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ICRS Yogyakarta - Saba Mahmood: Non-Liberal Feminism and a Critique of Secularism

Consortium of:

Saba Mahmood: Non-Liberal Feminism and a Critique of Secularism

  December 17th 2021

Prof. Saba Mahmood

Saba Mahmood is one of the great scholars or thinkers whose works and ideas continue to have a major influence in the study of social science, politics, religion, and feminism to this day. The socio-political situation in the country of his birth, Pakistan, in the 1970s-1980s had prompted Mahmood to study more deeply about Islam, politics, secularism, and feminism because, at that time, Zia ul-Haq's dictatorship used Islam to continue to support his brutal rule.[1] Interestingly, Mahmood instead chose to conduct his research, not in Pakistan, but Egypt, with the subject of a women's Islamic religious study groups, between 1995-1997.[2] This research then produced a monumental work entitled Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and The Feminist Subject. The figure and thoughts of Saba Mahmood later became one of the inspirations for Zainal Abidin Bagir, Director of the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies (ICRS), Universitas Gadjah Mada. Bagir published a chapter with the title “Saba Mahmood: Feminisme Non-Liberal dan Kritik atas Sekularisme” (Saba Mahmood: Non-Liberal Feminism and a Critique of Secularism). This article is part of a book published by the Cultural and Media Studies Program (KBM) Universitas Gadjah Mada Graduate School, entitled Melintas Perbedaan: Suara Perempuan, Agensi, dan Politik Solidaritas (Across Differences: Women's Voices, Agencies, and Solidarity Politics), published last August 2021.[3]  Bagir's writing later became the basis for discussion in an online seminar, the result of a collaboration between ICRS, KBM UGM, and the State Islamic University Sunan Gunung Djati, Bandung, on November 11, 2021.

In the discussion, Bagir explained that from Mahmood an important lesson can be found that religious studies need to be done empirically, not normatively, not giving judgment. For this reason, the position of the researcher is also very important and will affect the research. Mahmood came out of Pakistan to Egypt to do research but at the same time interrogate herself, seeing herself in a different reality and context. Furthermore, Bagir also explains that in his writings he discusses the positionality of Saba Mahmood as a progressive feminist and activist in the context of the Pakistani Muslim community, who is very critical of the ideas of liberal (Western) feminism and secularism which are often considered as the right solution for religious freedom and the resolution of inter-religious conflicts. For Mahmood, to defend women or minorities does not immediately entail siding with feminism or secularism. Bagir also saw that often when people defend religious minorities they immediately partner with secularism, but Mahmood criticizes secularism.

According to Bagir, Mahmood is reflective and criticizes the idea of ​​Western feminism which tends to understand women's agency and subjectivity through acts of resistance or resistance to social norms and patriarchal domination. The agency conceptualization which is understood as resistance, according to Mahmood, is not able to read and understand the aspirations of women involved in religious movements. Through her ethnographic study of the friction of women's da'wah in Egypt, Mahmood emphasized that women's obedience and submission to the religious teachings that she believed in did not necessarily signify the absence of agency and the loss of capacity of female subjects to act. Bagir also emphasized that Mahmood’s criticism of the idea of ​​secularization is considered capable of overcoming the problems of religious life and creating more ideal interfaith relations. The ethnographic study of Mahmood in Egypt shows that the secularism that characterizes the governance of post-colonial Middle Eastern countries has sharpened the polarization of religious differences, exacerbated inter-religious tensions, and created new conditions that sow the seeds of conflict between them. However, the problem is that secularism, which is considered capable of providing guarantees for religious freedom, has become an instrument to regulate and define religion. Therefore, Bagir concluded that Mahmood's most important role was to force all parties, both scholars and activists of religious studies and religious freedom and feminism to think about the complexity of the problems at hand, not to think simplistically, and to assume that the solution to the problem of inter-religious relations only builds literacy and moderation in religion to achieve tolerance. Problems that seem simple need to be complex so that each party can see the various biases in the issue, then in the end these stakeholders can delay decisions to determine what is right and wrong, before making judgments they need to understand better.

In the discussion, two responders from UIN Sunan Gunung Djati, Bandung were also present, Dr. Neng Hannah, M.Ag. and Dr. Asep Sahid Gatara, M.Si.CPS.. The respondents are lecturers at UIN Sunan Gunung Djati Bandung. Hannah in her response emphasized that from Mahmood, women in Islam or Muslim women can learn that they also have the rational ability and power to fight against oppression. According to Hannah, this can be referred to as Mahmood's theory of pious self-cultivation which is a paradigm in which a religious person has a desire to cultivate himself to be more obedient and pious. Then, according to Hannah, the most politically important message from Mahmood is a call to feminists not to be so extreme in defending their ideology that they are hostile to the women they are said to be defending. Mahmood as a feminist keeps asking herself 'do I fully understand the way of life that I so eagerly want to replace?' That is, she is always open to criticism and the complexity of thinking to be able to understand something. Finally, Gatara in his response also appreciated the writings of Bagir because according to him the article succeeded in introducing Mahmood's thoughts to Indonesia, accompanied by a deep exploration of his thoughts, but still accompanied by objective criticism so that it succeeded in identifying and categorizing Mahmood as a non-liberal feminist and revisionist of secularism. Gatara also argues that Mahmood and Bagir open the reader's eyes to the problems of secularism, which is so much glorified. Thus the reader is made aware that secularism as a solution to the problem of religious life is not simple, so it is necessary to think about it in a complex frame of mind as practiced by Mahmood to avoid bias and position the problem, and find the right solution.


[1] Saba Mahmood. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2011. p. ix

[2] Saba Mahmood. Ibid. p. 2   

[3] Rachmi Diyah Larasati & Ratna Noviani. Melintas Perbedaan: Suara Perempuan, Agensi, dan Politik Solidaritas. Jakarta: Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia, 2021.