An Islam of Her Own: Reconsidering Religion and Secularism in Women's Islamic Movements

An Islam of Her Own: Reconsidering Religion and Secularism in Women's Islamic Movements

An Islam of Her Own: Reconsidering Religion and Secularism in Women's Islamic Movements

An Islam of Her Own: Reconsidering Religion and Secularism in Women's Islamic Movements


As the world grapples with issues of religious fanaticism, extremist politics, and rampant violence that seek justification in either “religious” or “secular” discourses, women who claim Islam as a vehicle for individual and social change are often either regarded as pious subjects who subscribe to an ideology that denies them many modern freedoms, or as feminist subjects who seek empowerment only through rejecting religion and adopting secularist discourses. Such assumptions emerge from a common trend in the literature to categorize the ‘secular’ and the ‘religious’ as polarizing categories, which in turn mitigates the identities, experiences and actions of women in Islamic societies. Yet in actuality Muslim women whose activism is grounded in Islam draw equally on principles associated with secularism.

In An Islam of Her Own, Sherine Hafez focuses on women’s Islamic activism in Egypt to challenge these binary representations of religious versus secular subjectivities. Drawing on six non-consecutive years of ethnographic fieldwork within a women's Islamic movement in Cairo, Hafez analyzes the ways in which women who participate in Islamic activism narrate their selfhood, articulate their desires, and embody discourses in which the boundaries are blurred between the religious and the secular.


Climbing up the stairs to the main hall of the building of alHilal, an Islamic private voluntary organization (PVO) nestled in the suburbs of Cairo, I was met by the reading class’s familiar rhythmic recital of the Qur’an. Filtering through the animated hum of conversation and the chimes of cell phones ringing from the far corners of the hall, voices rose and fell in perfect unison. The smell of baking wafted through the kitchen door, calling attention to the culinary skills of the cooking team who were preparing their baked goods for sale. Wrapped in cellophane, freshly baked konafa and baqlawa were carried out by a number of unresisting visitors who walked past me as I stepped inside.

Dalia, an activist at the gam’iyah, was waiting for me in her workshop where she trained women to produce and market crafts as part of the center’s vocational program. After offering me a cool Pepsi on that hot summer day, Dalia leaned against one of the long tables in the room as she casually chatted about her children. Her oldest son, now seventeen, was graduating from high school that year. “I worry about young people today,” she said. “The school system is in shambles. Parents who have schoolchildren don’t have a clue to what to expect next from the ministry (of education). Trowing her arms into the air, Dalia exclaimed exasperatedly, “The system of education needs to change.” I agreed, and our conversation veered to my own research.

Dalia and I had briefly discussed my work before, but she asked again why I was focusing on al-Hilal’s activism. I explained that I had become interested in women and Islamic activism when I read about Heba Raouf, who is a leading scholar on Islam in the Middle East and a professor of political science at Cairo University. Dalia seemed interested, though perplexed. Perhaps she needed reassurance that I would find al-Hilal’s activism interesting for the right reasons, —and perhaps . . .

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