by JULIE POUCHER HARBIN, EDITOR, ISLAMiCommentary and TIRN on JULY 20, 2015:

“One of the most visible public faces of the 2011 revolution in Egypt was Asmaʾ Mahfouz, a young woman who posted a video blog on Facebook calling for the January 25 protest in Tahrir Square “so that maybe we the country can become free, can become a country with justice, a country with dignity, a country in which a human can be truly human, not living like an animal.” 

She describes a stark imbalance of power: a lone girl standing against the security apparatus of the state. When she initially went out to demonstrate, only three other people came to join her. They were met with vans full of security forces, “tens of thugs” (balṭagiyyīn) that menaced the small band of protesters. Talking about her fear (ruʿb), she epitomizes the voice of righteous indignation against the Goliath of an abusive military regime.

“I am a girl,” she says, “and I went down.” The skinny, small, pale girl bundled up in her winter scarf and sweater speaks clearly and forcefully, despite a slight speech impediment, rallying a political community to action against tyrannical rule.

Mahfouz’s vlog is not necessarily famous for actually sparking the revolution, as some have claimed in the revolution’s aftermath. Rather, she visually embodies and vocally advocates what the Islamic activist Heba Raouf Ezzat calls “soft force,”al-­quwwa­ al-n­āʿima.” Raouf Ezzat uses the term to refer to nonviolent protest, or what she calls “women’s jihad,” wielded against “tyrannical government.” — beginning of the Introduction to “Soft Force: Women in Egypt’s Islamic Awakening” (Princeton University Press, May 2015)  by Ellen Anne McLarney


In Soft Force: Women in Egypt’s Islamic Awakening Duke University professor Ellen McLarney argues against the misconception of Muslim women as “oppressed by Islam,” with her “in depth, nuanced, and careful” examination of the lives and activism of women who write about Islam as liberating them from sexual and political oppression, ignorance, exploitation, and dominance.

Focusing on writings spanning the last six decades in Egypt — and especially Egypt’s Islamic awakening — McLarney charts a genealogy of women’s writings on gender relationships in Islam. These popular religious texts have circulated widely in Egypt and reached audiences as far away as Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey, and France through republication and translation.

These writers include scholars like Heba Raouf Ezzat and Bint al-Shati, preachers like Niʿmat Sidqi, television personalities like Kariman Hamza, actresses like Shams al-Barudi, activists like Zaynab al-Ghazali, cultural critics like Safinaz Kazim, and journalists like Iman Mustafa.

McLarney, assistant professor of Arabic literature and culture with an appointment in Women’s Studies, examines their sermons, lectures, theses, memoirs, political essays, newspaper articles, scholarly essays, fatwas, and interpretations of the Qur’an, as well as their websites, Tweets, Facebook postings, and YouTube videos. She particularly focuses on how the writers critique the politics of the Egyptian state.

Her research included interviewing some of the women writers, as well as speaking with the granddaughters of preacher Niʿmat Sidqi who had been in attendance at the religious lessons held in Sidqi’s home. (The granddaughters provided critical detail about Sidqi, with anecdotes, for example, about how she always wrote with green pen, the color of Islam.)

Heba Raouf Ezzat
(from her Twitter account)

At the heart of the writings that McLarney analyzed is a re-imagining of the popular concept of “soft power” and the notion of Islam as being an emancipating force.

Islamic activist Heba Raouf Ezzat, a professor of Political Science at Cairo University (and subject of Chapter 6) transforms the concept of soft force (al-­quwwa­ al-n­āʿima), or “soft power” as employed by political scientists like Harvard professor Joseph Nye — by recasting the concept in an Islamic light.

“She plays on the connotations of “al-n­āʿama” (softness) and its connection to “al-niʿma” (blessing). The term nāʿama also has feminized connotations, making this a particularly feminine kind of power,” said McLarney in an interview with ISLAMiCommentary. “And she sees ‘soft force’ as connected to Islamic institutions like the family in contrast to the “hard power” of military force, for example.

“The main argument of my book is that gender, women and the intimate sphere are the very axis of the Islamic public sphere,” she said, adding that “despite the extensive attention given to Muslim women in the Western media, Western media virtually ignores these women and their writings, probably because their vision of Islam goes not gel with popular Western conceptions of women’s roles in Islam.”

