In This Review

Do Muslim Women Need Saving?
Do Muslim Women Need Saving?
By Lila Abu-Lughod
Harvard University Press, 2013, 336 pp

"It is never easy to cleanly distinguish freedom and duty, consent and bondage, choice and compulsion.” So writes Abu-Lughod, an anthropologist with three decades of field experience in the Middle East, reflecting on the question of women’s rights and status in Muslim-majority societies. This elegantly written and compelling book contends that women in such places suffer more from the inequities of globalization than from patriarchy. Indeed, she suggests that humanitarianism represents the new face of colonialism, sometimes unwittingly -- arguing, for example, that well-intentioned Western feminism has served as a cover for the U.S.-led war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, a military action she deems to be deeply flawed. She criticizes a genre of writing about the Muslim world that she terms “pulp nonfiction”: sensationalized accounts of rape, oppression, and brutality that are suffused with a kind of titillating sexuality. She presents an interesting and original analysis of Muslim feminism and tells the complex life stories of a number of ordinary Egyptian women, revealing them to be far more than simple tales of oppression. Abu-Lughod’s message is valuable, but she asks readers to evince a sensitivity to nuance that has taken her 30 years to acquire.