Criticism of the Depiction of Muslim Women in Media
Lila Abu-Lughod is the author of the 2013 book called Do Muslim Women Need Saving? In fact, this book became a subject of discussion among people who always believed that they knew what Muslim women needed. Moreover, it is the continuation of her 2002 essay called “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others,” which has been written for the Ethics Forum dedicated to the discussion of the current “War on Terrorism” (Abu-Lughod 783). The author argues that the feminists of the Western world began to fight for the rights of Muslim women only after the events of September 11, 2001. She focuses the readers’ attention on the ways people perceive Islam and its influence on the female citizens of Afghanistan. Abu-Lughod’s main point is that the West is trying to save Muslim women from their abusive men, but it does not really consider how and why these women need to be saved. The article raises questions on the historic differences between cultures and religions and tries to explain the backgrounds of these differences and the need to respect them.
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The opening chapter of Abu-Lughod’s book begins with the analysis of the Time’s photograph of Bibi Aysha, a young woman from Afghanistan who has been severely abused by her Taliban husband. It was said that the man cut off his wife’s nose and ears, and the Time magazine placed the photo of her mutilated face on its cover. Abu-Lughod criticizes “the juxtaposition between the photograph and the headline – ‘What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan?’” (27). When the readers see this photograph and the headline together, they become frightened and really want to save all Afghan women. However, no one reads the content, but those who do read do not fully comprehend it. In such a way, Abu-Lughod wants to criticize the depiction of Muslim women in Western media. She claims that it is profitable for the USA to use such images to gain support for the War on Terrorism. After analyzing this part of Abu-Lughod’s essay, the view on this war changes, and it becomes clear that people do not know about many important details of the war. In fact, it is quite likely that these details are intentionally hidden and masked under the images of abused women who “must” be saved from their cruel Islamic men. The author refutes such justification of the War on Terror because of the lack of depth and research on this issue.
The beginning of the chapter makes readers think of why people can so easily believe everything media offers them. Abu-Lughod’s view is unusual since it differs from the majority of other opinions on this subject. Thus, politicians, filmmakers, mass media creators, and Western feminists search for an excuse to justify their desire to save Muslim women. However, they do not really try to save them but want to show their humanness and accumulate their positive deeds. The author offers all of them to investigate this issue more deeply and try to understand how they can help without blaming the religion or the culture of Islam. Thus, Abu-Lughod quotes the managing editor of Time’s: “The image […] is a window into the reality of what is happening – and what can happen – in a war that affects and involves all of us” (28). These words prove that most Western people tend to believe what they see without questioning the real reasons for such events.
Later on, Abu-Lughod demonstrates her astonishment from reading the questions about Muslim women that the host from the PBS NewsHour wanted to ask her during the show. These questions were too general, such as, for example, “Do Muslim women believe X?” (Abu-Lughod 30). It is obvious that such a generalization of Islam is caused by the stereotypes about Eastern cultures and the unwillingness to accept the diversity of these cultures. In fact, the issue of globalization seems to be relevant to this topic. Probably, the main reason for this generalization is globalization. Nowadays, people experience the era of Americanization or Westernization, which means that all cultures are somehow equalized or are regarded as equal to Western culture. The English language becomes the international language; thus, people begin to think that Western culture is the superior culture, which means that people from different countries and backgrounds want to be similar to Americans. However, in fact, the situation is a little different. In fact, no one asks Islamic people whether they want to change their views and become more “civilized.” Moreover, no one even wants to explain why some countries are considered civilized while others are uncivilized. Thus, all these generalizations make no sense until they are supported by reasonable claims. Abu-Lughod tries to show this shortcoming in her essay.
On the other hand, the author criticizes other subjects of discussions of the Western media. For example, she doubts whether the understanding of Islam as a religion or knowledge of Muslim women will help solve the problem of terrorism or comprehend the reason for the 9/11 attack (Abu-Lughod 31). This part of the essay makes the readers stop and think of these themes. Abu-Lughod raises the subjects, which most people are afraid to discuss and analyze. The citizens of the developed countries accept the information provided by local mass media and do not attempt to rebut or doubt it. However, after reading Abu-Lughod’s essay, a person would change his/her beliefs and, probably, would start his/her personal investigation of the analyzed issues.
Interestingly, the questions Abu-Lughod raises in her article are concerned with the relation of Muslim women to the War on Terror. The author does not simply disapprove of the depiction of Islamic women in Western media but questions the connection of this issue to terrorism. For example, she asks, “Why was knowing about the culture of the region – and particularly its religious beliefs and treatment of women – more urgent than exploring the history of the development of repressive regimes in the region and the United States’ role in this history?” (Abu-Lughod 31). In such a way, the author makes her readers support her and doubt the American approach towards the salvation of the women and the war. The writer does not openly criticize the media or politicians, but rather tries to preserve a neutral position; nevertheless, her constant doubt makes the readers become more curious and pick aside. It is difficult to deny that Abu-Lughod’s discussions have the right to exist. Moreover, she openly canvasses those aspects, which are usually hidden from the public. This openness makes her article attractive to the readers and inclines them to believe her.
The most persuasive argument is Abu-Lughod’s criticism of the Muslim burqa’s depiction. It seems that most of the Western media uses images of women wearing a burqa to show them as “imprisoned” or not free women. Again, only one side of this phenomenon is considered by the mass media, they display that women are forced to wear a veil. However, Abu-Lughod inspires the readers to think of the burqa as a choice of each woman. In fact, a number of Islamic women like to wear a veil because it is the symbol of their culture, religion, worldview, and individuality. For instance, ex-model Jodhaa says about her choice: “It made me feel so empowered as a woman knowing I get to choose what is seen of me. I’d like to wear it more often” (Sprague). In fact, anyone can find similar answers on various social networking websites, which proves that the veil as a generally known sign of oppression is rather a prejudice than a real fact.
