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Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject

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Samah Selim: The book is thus both an anthropology of the women’s mosque movement in Cairo in the mid-nineties and an elaborate philosophical critique of secular concepts of agency in a post-9/11 arena where “Islam” is increasingly manufactured by liberal western elites as the antithesis of “reason,” “enlightenment,” and human emancipation, and where “feminist politics runs the danger of being reduced to a rhetorical display of the placard of Islam’s abuses.” The ethnography is framed by a major political statement about the role of academic research in the world at large, and the meaning of resistance to regimes of oppression.

Saba Mahmood’s startling answer to the feminist dilemma raised by the mosque movement is to sever the idea of women’s agency from “resistance to relations of domination, and the concomitant naturalization of freedom as a social ideal,” or more broadly speaking, from “the goals of progressive politics.” (In other words, there is no inherent reason why women must resist their oppression, since agency can be fully articulated in an embodied ethical practice that transcends western liberal distinctions of public and private). She does this by proposing the practice of da’wa in women’s circles in Cairo as an example of “lifeworlds” that altogether escape the antinomies of liberal thought, including feminist ones. More here.

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