Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton, NJ and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2005. 264 pp. ISBN 978—0—691—08695—8
Saba Mahmood’s book Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject is an emphatic and ground-breaking analysis of the intricate relationship between religious practices and beliefs of Muslim women and its interaction with the cultural modern liberal discourses of feminism. The ethnographic work, written in Cairo, Egypt in 1995 and published in 2004 by cultural anthropologist Saba Mahmood, examines the female pietistic movements of Egypt named the mosque movement that might be classified as part of the so-called “Islamic revival.” Mahmood develops an entirely new idea of piety and commitment throughout her ethnography. To her astonishment, the feminist movement’s participants show a nuanced link between religion and feminism since they work inside the patriarchal structures, they already inhabit rather than rebelling against them. Mahmood, by exploring such complicated notions and relationships this movement created in the realm of ethics, agency, embodiment, and identity, visualises the loopholes that feminist discourse often ignores.
Mahmood explores the sense of embarrassment and alienation that a whole generation of men and women on the liberal left in the Middle East felt because of the neo-colonial and Islamist ideologies and policies that became more prevalent in the 1970s and 1980s.
The book’s brief introduction lays out a significant portion of the implicit political background-the staging point of the ethnography on the issue of the women’s mosque movement in Egypt. Mahmood explores the sense of embarrassment and alienation that a whole generation of men and women on the liberal left in the Middle East felt because of the neo-colonial and Islamist ideologies and policies that became more prevalent in the 1970s and 1980s. The history of military dictatorships and proxy wars supported by the US; Islamisation of the media, education, and judiciary authorised by the state; exportation of Wahhabism through communities of Gulf immigrants; direct Saudi funding of Islamic schools and charitable organisations; and widespread privatisation of the public sector, particularly of education made the region weary of any development with has the nature of dynamics in it.
There are five chapters in the book. The first chapter, ‘The Subject of Freedom’, explores the contentious reactions that women’s participation in Islamist organisations, such as the “Islamic revival,” elicits since some people wonder if these women are merely participating in patriarchal structures. The sites and the women who were interviewed and visited are described in the second chapter titled, ‘Topography of the Piety Movement’. Additionally, it provides more details regarding the objectives of the mosque movement. Mahmood delves into the women’s mosque classes in the third chapter, ‘Pedagogies of Persuasion’, to learn how they perceive authority in the conventional materials that were employed. The author addresses the relationship between the external and internal selves as well as how the external affects the internal self in the fourth chapter, named ‘Positive Ethics and Ritual Conventions’. In the fifth chapter ‘Agency, Gender, and Embodiment’ she critiques the notion of ‘performativity’ as unsuitable for the analysis of the mosque movement.
Ritual, according to Mahmood, serves as a means to an ethical end for the women who are involved in the mosque movement, because rituals were a way for them to shape themselves in a way that pleased God. Mahmood succinctly sums up her argument by noting that “…the mosque participants did not regard authorized models of behavior as an external social imposition that constrained the individual.
The last two chapters shift to the issues of morality, virtues, and piety. Mahmood uses a variety of examples from her fieldwork to demonstrate how the external world affects how one feels about oneself and the emotional aspect of the movement. Ritual, according to Mahmood, serves as a means to an ethical end for the women who are involved in the mosque movement, because rituals were a way for them to shape themselves in a way that pleased God. Mahmood succinctly sums up her argument by noting that “…the mosque participants did not regard authorized models of behavior as an external social imposition that constrained the individual. Rather, they viewed socially prescribed forms of conduct as the potentialities, the ‘scaffolding,’ if you will, through which the self is realized. It is precisely this self-willed obedience to religiously prescribed social conventions what is often criticized as blind and uncritical emulation that elicits the critique that such movements only serve to reproduce the existing patriarchal order and to prevent women from distinguishing their ‘own desires and aspirations’ from those that are socially dictated.” (p. 148).
According to Mahmood, the reason why people exercise agency is because it is intrinsically related to their morals. Mahmood assesses Butler’s well-known concept of performativity through this intricate examination of ethics and agency and concludes that it does not adequately capture the mosque movement. As an example, Mahmood provides various approaches that the women of the mosque movement are trained to use when interacting with their secular (and non-religious) husbands. She contends that these instances serve as additional forms of agency where the ‘subordination’ perspective on agency is insufficient.
