Feminism in Islamic countries
Argument Feminism in Islamic countries is probably among the sharpest issues nowadays, as the religious tradition to be broken is time-honored and legally enforced in the present day. Saba Mahmood, who originated from the state of this category, explores this situation from inside (Wadud, 2006) in her writings in general and her book “Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject” in particular.
The paper is intended to study her argument in details and provide a critical response.
The Saba Mahmood’s writing offers an interesting perspective on Islamic feminism – the so-called piety movement or Islamic revival. I would like to challenge this concept, as the term ‘feminism’ lies in a different dimension from the mosque movement. First of all, feminism refers to the movement, established by women and aimed at achieving equality in all spheres of social life: career, education, suffrage, marital life and so forth.
This means, females seek to raise their social status and gain the right to manifest their views and engage into different activities on the same basis as males do. Mahmood unfairly call the female participants of the Islamic revival “feminists”, as this movement was primarily initiated by Muslim males, who wished to reinforce their dominative position at the time of globalization and gradual egalitarization in terms of gender.
In addition, Islam is a masculine religion that seeks to curb woman’s entitlement even in the most primitive daily routines (like walking alone around the city), i. e. it restricts her liberty – that’s why most feminists are known as secular. The Islamic revival is described in the following way: “Practically, this means instructing Muslims not only in the proper performance of religious duties and acts of worship but, more importantly, in how to organize their daily conduct in accord with principles of Islamic piety and virtuous behavior” (Mahmood, at press. princeton. edu, 2006, p. 5).
These rules and daily activities must include one vital component: female’s obedience and observance of traditional androcenrtic principles, widely rejected by contemporary feminists, as such prescriptions are unlikely to result in the establishment of gender equality. As one can understand, the participants of the Islamic revival pursue to great extent converse goals, pointing to the increase of overall piety in Egyptian society. Due to this substantial divergence in opinions and attitudes it would be incorrect to characterize the women, who actively engage into the piety movement, as feminists, despite their active social position.
On the other hand, I agree with the notion of women’s agency in Islamic countries, as numerous investigations have already proved that there are certain areas of life, which belong exceptionally to females: “Through a rich ethnography of women’s cultic practices, Boddy proposes that in a society where the “official ideology” of Islam is dominated and controlled by men, the zar practice might be understood as a space of subordinate discourse” (Mahmood, at press.
princeton. edu, 2006, p. 8). Mahmood therefore writes about the women’s secreted resistance to androcentrism, but the notion of feminism refers to broad manifestation of such opposition. Another questionable notion that relates to feminism is positive freedom: “Positive freedom is understood as the capacity to realize an autonomous will, one generally fashioned in accord with the dictates of universal reason.. ” (Mahmood, at press. princeton. edu, 2006, p. 12).
The scholar suggests that positive freedom is a domineering concept in feminism, as true liberty can be brought about only by the ability to understand and realize one’s own true will. On the other hand, this concept, in my, opinion, is valid only in European or Western-oriented countries, as Christianity as a religion and ideology supports such a deep and thorough search for one’s ‘self’ regardless of gender, i. e. Western religions are more egalitarian in this sense, comparing to Islam, which, in turn, assists only males in their self-discovery, whereas females are traditionally viewed as property in this doctrine.
This means, Muslim females are not always able to realize their true will, as they have been brought up in the spirit of complete obedience and inequality since their early childhood. Due to the fact that feminism in Islamic countries is currently being at relatively lower stage of development, it would be more appropriate to apply the principle of negative freedom, or absence of restraints and numerous taboos in such countries, as the elimination of objective (social, political and cultural) bounds is the first step to cognitive liberation.
Another important message conveyed by the scholar is following: “if the ability to effect change in the world and in oneself is historically and culturally specific […], then the meaning and sense of agency cannot be fixed in advance, but must emerge through an analysis of the particular concepts that enable specific modes of being, responsibility and efficacy” (Mahmood, at press.
princeton. edu, 2006, p. 15-16). This means, in order to initiate certain social change, it is particularly important to learn the cultural context within which the transformation will occur. In fact, cultural literacy and the ability to evaluate certain phenomena, which exist in certain culture from the position of this tradition, are important, as they allow preserving national identity.
The only note to be done is that situational approach is relevant in any situation, so that sometimes it is necessary to perform radical intervention – for instance, if certain (hypothetical) nation suddenly introduces a violent practice (legalization of homicide or infanticide), it would be unwise to conduct a scrupulous analysis of the cultural context and the causes of such an inhumane innovation – on the contrary, more conscientious nations should interfere into the situation and resolve it in accordance with international legislation.
Such cases of emergency should therefore be approached from more radical standpoint. Furthermore, Mahmood challenges the notion that the Islamic revival is a strategy, employer to resist the Westernization of the corresponding states: “While this interpretation is not entirely wrong and captures an important aspect of Islamist movements, it nonetheless reduces their complexity to the trope of resistance…” (Mahmood, at press. princeton.
edu, 2006, p. 15-16). The scholar does not adopt the term ‘resistance’ , but the issue she discusses in her book, females’ participation in the piety restoration, can be characterized as the opposition to classical European and American feminism that seeks to separate social life from religious rituals (Madud, 2006) and create new (and, more importantly, extensive) opportunities for women in terms of career development and university education.
On the contrary, the Islamic movement is aimed at providing women with a ‘narrow’ chance to access mosque not merely as ‘parishioners’, but also as ‘preachers’. Nevertheless, the foundation of the piety restoration and the issues in Western feminism can be approached independently , as local events, reflecting the peculiarities of certain nation.
The author suggests that the piety movement has certain political functions: “The political efficacy of this these movements is, I would suggest, a function of the work they perform in the ethical realm” (Mahmood, at press. princeton. edu, 2006, p. 37). In my opinion, Mahmood overstresses the importance of the mentioned movement in political discourse: although it operates in the sphere of ethics and to great extent modifies the nation’s cognitive constructs and convictions, it is not directly involved into the current state of political affairs.
Thus, the movement, being completely clerical, is not capable of intervening into the politics in the present day – and due to the fact that Islamic countries are now influenced by numerous powers and their development is therefore dynamic and unpredictable, it will be possible to assert the penetration of piety restoration into politics only after its members gain access to political power or achieve the introduction of ‘piety policy’ at governmental level – otherwise the efforts within the realm of ethics might appear in vain.
The most doubtful argument of Mahmood’s writing is her confidence in the broad perspectives of the Islamic revival: due to the fact that women are nowadays entitled to serve in mosques (sacred places, or male domain) as ‘preachers’, they are likely to expand their political influence in the future. On the other hand, the nature of this revival points to the desirable abstention from politics, as the pure concept of female virtuousness to great extent excludes the woman’s participation in the affairs of the state.
Clearly, the idea of neo-piety teaches females to behave in strict accordance with religious prescriptions and demonstrate modesty and humility, but these qualities are unlikely to enhance the person’s access to power. Historically, women were allowed to serve as priestesses in ancient, but this fact gave them no benefits except prestige – the situation seems to recur.
To sum up, Saba Mahmood basically tries to link two incompatible issues – feminism and the piousness renewal, which, as I deem, operate in completely different dimensions. In addition, the scholar suggests that the penetration into the religious system is the primary prerequisite for women’s access to politics, yet it is still unclear in which way the movement will modify the existing ethical matrix so that it determines their ‘political weight’.
Works cited Mahmood, S. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005. Available online at: http://press. princeton. edu/chapters/s7888. pdf, 2006 Wadud, A. “Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (review)”. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, vol. 74 (3), September 2006: pp. 815-818