Do Muslim Women Need Saving?

No! Not when ‘saving’ them is the justification for military and political interventions that disempower women and reduce them to a project, statistic or show piece for a cause. Laura Bush so famously, or is that infamously, said: ‘The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women’.

No! Not when, as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, the Indian literary theorist and philosopher, wrote it is about ‘white men saving brown women from brown men’[1]. History is replete with examples of interventions being used to justify rules that oppress, marginalise, and bring other forms of abuse. We can look at colonial history in India and other parts of South Asia, at the interventions of Lord Cromer in Egypt, just for a start. And what about today? Sadly the ‘liberation’ of those whose lives are challenged by conservative, fundamental and even extreme interpretations of Islam have seen one form of tyranny supplanted by a different one.

There are challenges. There are issues of marginalisation through violence, laws, political structures, social structures, culture, traditions and religion that disempower women. There are fundamental health, education, and economic issues that leave women vulnerable to premature death, exploitation and poverty that they must be supported to challenge. They must be empowered so that in their daily negotiation of these challenges they are able to express their identity as women with dignity and life.

They are empowered when we acknowledge and affirm their dignity and identity as they work it out in the every day negotiations of their daily lives, when they are allowed to make their choices for change in the context of their reality.

Do Muslim women need saving? I wonder what they would say?

The title comes from the book: Abu-Lughod, Lila, Do Muslim Women Need Saving, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2013

[1] Spivak, G. C., ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, in Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader, eds. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994), pp. 90-105

The Limits of Human Rights

Violence in the home was for many years seen as a private family matter, and there are still contexts where that is at least the cultural and social norm. Both legal and religious systems, across cultural contexts, sanctioned male domination and control of their women. It was during the second feminist movement in the United States that a paradigm shift began. Domestic violence began to be viewed as a political and social issue.

This led to a language of intervention, one that has shifted the focus to the need for a societal response. Framing domestic violence as a human rights issue came from the work of activists to heighten understanding that domestic violence was a serious problem.

The language of human rights has a weakness however. Elizabeth Gerhardt has argued in her book, ‘The Cross and Gendercide[1], that viewing violence against women as a human rights issue presents it in a more wholistic perspective because it takes into account a wide range of related issues. She argues that the language of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides whole life frame of reference from which to respond.

As a description of the problem, this may be correct, to a point. However, the all-encompassing nature of the categories of the declaration, fails to wrestle with the nuances of women’s lives, the multiple layers that cannot be consumed under singular categories. Lila Abu-Lughod asserts in her book, ‘Do Muslim Women Need Saving?[2]’, that the layers of women’s lives are ignored in discourses that homogenise their issues. She argues that women are constantly negotiating the terrain of their lives in ways that belie the categorisation of their issues under the common categories used by those who want to enact change for women.

Human rights has given focus to the challenges that women face, and provided a language that the world understands. What it fails to do is provide links into women’s every day lived experience, to their realities. There is a dissonance for women whose lives must be lived by negotiating daily their experiences and the contingencies with which they live.

[1] Gerhardt, Elizabeth, The cross and Gendercide: A Theological Response to Global Violence Against Women and Girls, Downers Grove, Intervarsity Academic, 2014

[2] Abu-Lughod, Lila, Do Muslim Women Need Saving, Cambridge, Havard University Press, 2013

Untying the hard knots …

Was Muhammad Iqbal right when he said the situation for women could not change, that they were subject to the desires and control of others? NO! The ‘hard knot of their subjugation can be changed.

Is it possible to ‘untie the hard knot’ of women’s subjugation? Pakistan’s great philosopher poet, Muhammad Iqbal, appeared not to think so. He wrote in one of his poems:

Man’s greatness emanates by itself without others’ aid, While woman’s quality is always mediated by the other. I too am very sad over women’s helplessness But it is not possible to untie the hard knot of her subjugation[1].

But it is possible! It cannot be imposed from the outside. As a justification for war and other outside and political interventions, releasing women from their oppression has failed miserably. CEDAW, Millenium Development Goals that focus on the uplift of women, and countless projects and programmes have tried to mediate change. They have all acted to bring the solution to women. And yet one thing has been forgotten. Farida Shaheed understood it when she wrote:

[We know] that women suffer all manner of oppressions in the name of identity. But [we] believe that the single worst form of oppression we suffer is not the silence imposed on us or the silence that we impose on ourselves for fear of betraying our community; it is not even the violence to which we are subjected. Though all this happens. The most debilitating oppression we suffer is not being able to even dream of an alternative reality to the one imposed; to the one we know. So we encourage women to dream. By our very existence and by the choices we formulate for ourselves in our personal and collective sphere, networkers provide alternative reference points for women in Muslim contexts who live and think and act differently. We are living proof that alternative realities can and do exist[2].

We don’t agree with Iqbal. The ‘hard knots’ of subjugation can be undone. Change will be mediated in different ways through the layers of women’s lives, but change is possible. The change that women want will be different. It cannot be imposed upon them, or they will simply be tied with new knots of subjugation. The day to day reality of women’s lives is not the end. We join together to dream of new realities. [1] Hussain, F., Ed. (1984). Muslim Women. London, Croom Helm. [2] Shaheed, F. (2004). Asian Women in Muslim Societies: Perspectives and Struggles. Asia-Pacific NGO FOrum on B-10. Bangkok.