gives the example of Bangladesh, where several local Muslim feminist groups had been set up in order to fight a wave of acid attacks on women, However, when Amnesty International decided to raise this issue, they only mentioned and praised an American film crew for producing a documentary on the acid attacks. If the acts of the Bangladeshi women don’t get recognised in the West, and we are left to believe that an American film crew ‘discovered’ this problem, we easily end up believing Muslim women have to be saved. This is problematic, since indigenous women fighting for something should have ownership of their cause, rather than seeing it being exported elsewhere.

Even though it may be well-intentioned to want to save someone, we might become a more subtle kind of oppressor ourselves. Abu Lughod gives the example of a German human rights campaign, picturing a woman in a burqa sitting in a heap of garbage bags, her dress resembling the plastic bags and silently equating her to their worth, with a text declaring: ‘oppressed women are easily overlooked.’ Who really degrades, oppresses and treats women like garbage in this case; Islam or the people purportedly trying to save women from it?

Abu Lughod argues that the narrative that Muslim women need saving has become so popularised that she calls it ‘the new common sense’. She also points out that it is not only saving Muslim women from anyone, it is saving Muslim women from Muslim men that this ‘common sense’ sees as its most important objective. This undeniably gives this phenomenon a disturbingly neo-colonial attribute. Afghanistan is not the first case of this – the French also evolved a sort of ‘colonial feminism’, as Leila Ahmed calls it, in Algeria.

Abu Lughod’s point seems highly relevant in the recent vilification of Muslim men (as a generalised group) in the wake of the sexual harassment incidents in Germany and Sweden. The difference is now women in general, not just Muslim women, need to be saved from Muslim men. The strongest support for this notion has come from the extreme right-wing parties of Europe. In Sweden, the notoriously anti-feminist, neo-Nazi offspring party the Sweden Democrats and many of their spokespeople – having already attempted to deter refugees from entering Sweden by handing out fliers in Greece telling people not come – have suddenly decided to adopt the feminist cause when it suited their agenda. Ironically, this despite the fact that some of their spokespeople have insinuated in the past that women should ‘take responsibility’ when their husbands beat them, and despite the fact that their sympathisers tend to be overrepresented among those threatening female public figures in social media for speaking out for feminist causes and women’s rights.

The problem, as Abu Lughod sees it, is not only that Muslim women are used for certain people’s agendas, but that Muslim women are almost never asked or consulted on their situations themselves. This is a point that has also been raised by British journalist Mehdi Hasan, when he in a British talk show debating the issue of women’s rights within Islam pointed out that all of the guests invited to talk about the issue were men. Here, we are back to the question of agency. Although groups possess agency, they occasionally need to be given space to express their views. Speaking about perceived problems within a group without consulting members of the group is, when you think about it, quite absurd.

The second biggest point that Abu Lughod makes, in my opinion, is the value of context. This does not mean to contextualize violence or oppression against Muslim women, but rather that we need to look at the women we’re talking about within their respective contexts. Abu Lughod knows this, because she has spent years living in communities, following Muslim women. She is therefore aware of the fact that there are many reasons as to why people act the way they do, where Islam, or any other religion for that matter, is just one part of puzzle. It is quite puzzling that anthropologists aren’t consulted more on these matters.

Context is, according to Abu Lughod, an explanation to why so many Muslim women choose to wear the hijab. Abu Lughod points out that many Westerners were amazed that Afghani women didn’t throw off their burqas as soon as the Taliban were defeated, which is to completely misunderstand regional history, social norms and customs. She draws a comparison to a friend who once suggested wearing a pant-suit to an upper-class American wedding, after which another friend yelled ‘everyone knows that you don’t wear pants to a WASP wedding.’ Trivial as the comparison is, it demonstrates that all societies and cultures have their norms and a generally accepted dress code, and that people usually tend to follow them – regardless if they agree with the norms or not.

Perhaps the most interesting part is when Abu Lughod talks about the ‘honour crime’; when someone physically punishes, or sometimes even kill, a female family member for having hurt the family’s honour. According to Abu Lughod, the picture you get from Western media’s reporting on honour crimes is that they are committed as a way of disciplining Muslim women, often when they have shown some sort of sexual emancipation that illiberal Muslim ideology doesn’t allow. Moreover, we get the picture that honour violence occurs in every Muslim society, which Abu Lughod staunchly refutes. What Western media’s depiction of the honour crime does it that it creates a clash of civilisations-esque narrative, which separates liberal from illiberal, in a similar way that the Je Suis Charlie-campaign did with freedom of speech.

It is also absurd, as Abu Lughod points out, to culturalise violence in this way. With this she means that the explanations given as to why an ‘honour crime’ is committed always circle around either Islam or the perpetator’s Middle Eastern background, even though people suggesting that all honour crime perpetrators are Muslims are still struggling to find evidence within Islamic scripture sanctioning honour killings. According to Abu Lughod, approaching the problem this way will just lead to more animosity and hatred.

