- IntroductionGendering Faith—Arab Women and the Islamic Revival
This special issue on Arab women and their engagement with the Islamic Revival represents the final output of a Palestinian-Norwegian research collaboration. Muslim women have been involved with the Islamic Revival—al-Sahwa al-Islamiyya—since its inception more than forty years ago. Simply put, the revival can be seen as a move to reverse the so-called Westernization approaches that were characteristic of many governments in the Muslim world from the earlier parts of the twentieth century onwards.1 The gendered expressions of this revival have manifested themselves in various ways—in the individual practices of pious women who adopt a certain style of dress and bodily comportment, hold or attend lectures in mosques, and study and teach religious texts as well as in increased female mobilization for and participation in religiously oriented social and political organizations.
The main challenge for feminist and liberal researchers has been to reconcile feminist agency with women’s support for and participation in the Islamic Revival. Some hold that Muslim women have been subjected to patriarchy for so long that they have internalized the values and developed “false consciousnesses.”2 Poverty and lack of other venues for acceptable socializing push women to turn to religious groups for comfort, as an outlet for frustration and anxiety, or to seek broader social networks. Other theorists focus on women’s agency within structures of subordination and argue that Muslim women actively resist patriarchy by subverting hegemonic meanings of cultural practices and employing them for their own potentially emancipatory ends.3 In a study of Egyptian female participants and preachers in mosques in Cairo, Egypt, social anthropologist Saba Mahmood suggests a notion of agency that allows for women’s voluntary submission to religious norms, even when those norms entail submission to male domination.4 Mahmood argues that the mosque participants are active agents of women’s empowerment and change—a pious kind of empowerment that is situated in the context of an [End Page vii] Islamic society, and a change that moves in a different direction from the secular and modern one seen as a precondition for women’s emancipation. This does not necessarily mean that the change religious Muslim women seek is anti-modern. Social anthropologist Lara Deeb found that her interlocutors—pious Shia Muslim women in Beirut, Lebanon—advocated an alternative pious Islamic modernity.5 Deeb argues that this modernity is enacted in everyday life; women here play the most important role due to the visibility of their enactment (in particular in regard to dress code). The women were critical of Western modernity, where material progress had come at the expense of spiritual and moral progress and impacted more negatively on women than on men. Deeb’s informants agreed that women were sometimes treated badly in the name of Islam but saw this as a result of lack of modernity and spiritual progress. These debates on women’s agency and their involvement with the Islamic Revival have informed the research of this project.
The research project that constitutes the origins of this special issue began as a Palestinian-Norwegian collaboration in 2010 and developed during a time of cautious optimism in the Arab world related to the events that became known as the Arab Spring. However, the roots of this collaboration can be traced back to 1995. It was then that Muwatin, the Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy, based in Ramallah on the West Bank, and the Christian Michelsen Institute (cmi) based in Bergen, Norway, started their work together.6
Muwatin was founded by a group of scholars and academics in 1992 and was the first research institution of its kind in the occupied Palestinian territories. The institution’s work is geared toward making a contribution to the process of democratic transformation in Palestinian society in particular and in Arab society in general. In order to do so, Muwatin works through research, publication, and education as well as through networking and activism.
cmi, for its part, was founded in 1930 as the first private research institute in Norway and focuses on generating and communicating knowledge relevant for...