She lived with the tribe as an adopted daughter for two years between and Part One of the book explores Bedouin culture so that the poetry can be examined in context. Bedouin culture demands that individuals keep their feelings to themselves and not show weaknesses or sentiments. There is also a large emphasis on honor, both individual and especially family. Marriages are arranged by families to retain and enhance honor. The effect of a marriage on an entire family is more important than the effect on an individual.
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In this book, Abu-Lughod attempts to demolish the trope of the brown Muslim woman in need of saving, and as she details, mostly everyone wants to save a Muslim woman or two if they can in these post days, particularly if that Muslim woman is living in the vast area designated as the Middle East. Drawing upon her own work in the past and the invaluable work of people like Saba Mahmood, Hamid Dabashi, Deniz Kandiyoti, and others, Abu-Lughod charts out the ways in which contemporary bourgeois or liberal Western feminism has not only colluded with American and to a lesser extent in the 20th century, European imperialism, but could be perhaps be considered one of the products of it.
Their myopia allows them to characterise foreign cultures as particularly harmful to women while largely glossing over the brutal realities faced by women in what they consider to be the more exemplary secular democracies of North American and Western European countries. She is also critical of people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Irshad Manji and Azar Nafisi, women who are generally lauded in the West for speaking truth to power about Islam and misogyny at the very moment their words and narratives coincide with a particular Islamophobic discourse that furthers American imperial ambitions.
As such, Abu-Lughod notes the irresponsible damage inflicted by books like Half the Sky, The Caged Virgin, and The Honor Code, because truly virulent messages about Islam, in particular, and the people who inhabit the Global South, in general, are disseminated to a wide readership through sweetened doctrines of liberal humanitarianism and pro-democracry.
As long as these narratives champion a certain kind of resilience and triumph, these books are widely read and enthusiastically received, but as Abu-Lughod notes, there is plenty of sex involved, and whether unpleasant or pleasant, what matters are the details. The style of this nonfiction is confessional, and many of these books are presumably read by Western women because they are seen as honest or candid portrayals of how One Muslim Woman Overcame Islam in order to be Just Like You and Me.
The new gendered Orientalism performs a certain kind of work, and it is work that allows the vast majority of the public in secular democratic countries to take pride in their national values, and to preach, promote, and fund the values of a certain kind of liberal feminism while fostering, intentionally or not, an active ignorance of the implications of US-led war and sanctions on the women and children they purportedly want to save or help. Each woman now gets her husband to go off and buy special things for his own children, she complained.
Each woman wants her own household, not all the work of the joint household. When women, who are usually expected to perform reproductive labour and care work without complaint, refuse this work, it can be a form of resistance to the ways in which patriarchy is deeply entwined with capitalism. This might be too simplistic a conclusion presented in this review, but the book takes pains to avoid being reductive.
Do Muslim Women Need Saving? It would be wrong to expect a book like this one provide an answer as to how this kind of feminism might be made possible. The answer to that question is the work that all of us who are committed to seeing gender-based injustices against women become extinct need to figure out.
'Do Muslim Women Need Saving?'