Politics of Piety

Adam Peeler

Politics of Piety Precis

I apologize for the tardiness of my precis. I mixed up the weeks and just realized my error.

Saba Mahmood’s Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival of the Feminist Subject, came about from Mahmood’s experiences in Pakistan under the regime of Zia ul-Haq. Mahmood notes that ul-Haq used Islam to, “Buttress his brutal hold on power…” (Mahmood p. xxi). Mahmood further states that because of Islamic patriarchy, “Feminist politics came to require a resolute and uncompromising secular stance” (Mahmood p. xxi). She also notes that the Iranian Revolution extinguished the hope that secular politics would offer change to the region. The text focuses on the Islamist movement in Egypt. Mahmood chose a place distant from here homeland to attempt to work through some of the puzzles presented in politics in Pakistan.

The work centers on ethnographic work in Cairo, Egypt from 1995 to 1997 in which Mahmood argues that there is a need for a much wider structure of women’s agency in the political realm. She argues within the first chapter that the relationship between feminism and religion is a difficult one; that each side finds issue with the other. Mahmood argues that women’s involvement in religious spaces as feminists can provide new leadership roles for women in the community. Within the first chapter, Mahmood reappropriates poststructuralist feminist theory arguing that “The processes and conditions that secure a subject’s subordination are also the means by which she becomes a self-conscious identity and agent (Mahmood p. 17). Though certain religious laws were adopted as a means of control Islamic feminists are adopting the practices as new means of empowerment.

The second chapter locates the women’s mosque movement within the framework of textual authority in the Islamic legal tradition. She argues that this tradition, when met with modernity, is altered to allow a space for women’s authority. This alters the understanding of the text and allows women a space within the mosque to become spiritual leaders alongside men. Mahmood believes this to be a result of modern education in Egypt (Mahmood p. 65). This is seen through Egypt’s acceptance of women in the field of religious study.

The third chapter explores this new understanding of text and empowerment. Mahmood examines the different daiyats and the educational and economic backgrounds of the followers of each system. She paints a vivid picture of how each mosque forms a different culture and form of piety. Chapter four takes a look at the ethics and practices of the women involved in the movement. She notes how previous movements sought to transform the state or preserve culture through their movements. She argues that the women’s mosque movement focuses on moral regeneration, particularly of the individual through attention to Islamic virtues. The final chapter examines women’s moral agency in relation to gender inequality. She notes that the women involved in the piety movement combat social injustice, but do some within the framework of obligation to God (Mahmood p. 175).

Mahmood’s work seeks to not discredit women’s agency when it is performed outside the normal political methods. She builds an ethnography of women’s experiences changing politics from inside the mosque within a religious framework (Mahmood p. 152). As noted earlier, feminism and religion tend to have a tenuous relationship, but Mahmood’s work seems to point towards the benefits the two can share. When one asks what is at stake for in this study it seems to be quite a lot, or at least more than many of our other readings. For the women involved in the women’s mosque movement, their own moral agency is at stake because of the oppression of a patriarchal and extremely religious government. As I read the work I was frustrated with the systems that the American government helped establish that created these environments. I thought of the links one could possibly place between the women’s mosque movement and the Civil Rights Movement, the involvement of religion in both spheres. My question with Mahmood’s work is how is it playing out today? Her ethnography took place in 1995-1997, since then we have seen countless wars, the Arab Spring, drought, and famine in the Middle East. Has the women’s mosque movement continued to make the changes that Mahmood hoped they would make? I also wonder if an improved education system will continue to assist this movement or at least move the average person to a more secular state of mind. What’s at stake in this work? I would say quite a lot.


2 Replies to “Politics of Piety”

  1. Adam, Thank you for your Precis.
    You pose the important question of what is at stake for the women in the movement. I would further add to the question from Mahmood’s book, what is at stake for the women in relation to us? And by us, I mean a liberal society that refuses to embrace plurality/ diversity of thought and experience. I believe Mahmood addresses this briefly in her epilogue when she writes, ” This attempt at comprehension offers the slim hope in this embattled and imperious climate, one in which feminist politics runs the danger of being reduced to a rhetorical display of the placard of Islam’s abuses, that 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.” (199)

  2. Adam,

    Thanks for the precis! Building off of your work, I think Tala’s quotation highlights a central tension in Mahmood’s work. Tala quotes Mahmood saying “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” (199). She provides a compelling and artful articulation of how anthropological discourse has failed to do this, and why it must try. But I’m not convinced she succeeds herself. In constructing a Western theoretical frame while insisting that such frames must be produced from inside a lifeworld, she seems to be performing precisely the kind of analytical mastery she importantly warns us to avoid.

    But I would be happy to hear other voices on this, and see if my reading is unfair.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *