Women's studies professors with Muslim and Middle Eastern backgrounds tend to challenge the obsession with "brown women" as victims. "There's a lot of injustice all over the world," Harvard scholar Leila Ahmed told me. "This sounds awfully like battles we had in the 1970s, when white feminists thought we had to save black women." Lila Abu-Lughod, a professor at Columbia, has analyzed the cultural significance of the veil, disputing that it has to mean a lack of agency.
That women are some of the most adamant supporters of these customsgenital mutilation and honor killings as well as the veilcertainly complicates matters. But Chesler believes that feminists are universalists and therefore interventionists; at the least, women should be free from systematic violence and compulsory veiling. Her ambitions are grand, if murky in the particulars. She hopes to enlist "feminists who are far more skilled than I in crafting foreign policy initiatives. I would like feminist intellectuals to be thinking as if we could control the world."