Europe in Search of Europeans   /   Spring 2014   /    Book Reviews

Saving the Other

Jeffrey Guhin

Graffiti; luckyfotostream/flickr.

A critique of the Western treatment of “Islamland.”

Spoiler 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.

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