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

  • Citation: Abu-Lughod, Lila. “Do Muslim women really need saving? Anthropological reflections on cultural relativism and its others.” American Anthropologist, 104, no. 3 (2002): 783-790.
    • Topics:
    • Country and Regional Studies
    • Keywords:
    • cultural relativism
    • Muslim women
    • Afghanistan war
    • freedom
    • global injustice
    • colonialism

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–as 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.

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