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Do ‘Muslim women need saving’?

Apr 16,2016 - Last updated at Apr 16,2016

Most Western politicians — the majority of whom are men — do not hesitate to tell Muslim women that they want to liberate them from Islamic “oppression”.

Supported by media outlets in that “liberation” attempt, they often suggest that Muslim women should unveil themselves, as the veil — according to them — is a sign of submissiveness.

David Cameron, the British prime minister, exemplifies that attitude. Recently he stressed the “traditional submissiveness of Muslim women”.

But that phrase contradicts the following extract from a recent article that he published in The Times: “This is Britain. In this country, women and girls are free to choose how they live, how they dress, and who they love.”

How should one think about that contradiction?

It seems that for Cameron, choice only means choosing between the different types of garb that are available in the West; other choices are either far inferior or do not exist.

Of course, Cameron is not the only occupant of the male-dominated, privileged Western “paradise”, but his position — or rather imposition — is representative of a large cross section of Western politicians, pundits, media outlets and even some academics who have joined the rank of Islamophobes.

One can easily notice the deleterious effects of such rhetoric.

I will cite only two recent examples.

One is a hit-and-run incident. A veiled woman was hit by a car in the Brussels District of Molenbeek. The driver, along with the passenger, did not have any qualms about smiling and taking pictures of their heinous crime.

The other involves a Muslim woman, Ahlam Saed, shopping in a store in Britain. The burqa-donning woman was verbally abused by a British man in a store (The skin colour and origin of both are irrelevant.)

That man likened her to “Batman”. Infinitely worse is that he did this before his two young daughters, who were trying to hide their faces.

The man condescendingly asked Saed: “Why [do] you dress like that?”

What these two examples, out of many more, demonstrate is that the fear-instilling rhetoric of the media and Western politicians has succeeded in demonising Muslims and Islam.

It made ordinary people feel that Muslims are menacing, hence the increase in Islamophobic attacks in the West, most of whose victims are women.

One might argue that people’s emotions have welled up due to the recent terrorist attacks; it is just a reaction, one might add.

But this interpretation is misleading, as it primarily justifies violence and obfuscates its real causes.

A much more precise way of understanding this phenomenon is to think about the intersections between those violent acts and the increasingly misogynistic and Islamophobic atmosphere in the West that predated and followed the attacks.

Islamophobia has been on the rise for quite a while now, especially in the last five years. Meanwhile, oppression of women in Western countries has also been increasing, according to several studies.

What does that mean?

It means that fear of the “other” — regardless of whether that is the result of gender, religion, ethnicity, etc. — is becoming rampant in Western societies.

It thus stands to reason that countering oppression against Muslim women in the West is in the best interests of those societies, as doing nothing about that oppression is going to normalise similar cases of oppression, a situation that would result in the destruction of the fabric of those societies.

This is not to condone any violence, maltreatment and oppression to which Muslim and Arab women in “our” region are exposed.

Indeed, there are extremely serious problems that badly need to be dealt with, especially when it comes to Daesh’s enslaving and terrorising women, practices to which every single human being has to be diametrically opposed and has to condemn.

That condemnation should, however, be also extended to Western men who mete out violence to Muslim women, physically or verbally.

Regardless of the way they dress, Muslim women have always contributed to the societies to which they belong in various ways.

They do have agency, and their positive effects can be easily felt by those who care enough to notice them.

It is high time that people in the West began to understand that the hijab, the burqa and the abaya are only indicative of a different culture in which women’s dress differently.

Explaining their dress code away as a sign of submissiveness reflects a lack of understanding of the complexity of the dress code of Muslim women (reading “Women in Islamic Cultures” by Suad Joseph might help with that complexity).

But let me go back to the question in the title of this article.

“Do Muslim women need saving” is a reference to the title of Lila Abu-Lughod’s most recent book. 

I have argued that one is unlikely to approach this question without thinking in a complex way about Muslim women in particular and women in general.

But if most Westerners’ answer is still in the affirmative, then they may focus on what can be done to protect Muslim women from Western racists.

That might be easier and less costly than invading entire countries.


The writer, a Fulbright scholar, contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

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