Feminist Theory, Saba Mahmood

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Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections on the Egyptian Islamic Revival Saba Mahmood
University of Chicago

In the last two decades one of the key questions that has occupied many feminist theorists is how should issues of historical and cultural specificity inform both the analytics and politics of any feminist project. Although this questioning has resulted in serious attempts at integrating issues of sexual, racial, class, and national difference within feminist theory, questions of religious difference have remained relatively unexplored in this scholarship. The vexed relationship between feminism and religious traditions is perhaps most manifest in discussions on Islam. This is due in part to the historically contentious relationship that Islamic societies have had with what has come to be called "the West," but in part to the challenges contemporary Islamic movements pose to secular-liberal politics of which feminism has been an integral (if critical) part. In particular, women's active support for a movement that seems to be inimical to their own interests and agendas, at a historical moment when more emancipatory possibilities would appear to be available to women, raises fresh dilemmas for feminists.1 In this essay, I will probe some of the conceptual challenges that women's participation in the Islamic movement poses to feminist theorists and gender analysts through an ethnographic account of an urban women's mosque movement that is part of the larger Islamic revival in Cairo, Egypt. In this movement women from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds provide lessons to each other that focus on the teaching and studying of Islamic scriptures, social practices, and forms of bodily comportment considered germane to the cultivation of the ideal virtuous self.2 Even though Egyptian Muslim women have always had some measure of informal training in piety, the mosque movement represents an unprecedented engagement with scholarly materials and theological reasoning that had to date .been the purview of learned men. Movements such as this one, if they do not provoke a yawning boredom among secular intellectuals, certainly conjure up a whole host of uneasy associations such as fundamentalism, the subjugation of women, social conservatism, reactionary atavism, Cultural Anthropology 16(2):2O2-236. Copyright O 2001. American Anthropological Association.

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cultural backwardness, and the rest. My aim in this essay is not to analyze the reductionism these associations entail of an enormously complex phenomenon; nor am I interested in recovering a redeemable element within the Islamist movement by recuperating its latent liberatory potentials. Instead, I want to focus quite squarely on the conceptions of self, moral agency, and discipline that undergird the practices of this nonliberal movement so as to come to an understanding of the desires that animate it. My goal, however, is more than to provide an "anthropological account" of the Islamic revival; it is also to make this material speak back to normative liberal assumptions about freedom and agency against which such a movement is held accountable. Thus my ethnographic tracings will sustain a running argument with and against key analytical concepts in feminist studies through which movements such as the one I am interested in are often analyzed. In doing so, I hope to continue a conversation initiated by feminist critics that explores the tensions attending the dual character of feminism both as an analytical and a political project (Butler 1990; Mohanty 1991; Rosaldo 1983; Strathem 1987, 1988). 3 Specifically, in this article, I will begin by exploring how a particular notion of human agency in feminist scholarship—one that seeks to locate the political and moral autonomy of the subject in the face of power—is brought to bear on the study of women involved in patriarchal religious...
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