* Professor of Social Science at Columbia University
* Specializes in “topics of gender, class, and modernity”
* Supporter of the Hamas-inspired BDS movement against Israel
* Contends That Westerners fail to view Muslim women within their own historical, social, and ideological contexts
Born on October 21, 1952 in Champaign, Illinois, Lila Abu-Lughod was raised as a Muslim by her Jewish-American mother and her Palestinian-American father. The father, Dr. Ibrahim Abu-Lughod (1929-2001), was a political science professor, a member of the Palestinian National Council, and a friend and ideological ally of Professor Edward Said, who: (a) once described Mr. Lughod as “Palestine’s foremost academic and intellectual,” and (b) dedicated his most famous book, Orientalism, to Lughod. In 1987 Mr. Lughod served on the Board of Directors of the Black Press Institute (BPI), which was co-founded c. 1982 by Alice Palmer, an American political figure and pro-Soviet propagandist, and her husband Buzz Palmer. Over the years, BPI published articles bearing such titles as “Socialism Is the Only Way Forward” and “Is Black Bourgeoise Ideology Enough?”
Lila Abu-Lughod earned a BA degree from Carleton College in 1974, an MA from Harvard University in 1978, and a PhD from Harvard in 1984.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, while she was still a graduate student, Abu-Lughod spent almost two years living with a Baladi tribal community of Bedouins in Egypt’s Western Desert, where she studied local customs vis-à-vis gender relations and morality. She subsequently wrote two books about those people: Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society (1986), and Writing Women’s Worlds: Bedouin Stories (1993).
In 1998, Abu-Lughod edited a book of essays — titled Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East — which, by her own telling, “seeks to tackle comfortable and accepted linear notions of progress, modernity, and emancipation in modern academic works on gender in the postcolonial world.” Western “progress” and “modernity,” said Abu-Lughod, do not necessarily result in a quality of life that is inherently more desirable than that of a traditional non-Western culture. She wrote, for instance, that Western feminists should not be quick to denounce the Islamic custom requiring women to wear veils and burkas — articles that, in Abu-Lughod’s view, could serve as useful aids for “portable seclusion.”
One of the more notable essays in Remaking Women is Abu-Lughod’s “The Marriage of Feminism and Islamism in Egypt: Selective Repudiation as a Dynamic of Postcolonial Cultural Politics.” In this piece, the author offers a critique of what she calls “companionate marriage,” or monogamy, whose predominance in the West allegedly blinds Americans and Europeans alike to the many benefits that women may gain from the type of polygamy practiced in the Muslim world. According to Abu-Lughod, for instance: “[T]he concept of companionate marriage advocated by … nationalist-feminist writers around the turn of the 19th century brought with it the breaking of bonds that [had formerly] united 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.”
“We should ask not how Muslim societies are distinguished from ‘our own,’” writes Abu-Lughod in the same essay, “but [we should ask] how intertwined they are, historically and in the present, economically, politically, and culturally.”
Moreover, Abu-Lughod objects to Western feminists who speak of “saving” Afghan women from the hardships imposed on them by their cultural and religious traditions. Writes the professor: “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. When you save someone, you are saving them from something. You are also saving them to something. What violences are entailed in this transformation? And what presumptions are being made about the superiority of what you are saving them to? This is the arrogance that feminists need to question. The … smug and patronizing assumptions of this missionary rhetoric would be obvious if used at home, because we’ve become more politicized about problems of race and class.”
In 2002 Abu-Lughod wrote an article wrote for The American Anthropologist, titled “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?” In this piece, she states that the Islamic veil signifies the “respectability” of women and can be “read as a sign of educated, urban sophistication, a sort of modernity.” “Why are we surprised that Afghan women do not throw off their burqas when we know perfectly well that it would not be appropriate to wear shorts to the opera?” she asks in the article. “If we think that U.S. women live in a world of choice regarding clothing, all we need to do is to remind ourselves of the expression ‘the tyranny of fashion.’”
