Lila Abu-Lughod’s guest lecture on the mythical “Muslimwoman”

On Friday afternoon, Lila Abu-Lughod,  a professor of anthropology at Columbia University, delivered the annual Distinguished Lecture in Cultural Anthropology in the Hale Sciences building. Abu-Lughod discussed her most recent book, “Do Muslim Women Need Saving?” a book analyzing Western assumptions about the oppression of Muslim women.

The focus of the lecture was based on the critique her book received.

Carla Jones, a CU professor of anthropology who orchestrated the event, welcomed Abu-Lughod, providing a run-down of Abu-Lughod’s thirty-plus years of exposing truths about Muslim women. Jones attested to being increasingly impressed with the work of Abu-Lughod and her ability to give due attention to individual experiences of love and pain.

“I find myself even more impressed with her use of feminist insights,” she said.

Humbled by the introduction and the overwhelming turnout to the lecture, Abu-Lughod garnered some laughs saying, “There’s no way we could have a lecture on a Friday afternoon in New York.”

“Do Muslim Women Need Saving?” uses the term “Muslimwoman,” a term created by Miriam Cooke in 2008, to poke fun at the Western assumption that Muslim women are all damsels in distress.

“The Muslimwoman is a mythical creature living in Islamland where she is oppressed by men,” she said.

According to Abu-Lughod, this assumption is completely off-base. In her book, Abu-Lughod uses her personal experiences in the Middle East and first-hand interactions with Muslim women to communicate a reality in which religion is not the source of muslim womens’ plights.

In her book, Abu-Lughod explains that the government, poverty, and war are the real issues.  Despite the evidence she provides and her years of experience dealing with these issues, Abu-Lughod’s book was not entirely well received.

After a brief introduction, Abu-Lughod explained that, while some people may have showed up to hear a summary of her book, she decided to use the lecture to examine public response of her book. Joking about her newfound ability to use Google to feel out the response from her readers, Abu-Lughod took the audience through the different reactions.

The most startling response for Abu-Lughod came in the form of vehement opposition from people online who weren’t shy about putting their opinions on the internet.

“People tell me, ‘You should never read the comments!’” she said. “People feel like they can say anything when you don’t know who they are.”

Despite the warnings, Abu-Lughod couldn’t help herself.

The overarching negative criticism was that she was spreading lies. Abu-Lughod scoffed at the accusations saying, “We know there’s no such thing as truth and lies. It’s more complicated than that.”

The comments Abu-Lughod read ranged from tame to aggressive criticism, including one that asked, “Are you sure this woman doesn’t have a penis? She’s an idiot.” Others accused her of advancing Satan’s cause and spreading myths.

Noor Refai, A finance major at CU, commented on this extreme reaction to such a relevant issue.

“This is one of the topics that people recognize exists but they aren’t educated on,” Refai said. “It’s a reactionary response, not an analytical one.”

Abu-Lughod was on the same wavelength, expressing her incredulity about the self-assured ignorance of these nameless commentators.

On the other end of the spectrum was the warm response from readers, particularly from the blog Muslimah Media Watch, which included comments with personal and emotional tones.  Some Muslim women even professed to sleep with the book under their pillow. Abu-Lughod was touched by these responses, saying, “I would never expect that to be what my book did for anyone.”

Another group Abu-Lughod spoke about was feminists who are concerned about Muslim issues, who raised ethical questions that Abu-Lughod plans to apply to her future work. These feminists focused on the incorporation of Muslim voices to provide more critical and authentic voices, something critics feel Abu-Lughod could have used more of.

While the lecture didn’t get at the core issues of Abu-Lughod’s book, it served to expose the widespread ignorance about such an important issue, as well as insight into what can be expected in Abu-Lughod’s future work.

Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Maggie Wagner at

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