Academic journal article Arab Studies Journal

Enough Already Alternatives to Orientalist Feminism: Do Muslim Women Need Saving?/your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight against Muslim Fundamentalism

Academic journal article Arab Studies Journal

Enough Already Alternatives to Orientalist Feminism: Do Muslim Women Need Saving?/your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight against Muslim Fundamentalism

Article excerpt

ENOUGH ALREADY ALTERNATIVES TO ORIENTALIST FEMINISM DO MUSLIM WOMEN NEED SAVING? Lila Abu-Lughod Cambridge, MA: Har vard University Press, 2013 (278 pages, bibliography, ack nowledgments, index) $35.00 (cloth)

YOUR FATWA DOES NOT APPLY HERE: UNTOLD STORIES FROM THE FIGHT AGAINST MUSLIM FUNDAMENTALISM Karima Bennoune New York: W. W. Nor ton & Co., 2013 (372 pages, ack nowledgments, index) $27.95 (paper)

As a university professor, I am alarmed at the beginning of every semester when I learn that most of my students do not know the difference between the categories "Arab," "Middle Eastern," and "Muslim," and perceive "Arab- Middle Eastern-Muslim" women to be the most oppressed women of the world. Their understandings are shaped by decades of Islamophobic media coverage in the United States that presents Arab, Middle Eastern, and Muslim women as a homogenous mass, faceless and nameless, and covered from head to toe in long black garb. Islamophobia is, of course, an extension of what Edward Said, in 1978, called orientalism, a European fabrication of "the East" that is shaped by European imperialist attitudes and assumes that Eastern or oriental people can be defined in terms of cultural or religious essences that are invulnerable to historical change. Orientalist thought has constructed visions of Arab and Muslim societies as either completely decadent, immoral, and permissive, or as strict and oppressive to women. One of the problems with contemporary Islamophobia is that it pits those perceived to belong to the category of the "oppressed Muslim woman" against those presumed to be " liberated Euro-American women." This conceit reinforces the binary notion of Muslim inferiority-savagery as opposed to Euro-American superiority-civility. Islamophobia was consolidated in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, when diverse sectors of American society relied on arguments about "Muslim women's oppression" to justify military violence and war.

The Arab region and Muslim-majority countries have witnessed immense shifts and turns in the years after the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001. Once the Arab spring revolutions of 2011 began, for instance, nearly every week brought about complex transitions, successes, and failures in women's struggles: strikes and rallies, the formation of feminist coalitions, active participation in the writing of new constitutions, and massive campaigns against sexual harassment. Yet in US public discourse little has changed. It is as if there have been no shifts in context or leadership; it is almost as if the revolutions-where millions of women from every sector of society took to the streets to overthrow longstanding dictators-did not happen. The primary question public audiences in the West continue to ask remains unchanged: "What about the oppression of Muslim women?"

Islamophobic thought underlies this question and blames an abstract concept of "Islam" for women's oppression, ignoring the impact of structural factors such as corruption, patriarchy, economic violence, militarism, and war. It also ignores the stark realities of violence against women (Muslim and non-Muslim) in the United States. For feminists from Muslim-majority countries who live in the global north and are genuinely concerned with gender justice, Islamophobia has made it difficult to discuss, write, or teach about gender struggles without having to first deconstruct Islamophobic thought. Indeed, especially in the United States it is an urgent problem that any discussion about Arab, Middle Eastern, and Muslim women's struggles is necessarily trapped within either Islamophobic thought or reactions to it. Two books by Arab-American feminist academics provide very different and important solutions to this problem: Do Muslim Women Need Saving?, by Columbia University anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod, and Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here, by Karima Bennoune, professor of international law at the University of California, Davis. …

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