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Why We Can't Save Afghan Women

Interview with Lila Abu-Lughod

Interview with Lila Abu-Lughod

You mentioned that the veil or burqa has been spoken of and defended by Muslim women as "portable seclusion" and that veiling should not be associated with lack of agency. Can you explain why this is the case?

It was the anthropologist Hanna Papanek, working in Pakistan, who twenty years ago coined this term of "portable seclusion." I like the phrase because it makes me see burqas as symbolic "mobile homes" that free women to move about in public and among strange men in societies where women's respectability, and protection, depend on their association with families and the homes which are the center of family lives.

The point about women's veiling is of course too complicated to lay out here. But there were three reasons why I said it could not so simply be associated with lack of agency. First, "veiling" is not one thing across different parts of the Muslim world, or even among different social groups within particular regions. The variety is extraordinary, going from headscarves unselfconsciously worn by young women in rural areas to the fuller forms of the very modern "Islamic dress" now being adopted by university women in the most elite of fields including medicine and engineering. Second, many of the women around the Muslim world who wear these different forms of cover describe this as a choice. We need to take their views seriously, even if not at face value. Beyond that, however, we need to ask some hard questions about what we actually mean when we use words like "agency" and "choice" when talking about human beings, always social beings always living in particular societies with culturally variable meanings of personhood. Do we not all work within social codes? What does the expression we often use here "the tyranny of fashion" suggest about agency in dress codes?

You argued that the interesting political and ethical question that the burqa raises has to do with how to deal with difference. You ask if it is possible for us to think of Afghan women being free in ways different from our own conception of freedom, i.e., can we only free Afghan women to be like us?

Yes, I think we need to recognize that even after "liberation" from the Taliban, Afghan women (and one can't presume any uniformity of views even within this category), might want different things than we (Westerners, of course also a diverse category) might want for them. What do we do about that? I don't think we need simply be cultural relativists, advocating respect for whatever goes on elsewhere and explaining it as "just their culture." I've already talked about the problem of "cultural" explanations in my criticism of the focus on the category of "Muslim women." And it should be recalled that Afghan or other Muslims' "cultures" are just as much part of history and an interconnected world as ours are.

What I think we need to do is to work hard to respect and recognize difference-as products of different histories, as expressions of different circumstances, as manifestations of differently structured desires.

We might still argue for justice for women, but consider that there might be different ideas about justice and that different women might want, or choose, different futures from what we envision as best. Among the most difficult things for American feminists to accept is that these futures might involve women in developing within a different religious tradition, or traditions that don't have as their primary ideal something called "freedom."

Reports that came out of the Bonn peace conference in late November revealed that there were even differences among the few Afghan women feminists and activists present. Some, like the representative of RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, refused to be conciliatory to any notion of Muslim governance. But others looked to Iran as a country in which they could see women making significant gains within an Islamic framework-in part through an Islamically oriented feminist movement that is challenging injustices and reinterpreting the religious tradition. The situation in Iran is itself the subject of great debate within feminist circles, especially among Iranian feminists in the West. It is not clear whether and in what ways women have made gains and whether the great increases in literacy, decreases in birthrates, presence of women in the professions and government, and a feminist flourishing in cultural fields like writing and filmmaking are because of or despite the establishment of a so-called Islamic Republic. The concept of an Islamic feminism itself is also the subject of heated debate. Is it an oxymoron, or does it refer to a viable movement forged by women who want another way? Still, the representatives at the Bonn peace conference thought it was more realistic to look to the Iranian model than to a secular Western one if they wanted to have any appeal to local women and to have a chance of transforming women's lives and gender relations from within.

The last point I would want to make about "difference" is that even if we have strong convictions about what might be the best path for Afghani women, wouldn't we do better to keep our sights trained on what we can do, sitting here in this part of the world? We might do better to think how to make the world a more just place rather than trying to "save" women in other cultures. Of course we can ask ourselves how to support those within different communities who want to, and are working toward making women's lives better-here the concept can be that of alliances. But we can also ask ourselves, living in this privileged and powerful part of the world, what our own responsibilities are for the situations in which others have found themselves. We don't stand outside the world, looking over at those poor benighted people elsewhere. How might we make the world a place where certain kinds of forces and values can have an appeal? How might we help create the peace necessary for discussions, debates, and transformations to occur? We need to ask what kinds of world conditions could we contribute to making such that popular desires won't be determined by an overwhelming sense of helplessness in the face of forms of global injustice. Or where those who can point to rich powers swaggering around the world can sway people to their hatreds. Those seem like more productive lines of thought and action. Let's leave the 19th century missionary work of saving Muslim women behind, where it belongs.

Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of AsiaSource.