“… if the ability to effect change in the world and in oneself is historically and culturally specific (both in terms of what constitutes “change” and means by which it is effected), then the meaning and sense of agency cannot be fixed in advance, but must emerge through an analysis of the particular concepts that enable specific modes of being, responsibility and effectivity” (15).

In Saba Mahmood’s book Politics of Piety she works through and beyond the works of Leila Abu-Lughod, Judith Butler, and Talal Asad to investigate questions of religion, feminism, and secularism. I found the first chapter of her text, in which she outlines some of the problems produced between feminism and the communities which feminism deigns to analyze really helpful. I really appreciated the way she articulated not only the complicated relationships between understanding agency, freedom, and resistance across communities—but also the political import of understanding these relationships. She identifies that one of the key issues  of this problem is that feminism is both an analytical framework and also a prescriptive one (10).

Drawing on the work of Abu-Lughod (who is, in turn, critiquing/revising her own older work) Mahmood produces a genealogy of agency. Or, at least, she does something similar to produce a genealogy, locating it in a contemporary cultural milieu and then situating it historically through Western discourses about freedom. By suggesting that we recognize agency not only in moments identifiable as politically-organized resistance, Abu-Lughod jars historical treatments of agency and freedom (8).

I am excited by Mahmood’s treatment of Butler’s work. The way that she integrated Butler into the text served to situate her own work vis-à-vis post-structuralism and contemporary, American, continental-philosophy-based feminism. By pointing out Butler’s emphasis on acts which tend to challenge norms, she highlighted a problem I’ve had with Butler before (but never been able to adequately express.) This is a compelling problem in her work and something, which, I think, has sexist repercussions. By privileging transgressive gender acts as more radical than ones which seem to reiterate normative gender, Butler implies that female masculinity and male femininity better articulate agency than female femininity and male masculinity. I think this is a dangerous assertion because it means that in order to be radical, one has to embrace masculinity in a way that is outwardly apparent. This is well and good for people who do perform gender in these ways but it makes a whole group of people invisible and also makes them appear complicit in gender oppression of others.  Using this criticism to look at the piety movements clarifies the various complicated political effects of description. In that case women perform acts which appear like ascription to normative strictures but are instead imitations or nuanced iterations—personally significant and, therefore, both meaningful in a larger political context and also individually fulfilling.