In 2007, Abu-Lughod and Palestinian social scientist Ahmad H. Sa’di co-authored Nakba: Palestine, 1948, and the Claims of Memory. According to a review by W. J. T. Mitchell, Professor of English and Art History at the University of Chicago, this book deals with “[t]he catastrophic expulsion of the Palestinian people from their homeland in 1948 … a historic injustice that demands the attention of the entire world.”
Condemning the so-called “Islamofascism Awareness Week” activities of the David Horowitz Freedom Center in 2007-2008, Abu-Lughod asserted that “[T]he Islamofascist Awareness people aren’t interested in what’s actually going on in the Muslim world. They just use the woman question as an easy way to target Muslims.”
Abu-Lughod argues that Muslim women need to be viewed within their own historical, social, and ideological contexts – much like the late Edward Said claimed in his book, Orientalism. In 2013 she authored Do Muslim Women Need Saving?, published by Harvard University Press. Based on Abu-Lughod’s aforementioned 2002 American Anthropologist article that bore a similar title, the 2013 book assures its readers that “education for girls and Islam are not at odds.” In response to critics who point out that men across the Muslim world exercise unconditional power over the women in their lives — forcing their daughters to marry and sometimes ordering the execution of their own wives — Abu-Lughod writes that “it is not so easy to talk about ‘patriarchy’ or to put one’s finger on how power works.”
In her 2013 book as well, Abu-Lughod names a number of already-existing books that expose the evils of Islamic customs like veiling and forced marriage — titles like A True Story of Life behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia; My Forbidden Face; Without Mercy; Buried Alive; Married by Force; and Sold: One Woman’s True Account of Modern Slavery. The authors of those books, Abu-Lughod writes, are condescending, “self-righteous,” “smugly superior” do-gooders who, by representing Muslim women as powerless, treat them “as mute garbage bags” and represent them as human pawns who are entirely without “agency.” Far from having noble motives, Abu-Lughod elaborates, those authors seek only to earn a profit, “accrue moral capital,” and make a name for themselves as “beacon[s] of humanitarianism.” Regarding the horrific stories that these books tell about women’s lives under Islam, Abu-Lughod mocks them all for following the same “script” of “sordid,” “pornographic,” and “sensational” fabrication.
By contrast, Abu-Lughod boasts that she herself is too well informed “to be satisfied with sweeping generalizations about cultures, religions, or regions.” Rather, she is “more drawn to the detail and empathy of the novelist than to the bold strokes of the polemicist.”
To critics who may dare to point out certain discomfiting facts about Islam’s oppression of women, Abu-Lughod states that Islam is not the only religion “built on the premise that people do not fully control what happens to them.” As for secularism, she reminds the reader that it “has not brought women’s freedom or equality in the West.” Besides, she adds, everyday life “is rarely a case of being free or oppressed, choosing or being forced.” “[T]erms like oppression, choice, and freedom,” writes Abu-Lughod, are “blunt instruments for capturing the dynamics and quality of [women’s] lives.”
With regard to the Islamic custom of honor killing, Abu-Lughod aims her criticism not at the practice itself but at “the unsavory politics of [the Western] conception of honor crimes,” which fails to appreciate the profound “moral code” of communities that pride themselves on their “commitment to honor.” Even to use the term “honor killing,” she says, is to stigmatize such communities while embracing “a comforting phantasm that empowers the West and those who identify with it.”
“First,” Abu-Lughod elaborates, “[the term ‘honor killing’] simplifies morality and distorts the kinds of relations between men and women that exist in societies where honor is a central value. Second, defining honor crimes as a unique cultural form too neatly divides civilized from uncivilized societies, the West and the rest. Third, the obsession with honor crimes erases completely the modern state institutions and techniques of governance that are integral to both the incidence of violence and the category by which they are understood. Finally, thinking about honor crimes seems to be a sort of ‘antipolitics machine’ that blinds us to the existence of social transformations and political conflict.”
