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How Do You See the Film in Light of Lila Abu-Lughod's Text Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?

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In other words, the question is why knowing about the "culture" of the region, and particularly its religious beliefs and treatment of women, was more urgent than exploring the history of the development of repressive regimes in the region and the U.S. role in this history.

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A moral crusade to rescue oppressed Muslim women from their cultures and their religion has swept the public sphere, dissolving distinctions between conservatives and liberals, sexists and feminists. The crusade has justified all manner of intervention from the legal to the military, the humanitarian to the sartorial. But it has also reduced Muslim women to a stereotyped singularity, plastering a handy cultural icon over much more complicated historical and political dynamics. As an anthropologist who has spent decades doing research on and with women in different communities in the Middle East, I have found myself increasingly troubled by our obsession with Muslim women. Ever since 2001, when defending the rights of Muslim women was offered as a rationale for military intervention in Afghanistan, I have been trying to reconcile what I know from experience about individual women’s lives, and what I know as a student of the history of women and of feminism in different parts of the Muslim world, with the stock images of Muslim women that bombard us here in the West.Over the past decade, from the girls and women like Nujood Ali, whose best-selling memoir I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced was co-written, like so many of the others, by a Western journalist, to Malala Yousafzai, they have been portrayed as victims of the veil, forced marriage, honor crimes or violent abuse. They are presented as having a deficit of rights because of Islam. But they don’t always behave the way we expect them to, nor should they.

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With its origins in a 2002 article first published in American Anthropologist (Abu-Lughod 2002) and subsequently anthologized in a variety of gender readers, Lila Abu-Lughod's provocative inquiry--Do Muslim Women Need Saving?--has had a long evolutionary history. In this monograph-length version, she provides both a sequenced challenge to the assumption of monolithic Islam that results in the circulation of the distressed Muslim woman trope across the Western world and an erudite and rational takedown of Western arrogance and the false binary Western/Islamic. By turns charming and cautionary, Abu-Lughod interrogates the homogenized interpretations of "Muslim" in the West with humor, sympathy, and logic (Kandiyoti, Deniz. 1994). She structures individual autonomy and universal human rights as constructions installed by prevailing geopolitical contexts and linguistic formulations rather than innate universalism. While acknowledging that the impetus to save (Muslim) women stems from reasonably decent impulses, Abu-Lughod deconstructs how the liberationist narratives are akin to ideological crusades that re-create the medieval othering of Islam and Muslims. These crusading enterprises--which, as Abu-Lughod points out, yoke feminists and nonfeminists, liberals and conservatives alike--may be legalistic, as in the burqa ban in France, or military, as in the US invasion of Afghanistan (both measures ostensibly undertaken to liberate Muslim women), but in reality they cause extensive hardship and actual harm (Yegenoglu, Meyda. 1998).

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Finally, a first step in hearing their wideT message is to break with the language of alien cultures, whether to understand or eliminate them. Missionary work and colonial feminism belong in the past, Our task is to critically explore what we might do to help create a world in which those poor Afghan women, for whom "the hearts of those in the civilized world break, can have safety and decent lives.

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Kandiyoti, Deniz. 1994/2016. The paradoxes of masculinity: Some thoughts on segregated societies. In Dislocating masculinity: Comparative ethnographies, ed. Andrea Cornwall and Nancy Lindisfarne. Oxford and New York: Routledge.

Nussbaum, Martha C. 1995. Human capabilities, female human beings. In Women, culture, and development: A study of human capabilities, ed. Martha C. Nussbaum and Jonathan Glover. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Yegenoglu, Meyda. 1998. Colonial fantasies: Towards a feminist reading of orientalism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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How Do You See the Film in Light of Lila Abu-Lughod's Text Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?
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