Judging by the press coverage of Lila Abu-Lughod, a professor of sociology, her family background is of keen interest. Or possibly that background has proved to be quite useful. In the view of Antony T. Sullivan (reviewing her book, Veiled Sentiments, in The World and I, January 1991), her father Ibrahim was a “distinguished Palestinian-American political scientist” and his “Jewish wife, Janet” is “herself a world-class sociologist.” Their daughter, raised a Muslim, spent childhood summers in Jordan and she seldom fails to mention her “heritage.”
This background makes her serving on the committee searching for a scholar to occupy Columbia’s new chair of Israel studies especially inapt.
Lila Abu-Lughod specializes on “topics of gender, class, and modernity.” She lived for 2 years with the Baladi tribe of Egyptian Bedouins, and wrote two books about them: Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society, and Writing Women’s Worlds: Bedouin Stories. Still, she has reservations in this kind of writing, for as she told an interviewer for the Cairo Times (March 4-17, 1999) she “worries about privileging her own voice over her subjects.”
Abu-Lughod is the editor of a book of essays, Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity, which has been hailed as “an important contribution to comparative postcolonial and feminist studies.” The book, she explains, “seeks to tackle comfortable and accepted linear notions of progress, modernity, and emancipation in modern academic works on gender in the postcolonial world.”
Why, Abu-Lughod asks, should the West’s ideas about “progress” and “modernity” be unquestionably accepted? Perhaps Western “progress” is not progress, and “modernity” is not modernity. And Western feminists should not be so hasty in denouncing the veil and the burka, because they act as a “portable seclusion,” your very own zenana or haramlik, which you can bring with you anywhere.
Her essay “The Marriage of Feminism and Islamism in Egypt: Selective Repudiation as a Dynamic of Postcolonial Cultural Politics,” in Remaking Women, offers a critique of what Abu-Lughod calls “companionate marriage” – i.e. monogamy, which the highly judgmental Western world apparently thinks is the only way to go about things, and fails to appreciate the many benefits to women from polygamy.
Abu-Lughod notes that “the concept of companionate marriage advocated by Qasim Amin and other nationalist-feminist writers around the turn of the 19trh century – brought with it the breaking of bonds among women. The result was dissolution of the lively, cross-class homosocial world of women; in its wake emerged a bourgeois household centered on a nuclear family.”
Monogamy destroys that “lively cross-class homosocial world of women” in the windowless quarters where, guarded by eunuchs, they can trade stories, jokes, tales of Grand Cairo in the Scheherazade manner, and do one another’s hair, in a kind of dormitory pajama party without end.
Abu-Lughod insists that Westerners, especially those pesky feminists, should stop harping on “difference” and look at what unites us: “We should ask not how Muslim societies are distinguished from ‘our own’ but how intertwined they are, historically and in the present, economically, politically, and culturally.” It disturbs her that so many people want to know about “women and Islam” – the very topic is worrisome, she feels, because it gets away from the real issues, the “messier historical or cultural narratives” that focus on “colonial projects” and the “colonial enterprise.”
She cannot abide Western feminists who talk of “saving” Afghan women:
It is easy to see through the hypocritical ‘feminism’ of a Republican administration. More troubling for me are the attitudes of those who do genuinely care about women’s status. The problem, of course, with ideas of “saving” other women is that they depend on and reinforce a sense of superiority by Westerners. 
And that, of course, is a Bad Thing. Better, then, to stop worrying overmuch about different ways that men and women relate to each other, in Afghanistan, or Iran, or Saudi Arabia. For any interest, or still worse, intervention that might possibly lead to a reinforcement of “a sense of superiority by Westerners” must, at all costs, be avoided.
Abu-Lughod has a solution, She thinks “we need to work hard to respect and recognize difference.” And, she adds, “We might do better to think how to make the world a more just place rather than trying to ‘save’ women in other cultures.”
When Western (or Muslim) feminists try to intervene to better the lot of Afghan, or other women in Muslim countries, Abu-Lughod finds this deplorable, for it could “reinforce a sense of Western superiority.” When Western (or Muslim) feminists object to hijab or burka, Abu-Lughod replies that the women welcome this kind of costume, which offers them a “portable seclusion” from the prying eyes of men. When Western (or Muslim) feminists attack polygamy, Abu-Lughod defends it, and complains that “companionate marriage” is overrated while in the privacy of the polygamous women’s quarters, so much fun is to be had that Western women cannot possibly understand.
Abu-Lughod is a determined Defender of the Faith. Where the rights of women, and the reputation of Islam, collide, she stands foursquare with Islam, and against those rights. It has been noted by the real Muslim (or more often, ex-Muslim) feminists – such intrepid fighters for women’s rights as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Azam Kamguian – that quite a few supposed Muslim “feminists” end up retreating into a defense of Islam, whenever they sense that the interest in the mistreatment of women might harm the Faith.
Sherin Ebadi, for example, the recent Iranian winner of the Nobel Prize – an award that infuriated many Iranian feminists in exile, who were not silent on the matter – has been keen to ascribe the difficulties of women under Islam to “cultural” factors, and to exculpate Islam on every occasion. Leila Ahmed, and Fatima Mernissi, two Muslim female academics who once were thought to be defenders of women’s rights, have, as Reza Afshari has shown in his keen examination of them, changed their tone considerably in order to deflect all criticism of Islam, and have apparently maintained, in the Ebadi manner, that not the tenets of Islam, not passages in Qur’an and hadith, but only “cultural” factors, are to blame for the mistreatment of women.
Abu-Lughod, it appears, feels the same tug of filial piety, and loyalty.
It is quite a revealing performance, for someone who claims to be so interested in the treatment of women, and ends up defending, in her own way, the burka, polygamy, and other abject conditions of Muslim women lest – horrors – there be any possibility of reinforcing that “sense of Western superiority.”
The same argument, of course, could be deployed to prevent Western intervention in Mali, Mauritania, and the Sudan, where Muslim Arabs continue to hold as chattel slaves tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of black Africans. Perhaps Abu-Lughod’s loyalty would not extend that far. But, on the other hand, perhaps it would.
Hugh Fitzgerald wrote this piece for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum, which is designed to critique and improve Middle East Studies at North American colleges and universities. It is part of a series of analysis addressing Columbia University’s Middle East Studies faculty. We invite you to read Fitzgerald's introductory essay, and the entries in alphabetical order.