July 17, 2018
I first met Saba Mahmood in a seminar room in Swift Hall, where 10 of us would gather once a week around a long oak table. It was 2001, her second year as a professor at Chicago’s Divinity School, and my first as a doctoral student. Politics of Piety was still in progress, and our seminar was designed around a collection of books on women in the Middle East. Books that Saba admired. But books that she knew did not quite get it right.
That seminar changed the way I think about religion, secularism, and gender forever.
I was primed for my Saba conversion. I entered graduate school after working with a faith-based NGO, so I knew religions could be the solution to women’s problems just as much as the cause. But in my first years of coursework, I focused my studies on progressive religious women—women who reinterpreted patriarchal texts, who highlighted moments of gender equality their traditions no longer emphasized, and who critiqued gendered norms of religious practices. Women who acted the way a secular liberal feminist like me wanted them to.
I admire these progressive religious women, and certainly their politics are closely in line with my own. But that made me part of the problem that Saba was circling in that seminar: A secular feminist studying religious women can too easily erase the importance and power of conservative religious women. She can neglect difference because of her position of secular privilege.
Here is what was so extraordinary about Saba: She never let her personal commitments prevent her from studying women with whom she disagreed. Her fieldwork was not designed to uncover feminist politics that would feel familiar or comfortable. Instead, she focused on describing the radical particularity of women’s piety. This in turn would often result in a self-critique of secular liberalism in the West.
Studying with Saba taught me how to really learn not only about, but also from, conservative religious women. These women are not trying to escape the tradition, or even reform religious gender ideology, but there is much to learn from their everyday practices. Even playing by the rules changes the tradition and shifts the playing field. Understanding their lives helps us rethink our understanding of religion more broadly, as well as concepts like agency, authority, and ethics. My Saba conversion also changed the way I approach my own ethical and political commitments. Now I am constantly on the lookout for moments when I might fall into the trap of academic ventriloquism, finding in the women I study only the sort of secular liberal feminism that is my own. She taught me that acknowledging what I get wrong can be an opportunity to rethink what I know.
I can trace Saba’s influence through most of my scholarship. Her understanding of agency is in the framing of my work on religious women as creative conformers. Her focus on embodied religious practices is the starting point from which I explore sartorial choices as important moral, religious, and political acts. The invitation to write this post was an opportunity to reflect on my current research about religious appropriation. Here too I have found the imprint of Saba. Secular privilege is what allows us to view religious traditions and practices as resources to be domesticated and adopted by non-believers in their pursuit of well-being and personal growth. Secular privilege is why cases of religious appropriation—yoga, meditation, clothing—do not raise the alarm. So I will hear Saba whispering in my ear for the next year, as I sweat through downward dog, march through the Galician foothills, and have tough conversations about the utility of circumcision. She will be there reminding me to approach secular claims with a critical eye.