Abu-Lughod counters stereotypes of Arab women

With wire-framed glasses atop her nose, a halo of brown curls framing her face, and her right arm in a sling, Columbia Professor Lila Abu-Lughod captivated a crowd of almost 200 who had ventured out into sub-freezing temperatures on February 15th to hear the noted anthropologist discuss the topic of “Do Muslim Women Have Rights?” as this year’s speaker at the Kareema Al-Khoury Annual Distinguished Lecture Series in Arab Studies.

The annual lecture is given in honor of Kareema Al-Khoury whose family established the event in 1976 to bring eminent scholars of the Arab world to Georgetown for a public lecture. CCAS Assistant Professor Rochelle Davis gave praise to the Al-Khoury family for allowing the Center to bring forward past speakers at the event, including the likes of Edward Said, Albert Hourani, and Janet Abu-Lughod.

Lila Abu-Lughod, a noted Columbia University anthropologist best known for her work in gender studies in the Arab world, framed the evening’s discussion through an examination of anthropological approaches and the phenomenon of dictating language through other forms of media and scholarship. She expressed particular interest and concern over the ethical and political dilemmas posed by the construction and the international circulation of what she called “discourses on women’s rights.” In the discourse present in human rights today, she asked, “what assumptions about the role of secularism and Islam lie in the liberal presumption that secularism is a better guarantee of women’s” rights? The particular framing of these issues, she said, might be leading to justifications for economic and military actions that compromise the safety of women in various Arab societies.

Abu-Lughod focused on the rise of a sort of “dialectic,” formed and described by an articulate, capable, highly-educated elite including NGO professionals, professors and human rights experts, surely pure in their quest to do good, and often overlooking the fact, Abu-Lughod suggested, that the judgment implicit in this new language was in its elitism not applicable or was perhaps even “denigrating” to the very populations NGO’s and other groups have dedicated themselves to protecting. And why, she lamented, was “This language the only one left?”

This phenomenon was discussed through an examination of the Arab Human Development Report titled “Toward the Rise of Women in the Arab World,” published by the United Nations Development Program in 2005.

Abu-Lughod praised the work of some parts of the report, calling them “commendable,” and “rich” in information with a number of excellent chapters&the report argues for important legal and political reforms, and condemns particularly egregious violations against women.

Having recognized the many important contributions the report had made, she turned to a critique of the language and framing of the descriptions and recommendations within it.

Broadly, the lack of casting the problems detailed in the report against any sort of a broader context, she thought, served to cast the experiences of Arab/Muslim women as ones that were particularly “bad,” and failed to differentiate between conditions in different countries in the Arab world. As one example, governmental participation by women for the entire region was lamented to be under 10% even though the figure was not radically different from the 16% of members of the Congress of the United States who are women, and did not highlight the fact that some governments, such as Tunisia with 22%, that had much higher percentages than many Western countries.

There are, Abu-Lughod said (referencing the anthropological work of scholars like Martha Nussbaum) two identifiable “goods,” sexual equality and religious freedom, ideas that should be protected and fought for, that lay in contrast to the more recently articulated requirements for fulfilling universal human rights, education, employment and individualism.

The education requirement was problematic because, she said, at least in parts of the Arab world, it was not the lack of education, but the “high cost and poor quality of education.” A sad trend of embarrassment also existed over the futility of education when it failed to contribute to finding meaningful employment. “This fantasy of gainful employment,” the author stated, “is a middle-class fantasy.”

She indicated one quote in the report which described the average woman from rural upper Egypt as follows: “This woman is unable to read or write, or thus to express her views. She has never even heard of her rights as a human.” “Really?” Abu-Lughod noted rhetorically, “I think the many articulate, creative, and sharp non-literate women I have known in rural Egypt, women who are creative poets and storytellers, astute moral reasoners, energetic participants in their community’s social and political affairs, would be surprised to hear this.”

The emphasis on work as a key component of success also created problems, she said, because of several anthropological studies that have suggested that often when women stayed home, their families were able to save more money and to provide more resources to their families. Abu-Lughod pointed to scholar Homa Hoodfars work with the urban Cairo poor in the 1980s and 1990s, which suggested that often the motives for giving up work were economic, not social, and that women reported more autonomy at home than they did at work. “If childcare is not provided, is it economically viable? If work is badly paid, back-breaking, exploitative or boring, is the absence of women’s labor at home and the vulnerability to harassment worth it?” Abu-Lughod wondered.

A further critique of the report was a broad tendency to turn to non-governmental, secular, not-for-profit groups instead of looking to ready- established groups such as the state, its institutions, the military or the family as sources for empowering women.

The recommendations for improvement were not of a type that would be economically easy to implement. A specific recommendation to remedy the poor condition of state education in Arab countries was to develop an educational system that is strong, non-governmental and not for profit as a rival to government education. Abu-Lughod wondered why it might not be easier, and more effective, to just shore up the state education system.

Many publications, she said, have also ignored the existence of “state feminism” for instance in Egypt under Nasser, where “despite losses of autonomy for the women’s movement,” she said, “There were radical gains in terms of mass education, land reform, tenancy protection, healthcare, and huge public sector employment, all of which benefited women as citizens.

“The plight of the Muslim woman,” Abu-Lughod said “has long occupied a special place in the Western political imagination, whether in colonial officials’ dedication to saving them from barbaric practices or development projects devoted to empowering them.” Discussing the particular struggles of women in the Arab/Muslim world without a context or suggesting that these were problems that were suffered widely all over the world gave the West a sort of false “sense of cultural superiority, and was all part of a long pattern of Western interest in the Eastern woman.

Improvements to the status quo could be accomplished, she said “If we could begin to develop a ‘serious’ appreciation of differences, but if women’s rights could not be detached from the larger fields of representations in which they are embedded, “What ethical stance should one take? ”

Lila Abu-Lughod is a renowned ethnographer and a Professor of Anthropology and the Director of the Institute for Research on Women in Gender at Columbia University and has been the recipient of numerous academic fellowships including awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Fulbright, and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. In 1994 she won the Victor Turner Prize for Ethnographic Writing for Writing Women’s Worlds: Bedouin Stories. This and other works were based on her field research with the Awlad ‘Ali Bedouin in Egypt in the 1970s and 80s. Her latest ethnographic work, Dramas of Nationhood: The Politics of Television in Egypt, was published in 2004. This April, Nakba: Palestine 1948 and the Claims of Memory, which she co-edited with Ahmed Sa’adi, will be published by Columbia University Press.