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.
As an anthropologist who has spent decades doing research on and with women in different communities in the Middle East, I have found myself increasingly troubled by our obsession with Muslim women. Ever since 2001, when defending the rights of Muslim women was offered as a rationale for military intervention in Afghanistan, I have been trying to reconcile what I know from experience about individual women’s lives, and what I know as a student of the history of women and of feminism in different parts of the Muslim world, with the stock images of Muslim women that bombard us here in the West. Over the past decade, from the girls and women like Nujood Ali, whose best-selling memoir I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced was co-written, like so many of the others, by a Western journalist, to Malala Yousafzai, they have been portrayed 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.