Is “Docile Agency” Good for Women?

By: Atalia Omer

May 20, 2014

The title of this piece plays on the title of feminist political philosopher Susan Moller Okin’s sensational and intriguing contribution to debates on feminism and multiculturalism.[1] Okin asks,“Is multiculturalism bad for women?” and comes to the answer that yes, it can be if the politics of identity operate against the demands of gender equality, partly through entrenching the positions of authority exercised by certain orthodoxies and spokespersons or by delimiting the possibilities of women to “exit” communal practices oppressive toward them. For Okin, the same can be said of religion: “‘culture’ or [religious] ‘traditions’ are so closely linked with the control of women that they are virtually equated.”[2] This essay explores the goal of gender equality in contrast with or beside women who embrace conservative religious worldviews that prescribe their own marginality and submission. In some instances, forms of injustice toward women are authorized in western liberal democracies, under the pretense of enhanced recognition of group rights. In other cases, women assert “docile agency” through their own active participation and choice to participate in their own domination.

It is perhaps against a caricature of Okin’s comprehensive liberalism that docile agency is born. Okin’s essay generated much discussion, as critics accused her of blindness to cultural differences and of applying the egalitarian principle too rigidly. Martha Nussbaum, for instance, complains that classifying religion as a form of false consciousness and reducing tradition to patriarchy ignores the “good things religion has brought into human life,” including religion’s role in “transmitting moral values; in giving people a sense of community and civic dignity; in giving them imaginative and emotional fulfillment—and, not least, its role in many struggles for moral and political justice.”[3] The docile agent embodies a contradiction to a feminist agenda and epistemological assumptions. Grounded in reactionary religious reasoning, the embrace of docile agency offers a significant challenge to the feminist impetus to strive for gender equality. The latter, by contrast, is anchored in particular secularist and modernist assumptions concerning human personhood, autonomy, and freedom. 

Who is the “docile agent”? The women who participate in the piety movement in Egypt provide one example. This is what cultural anthropologist Saba Mahmood, in her instant classic Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005) argues forcefully, conversing with and critiquing the tradition of Western feminist theorizing about agency and freedom. The Western feminist tradition, Mahmood observes, constrains the interpretive frame of female agency too narrowly to resistance and subversion of patriarchal structures and norms. This frame is, accordingly, inadequate because it cannot quite capture the agency exercised by the pious women who explicitly seek to inhabit submissiveness and modesty, which they interpret as pivotal for enacting authentic Islamic norms. These women in Egypt, according to Mahmood, enact rather than subvert norms (departing from Judith Butler’s notion of performativity). Their performance or enactment of gender norms an potentially be subversive rather than conservative, thereby disconnecting the analysis of female agency from the feminist political and social transformative agenda. Though Mahmood disconnects the actions of these women from a feminist agenda, reaction has included state surveillance and occasional shutting down of the gathering of pious women in various mosques across Cairo. It seems the growing traction of the women piety movement in Egypt has challenged various structures of authority, including Islamic orthodoxy, on the one hand, and liberal statist norms, on the other. 

The assertion of agency—especially used within religious spaces and discourse—is often attributed to secular notions rather than respecting the ability of religious traditions to allow for degrees of agency. The actions of these pious women cannot be reduced to resistance to male authority or actions in pursuit of gender equality. Instead, Mahmood describes their agency as interacting with, embracing, and occasionally innovating within religious tradition while nonetheless remaining beholden to their marginalization that is prescribed by particular interpretations of Islam. Agency here functions to perpetuate and sanctify domination. On the other hand, religious women may use agency to hermeneutically engage their religious traditions in order to reimagine them in light of feminist and other emancipatory and historical challenges and normative sensitivities. Often, however, demonstration of such agency within religion is narrowly interpreted as symptomatic of cultural imperialism rather than indicative of the elasticity of religious traditions. 

Just as religion is narrowly defined, Mahmood portrays the feminist tradition of social justice as monolithic, not accounting for the immense diversity, internal conversations, and intergenerational differences. The embrace of docility, therefore, essentializes both religious and feminist traditions and problematically juxtaposes them. Clearly, “rescuing” the docile agent from the Western feminist gaze reinscribes tradition and modernity as binaries, thereby offering rather reductive narratives of both secular modernity and religious resistance to modernity, including the feminist emancipatory agenda.

On the surface, it may seem that theorizing in the academy about agency has little to do with the actual lives of girls and women around the globe. At the same time, one needs to be attentive to how religious entrepreneurs seeking to monopolize religious meanings that reify patriarchal and other forms of structural and cultural violence against women choose to use critiques of feminist agency. In other words, those who label modernity as a violation of tradition—and the social and ethical universe in which tradition has been embedded—are producing antifeminist discourse (possibly inadvertently). This antifeminist discourse involves an essentialist and ahistorical interpretation of religious traditions, which, in turn, connects with exclusivist and chauvinistic agendas of various religious authorities.

Introducing and citing the language of choice for women does complicate the discussion of female agency in significant ways. Mahmood’s extensive ethnographic work reintroduces the profound need to engage philosophically with the tensions between a human rights lens, capabilities approach, and normative relativism. Based on this, it is crucial to do further research on how scholars influence the shaping of a counter-discourse that contributes to shaping global agendas for social justice activism and development surrounding questions of gender equality and empowerment of women and girls. 

Concepts around women’s agency, especially within religious traditions, are important for programs aiming to promote gender equality locally and globally. Romanticizing women as a “docile agent” counters Okin’s unreconstructed feminism. At the same time, dismissing the human rights discourse as simply hegemonic and ethnocentric threatens an essentialist construction of religious traditions. It is too simplistic to overlook the internal pluralities of religious tradition, its elasticity, as well as the many ways in which historically-situated innovations take place, including on the level of relational religious feminist reimagining of tradition. Instead of simple binaries or categories, can we imagine the possibility for women’s choices to embrace marginality and subordination outside the analytic explanatory frame of false consciousness, on the one hand, and docile agency, on the other?

1. Susan Moller Okin, “Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?” in Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? Susan Moller Okin with Respondents. Eds. Joshua Cohen, Matthew Howard, and Martha C. Nussbaum. (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), pp. 8-24.
2. ibid, 16. 
3. ibid, p. 106.

This posting is part of a collection addressing the nexus of women, religion, and the family. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Berkley Center or WFDD. The goal of the entire collection is to generate discussion around these important topics.

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Is “Docile Agency” Good for Women?