Interview: Saba Mahmood

Anthropologist and Author of ”The Politics of Piety”


Q: What is “The Piety Movement?”

All over the Middle East and other places I’ve heard about from Malaysia, to Indonesia to Pakistan and Bangladesh women and girls are studying Islam in a more formalized manner. They are memorizing Qur’an, and reciting with Tajweed—a set of rules for reciting the Qur’an—, and learning Hadith, or the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed. In many places they are doing this within the mosque, whereas previously they studied at home. They are also learning practical things such as what it means for a young woman to live in contemporary society, trying to keep a religiously devout practice, while at the same time, not turning away from education, employment, working and all sorts of social milieus which require men and women to be together.

Q: What interested you in this movement?

A: I started hearing from women who were saying, “You know there’s an increasing amount of activities taking place in homes or mosques.” So I started to look into Islamic press and never found anything written about it. Why did it have no public profile yet clearly it was a very popular movement? I had two central questions: What kinds of practices are taking place that have the potential of transforming social and political life?

Q: What are the ages of the women involved and how did it start?

A: In my experience, it goes anywhere from 14, 15 all the way to older women in their 50s. But the bulk are from their 20s to their mid 30s.

Q: Would you say this trend is similar across borders? Are the ethics and goals similar say from Egypt to Syria, or Morocco to Syria? Are women practicing the same kind of Islam?

A: Based on what I’ve read and seen, I would say there are a lot of similarities. I don’t know if it’s the same kind of Islam or the same kind of problem they bring to Islam.

Q: Why is studying in the mosque as opposed to the home such a significant change?

A: Mosques are by and large a more male-dominated place. In the 1950s in Egypt, there is the famous figure of Zainab Al-Ghazali who starts giving lessons in mosques and then gets employed and actually starts training women in that through the Al-Azhar school. But after she stops, it doesn’t really happen again until basically the start of this movement. When you have 500 women showing up to a mosque lesson twice a week, that’s very transformative. They are using the text but reading it differently.

Q: Do you think in some way that women’s increased knowledge of Islam empowers them to challenge certain cultural codes?

A: Yes definitely. I have an example in my book of this woman who leads a lot of these lessons, she reminds me a lot of Houda, and she leads women in prayer. The main Imam in the mosque says she shouldn’t be doing that. But, she is better educated than he is in terms of which school says that women are allowed and under what basis, she has the right to choose from any of those schools; that is in her right. So that became the practice in the mosque, that women went to pray behind her. Some would say she went against the imam of the mosque, but she continues to do what she believes she has the right to do.

Q: Is this movement coordinated? Is it political?

A: I can’t imagine that it could become coordinated. The primary reason is that if it were coordinated, the state would immediately intervene and there would be a medium through which it would be organized. And, I don’t think they regard these women as very interesting or useful for their agendas. So I don’t think it can be organized, but to say this is not politics is misunderstanding what the social basis of politics is. Politics is not just engagement with the state, or transforming their policies, or civil society organizations involved with the state, but it is also transforming the social within.

Q: The major question many Westerners want to know is what do these young women get from practicing Islam in a more devout way? Why do they do this?

A: I found a lot of it was a rebellion against the mother or grandmothers generation. They feel kind of superior to their mothers and grandmothers, because the mothers grew up in the 60s and 70s and the model to emulate was Nasser, Assad, the national socialist model, which came with its western dress and all of that. Gamal Abdel Nasser, former president of Egypt 1956-1970 and Hafez al-Assad, former president of Syria 1971-2000 both established secular governments. It’s a big generational shift.

I think there’s something fundamental to a sense that piety that is valued and being close to God is passionately desired. There’s this deep sense that “my life has meaning through this.” We have to take seriously the concept of a deep sense of love of God without living in a monastery or convent. But I think it’s difficult in our Western mindset to imagine a religiously devout woman living in a modern and secular world. They are also getting practical advice to difficult social problems. For example, if you are on public transportation and you are sexually harassed, how do you handle that as a devout person? Often, one of the things women would bring up with other Dai’as is- what does it mean to have a sexual dream? How do I police my desires? What kinds of relationships can I have with my betrothed? Questions like, I found out my daughter has had extra-marital affairs, what do I do about it? Obviously I’m not going to turn her into the state, so what do I do? Women used to be able to write these questions in to a sheikh or call in. But now, women are raising these issues with other women and it’s a very different type of discussion, a much more frank discussion.

Q: Why do you think hijab is such a hot-button issue? Why is it so important to these women and why are the West and secular people within these societies so resistant to women wearing the hijab?

A: The reason hijab is such a volatile symbol now in the confrontation between the West and Islam is because of the colonial legacy. Colonial regimes declare the veil as a symbol of Islam’s cultural inferiority because of the way it treats its women, in other words,Islam treats women as inferior and the most visible symbol of that is the veil and you find it over and over again in colonial literature.

In many places like Algeria, there is the public unveiling of women as freeing them from the clutches of patriarchal Islam through forced unveiling. For example, Reza Shah when he comes to power in Iran, the first thing he does is to ban the veil. The same thing happens in Turkey; in Egypt, the first feminist woman Houda Sharawy marching out and publicly taking off the veil and saying this is our freedom. Its not surprising that generations later, Muslim women claim that this is not the symbol of our oppression but it’s the ultimate symbol of our freedom. I think there are a lot of Muslim women who say this is our identity, this is Islam.

And there are many women who really don’t have a position on that but plainly and simply think this is God’s command and this is my road to piety. I think that position is so hard for the West to understand. It is also representative of a different kind of sexuality that is very distinct from liberal society’s own relationship to sexuality. Its not like Islam covers up sexuality and Europe is indifferent, but they understand sexuality differently.

There’s so much literature that’s been produced on this for years about the over-determination of the symbol of the veil as the marker of Islam’s backwardness and therefore the necessity to remove the veil in order to bring civilization. And the backlash against it, which is “this is the marker of our civilization.”

Q: Could you briefly explain your decision about using the term orthodox Islam over conservative Islam?

A: For us, conservative means a certain kind of politics. So, moral majority is a good example. If people are part of the moral majority, they will be anti-abortion, part of the Republican Party, they will be part of the whole conservative apparatus. That’s what conservatism means to us. The flip side of that is liberal Islam, which is assumed will be more compatible to liberal politics. But that doesn’t work in the Muslim world. Not just because it’s Islam, but because people who are a part of this movement can be very radical in certain issues. For example, I bet in Syria, in Egypt, Turkey, Tunisia, there are in fact voices for change to a democratic development in the country. It doesn’t translate into no democracy. So the liberal vs. conservative distinction that worked in the old world where religious liberalism, religious conservatism is mapped on to democracy and non-democracy– that simply doesn’t work. I think the secular liberals say these people want nothing but another Iran and I just don’t think that’s true.

Q: What challenges did you face in your research and coming to terms with what women are doing in Egypt in the mosque?

A: I went there with a set of assumptions that I am now criticizing – that they are conservative and haven’t given much thought to what they are doing. I was just amazed at how conscious they were and what they were struggling with. It was an eye-opening experience to me. I also couldn’t be visible as a researcher doing this stuff. I had to keep a very low profile; it took me two years to gain their trust.


Order Saba Mahmood’s Book, The Politics of Piety