It’s possible for someone to be your mentor without every meeting them. Over ten years ago, when I started to do anthropology research, I found articles and books by Lila Abu Lughod and realized that she set the standard I wanted to emulate. Now a professor at Columbia University, she did research among the Awlad’ Ali tribe in Egypt for years, writing numerous articles and books which make the women come alive as complex, thinking, reasoning beings.
When I first read her work, I had a profound sense of relief – HERE was someone, finally, writing about Arab, Muslim, tribal women who were not passive, oppressed cardboard figures but real women who experienced emotions, trying to create a good life for themselves and their families. The women in her work are like the women I know here.
Her Writing Women’s Worlds: Bedouin Stories (1993/ 2008) is brilliant: section after section of real people talking about real life. One part that stands out for me is her writing about an older married man talking with his first wife, and later private conversations with each one about the changes in their lives when he married again. Abu Lughod lets the couple speak; she shows the short- and long-term effects and costs of multiple marriages on all the people involved and how the effects change over time. It is a nuanced, heart-breaking discussion of polygamy, how different people think different things are important at different times and she shows the cost to the husband. This section, and all her work, stand in contrast to so much lazy, sloppy, overheated and stereotypical writing about Muslim and Arab people who have never spent significant time in the area.
So I was stunned when I went to a conference and another woman on my panel made a dismissive remark about her – how could an Arab, Muslim woman disparage Abu Lughod, who has dedicated her life to understanding and helping others understand the lives of Arab, Muslim women? I talked to the woman for a while, trying to get to the root of her anger. She explained that she felt Abu Lughod was being used by traditionalists to show that Arab, Muslim women are happy and they have all their freedoms (i.e. there is no need for change and/ or reform in terms of women’s lives and choices).
I countered, as I can’t address how traditionalists/ conservationist are using Abu Lughod’s work, that she has spent her life articulating the lives of Arab, Muslim women. But therein lay another problem. The young academic felt that Abu Lughod had positioned her work towards non-Muslims, non-Arabs rather than working for increasing women’s freedoms in the Arab world.
I couldn’t think of a way to argue back because the statement which came to mind [“It’s not the responsibility of all women to fight the fight you are most interested in”] sounded too curt, so we agreed to disagree.
At the same conference, another Muslim, Arab woman took issue with a statement I made that it’s not my duty to make my students “modern.” I was speaking about trying to find texts that fit within the conservative worldview of the area where I teach; the woman suggested that I put modern novels (about social change) on my syllabus even if I don’t discuss them in class. I responded that it wasn’t my job to teach works with aspects (alcohol, adultery, etc.) that were not acceptable in the local culture. She countered that it was my job to open my students to new/ modern/ open ways to thinking. I laughed and said that as an American Christian, some students and some of their parents are already nervous that I might try to push a political or social agenda in my teaching and “It’s not my responsibility to change my students.” That conversation also ended in a strained silence.
As I wrote in an earlier essay, the image that comes to mind is the velvet rope blocking off the entrance to a room in a museum. The tour guide slips under the rope and shows off the treasures of the room, explaining their history and importance while the tourists stay outside, looking in. Against the colleagues who believe that Westerners should ‘liberate’ the students, I believe my job is to show that there are different ways to live and different ways to believe. The presentation should be honest but neither cheerleading (we do it better!) nor insulting. The tourist/ student should learn about different cultures but not feel pressured to adopt the manners and customs depicted, in the same way that I see Omani culture but am not able to enter fully as I am not Muslim or Arab. If the tourist/ student wants to change, that is a personal choice, not the responsibility of the tour guide.
When I worked at MIT, I went to a lecture by Noam Chomsky. During the question period, another person in the audience asked what could he (we) do about the persecution of the Falun Gong in China. Chomsky said, “Nothing.” He continued by explaining that we weren’t there. A person can only work honestly and effectively in the place where they are.
The two Arab women I met at the conference had ideas and strategies that were effective from them where they are, but they would not work for me where I am, or for Abu-Lughod where she is. She specifically addresses these issues in a recent article [“The Cross-publics of Ethnography: The Case of ‘the Muslimwoman’,” American Ethnologist Nov. 2016].
Time and time again in her writing Abu Lughod argues that:
others live as we perceive ourselves living – not as automatons programmed according to ‘cultural rules’ or acting out social roles, but as people going through life wondering what they should do, making mistakes, being opinionated, vacillating, trying to make themselves look good, enduring tragic personal losses, enjoying others, and finding moments of laughter (Writing Women’s Worlds 27)
My students and the people I write about in my research are people who live valid lives and make valid choices – it is not my job to change them. It is my job to listen carefully and speak honestly. In teaching, I should find interesting, relevant texts and give assignments that allow students to express their own opinions and improve their language skills. In my research, I should observe as accurately as possible, ask questions and write only after reflection and double-checking. That’s my job.