Book Review of ‘Do Muslim Women Need Saving?’ by Lila Abu-Lughod

November 9, 2018 0 comments itmeeha Categories blog

Author: Zeenath Shakir

Abu-Lughod’s book critically challenges the dominant Western discourse on depicting Muslim women as helpless beings that are in ‘need of saving’ from oppression instilled primarily by religious and patriarchal institutions in the Muslim societies. Abu-Lughod presents key issues raised by Western knowledge such as formulation of a ‘new global common sense’ and ‘pulp non-fiction’, to save Muslim women from terrible atrocities that occur in Muslim Societies such as female subjugation, honour crimes and domestic violence. While mainstream media and popular rhetoric portray Muslim cultures as threatening, the attacks of September 11, 2001 further added to this misrepresentation and fuelled Western societies on a moral crusade to rescue Muslim women from their cultures.

One of the key aims of the book is to understand the disassociation between Abu-Lughod’s experiences in the Arab world and the public representation of Muslim women’s experiences and their cultures. Abu-Lughod employs a method called, “writing against culture” (p. 6) by detailing individual stories and experiences of Arab Muslim women in order to avoid generalising about cultures and forming a divide between the Muslim world and the West. While the struggles of Muslim women in the Arab world can be represented as women living in oppression and absence of autonomy, Abu-Lughod emphasises that such representations are merely superficial. In doing so, she engages the reader to understand the issues and struggles faced by Muslim women in Arab cultures beyond the comprehension that they are merely unable to achieve their rights and gain autonomy based on universal human rights-instruments. Throughout the book, Abu-Lughod attempts to deconstruct larger social and political forces at play behind the so-called subjugation women in Muslim cultures.

Abu-Lughod highlights on the escalating ‘pulp nonfiction’ post 9/11, feeding into the new global common sense and moral crusade of saving Muslim women and achieving their rights. The war on terror and terrorism was justified by targeting to save Muslim women in Afghanistan. The speech given by Laura Bush to support this intervention entails, “…The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women” (cited in p. 32). However, Abu-Lughod implies this rhetoric of saving women as, “You are also saving her to something” (p. 47). What then, is the outcome of saving? Is it giving Muslim women a better life or just utilising their suffering to ascertain one’s own humanitarian character? This particular rhetoric simply widens the bridge between the West and not just Muslim women but all marginalised societies that are not part of a ‘modern culture’. It also enables Western societies to assume a superior position deciding the authority of rights and dignity and adopts a culture of ‘othering’, in this case, of Muslim women. This ‘othering’ of others, referred to as gendered Orientalism, represent Muslim women as different from Western women, based on their cultures.

The notion of the moral crusade of saving Muslim women is further illustrated as Abu-Lughod explores the issue of honour crimes. While naming and criminalising violence may have positive effects such as law reform and action against violence, discourses of honour crimes are commonly associated with Islam and carry a tendency to condemn entire cultures and tradition. Moreover, Abu-Lughod poignantly emphasised that the discourse fails to highlight obligations of social institutions of policing, surveillance and interventions. The role of pulp nonfiction, again, in relation to honour crimes contributes to the global common sense and to gendered orientalism of Muslim women and their cultures.

The new wave of international human rights and instruments attempt to address the rights of Muslim women around the world. Abu-Lughod reflects on new contemporary Muslim feminists that works towards Islamic reform in relation to women’s rights. She highlights on two initiatives, namely Musawah and Women’s Initative in Spirituality and Equality (WISE). Musawah is a global Islamic movement founded by a feminist organisation called Sisters in Islam in Malaysia, while WISE emerged from New York and focused on women’s participation in discourses on Islamic law. Abu-Lughod raises prominent concerns of these movements in terms of their use of human rights discourses within an Islamic perspective. Do these movements reinforce the ideology of ‘oppressed Muslim women’? Are they associated with elite classes and privilege? And most importantly, do legal frameworks of rights and gender equality entail justice to complexities of women’s lives and their suffering? Such movements appear to associate women’s human rights issues, such as domestic violence, in relation to patriarchal systems in the society, while creating further tensions between culture and human rights. Moreover, there is a gap in addressing larger global issues affecting national and local societies such as poverty and inequality that lie at the root of women’s struggles against issues such as domestic violence.

As a reader, what was poignant in this book, among many other things discussed above, is the way Abu-Lughod attempted to deconstruct popular rhetoric on the ‘oppressed Muslim women’ similar to post-feminist discourses that raised critiques on Western feminism depicting women from non-western countries as a homogenous group that are vulnerable and marginalised in their societies. Abu-Lughod stresses on understanding Muslim women’s lives by listening to their stories and experiences and trying to comprehend the complexities in their societies. One may find it absurd that a method such as listening may be too simplistic to tackle such complex issues that are highlighted in the book. This also raises the question of whether individual stories and experiences are sufficient to address larger complex issues. However, as Abu-Lughod states, “If we were to listen and look, we might be forced to take account of contexts that we are not disconnected from our worlds and our own lives as we think. These contexts are shaped by global politics, international capital and modern state institutions, with their changing impacts on family and community” (p. 202). The book certainly does not attempt to give concrete solutions; rather, it allows one to engage with the dynamics of larger global politics that shape national policies and impact Muslim societies and individuals. The book has shifted my thinking to look beyond the so-called patriarchal systems to larger social and political forces and inequality that hinders not just Muslim women but all those that are at a disadvantaged position in the society. This is not to imply that patriarchal systems do not exist; however, it is one just one part of the complexities surrounding Muslim women’s lives and their struggles.


Abu-Lughod, L 2013, Do Muslim women need saving?, Harvard University Press, USA.

Zeenath Shakir is an international student from Maldives enrolled in the 1.5 year course of Master of Development Studies at University of Melbourne. Before coming to Melbourne in January 2015, her work experience was in the government of Maldives in the area of gender equality, women empowerment and domestic violence. During that time, she has also worked briefly as a facilitator for community engagement initiatives such as, community dialogue facilitation and community-based theatre. This essay was written for Dr. Kalissa Alexeyeff for the subject Gender in Cross Cultural Perspective GEND40003 in April 2016. Zeenath Shakir can be reached at [].

This review was originally published on Australian Awards Scholars Hub