Do Muslim Female Characters Need Saving?

I returned from travels yesterday to find a copy of Lila Abu-Lughod’s new book, Do Muslim Women Need Saving? The ideas Abu-Lughod raises, at least in the sections I have read thus far, dovetail with Adam Talib’s musings in “Translating for Bigots“:

downloadThe literature on which Abu-Lughod focuses is not “translation” or “fiction” on its face — it is usually written in English, often by a ghostwriter, journalist, or co-writer, and labeled nonfiction or memoir. These are, unlike Arabic literature (in translation), positioned as “true” stories, unmediated.

Also unlike Arabic literature in translation, this genre, Abu-Lughod writes, is “published by trade presses, reviewed widely, and adopted by book clubs and women’s reading groups, a lurid genre of writing on abused women — mostly Muslim — [which] exploded onto the scene in the 1990s and took off after 9/11.”

There is a particular formula to these “memoirs” (some of which have been exposed as frauds); in Abu-Lughod’s view, they are characterized by themes of “coercion and lack of consent, absence of choice, and unfreedom.” They are stories of honor killings, forced marriages, abductions, and forced labors. Abu-Lughod does not doubt that many of these stories have at least some basis in real, lived lives. However, these “radically specific” stories are generally given no context, made to stand in for entire communities and cultures. They are also radically different: These stories are not told to help us better understand our own foibles, but to see ourselves in a completely different place from these “other” women.

This genre, which Abu-Lughod calls “literary trafficking,” is surprisingly and persistently best-selling, circulating copies in the millions.

This genre doesn’t concern us here except that it in many ways overshadows, and shapes the reception of, Arabic literature (in translation). Its popularity alone is important. A quick search of random US public libraries will turn up far more Nonie Darwish than Mahmoud. The reason for the popularity is also important — these stories feed a particular hunger among French- and English-language reading publics, and some readers will also be looking to sate this hunger through fiction.

But, most of all, by labeling this genre “nonfiction,” it sets readers’ expectations for what sorts of Arab and Muslim stories can be authentic. If these stories represent “real” women’s lives, then what Radwa Ashour writes in Spectres — or the life of Milia in Elias Khoury’s As Though She Were Sleeping — must be something else entirely.

Insha’allah the title alone of Abu-Lughod’s book will strike a chord and will make some English-language readers re-think, even just slightly, what sorts of Arab and Muslim women’s narratives they seek out and validate. The book’s cover alone is an wonderfully humble and ordinary portrait. Does the woman on this book’s cover need saving? Instead of being radically different, the woman on the cover is very much the same as American women picking up the book. She’s rearranging her clothing before leaving for work or school or an engagement with friends — who doesn’t do that?

I look forward to reading the rest of the book.


  1. I downloaded a sample to my Kindle after reading a review of this book in The National’s (Abu Dhabi) weekly ‘Review’ section. The author takes Egypt as a case study in the opening and it was absolutely on the nail, IMO. Like you, I sincerely hope such intelligent publications become more widely read to counter the stereotypical depictions of Muslim women in commercial fiction.

    1. Indeed. So far nearly everyone I know who’s bought the book is a Muslim woman. 🙂 But hopefully it will trickle out to other readerships as well.

      1. Lol – that’s the problem, isn’t it? Sensationalism sells, better than a well-researched thesis, I guess.

        1. Alas, every society needs an Evil Empire. When no obvious candidate fills the bill, we will conjure one up in the vain hope that somehow it will make us feel better about ourselves.

          Funny running into you here, right? lol. Thanks for the rec, I’m liking this blog.

          1. True enough, and I suppose some of us will always have to be the types to say, “Wha?”

          2. And glad you’re enjoying the blog!

          3. Good – this blog is like a goldmine but makes me realise how under-read I am with regard to Arabic literature.

            1. If only there were just a couple more hours in each day just for reading…

  2. And one my think of reviewing and translating! excellent post ya Marcia

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  4. I am the editor for Lila Abu-Lughod’s book and also for Baghdad: The City in Verse. I am glad you liked these books and am particularly grateful that you took time to notice the subtlety of the jacket for Abu-Lughod’s book. There was a lot of soul-searching behind that jacket design. The photographer, Rania Matar, is a friend of the author actually. I find that image very moving exactly for all the reasons you mention. I am delighted that someone took notice. I am very proud that Lila Abu-Lughod published her book with us and hope we did justice to her brilliant work.

    I enjoy reading your blog. Keep up the good work!

    1. Sharmila! Well, I certainly knew you were behind Baghdad: The City in Verse (brilliant idea). And yes, I admired the DO MUSLIM WOMEN NEED SAVING jacket even more after getting a copy of the re-translation of Ahlem Mosteghanemi’s MEMORY IN THE FLESH, now BRIDGES OF CONSTANTINE ( Bah.

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