As consistently as she defends Islam, Abu-Lughod denounces the West. For example, echoing what she wrote in her aforementioned 2002 article in The American Anthropologist, she derides Westerners for failing to understand that women throwing off their burkas in Afghanistan would be like “wear[ing] shorts to the Metropolitan Opera.” “If we think that U.S. women live in a world of choice regarding clothing,” she writes, “we might also remind ourselves of the expression, ‘the tyranny of fashion.’”
Abu-Lughod trivializes the oppression of Muslim women by accusing Westerners of “trivializ[ing] gender issues in the United States and Europe.” It was Christians, not Muslims, she reminds us, who burned women as witches in colonial Salem. Claiming that frat-house gang-rapes are considered “acceptable” in the U.S., she asks why the would-be saviors of Muslim women have not “taken up the cause of oppressed Jewish women, or questioned proud proof of the continuity of Judaism that is pinned on genetic markers passed down from father to son among the priestly group known as Cohens.”
On November 1, 2013, Time magazine published a piece in which Abu-Lughod argues that Westerners who think Muslim women are oppressed have been badly misinformed. Some excerpts:
“A moral crusade to rescue oppressed Muslim women from their cultures and their religion has swept the public sphere, dissolving distinctions between conservatives and liberals, sexists and feminists. The crusade has justified all manner of intervention from the legal to the military, the humanitarian to the sartorial. But it has also reduced Muslim women to a stereotyped singularity, plastering a handy cultural icon over much more complicated historical and political dynamics. […]
“[Muslim women] have been portrayed [by Westerners] as victims of the veil, forced marriage, honor crimes or violent abuse. They are presented as having a deficit of rights because of Islam. But they don’t always behave the way we expect them to, nor should they.
“Take the veil, for example. We were surprised when many women in Afghanistan didn’t take them off after being ‘liberated,’ seeing as they had become such symbols of oppression in the West. But we were confusing veiling with a lack of agency. What most of us didn’t know is that 30 years ago the anthropologist Hanna Papanek described the burqa as ‘portable seclusion’ and noted that many women saw it as a liberating invention because it enabled them to move out of segregated living spaces while still observing the requirements of separating and protecting women from unrelated men. People all over the globe, including Americans, wear the appropriate form of dress for their socially shared standards, religious beliefs and moral ideals. If we think that U.S. women live in a world of choice regarding clothing, we need to look no further than our own codes of dress and the often constricting tyrannies of fashion. …
“It does not do justice to anyone to view her life only in terms of rights or that loaded term, freedom. These are not the terms in which we understand our own lives, born into families we did not choose, finding our way into what might fulfill us in life, constrained by failing economies, subject to the consumer capitalism, and making moral mistakes we must live with. …
“Representing Muslim women as abused makes us forget the violence and oppression in our own midst. Our stereotyping of Muslim women also distracts us from the thornier problem that our own policies and actions in the world help create the (sometimes harsh) conditions in which distant others live. Ultimately, saving Muslim women allows us to ignore the complex entanglements in which we are all implicated and creates a polarization that places feminism only on the side of the West.”
In her Time article, Abu-Lughod takes pains to emphasize her credentials, pointing out that she is an anthropologist who has been intimately acquainted with the Arab world, and especially the lives of Arab women, for twenty years. That being the case, however, she surely knows all about the systematic inequality of women under Islam, the indignities of forced marriage, the widespread domestic violence in Muslim homes, the vast degree to which girls in the Muslim world are denied education altogether, and the countless girls who are forced to attend windowless, prison-like madrasses where they learn about nothing other than the Koran. But instead of using her knowledge to try to draw attention to such abuses, Abu-Lughod assiduously dodges such matters.
In 2014, Abu-Lughod signed the Call by Middle East Studies Scholars and Librarians for the Academic Boycott of Israel. Exhorting academics affiliated with Middle East Studies programs “to boycott Israeli academic institutions,” the signatories of this document pledged “not to collaborate on projects and events involving Israeli academic institutions, not to teach at or to attend conferences and other events at such institutions, and not to publish in academic journals based in Israel.”
