The Feminist Politics of Islamic Misogyny

Studying honor killings is not the same as sensationalizing them -- but Columbia University professor Lila Abu-Lughod disagrees. Moreover, she believes that indigenous Arab and Muslim behavior, including honor-related violence, is best understood as a consequence of Western colonialism -- perhaps even of "Islamophobia."

On October 25, 2010, at the American University of Beirut, Abu-Lughod admonished feminists who ostensibly sensationalize honor killings, a position which, in her opinion, represents "simplistic, civilizational thinking." She "warned that an obsessive focus on the so-called honor crime may have negative repercussions" and that "people should be wary of classifying certain acts as a distinctive form of violence against women." (Her remarks are summarized in a press release published by the university. According to the university, the article on which the speech is based will be published early next year in Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies.)

Abu-Lughod opposed the "concept of clear-cut divisions between cultures, which she viewed as a form of imprisoning rural and immigrant communities," and suggested that focusing on "honor crimes" allowed "scholars and activists to ignore important contexts for violence against women: social tensions; political conflicts; forms of racial, class, and ethnic discrimination; religious movements; government policing and surveillance; and military intervention."

What kind of feminism does Abu-Lughod represent? She is a post-colonial, postmodern, cultural relativist, a professor of anthropology and women's and gender studies who does not believe in universal standards of human rights. However, her allegedly feminist work primarily serves the cause of one nationalism only -- Palestinian -- and of one tradition only -- Islam/Islamism.

Abu-Lughod has long held the positions she expressed in Beirut. According to her 2002 article in The American Anthropologist, "Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?," Abu-Lughod believes that wearing the Islamic veil signifies "respectability" for Muslim women. More, it can be "read as a sign of educated, urban sophistication, a sort of modernity." She writes,

Why are we surprised that Afghan women do not throw off their burqas when we know perfectly well that it would not be appropriate to wear shorts to the opera? If we think that U.S. women live in a world of choice regarding clothing, all we need to do is to remind ourselves of the expression "the tyranny of fashion."

According to the photo which accompanies the Beirut press advisory and her Columbia biography, Abu-Lughod does not wear a burqa.

In fact, Abu-Lughod herself and her professor parents are all products of an American academic establishment: Her Palestinian-American father, Ibrahim, taught at Northwestern University for 35 years; her Jewish-American mother, Janet Lippman Abu-Lughod, did so for twenty years. Their daughter was raised a Muslim -- but in America, not the Middle East. She attended Carleton College in Minnesota and received her Ph.D. from Harvard. Abu-Lughod is married to another Columbia professor of Middle East studies, Timothy Mitchell, who shares her views about Palestine, Israel, and America. They and others represent an academy which has also sacrificed most real feminist values and curriculum for a hard-left agenda which masquerades as "feminism."

Abu-Lughod suggests that there are many reasons that a woman might veil -- and, if she's talking about hijab (a headscarf), I can agree with her. However, wearing a face- and body-covering that obscures identity, peripheral vision, and all normal social interaction -- that functions, in effect, like a sensory deprivation isolation chamber -- is not an empowered "feminist" choice or even a feminist way of rejecting sexual objectification. The growing Islamist pressure to veil is enormous, and women fear being beaten, never obtaining a husband, or being divorced, jailed, or even killed for their failure to do so. Face- and body-covering is a forced choice, not a free one. Muslim girls and women are punished, and sometimes murdered, for refusing to wear a face veil.  

Regarding the benefits of polygamy, Abu-Lughod and others suggest that female relatives, including co-wives, may bond, keep each other company, share isolating and repetitive tasks, and so on. Sounds good -- but neither research nor personal memoirs support this theoretical possibility. Exceptions always exist, but the bulk of what is known presents a far different picture of female-female relations. Many accounts portray Arab and Muslim women mistreating each other, their female servants, and their slaves. They are also either directly cruel or indifferent toward impoverished and racially and religiously marginalized women in their own countries and households.

Even Abu-Lughod notes that pioneer Iranian feminist Siddiqeh Dawlatabadi "imposed on the nine-year-old daughter of her father's secretary a marriage to her seventy-year-old father when he was widowed. She later ignored the girl's cries when she went into labor and thereafter, when Dawlatabadi's father died, married off the girl to someone else, taking her daughters."

In addition, research on honor killing demonstrates that mothers, sisters, aunts, and second wives conspire in the murder of one of their own female relatives and often have a hands-on relationship to the actual murder.

To be fair, Abu-Lughod has also published some interesting work about Muslim women in the Middle East, and about Bedouin women in particular, including Writing Women's Worlds: Bedouin Stories. However, Abu-Lughod, like her Columbia University colleague Gayatri Spivak, views a Western-style fight for women's rights in the Muslim world as a dangerous diversion. In Remaking Women. Feminism and Modernity In The Middle East, Abu-Lughod criticizes Western "colonial feminism" as attempting to undermine local cultures and recommends that we continue to focus mainly on the "colonial enterprise." Why? Perhaps as a way of reminding Western thinkers -- heirs to the colonial adventure -- that, given their ancestors' past crimes, they dare not feel "superior" to the Islamic world, and above all, they dare not intervene to free Muslim prisoners from Muslim tyrants, jailers, and murderers. Indeed, Abu-Lughod is quoted in Beirut as saying that: "the easily sensationalized category [of honor killing] has the political effect of stigmatizing Muslim societies."

I am among a handful of both Muslim and non-Muslim feminists who humbly but adamantly question this approach. The politicization of the feminist academic world, especially in terms of its "Palestinianization" and its anti-Americanism -- has become the universal point of view for feminist academics. Abu-Lughod, Leila Ahmed, Suha Sabbagh, and Gayatri Spivak all share a  profoundly negative view of the West and its values. This is their real passion. They may study women for complex reasons, but they use their work to condemn the West again and again. Sadly, they are all speaking the same politically correct "feminist" language from which a universal concept of human rights for women has been utterly banished.

Phyllis Chesler is Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women's Studies and the author of fourteen books, including the 1972 classic Women and Madness. She has published two studies about honor killings in the Middle East Quarterly and may be reached at her website, She wrote this article for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum. She would like to acknowledge the assistance of Nathan Bloom.
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