Reconceptualizing Agency through Saba Mahmood’s ‘Politics of Piety’

Drawing on an ethnography of the mosque movement that emerged during the Islamic Revival in Cairo, Mahmood analyzes the ways in which women's participation in the Islamist movement presents conceptual dilemmas for feminist theory. The post delves into Mahmood's argument that agency must be located not only in acts that subvert social norms but also in those that maintain or uphold them, and examines her engagement with Foucault's analysis of power and subject formation to decouple agency from the framework of progressive politics.

Saniya Ahmed

3/9/20238 منٹ پڑھیں

people walking beside mosque during daytime
people walking beside mosque during daytime

Power, Freedom, and Self-realization: Reconceptualizing Agency through Saba Mahmood’s ‘Politics of Piety’

The essentialized caricature of Muslim women as passive victims in need of saving continues to dictate the liberal feminist imaginary notwithstanding the existence of scholarship wherein such perceptions have been powerfully challenged and critiqued. Many scholars have argued that the agency of Muslim women must not be conceptualised through the hegemonic Western-liberal framework but must be located in the historical, religious, and political specificities of their experiential reality. These scholars have thus tried to foreground the multifaceted ways in which the seemingly “oppressed”  Muslim women exercise agency in everyday life. Despite their significance, such arguments, as Saba Mahmood has pointed out, tend to reduce agency to the binary model of domination vs resistance by classifying acts as agentive only when they resist something. 

In her groundbreaking work, ‘The Politics of Piety’, Mahmood, the late socio-cultural anthropologist and Professor of Anthropology at UC Berkeley, deals with the contentious relationship between feminism and Islam by: (a) questioning the normative liberal assumption that freedom is an innate human desire, and (b). arguing that agency must not only be located in acts that subvert social norms but also those that maintain or uphold them.

Is individual freedom a universal human desire?

Through an ethnography of the mosque movement that emerged during the Islamic Revival in Cairo, Mahmood dissects some of the conceptual dilemmas that women's participation in the Islamist movement presents before feminist theory. The mosque lessons which she ethnographically studied were attended by women from varied socio-economic backgrounds and were oriented towards the studying and teaching of Islamic scriptures, social practices, and rituals considered essential to the fashioning of a pious self. The movement allowed women to claim the space of the mosque, thereby altering its historically male-centred character. At the same time, however, women’s access to public spaces of Islamic pedagogy was enabled by their submission to a tradition that subordinates them to a transcendental will and upholds certain norms that may come into conflict with liberal notions of choice and freedom. 

Most liberal feminists tend to perceive this phenomenon as a contradiction wherein they are unable to reconcile why a large number of women would participate in and support a movement whose aims and principles are antithetical to their “own interests”. Mahmood argues that this perception is based on the assumption that the human desire for freedom is intrinsic and naturally predisposes these women to oppose the values that the Islamist movement upholds. She , therefore, asks whether such an assumption is universally valid and how challenging it might open up new analytical possibilities to make sense of women’s involvement in the mosque movement. She writes: My intention here is not to question the profound transformation that the liberal discourse of freedom and individual autonomy has enabled in women’s lives around the world, but rather to draw attention to the ways in which these liberal presuppositions have become naturalised in scholarship on gender.

The assumption that the desire for liberation is a universal one leads liberal feminists to believe that an individual would always want to subvert norms that secure one’s subordination. Thus, agency is recognized only in this act of subversion and gets trapped in the logic of repression vs resistance. As a result, modes of being that do not fit into this formulation of agency— where people willingly submit to authoritative norms instead of resisting them— get categorised as oppressive and inimical to freedom and one’s self-realization. This is the framework within which practices emerging from the Islamic tradition have been commonly analysed. Mahmood, therefore, argues that in order to understand actions that defy the liberal understanding of self-realization and self-fulfilment, the notion of agency must be decoupled from the framework of progressive politics. 

Ethics, power, and subject formation: Dissecting agency through Foucault’s “mode of subjectiviation”

In order to widen this notion of agency, she turns to Foucault’s analysis of power and subject formation. According to Foucault, power is not merely an instrument of coercion that is possessed by an individual or system and imposed on others. It is not concentrated in a singular structure or location but gets diffused and embodied in life, constantly producing novel forms of discourses, desires, subjects, and relations. 

Foucault, therefore, argues that the individual does not precede relations of power but is formed through those very relations. This is what he refers to as “the paradox of subjectiviation” wherein the power that subordinates a subject to itself also creates conditions through which that subject becomes an agent. Thus, Mahmood argues that the capacity of a person to act agentivey does not emerge from the remnants of a free self that existed before power was imposed upon it, but the agentive capacity itself is a result of the operations of power. Put simply, some forms of power may constitute subjects who find that power disagreeable and may therefore challenge it. In this case, the power itself creates certain conditions that enable a subject’s consciousness to question its subordination to that power. In other instances, however, individuals may willingly submit themselves to a form of power (for example, Muslims submitting themselves to the discursive tradition of Islam). In such a situation, their capacity for action will not be embodied in resistance to power but in fashioning themselves in accordance with the norms authorised by that power. Therefore, agency is not merely rebellion against authority but “a capacity for action that specific relations of subordination create and enable”. 

Furthermore, in order to locate agency within the practices of the women involved in the mosque movement, Saba Mahmood employs Foucault’s theorization of ethics as a modality of power. According to Foucault, an important aspect of ethics is the “mode of subjectiviation” which refers to the framework or the kinds of authority through which individuals understand their moral obligations— for example, whether through secular modes of power or through divine law. Another significant aspect of ethics is what he calls the “techniques of the self” which refers to the operations that individuals perform on “their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being” in order to become ethical or pious subjects. 

