- Unraveling the Bindings of Muslim WomenAgency, Politics, Piety, and Performance
These books are recent contributions to the continuing debate about Arab women and their affective engagement with Islam. The two overlapping themes in these publications are, first, the appeal and perspective of a post-Islamist political society in Muslim majority contexts, primarily using Egypt as an example, and, second, probing the older theme of fitna, the distracting potential of women’s sexuality and bodies and the ways it has been reclaimed and co-opted in the new millennium, often in collusion with neoliberal patriarchal capitalism. In the context of this broad framing, one should also note that, with the exception of Soft Force, the books in this review demonstrate an excitement about a supposed post-Arab Spring. However, the post-Islamist wave carried on the back of pietist and/or Islamist women offered in these texts is not entirely convincing.
Performing Piety documents the lives of several famous Egyptian female singers, dancers, and actresses who left the entertainment business in the wake of [End Page 251] the Islamic revival of the 1990s and devoted themselves to religious studies and worship. Karin Van Nieuwkerk documents the life stories of these “repentant” veiled artists, crediting this turn in the history of the entertainment trade as a “history-in-miniature of Egypt more generally” (5). The author summarizes and takes as her base the redefinition and exploration (arguably, subversion) of the notion of “agency” as offered by Saba Mahmood (2005) and Sherine Hafez (2011) in their studies on women’s piety in the mosque movement in Egypt. Rather than empowerment, the significance of “moral agency” as expressed through piety is confirmed by the self-transformation and moral worth described by “repentant” women artists.
Nieuwkerk’s thesis springs from this theoretical spiral, where agency uncoils itself from limited readings of power relations and daily realities and leaps into the self-presentations and “staged presentations and constructed narratives” of ideals and imagined perfection of and by the pious subject (9). The author acknowledges the powerful influence of the celebrities who became the “moral touchstones” of religious and nationalist worldviews for millions of adulating fans. Recognizing the class-based character of her case study of middle- and upper-middle-class “repentant” performers, Nieuwkerk argues that their impact on millions of consumers should not be underestimated and is “warmly embraced by the Islamists” (5). The (less) popular performers simply could not afford the same choice as the stars. The author argues that this spread of piety in the 1990s enabled the development of “pious markets” for leisure and art. The author weaves in sociopolitical debates in the polemics of public spaces where secularists and Islamists debated art and gender in the 1990s (probably the most interesting part of the book) and argues that this mission of popularizing Islam through aesthetics has created a genre in itself. One of the central arguments in the book is how Islamists in Egypt have consciously carried this project through deliberate contradistinction from liberal-secular artistic sensibilities. It qualifies too how among themselves Islamists disagreed on the limits of artistic infiltration into the larger moral-ethical project and how this created tensions between Salafists and al-wasatiyya (a moderate Islamist trend) (37).
Divided into three parts, Performing Piety begins with the spiritual biographies of the retired performers Nieuwkerk interviewed to illustrate the trajectory of these artists toward piety. The artists include the actress (Shams al-Barudi), the dancer (Hala al-Safi), and the singer (Yasmin al-Khiyyam). Their corresponding paths to spiritual journeys in the 1980s include...