The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 16 No. 1 (Spring 2014)

Lilu Abu-Lughod's Do Muslim Women Need Saving?

Jeffrey Guhin

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 16.1 (Spring 2014). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2014

(Volume 16 | Issue 1)


poiler alert: Lila Abu-Lughod, distinguished Columbia University anthropologist, feminist theorist, and Islamic studies scholar, does not believe that Muslim women need saving. That’s not as much of a spoiler as it might seem, because her book is actually less about what the question asks than the question itself: What does it mean to ask if Muslim women need saving, and what assumptions does that question make about the meanings of Muslim and the nature of women’s rights? Instead of delivering another diatribe about Muslim women—whether lamenting their victimization or insisting on their misunderstood condition—Abu-Lughod explains why worrying about Muslim women is not as simple, or as innocent, as it looks.

Do Muslim Women Need Saving? is actually a sort of double deconstruction, taking on both nouns in the book’s title. First, Abu-Lughod looks at Muslim women around the world—or, more accurately, at how those women are looked at—examining highbrow academic and journalistic studies of gender in Islam as well as the more harrowing accounts of the desperate-women-saved-from-Islam and evil-Muslims-kill-women-for-honor variety. She finds that all of these representations tend, cumulatively, to produce something she calls “Islamland,” a world in which Islam is as coherent and monolithic as it is oppressive.

The second main task the author sets for herself is a careful interrogation of the concept of saving through a close probing of the thornier question of rights. She is particularly disturbed by the use of women’s rights to justify war (especially in Afghanistan and the Middle East), and she draws on her own ethnographic scholarship to challenge reigning assumptions about Muslim women’s needs. Both in her life and in the book, Abu-Lughod keeps returning to upper Egypt to ask the sorts of women who elicit so much international concern—poor, fully covered, and Muslim—if their life is really so bad.

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Jeffrey Guhin is Abd El-Kader Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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