When Muslim women want to save Muslim women
By: Sana Saeed
Published Friday, March 28, 2014
In an interview with Asia Society, Lila Abu Lughod, author of the recent publication Do Muslim Women Need Saving? poignantly explained the underscoring problem with the need to “save” women, particularly Muslim women:
“… The problem, of course, with ideas of “saving” other women is that they depend on and reinforce a sense of superiority by westerners.
When you save someone, you are saving them from something. You are also saving them to something. What violences are entailed in this transformation? And what presumptions are being made about the superiority of what you are saving them to?...”
But what happens when the ones who want to (or are made to) “save” Muslim women to something “superior” are Muslim women?
A history of being saved
While Abu-Lughod is speaking in the context of the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and the narrative of salvation that was used as its window dressing, the actual rhetoric and practice of salvation to a superior ideal (defined as something that has a Western, liberal face) is part of a long history of the subjugation of colonized women. In particular, it is part of a long history of trying to colonize a societiy through the native woman’s body. For colonizers throughout various parts of the so-called “Muslim world,” the “de-veiling” of the Muslim woman was a necessary and fundamental step towards full colonization – a colonization that went beyond institutions and legal systems and to the bare bones of a culture and society. In his book A Dying Colonialism, which explored how the French colonization of Algeria had pushed Algerians towards a reclamation of their past and heritage, Frantz Fanon – a revolutionary in the Algerian war for independence - noted what was France’s ultimate doctrine of colonization in order to completely subjugate Algeria:
If we want to destroy the structure of Algerian society, its capacity for resistance, we must first of all conquer the woman; we must go and find them behind the veil where they hide themselves and in the houses where the men keep them out of sight.
Evelyn Baring, a British colonial administrator in Egypt and Eugéne Daumas, a French general in Algeria employed strategies in the late 19th century, to subdue their respective colonies, focused on the removal of the Muslim woman’s veil. According to Baring, also known as Lord Cromer, that while “Islam as a social system had failed for many reasons,” the ultimate reason for its “failure” (defined in terms of not being Western and thus “civilized”) was its treatment of women. In Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate, Leila Ahmed chronicles Lord Cromer’s obsession with civilizing Egyptian Muslim society through its Muslim women by de-veiling them, restricting their education and careers. Cromer was, in essence, “saving” Egyptian society by “saving” Egyptian Muslim women to the pinnacle of civilization as he believed it to be: upper-middle class white European women (who he also wanted to keep far away from attaining suffrage rights). Daumas, who wrote about so-called “Arab society and Muslim life,” was equally enthusiastic about the role of Muslim women, especially their dress, in fully conquering Algerian society and people. In the chapter “La Femme Arabe: Women and Sexuality in France's North African Empire” in the book Women, the Family and Divorce Laws in Islamic History, Julia Clancy Smith notes that Daumas, in his work on the “Arab Woman,” wrote that the “soundest evaluation of the social state of a people” was the woman. He continued that the purpose of his work on the “Arab woman” was to “tear off the veil that still hides the mores, customs and ideas” of the colony in order to properly, again, conquer it.
This obsession with the removal of the veil as a “liberating” force for not only Muslim women but Muslim peoples persists until this day.
In her 2007 book Politics of the Veil, Joan Wallach Scott argued that even the antagonistic sentiments that led to the banning of the headscarf in French public schools were, in part, greatly rooted in the French colonial experience in Algeria; “de-veiling” was necessary for French imperial project to be successful. The retainment and prominence of the veil meant the French had failed to exert their power. At the same time, the veil took on a violent meaning when Algerian resistance fighters began donning it in order to hide weapons and, subsequently, assassinate French colonial officers. A memorable and dark scene from the Italian film The Battle of Algiers, which chronicles the 1960 revolution, shows Algerian women un-veiling and “westernizing” their appearance in order to infiltrate their urban, French surroundings and leave explosives in crowded public areas.
Thus, in the European imagination the veil, itself, took on a meaning of violence and resistance that has endured.
Different masks, same salvation
“Fixing” the “Muslim world” through saving its women is now a foreign policy talking point and a cause for recognizing one’s own moral greatness. In all the ways the millennium was welcomed, Oprah Winfrey’s de-veiling a woman in a shuttlecock burqa on stage in Madison Square Garden, part of an Eve Ensler V-Day feminism benefit before the September 11th attacks, has to be one of the most significant images of “sex imperialism” we probably forgot (or didn’t know) happened.
The “veil” is more than just a covering – at least in the eyes of those who see it as an obstruction to their own exertion of power and “truth.” It is for them, as Daumas wrote, something which covers the entire being of a society and culture – thus get through to the Muslim women, through the physical and abstract veil, and get through to ‘correcting’ her society and culture.