In January 2014, Abu-Lughod signed a statement praising the American Studies Association (ASA) for unanimously adopting a resolution that called for an academic boycott specifically and exclusively against Israel.
Abu-Lughod co-authored a Boycott, Divestment, & Sanctions (BDS) resolution that was voted upon at an American Anthropological Association (AAA) business meeting on November 20, 2015, urging the AAA to boycott Israeli academic institutions.
In March 2016, Abu-Lughod released a personal statement in support of BDS on the Anthropology News website, writing that “the boycott of Israeli academic institutions is the least we can do” to pressure Israeli anthropologists “to think even harder about what else they might do about the relative privilege in which they work as academics and live as human beings.”
That same month, Abu-Lughod signed a Columbia students’ petition to rebrand the university’s campus BDS organization – which was led chiefly by members of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) — as Columbia University Apartheid Divest (CUAD). As CanaryMission.org explains: “The group called on Columbia to divest its equity holdings and endowment funds from companies that — in CUAD’s words — ‘profit from the State of Israel’s ongoing system of settler colonialism, military occupation, and apartheid law.’”
On October 11, 2018, Abu-Lughod delivered a talk titled “Framing Islam: ‘Violent Extremism’ and the Rise of Securofeminism” at the Wesleyan University Anthropology Department’s Annual Lecture. In her remarks, she focused on the degree to which gender experts and women’s-rights organizations had recently begun to align their advocacy efforts with those of the so-called Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Task Force, a U.S. government panel established during the Obama Administration. By Abu-Lughod’s calculus, the alignment of “securofeminists” and CVE unwittingly and wrongly implied that the Islamic faith itself was somehow associated with violent extremism in general. “Like so many now involved in the counterterrorism industry,” explained the author, “securofeminists bend over backward not to name or specifically blame Muslims. However, they are colluding in a dangerous framing of this community and this religious group and contributing to the harmful belief that it is a sensible thing to blame Muslims, a belief which we can observe increasingly circulating throughout the public sphere.”
In the same October 11, 2018 lecture, Abu-Lughod claimed that President Donald Trump’s January 2017 executive order titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” – which called for a temporary suspension of most travel and refugee admissions to the U.S. from seven nations that were hotbeds of Islamic terrorism and/or civil war – amounted to an unconstitutional, xenophobic policy that fostered contempt for Muslims worldwide.
Today Abu-Lughod is the Joseph L. Buttenwieser Professor of Social Science at Columbia University, where she teaches anthropology and Women’s Studies and is considered an expert on the Arab world. She specializes in “topics of gender, class, and modernity.”
Abu-Lughod is a former director of the Middle East Institute, the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, and the Center for the Study of Social Difference. Over the course of her professorial career, she has taught at Williams College, Princeton University, and New York University. During her time at Williams College, Abu-Lughod participated in a reading group that also included such notables as Catharine A. MacKinnon, feminist poet Adrienne Rich, and political theorist and Critical Theory scholar Wendy Brown. At NYU, a Ford Foundation grant funded Abu-Lughod’s work on a project intended to promote a more international perspective on women’s studies.
Abu-Lughod has served on the advisory boards of multiple academic journals, including Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, and Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies.
Abu-Lughod’s books and articles have been translated into 14 languages. In addition to the books already named in this profile, her additional works include such titles as Language and the Politics of Emotion (Editor, 1990); Media Worlds: Anthropology on New Terrain (Editor, 2002); Dramas of Nationhood: The Politics of Television in Egypt (Author, 2004); and Local Contexts of Islamism in Popular Media (Author, 2007).
Crisis at Columbia: A Feminist for Gender Apartheid
By Hugh Fitzgerald
May 20, 2005
Saving Islam from Its Victims
By Bruce Bawer
January 21, 2014