Text & Context

10.22.134:45 AM ET

Do Muslim Women Need Saving?

Anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod analyzes the rise of a pervasive literary trope in the West—that of the abused Muslim girl.

This book seeks answers to the questions that presented themselves to me with such force after 9/11 when popular concern about Muslim women’s rights took off. As an anthropologist who had spent decades living in communities in the Middle East, I was uncomfortable with disjunction between the lives and experiences of Muslim women I had known and the popular media representations I encountered in the Western public sphere, the politically motivated justifications for military intervention on behalf of Muslim women that became common sense, and even the well-meaning humanitarian and rights work intended to relieve global women’s suffering. What worldly effects were these concerns having on different women? And how might we take responsibility for distant women’s circumstances and possibilities in what is clearly an interconnected global world, instead of viewing them as victims of alien cultures? This book is about the ethics and politics of the global circulation of discourses on Muslim women’s rights.

Primed for Moral Crusades

To understand why the new common sense about going to war for women’s rights seems so right despite the flaws I have laid out—whether its reliance on the myth of a homogeneous place called IslamLand or its selective and moralizing imperative to save others far away—we need to look sideways. Two other popular ways of talking about violations of women’s rights that have emerged in the past few decades lend support to the kinds of representations of women’s suffering that writers like these present. On one side is a political and moral enterprise with tremendous legitimacy in our era: international human rights. Women’s rights language and the institutional apparatus that has developed in tandem have been associated with human rights since the 1990s: feminists began to campaign with the slogan “women’s rights are human rights.” Their successes have led some in legal studies to detect the emergence of governance feminism (GF), the domination by radical feminists of legal, bureaucratic, and political institutions around the world. At the center of this set of institutions is a claim to universal values.

On the other side is a more sordid industry. This is the world of mass-market commercial publishing. This industry commissions and promotes a genre of books that one can identify, and judge, by their covers. We see them at airport bookstores. The copycat images are of women wearing black or white veils, showing only their eyes—or sometimes one eye. The titles are variations on a theme: A True Story of Life behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia; Sold: One Woman’s True Account of Modern Slavery; My Forbidden Face; Without Mercy; Burned Alive; Married by Force. They are often personal stories “as told to.” Disdained by respectable writers like the ones I consider in this chapter, I would argue that this genre underwrites their work.

How have these two institutions molded the imaginations of the women being recruited to Half the Sky’s battle against “the most shocking and widespread human-rights violation of our age”? Wildly different as they are, these two adjacent discourses have paved the way for the enthusiastic reception of the new common sense about the transcendent rightness of going to war for women, especially Muslim women. Some historians of the Anglo-American world at the time of abolition argue that there is a link between an emerging “pornography of pain” that took shape in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and humanitarian reform efforts. Karen Halttunen sees such images of suffering as an “integral aspect of the humanitarian sensibility.” In the twenty-first century, I argue in Chapter 3, it is a genre of “pulp nonfiction” about the abused Muslim woman and girl that links up with the utopian discourse of universal human rights to help create the new common sense and sensibility...


Literary Trafficking

The public appetite for such depictions of sordid and brutal treatment of women by Muslim or Arab men is disquieting. Unlike the many good ethnographies written by anthropologists about women’s everyday lives in these countries, these “memoirs” of suffering by oppressed Muslim women enjoy spectacular and strangely enduring popularity. Sold, by the Birmingham girl who escaped from Yemen with her mother’s help after thirteen years, was published in 1991. Zana Muhsen and Andrew Crofts, a professional ghostwriter, are listed as coauthors. The book was picked up by two new publishers in 1994 and reprinted almost twice a year until 2010. A follow-up was published as A Promise to Nadia (the sister who stayed behind). And then their mother wrote her own story (with Jana Wain, with whom she set up an organization to rescue girls kidnapped and sent abroad by their foreign fathers), from which I quoted. Published in 1995, it has been reprinted almost annually, with spikes in 1996 and 2003. Jean Sasson’s Princess trilogy and its sequel have sold millions.

More disquieting is the constant reference to sex. The focus on sexual abuse has made some of the memoir writers award-winning activists ...The most amazing case is that of Hannah Shah, author of The Imam’s Daughter. She went public in 2009 with her gruesome story of sexual abuse by her father, an imam in North England of rural Pakistani origin. She says she speaks to gatherings of 5,000.

What makes these books so appealing and their authors so celebrated when the writing is often appalling and the stories so extreme? To understand this, we have to place them in the contexts in which they are being read. These books are caught up in a charged international political field in which Arabs, Muslims, and particular others are seen as dangers to the West. Feminists praise these far-fetched books. Fay Weldon, for example, endorsed Desert Royal as “a book to move you to tears.” On the back cover of Without Mercy: A Mother’s Struggle against Modern Slavery, we find Weldon again: “What is astonishing about the book . . . is the account of how downtrodden, defeated Miriam [the kidnapped girls’ mother] suddenly came to buoyant life.” It should not surprise us to discover that Fay Weldon joined the right-wing Zionist Daniel Pipes on the board of an anti-Muslim Danish group that was formed after the controversy of the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

The “personal letter” from Sultana that prefaces Desert Royal openly engages international politics. Sultana frames her book as an invitation to the West: “I hope you are not weary of hearing our tragic tales, for we are gaining small freedoms here and there, and we continue to need your attention and your support for years to come. Without media attention and political intervention from other lands, most of our men would be most joyous to return to a time of utter darkness for the females living in Saudi Arabia. It is a sad truth that only when they are forced will our men allow light into our lives.”

