Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject

Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject

Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject

Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject

Synopsis

Politics of Piety is a groundbreaking analysis of Islamist cultural politics through the ethnography of a thriving, grassroots women's piety movement in the mosques of Cairo, Egypt. Unlike those organized Islamist activities that seek to seize or transform the state, this is a moral reform movement whose orthodox practices are commonly viewed as inconsequential to Egypt's political landscape. Saba Mahmood's compelling exposition of these practices challenges this assumption by showing how the ethical and the political are indelibly linked within the context of such movements. Not only is this book a sensitive ethnography of a critical but largely ignored dimension of the Islamic revival, it is also an unflinching critique of the secular-liberal principles by which some people hold such movements to account. The book addresses three central questions: How do movements of moral reform help us rethink the normative liberal account of politics? How does the adherence of women to the patriarchal norms at the core of such movements parochialize key assumptions within feminist theory about freedom, agency, authority, and the human subject? How does a consideration of debates about embodied religious rituals among Islamists and their secular critics help us understand the conceptual relationship between bodily form and political imaginaries? Politics of Piety is essential reading for anyone interested in issues at the nexus of ethics and politics, embodiment and gender, and liberalism and postcolonialism.

Excerpt

Even though this book is about Islamist politics in Egypt, its genesis owes to a set of puzzles I inherited from my involvement in progressive left politics in Pakistan, the country of my birth. By the time my generation of Pakistanis came to political consciousness during the 1970s and 1980s, the high moment of postcolonial nationalism had passed and there was considerable disillusionment with what the now “not-so-new” nation could provide for its citizens. There was, however, still a sense among the feminist left in Pakistan that some form of critical Marxism, combined with a judicious stance toward issues of gender inequality, could provide a means of thinking through our predicament and organizing our pragmatic efforts at changing the situation in which we lived. in this we were perhaps not so different from our counterparts in countries like Algeria, Egypt, and Tunisia, where the postcolonial condition had generated a similar sense of disappointment but also a continued sense of nourishment, borne out of the promises that the twin ideologies of critical Marxism and feminism held out for us.

This sense of stability and purpose was slowly eroded for a number of us in Pakistan for reasons that are too complex to fully recount here, but two developments in particular stand out. One was the solidification of the military dictatorship of Zia ul-Haq (1977–1988), who, while using Islam to buttress his brutal hold on power, turned Pakistan into a frontline state for the United States's proxy war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. the military and monetary advantage that this alignment bestowed on Zia ul-Haq's regime made any effective organized opposition to it infeasible. Furthermore, Zia ulHaq's top-down policy of “Islamizing” Pakistani society through the use of the media, the educational system, and, more important, the judiciary (which included the promulgation of a number of discriminatory laws against women) . . .

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