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Constraints of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Natural Subject

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In this paper, I take aim at the typical anthropological routine of criticizing universalist assumptions in social theory by contrasting them with non-Western emic models. I do so by following up on one recent instance of this practice, which has been heralded as a testament to what anthropology can still offer to critical social theory: Mahmood’s work on the Islamic piety movement in Egypt, and her claim that the normative subject of liberal feminist theory needs to be denaturalized, because the women involved in the piety movement hold a self-model that is incommensurable with secular-liberal assumptions about action being structured by innate desires for autonomy and freedom. By analyzing ethnographic data on Egyptian Muslim women through the lens of a combination of non-determinist cognitive theories, I show that in order to understand the lives of pious women much can be gained from keeping psychological predispositions for autonomy in mind. Simultaneously, this paper can be read as an attempt to bring cognitive material on attachment, education and epidemiology of representations into conversation with one another, and discover emerging fault lines and potentialities for mutual reinforcement.

Affiliations: 1: London School of Economics and Political Science Houghton Street, London WC2A 2AE UK


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