Are There Universal Human Rights or Not?

By Rayyan Al-ShawafJanuary 7, 2014

Are There Universal Human Rights or Not?

Do Muslim Women Need Saving? by Lila Abu-Lughod

WITH DO MUSLIM WOMEN NEED SAVING? Lila Abu-Lughod, an anthropologist and professor at Columbia University, has written a book that departs from her two earlier studies of Egyptian Bedouin women (and a separate exploration of television’s influence on Egyptian sociopolitical culture) even as it is to a certain extent informed by them. “There is a profound incommensurability between the lives of these particular ‘grassroots’ women I know,” observes Abu-Lughod of the Bedouins in Upper Egypt whom she has befriended, “and the terms in which they are being imagined in the field of rights, including Islamic feminist versions.”

The author expresses particular concern about the way, since September 11, 2001, images of Muslim women have become “connected to a mission to rescue them from their cultures,” which in turn rationalizes American and European intervention in the Middle East and South Asia. She traces the images in question to sources as varied as sensationalistic memoirs by abused Muslim women, media representations of Muslim women’s supposed plight, and even decontextualized human rights reports. Most of these portrayals focus on extreme cases of violence against women, and attribute the phenomenon solely to culture, thereby contributing to the formation of a grotesque fantasy realm she calls “IslamLand,” which is sometimes held up as the antithesis of an enlightened West.

Abu-Lughod’s criticism recalls the argument the late Edward Said (also of Columbia) made in Orientalism, that knowledge of the Qur’an does not suffice to understand modern-day Muslim societies. To maintain otherwise, Said pointed out, is to divorce Muslims from their histories as well as their current circumstances. Abu-Lughod adapts this incisive argument with mixed results.

In her capacity as an anthropologist, the author has long advocated “writing against culture,” while criticizing “anthropology’s complicity in a long history of reifying cultural difference, linked to its ties with colonial power.” In this book, she argues that it is folly to think you have grasped the variegated realities of women in a given Muslim country by imbibing media reports and the like, and by reducing those realities to an effect of “culture,” from which everything else is said to flow, including any and all examples of violence and discrimination against women.

Abu-Lughod makes several good points. When we learn of mistreatment of women in a Muslim country, she writes, we should not race to blame culture, but look to various intrusive manifestations of globalization, war (sometimes through invasion by Western countries), and economics before pinpointing the reasons for the phenomenon. “Militarization,” she points out, “always has hidden consequences for women; these surely have more force than ‘culture’ or ‘tradition.’” And when we discover that cultural practices do appear to play a role, she cautions that we must not automatically assume that they are age-old or traditional; pernicious cultural habits can evolve as a result of recent or ongoing events, as cultures are far from fixed.

One of the strongest suits of Do Muslim Women Need Saving? is Abu-Lughod’s admonition to listen to Muslim women themselves, especially poor and disadvantaged ones, whom we should give priority over Western self-professed experts on the subject or attention-seeking “native informants” (Abu-Lughod inexplicably places Muslim reformist writer Irshad Manji in this group), including certain ideologically rigid and sometimes elitist feminists in Muslim countries who purport to speak on their behalf. This is sound advice. However, it is well to keep in mind that, while no one is better qualified than Muslim women themselves to identify and explain their problems, listeners might be able to propose strategies that could complement, or even function as more effective alternatives to, those devised by such women.

Recalling Said’s distaste for Orientalists’ supposed penchant for classification and categorization of peoples and cultures, Abu-Lughod chides those who would reduce the complexity of Muslim women’s lives to a list of which rights and choices are available to them. She recounts episodes from the lives of women she has befriended in Egypt through her anthropological work, as well as a relative in Jordan (Abu-Lughod was born to an American mother and a Palestinian father), to illustrate the many facets of women’s existence, and to demonstrate the inability of a “framework that describes distant women’s lives only in terms of rights, present or absent” to capture “both everyday violence and forms of love.” There is nothing objectionable about this. But if we are to collate the stories of women in a specific country and compile information on quality of life, we will simply have to rely on indices such as the availability of basic rights and choices.

Similar rejoinders occurred to me in response to Abu-Lughod’s cries of protest.

I do not think it would be as easy to mobilize so many of these American and European women if it were not a case of Muslim men oppressing Muslim women — women of cover, for whom they can feel sorry and in relation to whom they can feel smugly superior. […] How should we manage the complicated situation of finding ourselves in agreement with those with whom we normally disagree?

Take a page from Maimonides, I found myself thinking, who wrote that one should accept the truth from whatever source it comes.

Could we only free Afghan women to be “like us,” or might we have to recognize that even after “liberation” from the Taliban, they might want different things than we would want for them?

Sure, but if your army has invaded Afghanistan to fight the Taliban and al-Qaeda, you might as well take the opportunity to emancipate women, and then let them decide what to do with their newfound freedom.

We should want justice and rights for women, but can we accept that there might be different ideas about justice and that different women might want, or even choose, different futures from ones that we envision as best?

Absolutely, as long as they are allowed to choose — which is often not the case.

It is never easy to cleanly distinguish freedom and duty, consent and bondage, choice and compulsion.

Perhaps, but we must try nonetheless.

The freedom that honor crime books like this [Norma Khouri’s Honor Lost, exposed as fiction masquerading as memoir] celebrate and that the scandalizing of honor crimes affirms turns out to be the freedom to have sex and to leave home.


If we do not presume that there are such things as rights to be found and measured on a scale of 1 to 10 using some kind of universal standard, and ask questions on that basis about whether Muslim women do or don’t have rights, have enough rights or too few, we may better understand the international and national politics of rights.

The two are not mutually exclusive. We can understand the politics while maintaining the universal standard.

