Durba Mitra: Saba Mahmood provocatively confronts the “culture” problem that vexes feminist theory. She argues for a feminist methodology that takes into account the possibility of desire, self-making, and embodiment in movements and subjecthoods that so often bring unease to moralist understandings of agency in transnational feminist politics. Mahmood instead argues for a feminist project suspicious of liberal, and liberatory, promises of a staunchly secular feminism. Mahmood made this argument at a critical time, at the inception of the War on Terror in 2001, which deftly utilized the language of secular liberty to claim that religiosity was oppositional to the cause of women and national liberation (for example, in Afghanistan).
…Mahmood’s framework builds on this central question: what are the possible drawbacks of a uniform civil code based in ideals of secularism, when secularism is so often used by majoritarian groups punitively against minorities to assert authority over social life?
…As Mahmood shows, secularism not only defines majoritarian ideals as an ethical ideal and political norm, but enshrines a select few with the power to diagnose, judge, and declare those “other” structures of social life as ahistorical and illiberal. Mahmood emphasizes that to critique secularism is not to condemn it, but rather, to “deprive it of innocence,” to better engage the question of religious difference in the contemporary world.
…Mahmood has always interrogated how the liberatory promises of secularism are themselves built on a system of faith, where secularism continues to be declared fair and, in its purest form, always just, despite the spectacular failures of the lived reality of secularism in the postcolonial world (and very clearly in the US and Europe). As she succinctly declared in her review: “The experience of modernity…has rarely been one of ‘tolerance, civility, and reason’ for a large number of people around the world.” More here.