Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections on the Egyptian Islamic Revival

Peer Reviewed


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.

Fighting Irish 1977, "Minarets and Mosques of Egypt." December 2, 2009 via Flickr.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published many essays on women and Islam. See, for example, Anne Meneley's "Fashions and Fundamentalism in Fin-de-Siecle Yemen: Chador Barbie and Islamic Socks" (2007); Öykü Potuo─člu-Cook's "Beyond the Glitter: Belly Dance and Neoliberal Gentrification in Istanbul" (2006); and Katherine Pratt Ewing's "Between Cinema and Social Work: Diasporic Women and the (Dis)Pleasures of Hybridity" (2006).

Cultural Anthropology has also published many essays focused specifically on embodiment.  These include Charles Hirschkind's "Is There a Secular Body?" (2011); Brad Weiss's "Northwestern Tanzania on a Single Shilling: Sociality, Embodiment, and Valuation" (1997); and Thomas J. Csordas's "Somatic Modes of Attention" (1993).

About the Author

Saba Mahmood teaches anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley.  She is the author of Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (2005) that received the Victoria Schuck award from the American Association of Political Science.  Most recently she is the co-author of Is Critique Secular? Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech (2009) published by the University of California Press. Mahmood is the recipient of the Carnegie Corporation’s Islamic scholars award (2007-08), and the Frederick Burkhardt fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies (2009-10).  Mahmood is currently working on a book project entitled “Politics of Religious Freedom: Geopolitics, Sexuality, and the Minority Question” which focuses on the Middle East and Europe. Her broader work centers on issues of secularism, religion, gender, and postcoloniality in Muslim societies.

Additional Work by the Author

Can Secularism be Other-wise? in Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age, edited by Michael Warner, Jonathan VanAntwerpen, and Craig Calhoun, Harvard University Press, 2010.

Is Critique Secular?  Blasphemy, Injury, and Free Speech, edited with Talal Asad, Wendy Brown and Judith Butler.  University of California Press, 2009.

“Is Critique Secular?” and “Secular Imperatives?” Public Culture, 20(3): 447-452; 461-465, 2008.

“Feminism, Democracy, and Empire: Islam and the War of Terror, in Women Studies on the Edge, ed., Joan W. Scott, Duke University Press, 2008. 

"Secularism, Hermeneutics, Empire: The Politics of Islamic Reformation," Public Culture, 18(2): 323-247, 2006.

Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.  (PUP new edition with a new foreword, 2010.)  French translation: Politique de la Piété: Le féminisme à l'épreuve du Renouveau islamique, La Décorverte, 2009.

“Ethical Formation and Politics of Individual Autonomy in Contemporary Egypt,” Social Research, 70(3):1501-1530, 2003.

“Questioning Liberalism, Too: A Response to ‘Islam and the Challenge of Democracy,’” Boston Review: A Political and Literary Forum April/May 2003. Reprinted as "Is Liberalism Islam's Only Answer?" in Islam and the Challenge to Democracy, J. Cohen and D. Chasman, eds. Princeton University Press, 2004.

"Anthropology and the Study of Women in Islamic Cultures." Disciplinary entry on anthropology, in The Encyclopedia of Women and Islamic Cultures, 307-14, 2003. Brill.

“Feminism, the Taliban, and Politics of Counter-Insurgency” (with Charles Hirschkind), Anthropological Quarterly, 75(2):339-354, 2002.

“Rehearsed Spontaneity and the Conventionality of Ritual: Disciplines of Salat,” American Ethnologist, 28(4):827-853, 2001.

“Cultural Studies and Ethnic Absolutism: Comments on Stuart Hall’s ‘Culture, Community, Nation,’” Cultural Studies, 10(1) 1-11, 1996.

Interview with Saba Mahmood

Puyol, T., "Egypt-April 07." April 10, 2007 via Flickr.

Richard McGrail and Rupa Pillai: Could you provide a brief description of how you understand the term "subaltern"?  And, in your view, what distinguishes work on subalternity from other areas of research in anthropology?

Saba Mahmood: While I am familiar with the work of the subaltern school of Indian scholars, it is not a term I use in my own work.  The analytical frame of the essay featured in CA for example is not indebted to this term.  In my teaching, however, I always discuss the debates within subaltern studies because they address the question of “difference” from a perspective that is different from anthropology but shares some of the anthropology’s concerns.

RM and RP: Is there a danger of fetishizing the subaltern--i.e., of casting the term as a knowable and celebrated subject-position--in anthropological research?  If so, should we revisit how the term is deployed both in academic work and in everyday, "common-sense" understandings?  Have you seen the term used outside academic context?

SM: Yes, of course, like any other term, subaltern can also become fetishized, emptied of its analytical purchase and critical edge.  One of the most important critiques of the knowability—or even the desire to know the subaltern—was of course voiced by Spivak in her essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?”  While my intellectual formation was deeply informed by Spivak’s (and other subaternists’) arguments, my intent in this article as well as in my book (Politics of Piety) was to think about a slightly different problem.  It may be baldly stated as follows: there are forms of life that are rooted in traditions, concepts and practices that may seem repugnant and fundamentally “other” from a liberal secular perspective but that nonetheless require an analysis and understandings of these forms of life on their own terms. My essay here in CA and my book in general tries to provide an insight into this form of life through an analysis of the program of ethical self-cultivation pursued by the pietists of the mosque movement. My point is not that this program of self-cultivation pursued is “good” or conducive to establishing relations of gender equality or that it should be adopted by progressives, liberals, feminists and others.  I argue instead that the disciplines of subjectivity pursued by the pietists profoundly parochialize conceptions of the subject, autonomous reason, and objectivity through which the pietists are understood to be lacking in faculties of criticism and reason.  If academic knowledge production aims to be something more than an exercise in denunciation and judgment, it must surely think beyond its own naturalized conceptions in order to grasp what other notions of criticism, evaluation, and reasoned deliberation operate in the world.  This in turn requires opening up a comparative (and dare I say critical?) study of different forms of subjectivity and concomitant disciplines of ethical self-formation. 

