Jonathan Lyons on Islam, Women, and the West

“The expropriation of the rhetoric of women’s rights under Islam in order to unleash deadly violence on Muslim nations shows just how much the struggle for women’s equality has become a discursive one rather than a material one.”—Jonathan Lyons

Jonathan Lyons, Islam Through Western Eyes

In a recent guest post for Juan Cole’s Informed Comment, Jonathan Lyons, author of Islam Through Western Eyes: From the Crusades to the War on Terrorism, argues that Western perceptions of the Islamic world have often been dominated by the male-female dynamic, or its misunderstanding of this dynamic.

The harem, which once dominated Western perceptions/fantasies of the Muslim world, has been replaced by the harem, which has come to be a symbol of the sexist and anti-modern nature of Islamic society. Lyons writes:

By the early twentieth century, the institution of veiling had for the most part supplanted the more exotic harem as the focal point of Western attention. Still, the underlying logic of the discourse of Islam and women remains firmly in place today. The end result has been a “sexualization” of the Western view of Islam, one in which the totality of Muslim beliefs and practices and even the entire Islamic civilization are too often reduced to Western perceptions and assessment of the male–female dynamic.

Exhibit A may be found in our obsession with the hijab, or veil, as a barometer of social progress and overall well-being within Islamic societies, to such a degree that it has become a commonplace of Western mass-media coverage, social activism, and political discussion alike. For years, the veil has been a staple of endless news articles, books, and documentaries, and it is captured in magazine and television images – all as shorthand for a society, a civilization, or a system that is backward, alien, immobile, and inherently antithetical to human rights and dignity.

Lyons argues that the West’s stress on the veil has led to a serious misunderstanding of the Islamic world with serious implications:

Running throughout this public discourse is the persistent binary opposition of oppression and freedom, veiled and unveiled, bad and good. Islam itself and on its own terms is once again ignored in favor of an unquestioned Western construction. And this construction dictates that the West’s approaches and policy proscriptions toward Muslim societies be seen solely through the lens of our own flawed understanding of both women and gender relations in Islam.

Nothing else can adequately explain the Western fascination with the veil and the apprehension of this institution as the root of the oppressive conditions faced by many women in Muslim societies. The prevailing idea of veiling, and of the associated degradation of women, creates the notion of an inferior Muslim world in need of rescue from itself, by force if necessary. This recalls Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s famous critique of colonialist rhetoric as largely consisting of “white men saving brown women from brown men.”

To see the immediate dangers in such a course, one must only reflect on the ways in which the U.S. government was able to mobilize public support for two doomed wars against Muslim societies by tapping directly into the overarching discourse of Islam and its important subset, Islam and women. The expropriation of the rhetoric of women’s rights under Islam in order to unleash deadly violence on Muslim nations shows just how much the struggle for women’s equality has become a discursive one rather than a material one.

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