- Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject
Saba Mahmood makes a rare and provocative contribution to the body of scholarship from North America about the complexities of Islam, Muslim women, and notions of identity with her book Politics of Piety. This monograph has five chapters and an epilogue. In the epilogue, Mahmood reiterates the challenge she has undertaken, "No study of Islamist politics situated within Western academy can avoid engaging with the contemporary critique of Islamic ethical and political behavior, and the secular-liberal assumptions that animate this critique." This underscores her methods of research on the women's mosque movement in Egypt, the findings of that research, and the analytical tools she uses to articulate important nuances to the heretofore privileged discourse of western liberalism regarding agency and ethics. [End Page 815]
I come to works about Islam and women with a hermeneutics of suspicion. I especially question academic anthropological literature: Who is doing the discourse; who is the audience; and who is depicted? I am also leery of the critical tools of analysis in most of this literature. Although this does not render my reading a mere exercise of pleasure, like reading a good novel, it helps toward a critical read observing textual articulations from in front of, behind, and between its words. Mahmood manages to pique my interest and to ease my distrust, by admitting to her own self-transformation in the context of direct research and experience with key players in the women's mosque movement, as well as with the large numbers of attendees from diverse educational, social, and economic status who are increasingly participating in this movement. Mahmood maintains her location as rational anthropologist, researching female Islamists for the sake of a primarily western audience. Thus, there is little evidence that the women depicted in this book could themselves benefit from the book written about them. Paradoxically, this is actually the benefit of her work—it validates its conclusions to a mainly western audience by interrogating their own tools of investigation and indicating their shortcomings vis-à-vis the autonomy or agency of the female Muslim subject.
Mahmood identifies herself early, by her involvement with the progressive leftist political agenda in Pakistan, her place of birth. She admits the progressive leftists tended to reduce Islamists movements and participants to limitations in education and reasoning. What moves her project forward is her own self-realization of the inadequacies of the explanations used to dismiss them, rather than to engage in-depth with more sensitive discursive modes of analysis. She introduces the subjects of her fieldwork, and they speak—thereby introducing the readers of the book to the distinction between western "universalist" human rights discourse and these women's own consideration of their human dignity and intense meaning and formulas of agency. They have too frequently been dismissed as self-defeating socially, culturally, religiously, and politically for what appears to be acquiescence to dominating patriarchal norms and expectations. This book assures western readers that all discourse premised on certain western epistemological and philosophical ideas must be re-examined in detail before blanket application to the female Muslim subject.
Her first chapter "The Subject of Freedom" quickly clarifies the need for additional or more specific categories to utilize western liberal thought to measure the most sensitive and unusual circumstances of Islamist movements and the female Muslim subject. She provides an analysis of the major trends in western epistemology and philosophy when they are the basis of analogy and notes the strengths and limitations regarding alternative discussions on this subject. Her methodology highlights both her knowledge of those strengths and the challenges her own anthropological case study produces by shifting the lens of observation to a keener look at both the interiority and outward embodiment of the female Muslim subject enmeshed within a larger Islamist context with their own means for self-regulating choice and development. Such oft-used terms as agency, freedom, and ethical norms in western feminist literature—with its liberalist perspectives and [End Page 816] agendas—are thereby...