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  • Writer's pictureWalter

The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject in Early 20th Century Egypt

As a scholar of religion, one of the core topics I pursue aims at Muslim feminist responses to systems of repression from historical past; more closely, women in Islam during early twentieth-century British colonial times in Egypt. With that in mind, I seek to dissect contemporary critiques of Islamic ethical and political behaviour that usually evaluate Muslim women under a monolithic assessment. Furthermore, what Western writings frame as ‘Islamism’ is analysed “as an eruption of religion outside the supposedly normal domain of private worship”[1] that often requires explanation, if not rectification. Within this context, I find that Saba Mahmood’s Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject takes the subject of analytical language about modalities of body agencies beyond emancipatory aspirations (i.e., liberal or feminist) to focus on analytical and political issues. Mahmood’s analyses come as a result of her personal encounters and close observations of the Women in the Mosque Movement in Cairo, Egypt.[2] Mahmood inspects what really count as rational behind modalities of self, the relationship between outward bodily acts such as rituals and inward belief, as well as conceptions of personhood presumed as socially constructed. In sum, Politics of Piety presents different perspectives between the connections that link rituals with inward beliefs of the individual.

What I wish to argue in this essay is that in Mahmood’s book, conceptions of meanings of freedom are represented through practices that interconnect members of the Women in the Mosque, which provides a sense of belonging. This is in direct juxtaposition to the Western individual-self-realization view of freedom. Under that premise, I will highlight key examples from Mahmood’s book which underline the constitutive relationship between action and also embodiment, resistance, and agency. Women in this movement claim “their presence in previously male-defined spheres,”[3] although their goal is to discover and adhere as closely as possible to the authority of that doctrine. I will also illustrate how Mahmood raises crucial questions about Western liberal assumptions that address Islamic feminism, while she also stresses the need to move outside classic conceptions of personal realization linked to ideals of freedom. She instead questions Western assumptions which suggest that personal agency is a desire for autonomy and resistance toward repressive norms. Briefly put, her point is to see women in this movement as agents engaged in personal practises of self-realization that, to a certain extent, may not overlap what we identify as freedom in the West.

First, is the constitutive relationship between action, embodiment, and resistance. Mahmood stresses that in order to recognize these women in the mosque as agents, we must first question the topic of feminist bonding to then see what freedom represents to the participants. In other words, we ought to go beyond meanings of religious practises and instead try to comprehend symbolic acts that frequently presume what the individual exteriorizes in connection to her inner self. I stand with Mahmood’s critiques of binary oppositions, such as self-agency against norms, which assume that agency must be viewed in opposition to norms. Furthermore, to draw a map or model for meaning or identity, the author does not dismiss semiotic processes. Instead, she argues that practises within this group go further “than those of meaning, communication, and symbolic signification.”[4] In short, we should step outside binary views of dimensions of practices in order to put an emphasis on what can be observed outside the constructive assumptions of practices, social, and political imaginaries. As she succinctly puts it, “not all the practices, I suspect, will be as reasoned as they are assumed to be.”[5] Here, the actions, agency, and embodiment that symbolic objects such as the hijab represent become both created and expressed. What is important from the previous example is that the hijab is only one part of a much larger discussion in Egyptian society. While Mahmood wishes to point out is that the most intriguing aspect around the hijab debate is not about whether or not the hijab represents norms of modesty or oppression, and we ought to instead examine the wider range of “ways we define as ‘norm’ and how is supposed to be lived and inhabited.” [6] Debates questioning the hijabversus freedom, norms versus ethic, or secular versus religious, cannot be addressed within binary logic of the doing and undoing norms.

Second, what is underlined almost throughout the entire book is Mahmood’s focus on particular modes of self-reflection within the religious practise. As an extension, we see the particular case of women in Islam and the use of the hijab under constant scrutiny and oversimplified meaning within an apparent universal tendency “toward the objectification of the religious imagination.”[7] Again, Mahmood wishes to move away from the “agonistic and dualistic framework–one in which norms are conceptualized on the model of doing and undoing, consolidation and subversion–and instead think about the variety of ways in which norms are lived and inhabited, aspired to, reached for, and consummated.”[8] As the West constantly insists that the hijab is a representation of women’s repression from a patriarchal domination, Mahmood clearly stresses that motivations from participants in the Mosque Movement toward the use of the hijab are adopted as “a necessary component of virtue of modesty because the veil both expresses true modesty and is the means through which modesty is acquired.”

