Lalami on Muslim women and the “burden of pity”

Laila Lalami’s brilliantly cutting “The Missionary Position” — a look at the condition of Muslim women and the reactionary female activists that the West has chosen to exalt — appears in The Nation at last. (I read an early draft a couple months ago, and since then I’ve been making like a kid on a long car trip, emailing Lalami every three hours to ask, “Isn’t it out yet? How much longer? Hoooow much loooonger?”) Here’s an excerpt:

The abundant pity that Muslim women inspire in the West largely takes the form of impassioned declarations about “our plight” — reserved, it would seem, for us, as Christian and Jewish women living in similarly constricting fundamentalist settings never seem to attract the same concern…. These expressions of compassion are often met with cynical responses in the Muslim world, which further enrages the missionaries of women’s liberation. Why, they wonder, do Muslim women not seek out the West’s help in freeing themselves from their societies’ retrograde thinking? The poor things, they are so oppressed they do not even know they are oppressed.

The sympathy extended to us by Western supporters of empire is nothing new. In 1908 Lord Cromer, the British consul general in Egypt, declared that “the fatal obstacle” to the country’s “attainment of that elevation of thought and character which should accompany the introduction of Western civilization” was Islam’s degradation of women. The fact that Cromer raised school fees and discouraged the training of women doctors in Egypt, and in England founded an organization that opposed the right of British women to suffrage, should give us a hint of what his views on gender roles were really like. Little seems to have changed in the past century, for now we have George W. Bush, leader of the free world, telling us, before invading Afghanistan in 2001, that he was doing it as much to free the country’s women as to hunt down Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar. Five years later, the Taliban are making a serious comeback, and the country’s new Constitution prohibits any laws that are contrary to an austere interpretation of Sharia. Furthermore, among the twenty-odd reasons that were foisted on the American public to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was, of course, the subjugation of women; this, despite the fact that the majority of Iraqi women were educated and active in nearly all sectors of a secular public life. Three years into the occupation, the only enlightened aspect of Saddam’s despotic rule has been dismantled: Facing threats from a resurgent fundamentalism, both Sunni and Shiite, many women have been forced to quit their jobs and to cover because not to do so puts them in harm’s way. Why Mr. Bush does not advocate for the women of Thailand, the women of Botswana or the women of Nepal is anyone’s guess.

This context–competing yet hypocritical sympathies for Muslim women–helps to explain the strong popularity, particularly in the post-September 11 era, of Muslim women activists like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Irshad Manji and the equally strong skepticism with which they are met within the broad Muslim community. These activists are passionate and no doubt sincere in their criticism of Islam. But are their claims unique and innovative, or are they mostly unremarkable? Are their conclusions borne out by empirical evidence, or do they fail to meet basic levels of scholarship? The casual reader would find it hard to answer these questions, because there is very little critical examination of their work. For the most part, the loudest responses have been either hagiographic profiles of these “brave” and “heroic” women, on the one hand, or absurd and completely abhorrent threats to the safety of these “apostates” and “enemies of God,” on the other.


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