That books about bad Arabs who force and enslave girls have a special place in the politics of European immigration is revealed by the enthusiastic reception of such books in France. Three of the classics I discuss in this book were first published or publicized there: Burned Alive, the memoir by “Souad” and Jacqueline Thibault of an honor killing survivor (discussed in Chapter 4); Sold, the book by Zana Muhsen and Andrew Crofts about the girls in Yemen, which became a best seller in France before it took off in England, fanned by Zana’s dramatic appearances on the prime-time show Sacrée Soirée and the book’s publication by a press owned by the son-in-law of the former French president Giscard-D’Estaing; and Married by Force, by “Leila” and Marie-Thérèse Cuny. French anxieties about North African immigrants are particularly intense, as these Arab Muslims form a postcolonial underclass in the restless suburbs (banlieues).

Married by Force directs itself to a French audience troubled by immigrants. This native who wants to escape her community confirms their views of the backwardness of the North Africans they detest. Leila explains, for example: “I couldn’t stand this life, but other girls who had been married by force like me put up with it . . . All the people who used to talk about integration could never rescue us: they didn’t have all the necessary information. Even we girls from the schools and colleges would get hit up, claiming that our parents would ‘never’ do that to us. They’d never marry us by force to some North African immigrant, because we’d say ‘no.’ However, in most cases we were forced to say ‘yes.’ We were caught in a system . . . What can be done to make families adapt and evolve?” In her study of the politics of humanitarianism in France, Miriam Ticktin draws a real-world parallel. She attributes the exceptional success of one territorial asylum case made for Zina, a Frenchwoman of Algerian background who had been forced into marriage, to “the sexually imbued cultural exoticism” that her personal story carried. In a country whose president, Nicolas Sarkozy, had dramatically offered France’s protection “to each martyred woman in the world,” only this sort of violence followed the proper format. The judge gave precedence to the French Civil Code over the bilateral accords that normally regulate family matters in the case of North Africans.

Even the more sober memoir by Mukhtar Mai from Pakistan, cowritten with the same Marie-Thérèse Cuny who penned Married by Force and translated into English as In the Name of Honor, with a glowing foreword by Nicholas Kristof, was also first published in France. As her publisher Philippe Robinet explains, “When journalists reported that she had been condemned by her village tribal council to be gang-raped, the horrifying news made headlines around the world . . . My colleagues and I made the arduous journey to the remote village of Meerwala, where we were welcomed by Mukhtar Mai and her friend Naseem Akhtar. They were amazed that we had come all the way from France to suggest that we should write a book together, a book that would help her in her struggle.”

In Britain in the past decade—with troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan, eruptions of public hysteria about Shari’a arbitration courts and burqas, fears of homegrown fanaticism instigated by the 7/11 bombings, and feminist agitation leading to national legislation against honor crimes and forced marriage—it is Pakistanis, not Arabs, who have emerged as the new authors of these memoirs. Andrew Crofts’s earlier success with the Yemeni story of Zana led to his involvement in writing another story of abuse and freedom about a British woman from the Pakistani community. The title of Crofts’s 2009 book with Saira Ahmed carries the anachronistic flavor of nineteenth-century melodrama: Disgraced: Forced to Marry a Stranger, Betrayed by My Own Family, Sold My Body to Survive, This Is My Story. The product description on Amazon.co.uk shouts all the familiar keywords of the genre: “Brought up in a violent Muslim household, where family honour is all, Saira is watched 24 hours a day. However, an innocent friendship with a boy is uncovered and Saira is sent to Pakistan, punished for dishonouring her family. There, the nightmare really begins. Forced to marry an older stranger who rapes her repeatedly and makes her his round-the-clock sex slave, she eventually plots her escape but, destitute, has to return to the family home in England . . . Disgraced is the true story of an innocence ruined and a life shattered. But it is also a tale of survival told by a woman who has finally discovered her true voice” (emphasis added)...

This description makes clear that the new genre capitalizes on the current humanitarian focus on the girl child as the exemplary victim, as it displaces onto racial others the lurking fears of pedophilia that are so much of our own everyday worlds where we constantly read reports of the cracking of another child pornography ring.


Excerpted from DO MUSLIM WOMEN NEED SAVING? by Lila Abu-Lughod, published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2013 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Lila Abu-Lughod is the Joseph L. Buttenwieser Professor of Social Science at Columbia University, where she teaches anthropology and women's studies.