Lastly, I find that one of the most compelling aspects of Saba Mahmood’s essay is the exploration of different conceptions of freedom. The study she conducted of the Women’s Mosque Movement seems to lean toward that conclusion. She tries to dissect questions from other scholars (i.e., Judy Butler and Michel Foucault) on what it means when we address gender equality and freedom. However, I ponder if we truly grasp the concept of personal decision toward freedom without considering the structures around us that influence such a state. “Who do we emulate”[9] when we seek cultural identification and sense of freedom and belonging? It appears that external influences (i.e., secularism) appear to move groups such as the Women’s Mosque Movement to reflect on the loss of tradition. In addition, I also contemplate whether it is fair to condemn secularist influences for the decline in religious sensibility. Likewise, and as far as Mahmood underlines, “it is important not to conceptualize secularism on a single model whose skeletal structure has been fleshed out by Euro-American societies.”[10] Are we not individually responsible for the preservation of culture and, as women in the mosque stressed “the spirit of Islam (ruh al-islam)? Where is our own agency when external influences try to persuade us? One of Mahmood’s aims is to scrutinise assumptions about “the constitutive relationship between action and embodiment, resistance and agency, self and authority–that inform our judgments about nonliberal movements”[11] such as the ones she presents as the Women’s Mosque Movement. What I see is feminist agency embedded in Islamic practices, which first demonstrates that rituals are non-static systems and second, these changes are part of a historical continuity of the role of women in Islam

A casual reader may observe a clear discourse around involvement within a particular circle of faith (Islam), where the fellowship seeks for a sense of belonging. In other words, freedom as a practice of belonging where self-agency is presented as a communal pious sentiment that brings a different conceptualization of feminist freedom. The latter cannot be detached from the pious self and the connection with God. The pietists’ agency certainly implies different ways of relationships to God, in which pietists’ practices appear within religious practices and rituals; as a result, this opens up alternative conceptions of freedom. In simpler terms, rituals, structures, and rules enable freedom for interpretation and focus on goals. Take, for example, a guitar player who devotes years of practice to master the technique. After said technique is acquired, their attention now remains on executing personal-creative notes where freedom may be enabled. What is noteworthy in Mahmood’s examples of her research is to find women inside the mosque holding diverse views on forms of what constitutes as ‘true’ Islamic practice. This brings me to assume that the Women of the Mosque Movement “exemplify the liberal autonomous subject precisely because they are enacting their own desires for piety, despite the social obstacles they face, and not following the conventional roles assigned to women.”[12] In sum, Saba Mahmood brings the issue of conceptions of self by suggesting we rethink the question of individual freedom in a context where “the distinction between the subject’s own desires and socially prescribed performances cannot be so easily presume?”[13]

[1] Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2005), 189. [2] This movement is part of the larger Islamic Revival or Islamic Awakening (al-Sahwa al-Islamiyya), a term that not only refers to political groups but to a religious awareness as well. Neighbourhood mosques started to serve as a centre for provision of medical and welfare services to Egyptians in poverty but also as a place for dissemination of religious knowledge and instruction. This opened up an Islamization of Egypt’s sociocultural transformation and which the Women’s Mosque Movement took part. Mahmood conducted a fieldwork that illustrates the broad-based character of the Women’s Mosque Movement, evident in “the variety of ages and socioeconomic backgrounds represented among the audience as well as in the range of rhetorical styles, modes of argumentation, and forms of sociability employed by the teachers. Despite the diversity within those groups, the participants all shared a concern for what they described as the increasing secularization of Egyptian society and erosion of religious sensibility.” (43) [3] Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety, 4. [4] Mahmood, xi. [5] Ibid., xiii. [6] Ibid., 24. [7] Ibid., 54. [8] Ibid., 23. [9] Ibid., 44. [10] Ibid., 77. [11] Ibid., 38. [12] Ibid., 149. [13] Ibid.


Mahmood, Saba. Politics of Piety : the Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2005.

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