She also points out that it completely ignores modern political contexts. Doesn’t the fact that many of the men committing honour crimes live in countries where they can’t find jobs and are themselves victimized by despotic rulers also constitute a reason as to why someone could grow violent? Of course, this doesn’t excuse violence, but can one really speak of religion or culture as being the sole reason? Another thing that Abu Lughod’s own work in the Middle East has shown is that refraining from intimate relationships is equally important for men’s social status as it is to women’s, which is why it would also be false to depict honour crimes as a way of controlling women’s sexuality.

Of course, many majority-Muslim countries have problems when it comes to women’s situation, but we are walking down a slippery slope if we convince ourselves that what we are accusing ‘Muslim culture’ of doesn’t exist in our societies. Many feminists took part in ‘Free the Nipple’events world-wide a few months ago, protesting what they see as the implicit control of their bodies, a control which becomes explicit on several kinds of social media with both Instagram and Facebook employing entire departments in order to erase or shut down sexual content, among which images of female nipples are one of them. And yet, the sexualisation and exploitation of the female body everywhere is never an issue to be shut down or erased. Is this not also a kind of control over women’s sexuality? Moreover, how many wives in Western countries have not been beaten by their partners due to reasons that could easily be defined as honour?

Something I thought about whilst reading the chapter on honour crimes was the corporal punishment of children. This is something that is distributed by parents in many Western countries, often when children fail to obey their parents or commit a wrongful act. Isn’t this also an act of violence as a response to severed pride or honour? My home country, Sweden, outlawed all corporal punishment of children in 1979. As a result, this practice has decreased, with several generations of parents growing up knowing that it is legally wrong to beat your child. Several countries in Europe, such as France and the United Kingdom still allow this practice. Although I think it is an abhorrent thing to beat your child, I (and many with me) would never seriously suggest that French culture is inherently violent, or that it hates children, because they beat their kids, or even that the reason we don’t and they do is because we’re Protestants and they are Catholics.

In Sweden, people’s minds have been shaped by the political and judicial context, stipulating that beating children is wrong, which has also led to a certain attitude towards the phenomenon. Similarly, the French context allows for corporal punishment, which in turn leads to more people practicing it, and I believe most people could identify these contextual differences. So how come we are able to see these contexts when it comes to European countries, but dismiss honour crimes as something ‘cultural’ or ‘Islamic’?

The overarching problem is this:  killing or harming a woman is wrong, telling a woman how she must dress is also wrong, but, having identified that malpractice exists, how can we in the West provide our support to those who are the weakest? It is a hard question to answer, but Abu Lughod’s book is important as it raises the criticisms and often unintentional consequences of the knee-jerk Western approach. A woman from United Kingdom is not worth more than a woman from rural Egypt. Both have the same ability to think, understand and act. In the worst case scenario, where the woman from rural Egypt is extremely oppressed by her society and family, the answer cannot be for a Western hero to appear and impose on the woman new values, norms, religion and ways of life that she must follow.

Instead, the West should attempt to understand the context of Muslim societies within which women have their own agency, and give support to local ownership of these issues. By demonising an entire religion such as Islam, we are alienating the beliefs of these women by making the assumption that we in the West know better and our victims should take on our religion and our norms. Abu Lughod often explains how Muslim women use religion as part of their sense of agency, for instance deciding not to wear the hijab in front of certain men to show their lack of respect for them. Therefore, listening and understanding these women must be the first step of any attempt to help from the West.

Abu Lughod spends the entire book iterating that Islam is not to blame for Muslim women’s occasionally precarious situation, without offering an alternative. Although this could be seen as a weakness, I actually see it as this book’s biggest strength: there is never one reason. We need to be able to see context and we need to ask and give Muslim women space to express themselves without making assumptions about their lives and conditions.

Abu Lughod’s focus on context – in which Western invasion and demonisation, neoliberal economic systems and corrupt regimes all play a part – makes it easy to dismiss her book as promoting a sense of ‘white guilt’, that everything is the fault of the white West. I certainly hope that people reading this book won’t take it that way, as we should not comprise our intolerance of violence and oppression of women but must be able to find a way to fight for it without losing one’s ability to identify and target the hypocrisies in our own societies.

Some of the criticism against this book has said that Abu Lughod asks people to make complex conclusions that it has taken the author 30 years of field work to be able to make, but I think this is doing the key message of Do Muslim Women Need Saving? injustice. Abu Lughod is simply encouraging readers to see the larger picture and, to some extent, think like an anthropologist: if you really want to know how people work and what they think, spend time with them, and ask them. And most of all, listen when they answer you.


Photo By [1] (Burqa seller) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons


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