Foucault’s emphasis upon “techniques of the self” does not imply that the individual is autonomous and free to constitute herself in the manner she likes. Rather, the individual is formed through the limitations imposed and the norms authorized by the power to which she is subordinated. Her actions are not the result of her independent will but are determined by the logic of the tradition within which she was formed.  At the same time, however, the relationship between an  individual’s subjectivity and moral codes is not simply a matter of compliance because even obedience to authoritative norms can manifest in a variety of ways. For example, if we understand Islam as a discursive tradition then there are multiple ways through which Muslims establish their relationship with Islamic norms. Not all Muslims have the same understanding of what pious behaviour entails. Therefore, in order to dissect ethical practices, we must pay attention not only to what these practices mean but how they are lived. We need to understand the different ways in which moral codes get embodied in everyday life— what skills and “techniques” do people employ to fashion themselves into pious subjects. Foucault’s formulation of ethics thus helps us rethink agency: (a) as the skills and capacities that are needed to perform certain kinds of moral actions; and (b) as inextricably tied to the culturally and historically specific discourses and traditions through which a subject is produced. 

Mahmood uses this analysis of ethics for dissecting certain aspects of the women’s mosque movement in Cairo. She explains that the participants of such movements understand their ethical obligations through the Quran and the moral codes derived from exegetical literature. However, there is no centralised authority to enforce a single interpretation of divine texts and penalise transgressions. Therefore, each individual interprets the moral codes “in accord with traditional guidelines, in order to discover how she, as an individual, may realize the divine plan for her life.” (Mahmood, 2005).

Mahmood describes how the women involved in Cairo’s mosque movement greatly emphasise ritual practices and overt markers of religiosity. They regard outward bodily practices as essential to the cultivation of an inner pious self. To this end, they employ various techniques to work upon the body so as to train it according to the demands of pious conduct and establish coordination between their inner intentions, desires, and thoughts and outward gestures and actions. 

Relocating agency in embodied behaviour

In order to explain how embodied behaviour cultivates piety within the subject and to dissect the different modalities of agency it generates, Saba Mahmood focuses on the Islamic virtue of al-haya (modesty)a virtue that was accorded great significance by the participants of the mosque movement. To enact haya is to be modest in how one dresses, acts, and engages with members of the opposite sex. For some people, the struggle that is often involved in embodying this virtue is evident in some of the interactions that Mahmood had with her interlocutors. She narrates:

Contemplating the word istihya, which is form ten of the substantive haya, Amal said, “I used to think that even though shyness [al-haya] was required of us by God, if I acted shyly it would be hypocritical [nifaq] because I didn’t actually feel it inside of me. Then one day in reading verse 25 in Surat-al-Qasas [“The Story”] I realized that al-haya was among the good deeds [huwwa min al a’mal al-saliha], and given my natural lack of shyness [al-haya], I had to make or create it first. I realized that making [sana] it in yourself is not hypocrisy, and that eventually your inside learns to have al-haya too.” Here she looked at me and explained the meaning of the word istihya: “It means making oneself shy, even if it means creating it [Ya’ni ya Saba, yi’mil nafsu yitkisif hatta lau sana’ti].” She continued with her point, “And finally I understood that once you do this, the sense of shyness [al-haya] eventually imprints itself on your inside [as-shu’ur yitba ala guwwaki].”

Another friend, Nama, a single woman in her early thirties, who had been sitting and listening, added: “It’s just like the veil [hijab]. In the beginning you do not want to wear it but you must wear the veil, first because it is God’s command [hukm allah] and then, with time, your inside being learns to feel shy without the veil, and if you take it off, your entire being feels uncomfortable without it.” (Mahmood, 2005)

On the surface, this may seem to be an act of submission to an oppressive norm which is antithetical to the idea of agency. Yet, according to Mahmood, if one does not equate agency with resistance but thinks of it as a modality of action then it makes one realize that in cases such as the one described above, the practices that one indulges in do not issue forth from one’s innate desires. Rather, these practices create one’s inner emotions and desires. In other words, modesty is not only expressed through the veil but is also created by it because it is the bodily act of donning the veil that leads to the cultivation of the inner virtue of modesty so much so that one begins to feel shy if the veil is taken off. Therefore, it is through repeated bodily acts that a person trains her desires and intellect to act in accordance with certain divine norms such as haya. Thus, agency here needs to be understood not as resistance to norms but in terms of constant work on the self so as to train the self to become a pious subject. 

How to rethink individual freedom and agency?

Contrary to the liberal logic, Mahmood’s interlocutors did not consider authorised forms of behaviour as constraints on their personal freedom. Rather, they considered these authoritative norms to be divinely sanctioned and the necessary means through which the self is realized. Mahmood thus asks:

How do we conceive of individual freedom in a context where the distinction between the subject's own desires and socially prescribed performances cannot be easily presumed and, where submission to certain forms of external authority is a condition for achieving the subject’s potentiality? How do we analyze operations of power that construct different kinds of bodies, knowledges, and subjectivities whose trajectories do not follow the entelechy of liberatory politics? (Mahmood, 2005)

Mahmood, therefore, argues that freedom and liberty are not universal, ahistorical political ideals that have animated the aspirations of all people across generations and societies. If we recognize that the desire for freedom is not intrinsic but is shaped by various historical and cultural conditions then the meaning of agency cannot be predetermined but “must emerge through an analysis of the particular concepts that enable specific modes of being” (Mahmood, 2005). In this case, what may seem to be an act of passive submission to authoritative norms may also be a modality of agency but it can be understood only by dissecting the specific discourses and traditions that enable it.