While Muslim women’s own bodies, like any colonized women’s bodies, were and continue to be canvases for [neo]colonial projects, the nature of these canvases has changed considerably. Over the past decade, there has been a surge in palatable Muslim women who ‘lift the veil’ on Muslim “mores, customs and ideas.” In other words: instead of having ‘the veil’ lifted for them by a benevolent (usually white) woman, they’re doing it for themselves.
Media personalities such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Mona al-Tahawy, Irshad Manji, Asra Nomani and Qanta Ahmed (to name just a few) have become staple voices in any and all discussions about treatment of women in Islam and by Muslims. While all come from different backgrounds and experiences, and all have different functions in the media – all have become part and parcel of the contemporary machine of neo-colonial salvation. A certain brand of Muslim women in the media, as native informants, has been created to not only further cultivate but legitimize racist, colonial tropes that pit white supremacy as, ultimately, the ideal towards which we are to be saved.
And who else to better tell the truth about the “social state of the people” than the people’s native?
Violence against women, in all of the different shades of it that exist, is a reality in Muslim majority countries and this is what the aforementioned women and others discuss at length to varying degrees and with sometimes different approaches (some with slight more nuance than others). Yet their discussions on violences against Muslim women treat those violences as though there is inherently something particular about that violence that, in turn, is near-inherent to Islam or, at the very least, Muslims.
In her paper Gendered Violence, Cultural Otherness, And Honor Crimes in Canadian National Logics, Dana M. Olwan illustrates how the Canadian discourse on “honor crimes”and “honor-based violence” views violence within immigrant communities as “a foreign and imported phenomenon” which has resulted from a failure by these communities to properly “assimilate to national and “western” ideals of gender equality.” Olwan argues that because the violence is viewed as “honor-based” and thus ‘foreign’, it then is seen as something that can be removed from the fabric of society through, simply, cultural assimilation. In other words: there’s something inherently flawed in these immigrant (often Muslim and Sikh in the case of Canadian discourse) communities that is alien, non-existent in “our” cultural and social fabric.
The mainstream media representations of ‘honor-based violence’ and violence faced by women in Muslim majority countries thus carves out an exoticized space for violence that only Muslims (and, by extension certain other categories of brown bodies) occupy. This is dangerous because it is pushed forward and co-opted by non-mainstream, extreme anti-Islam groups. The co-option of detrimental issues on women’s health, choice and rights as well as of the survivors of violence by these groups leads to a reactionary distrust of almost any and all discussions on violence against women amongst many Muslims. After all – the conversations being had are being used not for the betterment of Muslim communities but rather to illustrate their moral and social ineptitude.
The Clarion Project, self acclaimed as the “number 1 news site on the “threat of Islamic extremism,” is one of the leading purveyors of the Islamophobia Industry in the United States. It recently launched the release of a new documentary, Honor Diaries, that brings together several Muslim and some non-Muslim women to talk about “honor” and “honor-based violence” in predominantly Muslim societies. The women in the film discuss female genital mutilation, forced marriages, domestic violence, sexual harassment, veiling, child marriages and rape, amongst other topics, in the context of that “untranslatable” phenomenon of honor that is unique to “there,” alien to “here.” And the images provided in the film itself – between the mandatory flashes of veiled Muslim women in far away lands – of this sisterhood of Muslim women, coming together on a round table and sitting on couches are powerful images for the purposes of the Clarion Project’s propaganda. We are shown that no one is telling these women what to say or how to say it; no one is telling them where their salvation lies. No – they are in a conversation with themselves and each other.
The shades of native informancy are not relegated to extremist hate groups like the Clarion Project; they are an integral, but not only, part of the national discourses on Islam in many if not most Euro-American societies.
The great colonial empires and generals that wrote treatises on how to best subjugate entire peoples and societies through complete destruction of their lives and history may be skeletal memories for many, but the soul of those strategies remains in tact and in constant movement. In the case of Muslims this soul has, indeed, become now an acceptable and insidious part of the common narrative that positions the world’s Muslims in constant need of salvation: they cannot get democracy right, they cannot treat their women right; they don’t have a humane way of slaughtering animals; they want religion to be a part of their public life and they look a certain way that doesn’t conform to our normalcy.
They need help.
By using the voices, faces and experiences of certain Muslim women as vessels in the media to carry the messages of salvation, these women in effect become weapons; they are used to intimidate the intended targets while situating the ‘right’ and ‘good’ Muslims to dictate the ‘right’ and ‘good’ Islam.
The colonizer of the past centuries believed he had not only a monopoly on the truths of civilization and moral greatness but also that he had a duty to enforce those truths.
So, what’s changed?
Sana Saeed is a culture and politics commentator currently based in Canada. She holds an MA in Islamic Studies from McGill University.