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Abu-Lughod provides a closer analysis of the burqa origin, and the readers discover that it is a symbol of home and family for many citizens of Southwest Asia. The author recounts, “These forms of dress might have become so conventional that most women gave little thought to their meaning” (Abu-Lughod 36). Thus, she dispels the myth of women being imprisoned under the veil and represents a new opinion on the issue. She adds, “[burqa] is for good, respectable women from strong families who are not forced to make a living selling on the street” (Abu-Lughod 38). This information helps understand the history of Muslim culture and the worldviews of Islamic people.
Another important question the author raises in her article is the idea of interference with other cultures. On the one hand, she suggests that people have no right to interfere, while on the other hand, she argues, “it is too late not to interfere” (Abu-Lughod 40). Again, the impact of globalization can be felt in her words. Modern people, especially politicians, often tend to intrude into the lives of other countries without asking whether they need their help. Such a policy is inappropriate because people do not like to receive guidelines from the outsiders.
Thus, Abu-Lughod’s article directs the readers at the following conclusion: one should help only if he/she is asked to do so. It means that if Muslim women do not ask the world to save them from burqas, they do not need outsiders to safe them. At the same time, Abu-Lughod does not blame women’s organizations for their actions. She only gives a hint that people “should look closely at what [they] are supporting” and understand the reasons behind their actions (Abu-Lughod 42). After reading these words, the main question of the book comes to mind, “Do Muslim Women (Still) Need Saving?” Probably, they do, but they should be saved not from their traditional clothing or from the Taliban in general. They should be saved from the oppression, namely, rapes and assaults, which are being condemned by the whole world.
Thoughts for Consideration the Essay Inspires
After reading Abu-Lughod’s essay, many readers can reconsider their opinions and beliefs about Afghan women. The author inspires to think about women’s rights from a different perspective. Most Americans and many European citizens tend to fight for equality between men and women, women’s rights to decide whether to give birth to children or build a career and other issues. However, they cannot judge other cultures by their personal example. Thus, the author offers a possible solution to this problem. She claims that all these differences (cultural, religious, etc.) have some historical background, and the aim of anthropologists is to investigate this background and understand why some women prefer wearing a veil while the others obey their husbands willfully. Abu-Lughod suggests that Afghan women might have different values and desires, and it is time to ask what they really need and want (43). The problem of modern society is that people try to make an “opposition between Islam and the West, between fundamentalism and feminism” (Abu-Lughod 45). The author tries to persuade the readers that such opposition is unnecessary and fundamentally wrong.
The article clarifies the popular view, which is that Muslim countries are oppressive and full of terrorists. The readers begin to understand that terrorists can exist everywhere, and they are not necessarily of Islamic origin. Not all Muslim men are oppressive and abusive, and not all women refuse to wear veils. There are a great number of different views and opinions in every culture and religion, including Islam. Moreover, even Christians or Buddhists have opposite views on the same aspects of their religions. Abu-Lughod’s article inspires to think of Muslim women differently. In addition, the readers are inspired to conduct their personal investigation on the analyzed issues and ask all Islamic women what they want. Probably, if the Western countries want to help, they have to first create questionnaires and carry out anonymous surveys to discover the fears and desires of Muslim women. In such a way, people from the West would be able to comprehend Islamic people better, and thus, would not draw hasty conclusions about them.
Finally, Abu-Lughod raises another essential question, which cannot be ignored. She says, “When you save someone, you imply that you are saving her from something. You are also saving her to something” (Abu-Lughod 46-47). The example of Bibi Aysha is relevant in this discussion. The woman was saved from her cruel husband and in-laws. However, she could not return to her native land because she would be in danger there. Thus, one family volunteered to help her in the USA. In the case of one woman, she was able to find support and shelter. However, when there are hundreds or thousands of suffering women, the question is whether there are enough American families ready to provide them with a home. It is obvious that most Americans or Europeans do not want to give these women refuge in their houses, because no one likes others to intrude into their comfortable lives. Therefore, Abu-Lughod emphasizes the importance of thinking before doing, because some “good” decisions might appear to be not as good for some people.
On the contrary, all the issues raised in the article are controversial. It seems that people cannot help each other until they discover whether they have the right to do so. If one person asks for help, and the others keep silent, it may simply mean that this particular person needs support not because of her culture or religion but because of her personal situation. For example, if Taliban husband of Bibi Aysha has cut off her nose, it does not mean that all Taliban men will do the same with their wives. What is more important, a Christian or Hindu or any other man can act similarly not because of his religion but because of mental problems. Abu-Lughod ignores such a possible aspect, which makes her article not full. At the same time, the author’s main idea is clear, she wants the readers to look at the cultural difference from another perspective and hear the voices of those who are silent.
After reading Abu-Lughod’s essay, the issue of Muslim women’s rights becomes not as huge and global as it seems at the moment. The author questions the readers whether Muslim women still need to be saved, emphasizing the importance of their salvation for the West, not for Islamic women. For example, she argues that the debates about the veil are mostly pointless since many Muslim women decide to wear burqas because they want, and not because they are forced to wear them. The same is with other aspects of Islamic culture. Abu-Lughod does not simply criticize the Western views of Muslim women and their attempts to fight for their rights. She tries to show the other, deeper side of this problem, inspiring anthropologists to examine the historical background of many cultural traditions. Therefore, the main goal of the article is to teach the readers to value the differences between cultures and religions.