Lila Abu-Lughod



  • Sociology and anthropology professor at Columbia University
  • Specializes in “gender, class, and modernity”

Specializing in “topics of gender, class, and modernity,” Lila Abu-Lughod is a sociology and anthropology professor at Columbia University. She formerly taught anthropology at New York University. Abu-Lughod lived for two years with the Baladi tribe of Egyptian Bedouins and wrote two books about them: Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin Society (1986), and Writing Women’s Worlds: Bedouin Stories (1993). She also penned Dramas of Nationhood: The Politics of Television in Egypt (2004). She edited Language and the Politics of Emotion (1990), and co-authored _Nakba: Palestine, 1948, and the _Claims of Memory (2007). According to a review by W. J. T. Mitchell, Professor of English and Art History at the University of Chicago, this latter 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.”

In addition, Abu-Lughod edited a book of essays — Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity (1998) — which, 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.” According to Abu-Lughod, Western “progress” and “modernity” do not necessarily result in a quality of life inherently more desirable than that of a traditional non-Western culture. She says, for instance, that Western feminists should not be so hasty to denounce the Muslim custom requiring women to wear the veil and burka — items that, in her view, can serve as a useful form of “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 to the many benefits women may gain from the polygamy practiced in the Muslim world. According to Abu-Lughod, “the concept of companionate marriage advocated by Qasim Amin — and other 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, “but 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 supposed 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.”

This profile is adapted from the article “A Feminist for Gender Apartheid,” written by Hugh Fitzgerald and published by on May 20, 2005.


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