These moderate Islamic thinkers, explained McLarney, “both appropriate and subvert our understandings of women’s rights, liberation, and equality.”

Their writings, she said, “have been utterly formative to Islamic cultural and intellectual production over the last century,” as other Islamic writers have responded to and incorporated their ideas.

Veiling as liberation and “women’s jihad”

Raouf Ezzat’s intellectual and spiritual foremother Niʿmat Sidqi (the subject of Chapter 3) is most famous for a pamphlet that she published in the late 1960s entitled al-Tabarruj. The term comes from verse 33:33 of the Qurʾan and is addressed to the Prophet’s wives: “Stay in your homes and do not adorn (tabarrajna) yourselves with the adornment (tabarruj) of the time of ignorance before Islam (jāhiliyya).”

The pamphlet was a call to return to veiling at a time when veiling was not yet a popular phenomenon. In the wake of al-Tabarruj came a flood of personal narratives by women who described taking the veil. These writings helped pave the way for the massive return to veiling in Egyptian public life and elsewhere in the 1980s and 1990s. Sidqi herself had revived the term tabarruj for modern life — an idea that became the subject of countless new writings across the Muslim world.

These writers, McLarney said, describe taking the veil as “awakening their consciousness” and unfurling a “passion for a living Islam.” Kariman Hamza, a television personality who wore the veil onscreen, talks about the veil awakening her very inner nature, saying “I found my path. I found myself. I found God.”

Many of McLarney’s subjects are mothers and wives, an aspect of their lives that they describe as integral to their work and writings and critical to their intellectual formation. Religion in the home, motherhood, and family have been traditionally seen by secular states as “sacrosanct domains,” McLarney said, “and the Islamic movement has claimed that territory as its own.”

For example, Raouf Ezzat sees the family — in contrast to the State — as a political unit of the Umma, the Islamic community, with radical implications for an Islamic politics.

The writers understand soft power as a “women’s jihad, women’s activism in the family, and in the work of motherhood, as action that will change society at its root.”

They wrest the term “jihad” from its common association with armed struggle and violence.

The preacher Sidqi, for instance, wrote a book on jihad with a chapter “Childrearing is Jihad” and other chapters on the jihad of motherhood, as well as the jihad of preaching “with the pen and tongue.”

Despite the outside careers of all of these writers, McLarney said they are all for “reclaiming the value of motherhood and also giving the labor of motherhood a value.” Her subjects write generally about the role of women in the home shaping the future by “inculcating Islamic subjectivities” in their children.

“In a neoliberal society or capitalist society even though motherhood is a crucial value in supporting a capitalist society, it’s undervalued as unpaid labor. So they are trying to reinvest the realm of the household and the family with real value,” said McLarney. “It is a biological type of determinism — (the notion that) ‘We actually have the keys to the most important aspect of human life, to the reproduction of an Islamic society and politics ultimately’.”

What kind of “Islamic subjectivities” are they teaching the children? The writers, she explained, “talk about the home in terms of reciprocal rights and responsibilities that structure the household.”

“They describe family and home as a micro-polity and the inhabitants as citizens who have rights and duties,” she said.

Do they argue for more male participation in the household? Are they part of this micro-polity or are men running the show?

McLarney: “They do assert male leadership of the household and they assert male leadership of the polity. They basically say that the men are in charge, alongside acknowledging … that women can be leaders in the polity also (outside the home). They almost use the home as a proxy to talk about larger politics. They insist it is a democratic politics, a politics of consultation, what is known in Islamic politics as shura.”

“Their writings,” she added, are “partially a product of this sort of alienation that we all feel in a disconnected world where we’re no longer rooted in family and home and community and we’re all disconnected from each other.”

“It’s like a growing virus as they describe it, like a cancer they are trying to combat,” she said.

McLarney related it to some of the discourses not only from evangelical feminists like Sarah Palin or Anita Bryant but people like Anne-Marie Slaughter and others who have “spilled all that ink in the mommy wars.”

The research undertaken for this book, was informed in fact, by McLarney’s own experience of motherhood:

“On a very personal level I was writing the book as I was having my children. So I felt that these women really spoke to my own critiques of Western feminism and of the fetishization of the male realm of paid work as the path to emancipation — and that being a very neoliberal view of what is emancipation,” she said. “There’s this weird mythology that mothers don’t ‘work’ — these writers try and recuperate the spiritual and material value of the labor of motherhood. These writings very much spoke to my heart and soul at a time I was feeling intensely the power and worth of the experience.”

Is this a conservative vision of a woman’s place being in the home? Not exactly, as McLarney explained.

Women’s work and the public sphere

Mohamed Morsi Speaking to the UN General Assembly in 2012

There is an aspect to these writings where McLarney said they talk about “women’s right to engage and work outside the home and women’s right to engage in electoral politics and parliamentary politics.”

“They deal with these issues of whether women can be judges, whether women can be leaders and they argue that they can, which is a radical intervention in Islamic thought because some Islamic scholars say women can’t be leaders,” said McLarney adding that Raouf Ezzat in particular, came up with a rationale for this based on Islamic law.

At the same time, McLarney said, they “play down the power of the public politics” — something that also drew her to their stories.

“They’ve tried to mobilize at the level of family, community, neighborhood, civil society,” she said. “The hope was that this mobilization at a grassroots level — the Islamic civil society that flourished under Sadat and Mubarak —would convert into wider political momentum. This they were able to momentarily achieve in the aftermath of the revolution.”

“The women,” she said, thought of themselves as having power that “resides elsewhere not necessarily in public institutions. “They reorient power in grassroots institutions like family, community, neighborhood networks, and welfare associations, rather than in the State. Yet even as these writers assert the primacy of women, family, and home to an Islamic politics, they also engage in very public activism, in public scholarship, on television and radio, in the cinema and the news, and in the university. They visibly articulate their messages on the public stage, even as they seek to reinvest the labor of motherhood, child rearing, caring, and creating community life with value that is both spiritual and material.”

The idea of this soft power, McLarney said, was central to the 11th principle of the 2012 Egyptian Constitution under the short-lived Mohamed Morsi government. At that time, McLarney wrote in ISLAMiCommentary that Morsi’s constitution was the first in Egyptian history that “asserted women’s unmitigated equality with men,” whereas the constitutions under the secular governments of Gamal Abdel Nasser (1956) and Anwar Sadat (1971), “suggested that women and men’s equality was limited by, or somehow at odds with, shariʿa.”

Muslim Brotherhood leader Morsi was deposed by ʿAbd al Fattah al-Sisi soon after he was elected, and was recently sentenced to death. The public face of Islamism in Egypt — The Muslim Brotherhood— has been banned.

McLarney fears that al-Sisi’s maneouvres will push Egypt’s Islamists “to extremism” — the opposite of their intended effect.

She believes that a Morsi presidency would have been an opportunity to see how these Islamic ideas, such as those in his constitution, would have played out, “without being under the context of severe repression.”

“They (the Egyptian people) took a middle path, through elections, through a democratic process, through being conciliatory on some level to a secular democratic liberalism, and then they were crushed. And what’s going to be left of that mainstream Islamism? Nothing, it has been crushed,” said McLarney. “The whole narrative of moderate Islam that comes from these women writers (itself) is in the process of being crushed.”

Islamic women, knowledge and education

Kariman Hamza (screenshot being interviewed about her Quran exegesis, Watch

McLarney stressed the importance of women to the re-interpretation of Islam through the years and today.

Knowledge and education are of key importance to these women’s understanding of Islam, standing in stark contrast, she said, to Islamist extremists’ apparent hatred of women’s education; recent headlines — about Boko Haram’s kidnapping of schoolgirls in Nigeria and the Taliban’s attack on Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan —  seem to affirm this.

McLarney said her subjects all write about how being a woman gives them special capacities, “to have knowledge of God in some way,” positioning themselves as “acolytes” or “students” of Islam.”

The very role of women in Islamic intellectual production, McLarney explained, is emergent partially thanks to these women.

“They staged an amazing intervention in Islamic thought, where previously they’ve been somewhat marginalized from Islamic knowledge,” she said. “They are doing this important work of furthering the aims of the Islamic movement from within, but their contributions have been largely neglected in the West.”

When Islamic activism was under siege during the Nasser era, women like Sidqi began holding “faith sessions,” or religious lessons in their homes. Sidqi’s oral sermons became the substance of her extensive published writings, translated into Malaysian, Indonesian, Farsi, and Turkish. These “faith sessions” were an early instance of what would later become the “mosque movement” described by Saba Mahmood in her Politics of Piety.

Writers Sidqi, Bint al-Shatiʾ, Zaynab al-Ghazali, and Kariman Hamza were some of the first women to publish Qurʾan exegeses. One of Sidqi’s books, Miracle of the Qurʾan, analyzes these two verses from the Qur’an over the course of the 350-page volume: “And on earth are signs for those who are certain/And in yourselves. Do you not see?” (51:20-21).

Kariman Hamza, a former TV announcer with no formal religious training (subject of Chapter 4), in 2008 published the first Qurʾan exegesis by a woman to be approved by al-Azhar University, the intellectual center of Sunni Islam.

(Some female Islamic scholars are enrolled in official training colleges, McLarney said, while others combine traditional education with a less formal education such as finding a mentor to study under.)

Bint al-Shatiʾ’s biography of the Prophet’s granddaughter Zaynab bint al-Zahraʾwas translated into Farsi and republished just as the Iranian revolution was erupting in 1979. (Bint al-Shatiʾ is the subject of Chapter 1.)

A religious/secular divide?

Nawal El Saadawi

How do the ideas of these women — as detailed in chapters on women’s liberation, women’s education, motherhood, veiling, women’s work, and family — sit with secularist Egyptian intellectuals like Nawal El Saadawi, who is anti-Islamist to a degree? Do they find common ground or is there a clash?

“That’s the million dollar question because they definitely borrow each other’s rhetoric and they speak back and forth to each other but they don’t see eye to eye,” said McLarney, who argues in her book that there is an overlap between secular and Islamic discourses on women’s liberation; that they are shaping each other.

Raouf Ezzat and El Saadawi, for example, jointly published a book that is essentially a debate between the two.

When McLarney started this project she was looking to discover why so many women activists were writing that “Islam liberates me and allows me to be free.”

From their perspective, she said, it is “Islamic consciousness” that frees them up to be the “true person” that they are.



Ellen Anne McLarney is Andrew W. Mellon Assistant Professor of Arabic Literature and Culture, Asian & Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University with an appointment in the Women’s Studies department at Duke. She is also core faculty with the Duke Islamic Studies Center. Her research interests include Arabic, Islamist movements, Islamic theological texts, Islam and gender, and North Africa. 


ISLAMiCommentary is a public scholarship forum that engages scholars, journalists, policymakers, advocates and artists in their fields of expertise. It is a key component of the Transcultural Islam Project; an initiative managed out of the Duke Islamic Studies Center in partnership with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations (UNC-Chapel Hill). This article was made possible (in part) by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author(s).

Other web sites and print publications may re-publish this article (except for the excerpt from the introduction to the book — posted at the top, which can only be re-published with the permission of the publisher) as long as there is source attribution (author and ISLAMiCommentary) and a link back to ISLAMiCommentary.


Posted in Americas, Arab Spring, Arts & Culture, Books, Education, Gender, History, Middle East & North Africa, Muslim Life, MyTIRN, Political Science, Social Media & Visual Media.
Tagged Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Al-Azhar University, Anita Bryant, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Anwar Sadat, Asma Mahfouz, Bint al-Shati, Duke Islamic Studies Center, Egypt, Egypt Constitution, Egypt's Islamic Awakening, Egyptian revolution 2011, Ellen McLarney, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Heba Raouf Ezzat, Iman Mustafa, Islamic feminism, Kariman Hamza, Mohamad Morsi, motherhood, Muslim Brotherhood, Nawal El Saadawi, Ni'mat Sidqi, Quran, Safinaz Kazim, Sarah Palin, Shams al-Barudi, soft force, soft power, tabarruj, veiling, Western feminism, women's jihad, working mothers, Zaynab al-Ghazali, Zaynab bint al-Zahra

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