The lives of Muslim women hold a particular fascination for many in the West. Seen as victims of all-encompassing religious, misogynistic and geopolitical submission, they, their personhood and their bodies are frequently sites of contention. In a radio address in November 2001, US First Lady Laura Bush suggested that the oppression of Afghan women was the rationale for America’s war in Afghanistan. In France, taking the veil is widely seen not as a choice but as proof of oppression, and proponents of its prohibition claim that it will liberate and liberalise Muslim women. In the UK, women in Muslim communities, and particularly mothers, are held to be key to preventing radicalisation. In all such manifestations, Western fascination tends to diminish Muslim women’s agency in how they choose to live and perform their religious faith, gender identity and culture.
Here, Ellen Anne McLarney offers a different and highly important (if sometimes quite densely argued) perspective, refreshingly free of the shadows of neo-orientalism. Focusing on memoirs, essays, sermons and other writings by female scholars, journalists, preachers, actors and public intellectuals in Egypt, she aims to demonstrate women’s contributions to Islamic revivalism in the decades leading up to the 2011 protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Although the women she considers were all activists, they may not be readily recognised in the West as such, as they were not agitating for Western ideals of freedom and liberation. Instead, they situated their gendered identity as the cornerstone upon which Islam thrives. They embraced equality through a gendered division of public and private, in which women cultivate a stable household, raise children of faith and provide support for their husbands, who have an obligation to provide for them.
As McLarney shows, they operated first and foremost as Muslims working to invigorate and strengthen Islam in Egypt after it was sidelined through colonisation and then by post-colonial practices of liberal secularisation. Fascinatingly, this was often done through aesthetic means, in a contemporary demonstration of Jacques Rancière’s “politics of aesthetics”. For these women, the cultural practices that many in the West wrongly presume to oppress Muslim women’s lives (such as veiling, containment within the private sphere and a focus on motherhood) are posited as aesthetic interruptions of the dominant system. For example, taking the veil served as a visual sign of dissent from the cultural politics of liberal secularisation forced upon Egyptians in the 1980s via the development policies of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. This resistance became a movement in its own right, and literary reflections from celebrities about why they chose to take the veil became best-sellers. These women worked to interrupt colonial and neo-imperialist cultural structures, showing how the aesthetic practices of veiling demonstrate a commitment to Islam. The private is political, and this commitment to the private would spill over into the public sphere as a means of disrupting Western prescriptions about the roles of religion, women and family.
This approach is the “soft force” of the book’s title, and the 11th principle in the controversial Islamist constitution instituted by Mohamed Morsi when he became president in 2012. Soft force generated the protests in Tahrir Square, says McLarney, who argues that the concept derives extensively from the work of Heba Raouf Ezzat, the heir to female Islamic revivalism and the final scholar whose work she considers here. Although “soft force” as a phrase reads as exceptionally gendered, it also serves to highlight how Muslim women, like women everywhere, face complex, myriad choices about shaping and living their own identities.
Caron E. Gentry is lecturer in international relations, University of St Andrews, and co-author, with Laura Sjoberg, of Beyond Mothers, Monsters, Whores: Thinking About Women’s Violence in Global Politics (2015).
Soft Force: Women in Egypt’s Islamic Awakening
By Ellen Anne McLarney
Princeton University Press, 336pp, £48.95 and £19.95
ISBN 9780691158488 and 8495
Published 24 June 2015