Academic journal article Sociological Viewpoints

Muslim Women's Attire and Identity Politics

Academic journal article Sociological Viewpoints

Muslim Women's Attire and Identity Politics

Article excerpt

A preliminary version of this essay was first presented in 2011 at the McGill University, Institute of Islamic Studies (Canada) and a revised version was presented at the annual conference of the Eastern Sociological Society held in New York City in 2012. I wish to thank Professor Malek Abissab, and the co-sponsors; the Institute of Islamic Studies, the Department of History of McGill University, the Institute for the Study of International Development, and the Indian Ocean World Center. I am indebted to Arno Vosk for editorial help, but I am solely responsible for any error. A revised version of this paper was presented at the annual conference of Pennsylvania Sociological Association in October 2011.

So far, the concept of human agency has been associated with progressive movements. However, more recently it is associated with identity politics that include cultural relativists, postmodernists, and subaltern studies, even when their history, politics, and claims are different. Challenging the association of human agency with progressive movements, Saba Mahmood (Mahmood 2005) has demonstrated, based on her ethnographic work on the Dawa movement in Egypt, that the concept of agency could be applied to non- liberal movements as well. Sherine Hafez, (Hafez 2011), who also conducted an ethnographic study of the Islamic movement in Egypt, has challenged this narrow interpretation of the concept of agency. She explains that 'agency' cannot be discussed as a bounded isolated entity. She suggests, "Subjecthood is varied, heterogeneous, and unstable. Subject making cannot be understood as a continuous process within a single paradigm. It is deeply embedded in wider, complex, and imbricated social and historical processes ...[as] subjectivity is a perpetual state of becoming"(Ibid 5). Hafez has not only complicated the concept of human agency by breaking out of rigid identity politics, but she has also brought back a perspective that is more inclusive of various social realities in the making of the 'self' that also includes "dialectical process ."

However, inclusiveness in itself is not sufficient unless the need for a binary approach is eliminated to understand any society or any social reality. The Cartesian binary approach, originated in Western thought and philosophy, defines 'self' as a product of division of mind and body, nature and reason. This binary approach is opposite to our holistic human experiences of everyday life, as mind cannot function outside of a human body. Ignoring lived experiences of everyday life and experiences of people in different societies, identity politics promotes different kinds of binaries that support a Western worldview.

Identity politics ignores that perceived differences and superior/subordinate conditions of different people are created historically through power relationships, aggression, credit/debt relationships, violence, and other social forces. If we focus on our basic human capabilities and "humaneness" to understand any society and its members, we will not need any binary to explain any social reality or human practices. Understanding "human creativity" in holistic terms, the concept of human agency can expand beyond individual identity and subjectivity (Bahl 2005). "Human creativity" is an inherent quality of all human beings that enables them to create all social institutions and everything else in the world. It implies that all human beings are equal as they all have the inherent capability of creativity. However, this type of human equality is fundamentally different from the economic exchange relationship (Graeber 2011:377). Today, the need for this approach is more urgent because, in the last three decades, scholarly focus to explain human nature has shifted its context from social circumstances and history, to individual choice, agency, desire, and preferences.

We need to recognize that human subjectivities are multiple and they are formed historically through power relations between societies as well as within each society. …

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