A Break from Dominant Feminist Discourse
Lila Abu-Lughod’s critique on feminist discourse represents a break from the predominant narrative on women in the Arab and Muslim World. Her criticism of the legal language shaping discourses on women’s rights as a language that “sequesters culture, neglects history and politics, and contributes to the ‘individuation’ of the Third World,”  calls for the need to formulate a new discourse that does justice to Arab and Muslim women and takes into account the local context and inherent complexities within that.
Based on her work conducted with Bedouin women in Egypt’s Western Desert, Abu-Lughod notes how emerging feminist discourse on Muslim women does not resonate with her experience in the field.  She also points to the dangers inherent in using legal frameworks as a benchmark for emancipation not only within the context of women, but also with regards to Arab society as a whole. Such discourse, she notes, contributes to reproducing negative stereotyping of Arab society, creating a colonial dependency under the guise of freedom and the liberation of women. Abu-Lughod further argues that such a legal framework, typically centered on the right to assets and property and on the freedom to work as the key to emancipation, applicable to both rural and urban women alike, represents a flawed approach that fails to adequately reflect the multiple and complex contexts that frame the lives of women, be they cultural, political, religious, or economic.
Abu-Lughod gives an example of one of her anthropological studies conducted in a village in Upper Egypt, where she observed that the challenges confronted by women did not lie in the lack of educational opportunities, as typically propagated by local and international NGOs, but more in the high cost and poor quality of education, which presents a hindrance to both girls and boys. The deterioration of the quality of public education, she argues, is not down to gender inequality, but the neo-liberal approach that became dominant in recent years and undermines the role of the state and the provision of social welfare and services. If anything, Abu-Lughod found Egyptian young rural women to have shown remarkable perseverance in continuing their education, and noted the sacrifices their families made toward that end.
The narrow definition of what constitutes employment is also found to be problematic, and the liberal human rights’ discourse limits its notion of work to wage labor, which fails to cover all dimensions constituting work. It is also a concept that is not related to values, and represents a truncated conception that reduces work exclusively to the Western liberal notion. Furthermore, it does not correspond to the evolution in the concept of work on the global level, with many in the United States still skeptical on whether gainful employment actually represents the ultimate solution. This calls for the need to formulate different definitions of work that adequately measure the economic contribution of women. Abu-Lughod says: “if childcare is not provided, is it economically viable? If work is badly paid, back breaking, exploitative, or boring, is the absence of women’s labor at home and the vulnerability to harassment worth it?”
Defining women’s emancipation in common narratives on women’s rights is women’s independence from the family, or what could be called “the process of individuation,” which grants women a distinct and independent identity from the family as a pre-condition to becoming an autonomous person, legally and otherwise. This constitutes the centerpiece of the human rights’ and development discourse, grossly misrepresenting the reality of women; within this discourse, the strength of the family bonds are said to hinder the situation of women and constitute a hurdle to their emancipation. Such thinking constitutes a condemnation of the family and of the systems of kinship and clans; Arab families are thus seen as enshrining masculine hegemony at the expense of women’s independence.
Even more misleading is the fact that development reports attribute women’s poor status to factors such as Islam, while neglecting more probable factors related to colonialism, industrial capitalism, and the effects of state-building projects. Abu-Lughod makes us question: do family bonds genuinely constitute a problem for women? Why is the economic necessity of the common family often overlooked? Why is the reality of family economics, including contributions from multiple family members to support the household, ignored? Why is the possibility that families are, for better or worse, the structure through which individuals perceive themselves and constitute themselves as individuals discounted? What if the autonomy of women constitutes a backlash since it is yet to be proven that such autonomy would automatically grant women equality?
Abu-Lughod argues that women are able to create their own forms of resistance against subjugation, which shows that they are capable of defending themselves by improvising methods of resistance without the need of external interferences.  Resistance in this case is the result of the specific contexts related to local structures and to the nature of power relations within it. The ability of women to resist negates the need to call for an external intervention.
To extend Abu Lughod’s arguments, one must ask a multitude of questions: if women were accepting of the existing family structure, not viewing it as an encroachment on them, would this imposition represent an infringement of their own rights and choices? Would it warrant an intervention in order to emancipate and guide women, with the help of the state, through top-down development projects that do not take into account the local context? Would this not represent a channel for the use of violence by the state, since its actions are rational and purposeful, to use the language of Max Weber?
The development and modernizing discourse, if based on Weber’s notion of rationalization, is embodied in the concept of the state. Each resistance to these measures, such as the practices of the state, then becomes an expression of ignorance and the demonstration of a lack of awareness by the resisting party. This thinking underlined the demarche of the modernizing state in the Arab world, which deemed peasants resisting its modernizing practices as ignorant. The development of the Arab world required the normalization of these peasants and the instigation of a deep sense of unity with the national government, alongside a strong belief that the institutions and the higher political values of the state are just and adequate. Failing that, these individuals would need to be eliminated or silenced in order to impose the rational system desired by the state.
Abu-Lughod’s arguments challenge the international demarche of the Western development discourse, often promoted as a one size fits all global model to follow. In contrast, Abu-Lughod, maintains that this globalized conception of the liberal development discourse works to the detriment of women, justifying their right to reject being integrated into globalism and defend their cultural and local specificity.
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This paper was translated from Arabic into English by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing Team. To read the original Arabic document, please click here.
 1948 Arabs, “Lila Abu-Lughod at Mada al-Carmel: ‘Reliance on legal discourse and the women’s rights discourse may harm women’,” (in Arabic) Arab 48, January 28, 2011, http://www.arabs48.com/?mod=articles&ID=77713.
 Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, “Abu-Lughod Counters Stereotypes of Arab Women,” Feature Stories Archive, http://ccas.georgetown.edu/story/1242691340168.html.