Saba Mahmood’s book is a brave and even daring attempt to get inside the shoes of Islamic women in Egypt. At the outset, she says that she had major objections to these women who wear the veil and who have no objections to submitting to their husband’s wishes. But after her years spent with these women, she fears that their ideals and struggles are being misunderstood by the west, and that their motives are even a cause of antagonism between religious women. The book centers on three mosques in Cairo, Egypt, where the author spent two years, from 1995-1997. Women come to these mosques to learn about the Qu’ran and sometimes to talk among themselves about their lives: how can they live according to the teachings of the Qu’ran in their real life situations. Seeing the women from their own perspective makes them much easier to relate to than seeing them from a Western mind set.
Freedom for these women means something totally different from what we think of it. She gives the example of how in the 1970s, white women wanted to dismantle the nuclear family in favor of a more expanded and inclusive view of family, whereas Native and African American women wanted the freedom to form families, which they hadn’t had before. So what may look from the outside like "a case of deplorable passivity and docility" (13), may actually be a form of agency. The point is that one has to look at the situation in context. The women in the mosque movement are not necessarily looking for women’s equality or resisting male authority. Various reasons are given for why Egyptian women are returning to wearing the veil, for example to avoid sexual harassment or to lower the cost of clothing. But for these women is also the idea of female modesty or piety, which is very important for Islamic women.
The mosque movement emphasizes outward markers of religiosity: ritual, styles of comporting oneself, dress, etc., and thus is in some ways is a critique of the modern. It does not necessarily want to be political, but at the same time it evokes a depth of discomfort among liberals and progressives. What makes these practices powerful and meaningful to the people who practice them? In this first part of the book Mahmood is exploring the idea of freedom and how it can exist in the same breath as the veil. The author includes some discussion of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler in this regard.
The second chapter of the book describes in more detail the piety (mosque) movement. Mahmood observed and interviewed people in three mosques. Women come to the Umar mosque are housewives, students, working women on their way home. Some drive in private cars, some come on public transportation, others arrive by taxi. They come in various forms of dress, but most are in full face and body veil. Second, the Ayesha mosque, located in a poorer neighborhood where there are sounds of roosters crowing, street vendors, and children screaming. The emphasis here is on providing extensive welfare services, and the women are more poorly educated. The third mosque is the Nafisa mosque. This has the largest female audience of any mosque in Cairo. 500 women attend the weekly lesson, housewives and students. There are three da’yat or teachers, and all three wear the full face and body veil. All of these da’yat have a fire and brimstone style of preaching. It seems that the mosque movement in general has emerged in response to secularization or westernization. Hajja Samira wants to study "how to make our daily lives congruent with our religion while at the same time moving with the world" (45). Although Egypt is clearly Islamic when it comes to family law, contemporary life is ruled by laws that are independent from or even inimical to the demands of pious living. Mosque participants are interested in countering this secular character of modern Egyptian education and in introducing practices that create an Islamic awareness within existing institutions. They want, for instance, to create space and time for prayer within school hours and to hire religiously observant teachers. Islam, they say, is not just a collection of ceremonies and customs, such as hanging lanterns in doorways or baking cookies during Ramadan, or eating meat at the end of Ramadan. These are mere ceremonies without any bearing on the rest of life. Ramadan also involves abstaining from anger and lying, avoiding looking at things that stir one’s appetite, being diligent in one’s prayers. The veil, they say, is a symbol of an awakening to true Muslim identity and cultural heritage. Any kind of skilled practice requires one to reflect and deliberate on whatever bodily exercises are taken up.
Da’wa literally means "call, invitation, appeal, or summons." Da’wa is a religious duty that requires all adult Muslims to urge their fellow Muslims to greater piety. Since the early 1900s, various leaders have attempted to revive Muslim identity. Rahid Rida (1865-1930) wrote a commentary on the Quranic verses. Hasan al-Banna (1906-1949) established the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928. This organization transformed mosques from spaces reserved for worship to schools for commoners, rather like popular universities where young and old alike come to learn and discuss. This in turn has opened the space for women to speak. There are limits to what women can do. They are not allowed to teach men. They are not allowed to deliver a sermon or to lead prayers. There is a prevailing notion that a woman’s voice can nullify an act of worship because it is capable of provoking sexual feelings in men. Egyptian women do not challenge these conditions, yet they continue to be looked at with skepticism and even to be condemned by the religious establishment. Nowadays there is higher literacy among women than among men, increased social mobility, women have entered the work force, and there is an increase in women’s enrollment in universities.
In the next part of the book we learn more about the specific teachings that are explored in the mosque sessions and how they are received by the listeners. The author tells about how there are four main schools of Islam, and that practitioners can adopt any one of these. Hajja Faiza, at the Umar mosque, holds a two-hour uninterrupted session with fifteen minutes allowed for questioning. Her style of argumentation can be seen in the way she answered a question about female circumcision, which is quite common in Egypt. Faiza did not condone or condemn the practice. She reasoned that the hadith on which the practice is based is actually a prophetic tradition of dubious authority. Because the hadith is weak, the practice is neither an obligatory act, nor a recommended act, nor a practice of the Prophet and his companions. "It is up to you," she says, "but be sure to consult a medical doctor before doing it" (85-86). So we can see here that she thinks of herself as a disseminator of information rather than a preacher. She does not invoke hell fires and God’s wrath to impel people to action. "You cannot just choose from religion what you like," she says, "there can be no discussion of God’s commands. But the Quran has left many issues unresolved and it is our right to choose from any of the interpretations that the ‘ulama’ have offered on these subjects" (90).