RM and RP: What makes a discussion of subaltern studies particularly relevant now?

SM: Many of the insights of the Subaltern Studies have been forgotten by a new generation of scholars, key among them the analysis of postcoloniality and its forms—state, public, gender, legal—that depart from and challenge the reigning theoretical frameworks rooted in European history.

RM and RP: Would you categorize your article as subaltern studies?

SM: Not really.  But as I said earlier, my arguments are deeply informed by the puzzles I inherited from the Subaltern Studies debates.

RM and RP: What has inspired your work and in what ways might it contribute to a more thorough understanding of subalternity?

SM: The work of Talal Asad has been a central inspiration to my thinking as I have been formed by the school of feminist anthropologists at Stanford (including Jane Collier, Sylvia Yanagisako, and Shelly Rosaldo).  Even though these scholars are quite distinct from each other, I think all of them are deeply committed to thinking critically about difference – not difference as an an exoticized fetishized object of study—but difference as it is lived, produced, and propagated through relations of power.  Pace Said, “difference” is not a bad term for these scholars but one that needs to be thought through in an increasingly homogenized world in which the universal language of capitalist aspirations has become the norm.

RM and RP: What advice would you offer researchers pursuing subaltern projects?  What ethical responsibilities does the researcher have?

SM: To forget the naïve notion that that they can channel and represent “subaltern voices.”  To challenge their own presuppositions and analytical lenses that they bring to an object of study and their own pious certitudes.

RM and RP: What are the challenges of teaching concepts related to subalternity?  What kinds of teaching strategies and practices have you found effective in the classroom?

Saba Mahmood: I find it necessary particularly in courses focused on postcolonialism and colonialism to start with the seminal insights of the early Subaltern Studies debates.  I include in this the debate between Washbrook/O’Hanlon and Gyan Prakash; the earlier work of Partha Chatterjee; the seminal work of Dipesh Chakrabarty particularly his book Provincializing Europe; and Lata Mani’s Contentious Traditions.


The Light in Her Eyes (Official Trailer, Syria)

"Young Women Debate at the Mosque," clip from The Light in Her Eyes

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1. How is the relationship between feminism and religious traditions "vexed"?

2. What is the liberal definition of freedom?  How is Mahmood critiquing this understanding?

3. What is the difference between feminism as a political project and feminism as an analytic?

4. By thinking of agency as "a capacity of action," how is Mahmood complicating our understanding of agency?

5. What is the relationship between Islam and the Egyptian nation?

6. Describe the relationship between agency and docility as discussed by Mahmood.  How does Mahmood's understanding of agency departs from Butler's?  How does Butler's paradox of subjectivation fit into this discussion?

7. Discuss/debate the practice of veiling.  Does the veil signify a certain identity or does the veil make the self?

Related Readings


2000    "Agency and Pain," Culture and Religion l(l):29-60.

Boddy, Janice

1989    Wombs and Alien Spirits: Men and Women in the Zar Cult in North Africa. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre

1977    Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Butler, Judith

1997a    Excitable Speech. A Politics of the Performative. New York: Routledge.

1997b    The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh

1997    "The Time of History and the Times of God." In The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital. Lisa Lowe and David Lloyd, eds. Pp. 36-50. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Das, Veena

1995    "Voice as Birth of Culture." Ethnos 60(3-4): 159-179.

Foucault, Michel

1980    "Truth and Power." In Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977. Colin Gordon, ed. Pp. 109-133. New York: Pantheon Books.

1983    "Subject and Power." In Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. Hubert Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, eds. Pp. 208-226. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lapidus, Ira

1984    "Knowledge, Virtue and Action: The Classical Muslim Conception of Adab and the Nature of Religious Fulfillment in Islam." In Moral Conduct and Authority. Barbara Metcalf, ed. Pp. 38-61. Berkeley. University of California Press.

Strathern, Marilyn

1987    "An Awkward Relationship: The Case of Feminism and Anthropology." Signs 12(2). 276-293.

Editorial Overview

While Muslim women have often been rendered subaltern subjects in scholarship, Saba Mahmood’s essay "Feminist Theory, Embodiment, and the Docile Agent: Some Reflections on the Egyptian Islamic Revival" is included in the Subaltern Studies collections not for her examination of Muslim women’s participation in the Egyptian mosque movement, but for her efforts to “parochialize” our thinking. By “prob[ing] some of the conceptual challenges that women’s participation in the Islamic movement poses to feminist theory and gender analyses” Mahmood questions our understanding of agency, freedom, and empowerment. What is freedom?  Does agency always require subverting societal norms?  How has the analyst's understanding of these concepts hidden the real motivations of the social actors?

To answer these questions, Mahmood turns to her ethnographic research of the urban women's mosque movement in Egypt.  Through these ethnographic examples, Mahmood offers an alternative analysis which demontrates how normative notions of agency, the self and autonomy, with their liberal bias, restrict the researcher's ability of recognizing/acknowledging different forms of agency.  The researcher must appreciate "that analytical frameworks have historical and cultural moorings" and should consider if these analytics will be relevant for the task at hand.  In arguing for this awareness, Mahmood engages Judith Butler's notion of performativity and the paradox of subjectivation as well as concepts of habitus.  The result is a refreshing essay which urges researchers to re-examine their politics and questions as they enter the field and write-up.

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