Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others

Author(s): Abu-Lughod, Lila

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Abstract This article explores the ethics of the current "War on Terrorism, asking whether anthropology, the discipline devoted to understanding and dealing with cultural difference, can provide us with critical purchase on the justifications made for American intervention in Afghanistan in terms of liberating, or saving, Afghan women. I look first at the dangers of reifying culture, apparent in the tendencies to plaster neat cultural icons like the Muslim woman over messy historical and political dynamics. Then, calling attention to the resonances of contemporary discourses on equality, freedom, and rights with earlier colonial and missionary rhetoric on Muslim women, I argue that we need to develop, instead, a serious appreciation of differences among women in the world\u2014as products of different histories, expressions of different circumstances, and manifestations of differently structured desires. Further, I argue that rather than seeking to "save" others (with the superiority it implies and the violences it would entail) we might better think in terms of (1) working with them in situations that we recognize as always subject to historical transformation and (2) considering our own larger responsibilities to address the forms of global injustice that are powerful shapers of the worlds in which they find themselves. I develop many of these arguments about the limits of "cultural relativism" through a consideration of the burqa and the many meanings of veiling in the Muslim world. [Keywords: cultural relativism, Muslim women, Afghanistan war, freedom, global injustice, colonialism]
Publication Title American Anthropologist
Publisher American Anthropological Association
Publication Date 09/2002
URIs http://www.jstor.org/stable/3567256
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1525/aa.2002.104.3.783/abstract
http://gateway.webofknowledge.com/gateway/Gateway.cgi?GWVersion=2&SrcAuth=SerialsSolutions&SrcApp=Summon&KeyUT=000177935900009&DestLinkType=FullRecord&DestApp=WOS
Keywords ANTHROPOLOGY
Afghanistan
Afghanistan war
Anthropology
Colonialism
Cultural relativism
Ethnography
FEMINIST
Freedom
Global injustice
Injustice
Islam
Muslim women
Muslims
War
Women
Women, Muslim
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