The book responds to the context of the post-9/11 world where Islam is increasingly perceived by liberal elites as the antithesis of reason, enlightenment, and human emancipation. While elaborating on the philosophical critique of secular concepts of agency and espousing the limitations of the feminist study of women’s politics in Islam, Mahmood creates new paradigms for feminist discourse itself. Mahmood’s response to the dilemma of Liberal feminism is to problematize the notion of agency and depict it as “resistance to relations of domination, and the concomitant naturalisation of freedom as a social ideal” which she further calls “the goals of progressive politics” (p. 34). To achieve this, she offers the practice of da’wa in Cairo women’s circles as an illustration of “lifeworlds” that completely elude the antinomies of liberal philosophy, including feminist ones.
She forces the reader to pick between a modern Islamic piety movement and western liberal feminism. She claims that the former is uninterested in opposing patriarchal forms of oppression and instead promotes them, and the latter, has historically been associated with colonial interventions.
The immediate impetus for this project is undoubtedly the prevailing political climate in the United States following the 9/11 attacks. In this environment, colonial wars abroad and virulent anti-Islamic campaigns at home have been largely motivated by neo-conservative rhetoric about the need to protect Muslim women from the atrocities of Islamic fundamentalism since the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. This is undoubtedly a noble intention, but Mahmood creates her antinomy by phrasing her argument in a way, which ignores a wide range of intricate historical conflicts and alliances. She forces the reader to pick between a modern Islamic piety movement and western liberal feminism. She claims that the former is uninterested in opposing patriarchal forms of oppression and instead promotes them, and the latter, has historically been associated with colonial interventions.
One may also wonder if, as she indicates, these are the only positions open to progressive lefties. Why, one wonders, is feminism only associated with liberalism in this context although Egypt and other countries in the area have a strong socialist and internationalist feminist legacy that actively fought against imperialism, fundamentalism, and state discrimination from at least the 1950s? And why, when Egyptian feminists (Muslim, Christian, and Atheist) are currently engaged in a persistent struggle with an American-backed “Islamising” regime on the one side and a wide range of state-sanctioned Salafi activists on the other, the da’wa movement is depicted as an uncontested and normative character of Egyptian women’s lifeworlds? Mahmood avoids taking any of these stances and instead creates what Timothy Brennan has dubbed as a “politics of being.”
In the epilogue, Mahmood concludes, “This attempt at comprehension offers the slim hope that in this embattled and imperious climate…analysis as a mode of conversation, rather than mastery, can yield a vision of coexistence that does not require making other lifeworlds extinct or provisional.” (p.199).
The book becomes essential in its capacity to weave together the ethnography of the women’s mosque movement in Egypt with the broader discussion of social indoctrination, subjugation and oppression of women in Islamic tradition.
The book is both an incisive critique of the secular-liberal presumptions of such movements and a highly sensitive ethnography of an important but often disregarded aspect of the Islamic revival. The ethnography questions the way one thinks about the normative liberal explanation of politics with regard to movements for moral reform and elaborates on the ways the essential tenets of feminist theory regarding freedom, agency, authority, and the human subject get parochialised when women adhere to the patriarchal norms at the heart of such movements? The book becomes essential in its capacity to weave together the ethnography of the women’s mosque movement in Egypt with the broader discussion of social indoctrination, subjugation and oppression of women in Islamic tradition. The book is a call to action for secular-liberal feminists to question the dichotomy of secularism-religion dichotomy that largely underlay feminist discourse and to test the horizons of normative feminist concepts of agency and autonomy. The book argues for a creative and new understanding of the interplay between traditional and modern and to look afresh at religion as a component of many modalities of agency, as well as how to identify and delimit that religion or its patriarchal normative source within a larger socio-political framework. Anyone interested in topics at the intersection of ethics and politics, gender and embodiment, liberalism and postcolonialism, should invest time to read Politics of Piety.
Nafis Haider is a research Intern at Centre for studies of Plural Societies (CSPS). He is a post graduate student of Political Science at Jawaharlal Nehru University.