One of the more problematic culture-related arguments in the book concerns the highly charged subject of honor crimes, which involve the murder of a woman or a girl for any of a wide range of behaviors deemed shameful — anything from speaking to a male not of the immediate family to engaging in sex before or out of wedlock. (Abu-Lughod incorrectly maintains that if a married woman is murdered by her husband, this cannot qualify as an honor crime.) In an ironic twist, the author at times replicates the approach she criticizes, in that she treats culture as a cohesive and indivisible whole; while others attribute honor crimes to culture, she denies culture’s culpability. But any given culture brings together a host of different, inconsistent, and sometimes conflicting attitudes and practices. This is the case with honor killings. Where they occur, cultural notions of propriety are clearly to blame, but popular movements to combat the practice and raise awareness of its victims are just as much a part of the culture in question.

At times, Abu-Lughod’s arguments against culture backfire, and highlight its role. For example, in one case, Palestinian police in the West Bank failed to reach the house of an endangered woman in time to save her because the Israeli army, which occupies the territory, detained them. She takes this as an example of an occupying military interfering with local law enforcement. That’s true enough, but in this case the honor killing took place despite a Palestinian law that, though lenient until 2011, criminalized it — that is, culture, not law, was the primary culprit. Abu-Lughod writes: “In recent years, major religious leaders in Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere have issued legal opinions (fatwas) condemning honor crimes as unlawful.” When such crimes are committed in these countries, doesn’t it point to an oppositional dynamic between culture and religion?

Abu-Lughod sometimes praises local feminists, such as the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). Yet she often faults NGO-affiliated and other women’s rights activists for what she perceives as their wholesale adoption of a Western rights discourse, fostering “what Janet Halley and her colleagues have called ‘governance feminism,’ in which elites speak for women and use their gender expertise in influential institutions.” This resembles one of Joseph Massad’s charges in his book Desiring Arabs, where he accuses Westernized gays in the Arab world of discipleship to a “Gay International” out to impose a distinctly Western hetero/homosexual binary where few people have embraced such hard and fast socio-sexual identities. However, whereas Massad fulminates, Abu-Lughod remains reflective and restrained, even when critical. More importantly, Abu-Lughod, unlike Massad (also a Columbia professor), does not attempt to delegitimize Muslims or Arabs who adopt Western ideas and liberal values. “Along with Talal Asad,” she writes:

I would argue that we should not dismiss these values as mere instruments of new imperial interventions. We have to take this language of justice seriously. It frames the new common sense about saving Muslim women because it has, as Asad put it, produced political subjects around the world who share these values and speak this language.

It is also significant that the author, who entertains the disturbing notion that the Western human rights discourse places too high a premium on personal choice and autonomy, and expresses discomfort with using a single and universal standard to measure women’s overall well-being, does not endorse cultural relativism.

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 among those living far from each other.

Since Abu-Lughod also believes that Muslim women’s problems have little to do with culture, but stem more from other, external factors impinging on their lives, she urges readers time and again to listen to Muslim women, to challenge claims by jingoistic politicians that war will liberate women in this or that Muslim country, and to interrogate the themes and tropes of “pulp nonfiction” (she borrows the term from Dohra Ahmad) — the memoirs purporting to reveal the hardships of women in far-off and “othered” lands.

This might sound fine and good. But even Abu-Lughod acknowledges that “the suffering of some of these women,” despite deriving chiefly from causes more complex than culture, “is not totally unconnected to expectations about gender enshrined in the Qur’an or cultures in the Muslim world, or sometimes justified in terms of interpretations of Islamic law.” Thus it is strange that she should refrain from proposing concrete forms of engagement on the cultural level. It is even more puzzling when we take into account that working with “grassroots” women in the Muslim world to bring about cultural change (and corresponding legislation) has a higher likelihood of success than preventing US wars (remember how many people in the West opposed the Iraq invasion?), or ending global economic inequity, despite the importance of trying to achieve these last two goals.

How, then, should we approach the fraught issue of women’s often unenviable status in countries across the Muslim world? As Abu-Lughod suggests, we should listen to as many of the women in question as we can, not take testimony from women in one Muslim country as representative of their lot in another, and not restrict ourselves to middle-class and/or Westernized women who speak English or another European language. We shouldn’t merely listen, though, but feel free to engage in a dialogue. For example, if they view their rights as derived from the Qur’an, we can introduce the secular notion that women (and men) should enjoy certain rights irrespective of religious strictures.

We should keep in mind, as Abu-Lughod urges, that noncultural factors often adversely affect the lives of women, and recognize that some cultural restrictions on women’s rights may have only recently come into practice, as cultures evolve and sometimes curb or abolish freedoms previously allowed. Again, we shouldn’t stop there, but talk to our interlocutors about what specific measures can be taken to recover lost freedoms and privileges, rather than merely lament their revocation.

Finally, we shouldn’t be tempted to discard that universal standard of women’s rights, despite Abu-Lughod’s discomfort with it. Instead, let us heed her warning not to try to impose our choices on others. Muslim women don’t need saving, as her book implies throughout, but some of them could use our assistance. If we believe in human rights, we can try to help expand the range of choices available to Muslim women when it comes to everything from marriage to work and attire, emphasizing that subsequent decisions on such matters are theirs alone to make.


Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and book critic in Lebanon.

LARB Contributor

Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a book critic and editor based in Malta. His reviews and essays have appeared in the Boston GlobeChristian Science MonitorGlobe and Mail, Miami HeraldPopMatters, San Francisco Chronicle, Toronto StarTruthdig          Washin​gton Post, and elsewhere. His debut novel, When All Else Fails, was recently published by Interlink Books.


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