Elif Shafak

Lifting the Headscarf

Do Muslim Women Need Saving?


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When I was six years old my parents got divorced and in order to offer me a fully fledged egalitarian holiday they asked me to spend half the summer with my paternal grandmother and the remaining half with my maternal grandmother. In the former’s house, I learned to fear Allah. Grandma N opened my suitcase and regarded with distaste every dress and pair of shorts that I had brought, finding them inappropriate for girls. She told me that because of my sex I had to be extra-careful and pray night and day so as not to err and end up inside the boiling cauldrons of Hell. By mid-July, more pious and timid than before, I returned to Ankara, where my maternal grandmother was waiting for me. Grandma F took a look at the new clothes I had brought along and found them too thick and too long. ‘In this heat, you should be wearing dresses and shorts, for God’s sake!’ When I questioned her about Hell and what particular torments awaited us there, she said, ‘You shouldn’t be thinking of such things. Think about God’s love instead. He is rahman and rahim. The words mean merciful and womb. So it shows us that in the eyes of Allah we women are much loved, much blessed.’

Both women were Turkish and belonged to the Sunni branch of Islam. They were of the same age group and economic background. Both covered their heads when they went out, though in different styles. Both fell into the fabled category of ‘Muslim women’ and yet I know, and my heart knows, that the two of them could not have been more different.

I remembered this while reading Lila Abu-Lughod’s beautiful book Do Muslim Women Need Saving? It is a riveting account by an academic who has spent many years observing women in the Middle East and the West, and adeptly wears several hats as an anthropologist and professor in women’s studies. Abu-Lughod is a great listener and a sharp observer of everyday life. She understands the struggles, joys and jealousies of Middle Eastern women and has an ear for the stories that do not make headlines. Refusing to treat Muslim women as a category, she focuses on nuances and complexities. Where others see an undifferentiated mass of individuals, she sees real women with real stories. ‘I wanted my years of research to offer something unusual to a public that had little understanding of, but strong views about, women in the Middle East.’

The book starts with the story of Zaynab, a woman who raised her children and ran her household pretty much on her own. Feisty, intelligent and determined, Zaynab has navigated her way in a deeply patriarchal environment. ‘Because I have known women like Zaynab through my years doing ethnographic research, I am often bewildered by what I read or hear about “the Muslim woman”,’ writes Abu-Lughod. She underlines how the issues of Muslim women, real or perceived, set in motion a series of international debates – and sometimes international policies – the way the concerns of no other women anywhere in the world can do: ‘This book is about what lies behind such deceptively simple responses to problems we think we already understand or believe that we should act on even before we understand.’ There is a constant effort in Abu-Lughod’s writing to debunk the myth of the need for ‘foreign intervention to save Muslim women’.

Abu-Lughod’s strength comes from the ways in which she connects the Middle East and the West and shows us the already existing connections. At times, she does this on a gentle, personal level, finding common threads in the songs of her aunt in Jordan and Maya Angelou’s poems. At others, she does so on a broader scale, such as when she links the circumstances of Afghan women to the country’s power rivalries and war economy, which ‘are thoroughly tied up with the West, its everyday worlds embedded in a global economy and an international war on Terror’. This approach is very different to the one that singles out Islam as the main reason why Afghanistan is in this state today.

Strikingly, she describes her method as ‘writing against culture’. Culture has dominated almost every discussion on the Islamic world; whenever we talk about a country where there is an overwhelming Muslim majority, we tend to ignore the historical background and the political dynamics. Instead we look for cultural answers. Often, this goes hand in hand with an emphasis on religion and religious differences. It is this kind of cordon sanitaire around culture that the author boldly challenges.

In the Turkish language I can find at least six different words for ‘veil’ and each has different implications. One form of headscarf might be more traditional while another more religious. All these nuances, which the natives are familiar with, are lost when only ‘veil’ is employed in every circumstance. Abu-Lughod does not shy away from a discussion about it. She does not see it automatically as a lack of agency or freedom. This will come as no surprise to anyone who has read her ground-breaking Veiled Sentiments, an ethnographic study of a Bedouin community in Egypt in the late 1970s. Back then she was analysing how Bedouin women adapted the black head cloths to show their standing in the society.

Abu-Lughod uses the term ‘IslamLand’ to pinpoint the imaginary place that surfaces in everyday parlance, media analyses and international relations. Making sweeping generalisations about IslamLand has led to a dangerous and persistent ignorance mixed with arrogance. She objects to the way in which Muslims are seen as belonging to a different, and often threatening, culture that has nothing in common with other cultures.

As powerful and clear as it is in its arguments, the book has its shortcomings as well. There are parts when the narrative feels repetitive and, because it seeks answers to questions raised immediately after 9/11, there is a certain defensiveness from time to time. However, the narrative is clear and bold.

I look at my own maternal grandmother or to women like Zaynab and realise once again that there is no Islam. There are Islams, just like there are Judaisms, Christianities and Hinduisms. We need to make the word plural to understand the wide variety of practices and power relations. And Lila Abu-Lughod’s Do Muslim Women Need Saving? does precisely that with its captivating approach.

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