In the Ayesha mosque, in one of the poorest suburbs of Cairo, we meet the other end of the educational spectrum. Here the lessons are delivered once by the male imam and twice by two women da’yat, one of whom was trained at the da’wa center, the other has no formal training. Here, the women often interrupt to ask for clarification, and the rhetorical style relies more on fear of God. Umm Faris, the more popular da’yat, has no more than a high school diploma. But in 1996 she was drawing crowds of between 50 and 100 women each week, even though she has been criticized for giving incorrect information. One example of this is an incident in which the women asked about the Prophet’s saying that they should do five things before they sleep: read the whole Quran, give to charity, visit Mecca, protect what you have in heaven, and make up with your adversaries. The women asked how they were to do this. Umm Faris quoted the Prophet saying that if you read only a few verses of the Quran, it would be the same as reciting the whole Quran. She is criticized for having a kind of "folk Islam" as opposed to a scriptural Islam.
It is interesting that a majority of the mosque participants within the piety movement argue that women and men should abide by strict protocols of sex segregation. They are to wear clothes that cover the shape of their body so that it is not apparent. They are to lower their gaze, and only speak to men out of necessity. However, most working women and students find it impossible to follow this edict. In one particular instance which was observed by Mahmood, some of the younger women, students, objected to this maxim. They said they would appear strange and awkward if they behaved in this way. They would encounter practical difficulties if they avoided eye contact. Others argued that they would not be able to understand their teacher if they did not look at him. Young people counter that the injunction to avoid interactions with men has to be understood differently in different situations. A key doctrinal position in Islam is that female sexuality provokes illicit desire, and furthers relationships between men and women who are not married. Hajja Faiza’s interpretation (from the first mosque) of this doctrine is that when sharia law says that a woman should lower her gaze, what is really prohibited is a woman meeting a man alone without supervision.
There are clear differences between Hajja Faiza and the Nafisa da’iyat. Hajja Faiza is willing to acknowledge the ambiguity and contradictions entailed in the accounts given of the lives of the Prophet and his Companions, and what is required today. She does not cast doubt on the validity of the hadith that describes women as aura, meaning weak, faulty, unseemly, or disfigured. But she does criticize the conclusion that men and women should never mix. Mahmood reflects here on the idea that tradition is not a set of symbols and idioms that justify present practices, it is not fixed and unchanging. It involves the lives of ordinary Muslims which can give traditional practices a renewed life and novel form.
In the last part of the book the author wants us to concentrate on the idea that agency, especially when it comes to feminist thinking, does not have to be thought of in terms of resistance to power. To get inside of the thinking of these women, the author quotes from a discussion at the mosque. Amal said, "I used to think that even though shyness was required of us by God, if I acted shyly it would be hypocritical because I didn’t actually feel it inside of me. Then I realized that I had to make it within myself. Once you do this, the sense of shyness eventually imprints itself on your inside" (156). Another friend, Nama, a single woman in her early thirties, "It’s just like the veil. In the beginning when you wear it, you’re embarrassed and don’t want to wear it...but you must wear the veil ...and then with time, if you take it off, your entire being feels uncomfortable about it." Here the action does not issue forth from natural feelings, but to create the feelings they need to do the actions. When looked at from this perspective, the mosque women’s practices articulate a positive and immanent discourse of being in the world. Mahmood is in sympathy with Judith Butler’s definition of performativity, that performativity is "one of the influential rituals by which subjects are formed and reformulated." In this understanding, the way to form the self is by performing the correct actions. The body is a means of developing the self’s potentiality. However it is not only through speech or gestures that this takes place. The interior and the exterior must be in alignment.
What is disappointingly missing in this book is any description of the country of Egypt and its politics. Hajja Faiza’s mosque was shut down, but there is no specific reason given. The mosque women want to allow times for prayer in schools, but there is no description of the educational system, except to say that it is secular-liberal. It is difficult to relate to these mosque women without some description of what might be called in modern parlance, the "back story." There are a few incidents told about historical figures, such as Rahid Rida who wrote a commentary on the Quranic verses and Hasan al-Banna who established the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928. But we know almost nothing about these figures. In the introduction there is mention of the Islamic Revival, but we don’t know much about this either, just that it is a reaction to the colonialism of the past. We are told that there is an Islamic Revival, and yet also that the society is secular-liberal. This seems contradictory.
Another big drawback is the overwhelming, almost torturous amount of theory in which the author embeds her story. One reviewer says "Mahmood embeds her slender field work in a bulky Ivy League ivory tower elaboration hard to read and hard to swallow." Another author refers to it as "an elaborate theoretical framework." Much of this theoretical exposition is written in an excruciatingly difficult style. One example is from page 19: "the subject in her sexed and gendered materiality is constituted performatively through a reiterated enactment of heterosexual norms which retroactively produce . . . the putative facticity of sexual difference which serves to further consolidate the heterosexual imperative." Even the theory is suspect sometimes because Mahmood doesn’t elaborate on what is a secular liberal feminism. She sets up a dichotomy of Egyptian piety versus western liberal feminism. This is a naive dichotomy that deserves further elaboration. We have a book here that is very important for the story that it tells and even for the theory in which it is situated. It’s too bad that it is so inaccessible.